A couple of months ago, I was asked to compare and contrast 1986 and 2006. This wasn’t long after L’affaire Lastings, the Milledge child’s breach of protocol when he hit a game-tying homer and then nervily accepted high-fives from the fans en route to right field. I suggested to my interrogator that instead of throwing cold water on his actions, the Mets of twenty years ago — the curtain-calling, bow-taking, fist-pumping 1986 Mets — would have made such a greeting part of their repertoire. Lenny would have fan-fived. Wally would have fan-fived. Mex would have fan-tenned. Kid would have started his on-deck wait in the mezzanine. And Straw would have invented an entire interactive body language of his own.
Damned if that’s not more or less what the whole lot of 1986 Mets did last night. I don’t know whose brilliant idea it was to direct the Old Timers through the crowd and to the field, but it was one of the best things I’ve ever seen. The laying on of hands must have transferred some karmic electricity to Lastings Milledge who then went out and played the best game of his nascent career, sparking the first-place Mets of 2006 to another win.
That’s the Mets and the Mets fans, see? That’s the group hug that we are, all of us. That’s the teamwork that makes the dream work. It is dynamite that the 1986 Mets got to understand that either again or for the first time or forever last night. It’s no wonder they felt so blown away by the affection. When they were players, they needed to steer clear of wandering fan hands. That was a security risk. Last night it was a touchy-feely lovefest. I’m not surprised that they were surprised.
Having caught raw post-ceremony Keith in the portion of the broadcast that I recorded, I was overjoyed that he was overjoyed. My impression of Hernandez, certainly reinforced by his ongoing monologue on SNY this season, has always been that he saw us fans as a prop. His job was to field ground balls, hit line drives and ride herd on young pitchers. Our job was to attend his performances in adequate numbers, be antagonistic toward his opponents and slurp down the ice cream that would kill his waistline. When I met him seven years ago at a function designed to let fans have honest-to-goodness contact with retired players, Keith looked right through me and everybody else who fawned over him. I sensed he was only there because Rusty Staub, the chairman of the charity event, beseeched him to show his mustachioed face.
All I heard from Ron and Keith in the last week was how great it will be to see the guys, their old teammates. I didn’t hear anything about the fans. It was a 180 afterwards. Maybe because everybody who wore a uniform has spent twenty years doing other things besides being 1986 Mets, it didn’t dawn on them how important their being 1986 Mets is to the rest of us. It’s probably never dawned on us that they don’t realize they’re 1986 Mets 24/7. We met in the middle of our perceptions and everybody came away giddy.
From the Upper Deck, more so than I could get from TV, the applause just rose, ’86er after ’86er. Those most absent from the scene to date — no-shows on Ten Greatest Moments Day or All-Amazin’ Night — seemed to receive a little extra oomph (from me anyway). Kevin Mitchell in a Mets jersey? Hadn’t happened since October 27, 1986. That was big. Doug Sisk, who left behind a threat that he’d enjoy the World Series ring he was about to earn in Baltimore more than the one he got here? He’s forgotten he ever said it; I’m sure of it. Danny Heep, the minibane of my 1986 existence? Except for when Howie Rose mentioned he had been the Mets’ first designated hitter (Boo! on the DH), I greeted him as if he helped my favorite team win its last championship.
Two Mets from The Day stood out above all others. One was Wally Backman. The anticipatory reaction swelled when Howie began his introduction. This wasn’t the guy who had a murky relationship with the law. This wasn’t the guy who managed the Diamondbacks for four days, none of them during a season. This wasn’t the guy who’s been, if not blackballed, then probably grayballed out of his sport. This was our Wally. You could not take him away from us anymore. You were never traded to Minnesota and Gregg Jefferies never swiped your job. You were on when Lenny hit that home run off Dave Smith. Right here, at Shea Stadium, you’re good as gold.
The other was the Lastings Milledge of 1983, Darryl Strawberry. Damn it, you’re forgiven. You’re always forgiven. We forgave you slipping in and out of common sense and good behavior during your eight-year Mets career. We forgave you every time you made a wacky proclamation of loyalty to another uniform on this coast or that. We forgave you all your menace-to-society actions. I looked up at the DiamondVision four years ago this month when you had to thank the fans for voting you one of the Mets’ three greatest outfielders in a taped message wearing an orange jumpsuit. Whatever I was ambivalent about dissolved that night. And this week, after you characteristically left me rolling my eyes over your decision to absolutely not attend and then absolutely attend this celebration, all I had to see was you in No. 18, introduced last.
Darryl Strawberry is always welcome to be a Met at Shea Stadium. And forgiven in advance for whatever the hell he says or does next. It comes with the territory.
