Welcome to Flashback Friday, a weekly feature devoted to the 20th anniversary of the 1986 World Champion New York Mets.
Twenty years, 43 Fridays. This is one of them.
On a summer Sunday morning in 1986, I called Fred Bunz to tell him I’d be on my way over to pick him up for our trip to Shea Stadium. Fine with him, though he said his mother didn’t understand why we were going to a Mets game. After all, it was going to be so crowded. I didn’t cotton to that sort of thinking. If we want to avoid crowds, I said, we can just go to a minor league game.
“Or a Negro League game,” said Fred.
And that, folks, was and, I suppose, is the essence of the wit and wisdom of Fred Bunz. He didn’t quite get this whole baseball thing, or at least why exactly people like me were so heavily into it, but the beauty of Fred, among other things, is he was up for anything and could find something to say about it that nobody else could; semi-sequiturs, if you will. His mother, a sweet-natured German-born woman, hadn’t raised a son who watched a lot of sports, so when Fred told her he was going to see the Mets with Greg and Larry, she didn’t get it either. Why fight the crowds, especially when the games are on television?
Sure, I suggested. Let’s just grill some hot dogs and watch TV.
Fred, deadpanning again: “And we can park at Waldbaum’s and walk home.”
Waldbaum’s was pretty far from where we lived, see, and the Negro Leagues hadn’t existed for…oh hell, I’m not going to explain it. I knew it was funny. If you knew Fred, you’d still be laughing, too.
In high school, I attempted to organize our newspaper staff into a softball team. Our coverage of the field didn’t quite match our coverage of scholastic sports (which generally consisted of visiting one practice and doing one interview with one coach), so it was a tall order whipping us into shape. Feature page editor John Gillespie — ironically later an intramural softball demon at Boston University — bundled himself up in a parka and wool hat (I didn’t wait for spring to start our drills) and chased a fly ball into centerfield. The fly ball won. Fred watched and, apropos of a dozen sportscasters he’d casually overheard, declared of John, “He’s on his horse!”
We never actually played a game, but “he’s on his horse!” remains in the record books.
There was seemingly no limit to what Fred knew at least a little about. He had finished his undergraduate work about the time the 1986 season got underway and was en route to a long program that would take him into a career of medical research. He was also a security guard at TSS, the department store in Oceanside that every family in Long Beach frequented when they needed anything at all. He was well-rounded that way.
But there was one thing Fred didn’t know: That you could just buy tickets to a professional baseball game. Mets, Yankees, Minor League, Negro League; he confessed it was a mystery to him. But when I brought it up that hey, this is 1986, the Mets are great, we should go to a game…well, like I said, Fred was up for anything.
So, I suppose, was Larry Russo. Larry knew you could buy tickets to a baseball game. Approximately once a year since we were in high school, Larry and I would go to a game together, usually with Joel Lugo. Joel was my go-to guy where Mets games were concerned. He was pretty much the only serious Mets fan I was friends with through high school and into the years that followed college. I knew other serious Mets fans, but not well. I was friends with Mets sympathizers and empathizers, but not fans. It had been Joel and me for roughly a decade.
Joel and I made it to Shea twice in 1986. That’s one less time than we did in 1982. It wasn’t that we couldn’t handle prosperity, it was that Joel either had to work days (regular hours at Chwatsky’s of Oceanside, odd shifts at Shell Creek Park) or wanted to go out, drink and find women at night. What an odd priority for 1986. Somehow, Joel was scarcer than he should have been for baseball.
Larry didn’t particularly care for the game, know a lot about it or offer up nifty bon mots in spite of it. If he had heard the “Negro Leagues” crack, I get the feeling he’d have innocently countered that if that’s going to be less crowded, then maybe that’s the game we should go to. I probably would have exploded in disbelieving indignation that he didn’t know something I took for granted. Instead of wondering why Larry wasn’t more interested in baseball, I probably should have been amazed he consented to one afternoon or evening a year of it with me and my stringent standards. But since we had a pretty good relationship that involved long discussions on the state of television and movies (he was a budding filmmaker) and life, I think he considered the annual Mets game kind of the cost of doing business with me.
