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.
Yay! Darryl Strawberry is coming to Old Timers Night!
Unless he’s changed his mind again. If he has, would you be surprised?
Of all the things that have changed in our world since 1986, one of them is not the capriciousness attached to the actions of Darryl Strawberry. We never knew what we were getting then. We don’t know what we’re getting now.
Difference is it’s almost never our problem now. Except on twentieth anniversaries of world championships. We need him Saturday night to step to a foul line and tip a Mets cap and be beloved. Then he can go back to fuming at whomever owes him money or he thinks owes him money or whatever it is Darryl does between sucking up to the Yankees and engaging the law enforcement community. And we can go back to not thinking about him all that often.
In 1986, we needed him to be Darryl. Sometimes he was. When he was, it was awfully special.
When Darryl came up in 1983, one of the lazy man’s comparisons made over and over again was to Willie Mays, especially that Willie took the collar a few times before collecting his first hit, a homer off Warren Spahn. Darryl needed a few swings before getting it going, too (his first hit, a single off the decidely non-Spahn Ben Hayes, came in his twelfth at-bat, one fewer than it took Say Hey). Plus he had lots of talent. And he was black. There — Darryl Strawberry was the latter-day Willie Mays.
Worked for me. I decided that as my contemporary, Darryl would be the player with whom I’d mature. I’d watch him become one of the greats, deep into his and my 20s and 30s. By the time he was retired, having broken all kinds of records, I’d have a lifetime of crystal-clear baseball memories to share with the next generation. I’d have Darryl Strawberry stories that would make your head spin. I’d have my own Willie Mays. We all would.
We didn’t get that, though to be fair, Darryl didn’t get to be that. Darryl was occasionally plenty, but he wasn’t the immortal I was banking on. I got over it as best I could and found less promising, less exciting, less disappointing players to grow old to. I still do. They stay young. Darryl and I age. I don’t know if either of us ever matured. He’s not in the Baseball Hall of Fame. I didn’t get to see him inducted and I won’t get to see his plaque. A tip of a Mets cap to me and other Mets fans Saturday night will pretty much be it as far as post-career Strawberry ceremonies go.
Showing up for Old Timers Night at Shea is the least he can do. It’s the least every 1986 Met can do. I can’t believe they don’t all come home for this. Doc Gooden has an excuse of sorts, though if he’d taken a differently structured sentence, he could have been with us tomorrow. Instead, he chose to be scared straight; it’s worked so well for him before. Without being completely glib and superficial about his addiction, couldn’t have Doc resisted temptation until the twentieth anniversary of his first positive test? It’s not like they’re going to hold a 1987 Mets reunion.
I’ve read Ray Knight has a paying commitment but have also heard that he’s “angry” at someone in the front office. Unless the Mets have hired Eric Davis as strength & conditioning coach, that’s no excuse.
The ’86 Mets who are now uniformed authority figures — McDowell, Mazzilli, Gibbons (essentially the 25th man on the 24-man playoff roster) — should have carte blanche to abandon their posts for one lousy night. It should be part of the Basic Agreement and social contract. Teams can’t keep players from on-field championship reunions and former players must attend them. Would anybody hire Roger McDowell to coach anything but Rock ‘N’ Jock Softball if it weren’t for his Mets career? Would Lee Mazzilli have been enticing enough to get not one, but two jobs with George Steinbrenner if his employment hadn’t been viewed as a tweak of the Mets? Get over yourselves. Get to Flushing.
Is Bobby Ojeda coming? He had a falling out with the Wilpons. Who was right? Who was wrong? Who cares? Twenty years ago, he was our biggest starter. Twenty years later, he was still our biggest starter. I read he was coming but I don’t see his name on the guest list. Surely he can peel himself away from the Worcester Tornadoes to swing by for the evening.
And Davey. Oh Davey. How are you ever going to be remembered as the most successful manager in Mets history if you won’t let us remember you? Team USA can drill without you for one night. You’re a players manager. Come be with your players.
I’ve been looking forward to a full-blown salute to 1986 by the Mets probably since 1987. It took forever for them to truly embrace their greatest team. But the team has to join in and get embraced. If we have to settle for most and not all of the roster, then that’s what we’ll do. But it’s too bad. I hate to find reasons to be snippy toward players whom I’ll always owe the biggest debt of gratitude a fan can carry. They won me a championship. It pains me to have to remind them the championship and its attendant memories are bigger than any single one of them.
If you had told each of them twenty years ago, “you’ll win a World Series but you have to agree to stop by Shea Stadium in twenty years to be fussed over,” think any of them wouldn’t have agreed to the terms? I dunno. Perhaps their first question would have been “what do you mean a World Series? We win a lot, right?” Or maybe it would have been, “depends…how much do I get?”
One of the undercurrents of 1986, a real sidebar to the season in progress, was that there was finally about to be another year in the pantheon. All doting to date was for 1969 or, if people were in a generous mood, 1969 and 1973. That era stood alone in Mets history. When the Mets had Old Timers Day in 1986, themed to celebrate the franchise’s 25th anniversary, rain limited the celebration. But I don’t remember much fretting about it. There were some ’62 types on hand and the rest were from the ’69-’73 axis. We saw them all the time. The Mets were very good at nurturing the connection to Cleon and Kooz and Buddy and Rusty and Felix and Tug. It was to their credit that they did.
The ’86 Mets, when asked, admitted they looked forward to joining or even supplanting ’69. I recall a Marty Noble article that dwelled on the then-current cast betraying a bit of dismay that everything was always ’69-this and ’69-that. Keith Hernandez, in An Amazin’ Era, said as much in relatively diplomatic terms, mentioning he looked forward to the day ’69, ’73 and ’86 would be spoken of in the same breath.
He got his wish at last and then some. Time, more than perspective, has taken care of that. 1986 is having an anniversary and 1969 is, painful to say, ancient history. The Mets are 45 years old. Their youth is, not so suddenly, their ancient history.
Our ancient history.
A couple of months ago, Mets Weekly on SNY did a segment about the ’69 Mets that was sort of 1969 Mets 101, kind of explaining who they were and why you should care. Having grown up with the ’69 Mets as the literal foundation of my baseball life, it was stunning to me that a Mets show treated the Miracle Mets as some dusty, old relic.
Then I remembered. They are a dusty, old relic. In chronological terms, they were 37 years ago. If this were 1986, they would be a team from 1949, and in 1986, 1949 was the stuff of dusty, old relics. While it’s taken the Mets too long to out-and-out honor 1986, it’s downright bizarre to realize they are going to hold an Old Timers Night that will have nothing to do with Ron Swoboda or Tommie Agee or, most stunningly of all, Perennial Eddie Kranepool.
I’ve always loved Old Timers Days. The second Mets game I ever went to was Old Timers Day 1974. I got to pick the game and I picked that. Same thing next year and the year after. Made it to another in the early ’80s and almost every Shea event in that vein in the past fifteen years. I suppose I’ve never gotten over the childlike fascination I had with the way they could get baseball players from a long time ago to dress up like baseball players again. I didn’t care about the Old Timers games, which were routinely embarrassing to watch. I cared that the names from the books I read came to life. They put on a uniform, got announced over the loudspeaker and waved while we clapped. It became more meaningful as the retirees were guys from our childhoods, then our adolescences and, with the tribute to 1986, our young adulthoods.
Saturday night, Darryl Strawberry has one more chance to be the player I always wanted him to be. I’ll be there to applaud you, Straw. Don’t leave me hanging.