Impossible, of course, to look at the great but not Great homegrown Met of the mid-1980s and not think of the even greater but not Great Met of the mid-1980s. Twenty of the 24 Mets who made the postseason roster were at Shea Saturday night. One was utterly unavailable. Watching Darryl kept bringing me back to Doc. And going back to Doc will never not bum me out until Dwight Gooden goes back to where he needs to be. As the starting pitchers trotted out — Aguilera, Darling, Fernandez, the not-so-stubborn Ojeda — I joined in the applause, of course, but I wanted to tell my 55,000 soulmates to take a little something off their appreciative fastballs. Save something for Doc, he’s the ace. But Doc wasn’t coming out.
Roger McDowell and Lee Mazzilli are Major League coaches right now. You can’t tell me their teams couldn’t have gotten along without them for a game, but since they are employed by clubs perceived as Met rivals, I guess they have to make a living. Ray Knight and Davey Johnson, on the other hand, were ludicrous by their absence. Watching the tableau unfold, all those teammates in an embrace with all us fans, I couldn’t believe Ray or Davey would see a clip of it and not be filled with regret. It occurred to me that for all the 1969 reunions that have been held at Shea (four, by my count), Gil Hodges couldn’t attend any of them. I wish I could have mentioned that to Davey Johnson. As for Knight, maybe he’ll make it for the 25th, but as someone who just went to his 25th high school reunion and found it conspicuously lacking by comparison to his 20th, I can tell him he missed the good one.
What else wasn’t perfect? The parachute bit was a little cheesy, especially since the Mets have always disowned Michael Sergio. But if you were going to honor his action, you couldn’t bring him out for a nod and a wave? You couldn’t shine a light on the likes of assistant trainer emeritus and our pal Bob Sikes? You couldn’t have convinced the most identifiable 1986 voice this side of the late Murph, Tim McCarver, to hop the shuttle from Boston? 1986 was more than just the 20 players, two coaches and one GM who were on the field.
Most glaring was the zero acknowledgement of the just-leaving, just-arriving, just-passing-through Mets of 1986. On an evening when Dave Williams came up from Norfolk, donned No. 32 and effectively channeled Rick Anderson, no Uncle Andy? No space for the man who single-handedly clinched the division, then-young Dave Magadan? Couldn’t give No. 48 once more to crazy Randy Myers? You singled out George Foster, Ed Lynch and Bruce Berenyi for rings even though they were brushed off the team before ’86 was out. You couldn’t single them back in for a night?
And you couldn’t arrange to hand out a pack of commemorative 1986 baseball cards to EACH AND EVERY ONE OF US? This “first 25,000” giveaway jazz is a disgrace worthy of the cheap-ass Chicago Cubs. In 1986, promotional items were handed out to every single fan. If the supply ran out, rain checks were issued. It was goodwill. The insidious plot to get you there early enough so you will stick around for two hours and buy $4.50 hot dogs is unbecoming an otherwise admirable organization.
Naturally, if I got my cards, I wouldn’t say boo. But for this particular game, I was picked up and driven by my friend and fellow ’86 scholar Rob Emproto. His failure to recognize and my failure to (sufficiently loudly) point out his lane on the Cross Island was, in fact, the entrance to the Throgs Neck Bridge gave us the unexpected pleasure of a detour across Long Island Sound and a cameo as one more bumper on the bumper-to-bumper Cross Bronx Expressway. By the time we turned around and doubled all the way back to the Grand Central, all the cards were gone (even though it was only 6:10). I was steamed at first, didn’t much care as the night wore happily on but am annoyed again, more on principle than the need for more cards.
One of the highlights of ’86 was flipping the Cards, you know.
Peeves aside, it’s a night that goes in my Treasured Memories book. I’ve stayed a fan of the New York Mets for all of my sentient life, I suppose, for three basic reasons.
1) I get to be a part of something bigger than myself.
2) I hope to see them win again.
3) I like reliving what I’ve loved living through.
Saturday night wove all of that together in a way a fan who takes it very seriously would script if he could. Well, this fan is always looking to make edits, so let me not get carried away and tell you it was perfect. It wasn’t. But it was as close as a 1986 postscript will ever get to such a state. When they have one of these pregame things that lives up to expectations and then they win the actual game, it’s like a doubleheader sweep. It felt that way eleven nights ago when I helped welcome home Mike Piazza and left with a W, too. It felt that way times ’86 last night. I wasn’t just glad I went. I felt thrilled and privileged to be at Shea Stadium.
And those racing stripes there I feel are pretty sharp.