Fred had said yes to August 3 against the Expos. Larry said OK, too. Joel? Chwatsky’s or Shell Creek or Chivas the night before kept him at bay. We’d hook up with him later for Chinese food in Atlantic Beach. Hence, it was an unusual baseball threesome. Me and two of my closest friends from high school, neither of whom had given the slightest thought to Mookie, to Lenny, to even Doug Sisk.
I picked them up and, per Mrs. Bunz’s forecast, parking was at a premium. We wound up in one of those lots more suitable to tennis than baseball. It was like three Waldbaum’s away from Shea. I’m sure I tried to put a good face on it, but I don’t think I was swaying my pals to the baseball fan’s regimen. We trudged through marshes and meadows and asphalt and up those notorious escalators until we were in the upper deck, way the hell out in left field. A nice crisp view of nine dots in the field and one more dot at bat. Back in Long Beach, Fred’s mother was probably clicking right by Channel 9.
It didn’t rain but it looked like it might, so I brought my Mets cap umbrella. You opened it, it was an oversized blue cap with an orange NY. My mother found it at a Macy’s in North Miami Beach. When the Mets scored — as they did early when Santana singled home Heep — I waved it. Fred, Larry and everybody in our section got a kick out of it. I’d have been on TV if we weren’t twenty sections removed from all the cameras.
Bobby Ojeda took it from there. He retired the Expos inning in and inning out. Our section and presumably all others couldn’t help but notice a no-hitter was in the works. Even Fred caught on; he knew baseball etiquette, however light he may have been on the particulars. Maybe Larry did, too, but as the tension mounted, he had wandered off to see if there was something on the premises more amusing than the game itself. Larry liked to wander around that way. Years in the future, I might do the same at a new ballpark and call it research. Larry, I determined then, was just being Larry.
Ojeda carried the no-hitter into the seventh. Could this be it? Even then, it was common knowledge that the Mets had never pitched a no-hitter. Four years earlier, Joel and I had watched Phil Niekro take one into the eighth here, but that was against us.
Alas, Luis Rivera, the Expos shortstop (making his Major League debut, no less) singled to right with one out in the seventh. Bobby O, who had been the Mets’ best pitcher all year, got a tremendous ovation. We had been conditioned to give those when no-hitters went awry. With that bit of business done, the Expos scored in the seventh to tie it.
Never occurred to me that the Mets wouldn’t win. And when Ray Knight doubled in two runs in the eighth, I brought out the umbrella and we cheered some more. Bobby started the ninth, but after getting the first batter, Montreal strung together three singles, the third of which, by Tim Raines, tied the score. A minute ago he had a no-hitter, now Ojeda was facing a loss.
But this was 1986. McDowell came in and got the Mets out of trouble. Larry returned to his seat for extra innings. In the bottom of the tenth, with two on and two out, Ray Knight stepped up. Most of the 47,167 who remained yelled and clapped and looked to unnerve Expos reliever Tim Burke. I say most, because one person somewhere in the stadium threw a paper airplane that was visible from where we sat. And Larry followed the path of the paper airplane. He was fascinated by it.
Knight singled, Backman scored, Shea shook and Larry asked, “What happened?” He was sore he missed the big moment, probably sorer that I pointed out he shouldn’t have been watching the stupid paper airplane. Fred likely said something droll that got Larry even madder.
Airplane or no, those ten innings got Larry off the hook Sheawise for 1986. Fred didn’t join me for any more games there either, but a week later when I said, real spur-of-the-momentlike, “Let’s go to Philadelphia to see the Mets!” he said, “Sure!” He had never been to a ballgame in his life before August 3. On August 13, he’d be going to his second. Maybe he was falling for baseball or maybe it was just the undeniable appeal of “ROAD TRIP!” to two twentysomething guys working irregular schedules.
I had never been to Veterans Stadium. Despite it being in a major city on the other end of a major turnpike that connected to the major city we lived near, I got us a little lost on the way down, but we made it in plenty of time. Though there were plenty of fellow travelers from New York and a few highlights to speak of — notably Lee Mazzilli’s first second-tour Mets home run — we lost 8-4. Fred, no more an expert on the Phillies than any other club, nevertheless managed to sum up the situation perfectly:
“Schmitty hit one out and the crowd went nuts.”
There’d be a handful of ballpark trips with various combinations of Joel, Larry and Fred over the next several years, though never all at once. It took Joel’s moving to Phoenix and Arizona getting a team and Joel having a family to lure each of us out there one weekend in 1999 to see the Mets play the Diamondbacks. By then, Fred had been living in Baltimore for quite a while, his passing youthful interest in baseball — the Yankees, alas — rekindled into a genuine appreciation for the sport by the opportunity to see games at Camden Yards. Larry was Larry as ever. His reception of baseball faded in and out like an AM station hundreds of miles away.
In the summer of 2006, however, Larry’s antenna proved unusually sharp. He got the idea that the two of us should travel down to Baltimore to see the Orioles with Fred — “ROAD TRIP!” redux — even though he had never heard of Camden Yards or its landmark impact on ballpark design. Twenty years earlier I would have lectured him for obliviousness and we would’ve gotten into a pointless argument. Now? I calmly explained its retro essence and added, “I think you’ll like it.” He said he looked forward to it.
Luck put a day game on the schedule on a Wednesday afternoon when each of the three of us could make it. Fred, no longer baffled by the process, bought the tickets. We went, shvitzed, watched Barry Zito outpitch Kris Benson and chatted about everything and nothing. I thought about mentioning that this was practically the twentieth anniversary of that game in the upper deck with the Expos, the cap umbrella, the near no-no, the Negro Leagues, the Waldbaum’s parking lot, the paper airplane and the missing of the walkoff hit, but I didn’t. I get accused of remembering too many details as is.
Among the three of us, everybody has grown as a person since 1986. We are deeper, more experienced, have lived life as you might expect men in their forties would have. That said, it became abundantly clear that hot day in Baltimore a couple of weeks ago that none of us has really changed a damn bit. Fred stays Fred, Larry remains Larry, I’m me.
No complaints here.
Thanks in great part to this series of tubes known as the Internet, I’m fortunate to have lots of friends these days who are Mets fans. When I want to see the Mets play in person, I can find that kind of company rather easily, and that makes me mighty happy. But these friends of mine from high school? The ones who don’t like awake juggling the 25-man roster in anticipation of October? Who wouldn’t know Jose Valentin if his mustache tickled them on the subway? As little as I see them anymore and as little as they are interested in the only thing that seems to interest me on a going basis, I wouldn’t trade their friendship for a dependable third starter, bullpen help and a lefty pinch-hitter…not even the reincarnation of Rusty Staub.
Fred and Larry, despite my putting them in front of the best team the franchise ever had to offer, aren’t Mets fans. My failure to convert them has always disappointed me a touch, but they are my friends and always will be. They indulge or at least humor me when it comes to baseball and I manage to focus on whatever the hell it is they’re talking about for minutes at a time when they bring up that stuff. After the game and a trip to the adjacent and surprisingly awesome sports museum in Baltimore, we went back to Fred’s house, met his lovely girlfriend and the four of us went to dinner in their neighborhood. About halfway through, I realized the entire day had gone by and nobody had mentioned the godlike characteristics of David Wright — not even me. I have to admit it made me a little antsy to get back on the train to New York and go back to being my usual Mets-myopic self with my usual Mets-myopic crowd, but otherwise, it was as nice a Metsless day as I could imagine.
Tomorrow night, the Long Beach High School Class of 1981 holds its 25th-anniversary reunion. Fred (Class of ’82) won’t be there, but Joel is flying in from California. Larry was on the organizing committee, so I’ll see him, too. I’m hoping he’ll show the film he prepared for the 20th reunion. It was quite moving, his weaving of all the still photos and footage he culled of our class from when we were our younger selves. I think there was even a shot of me in my brand new Starter satin Mets warmup jacket.
Like I said, I haven’t really changed a damn bit.