Welcome to Flashback Friday, a weekly feature devoted to the 20th anniversary of the 1986 World Champion New York Mets.
Twenty years. Forty-three Fridays. This is one of them.
I’m lazing about the upper deck. Left field. Far left, far up. Many have called it a day, so there is room to stretch out. The Mets have lost the first game of a doubleheader to the St. Louis Cardinals, but they’re cruising to a win in the nightcap. I’m with my college buddy Rob Costa who attends these things essentially to chat and drink warm Bud. By the late stages of a twinbill, we’re both pretty mellow. Rob keeps his own counsel. I flip on my Walkman to hear what Bob Murphy and Gary Thorne have to say about things.
It’s August 17. The subject of the most foregone conclusion in baseball comes up: When are the Mets going to clinch?
One of them picks September 16. The other picks September 19. I’m shocked. With this victory (9-2; Randy Niemann picks up the win in his only start of 1986), the Mets will increase their lead in the N.L. East to 16-1/2 over the Expos. Forty-four games remain in the season. The magic number is 30. We are playing at a .653 clip. Montreal is barely over .500. Bob, Gary, I have one question for you?
Are you kidding?
The Mets won’t need a month. They’re gonna clinch this thing in early September.
The Mets hadn’t had a magic number watch of any length since 1969. It was one of the first statistics I ever learned, the number of Mets wins combined with Cubs losses that would clinch us the division. 1973 didn’t allow much time for figuring. On the night the Mets moved into first, their magic number was 10. It would take them 10 days to clinch.
1986 was different. The Daily News began tracking the magic number in June. Just about every day there was a cartoon version of Davey Johnson pulling a rabbit out of a top hat. It was very exciting watching that number fall.
By mid-August, the inevitability of the Mets was daily old news. There had been a perfunctory warning around the All-Star break that the ’51 Dodgers and ’78 Red Sox looked like locks, too, but the ’86 Mets never felt a glove in the second half. Running 34 over and 13-1/2 up when play resumed, they actually stood in place for more than a month. After dropping the opener of the doubleheader Rob and I attended, they were a mere 35 over, but still managed to increase their lead in the preceding five weeks. The Expos were the only other team with a winning record in the East. The Phillies and Cardinals had to get hot and stay hot just to break even.
That doubleheader and brief homestand over, the Mets flew to the West Coast and got serious. Swept the Dodgers, took two of three from the Giants, swept the Padres. A 10-1 swing. It ended on the signature defensive play of the season, the improbable 8-2-5 twin killing, Dykstra to Gibbons to HoJo, that doomed the Padres in extra innings. Tim McCarver’s call — Out at home!…Out at third!…Just your routine double play! — summed up the feeling surrounding these Mets in late summer. They could no wrong.
On August 27, the Mets stood 43 games over .500. They held a 20-game lead over the now-second-place Phillies. And their magic number, with 35 left to play, was 20. I kept thinking about Bob and Gary and their pessimistic prediction from 10 days earlier. September 16? September 19? Come now. This thing was going to be over in a couple of weeks.
The Mets were already celebrating. No champagne yet, but there was dancing on the field. When they came home to face the same California teams they just pounded into the Pacific, the fans (at Shea and at home, courtesy of Channel 9) were treated to the cinematic event of 1986. Not Platoon, not Hannah and Her Sisters, not even Reform School Girls, a film Fred and I wanted to see but Larry, who was driving, steered us instead to Stand By Me, of which Fred observed, “Great — young boys coming of age.”
The night of August 29, 1986 unleashed upon the land the world premiere of Let’s Go Mets!.
I don’t mind telling you I thought it was the greatest thing I ever saw. Kids flipping baseball cards on a Shea Stadium ramp and the Mets fan kids losing until their special pals Dwight Gooden, Gary Carter and Kevin Mitchell, who just happen to be strolling by on the very same Shea Stadium ramp, hand them special cards — Mets cards. The Mets fan kids start winning like crazy, just like the Mets. And then the beat builds. And, finally, the lyrics the universe (because the world was too small for these Mets) had been waiting an eternity to hear…
We’ve got the teamwork
To make the dream work
LET’S GO METS!
This video presented life as I always thought it should be: completely and utterly about the Mets. The Mets playing. The Mets practicing. The Mets goofing around. The Mets beating the crap out of Joe Piscopo. The Mets putting the cheesy, low-budget Super Bowl Shuffle to shame.
The years would not be kind to this video. Everybody in it, from the players to the fans to the celebrities (half of them local DJs, including the notoriously sports-illiterate Howard Stern) to the cutesy background chorus — pizza guys, ballgirls, hansom cab driver with horse — set new standards for tacky. It is no wonder, in retrospect, that Jon Bon Jovi and his foofy mop would surge to superstardom a few months later in the wake of this particular cultural watershed. Maybe it’s my bias toward my 1970s childhood speaking, but Americans never looked sillier than they did in the late 1980s.
That said, I loved this thing. I love it today. When SNY showed it about a dozen times during and around the ’86 reunion, I dropped everything I was doing and watched it a dozen times. The video was like totally awesome. And the song, by New York’s Dream Team, took off as a radio hit in the city. You could not turn on Z-100 or Power 95 or any station and not hear it. Every spin was like a municipal pep rally. They put out a 12-inch single which included some actual WHN highlights plus a few contrived Bob Murphy calls. I know that because I bought it. They put out a Making Of video, replete with what it was like to hang around with the Mets. I bought that, too.
Later on, in October, Friday Night Videos aired a special showdown between Let’s Go Mets! and Red Sox Rock, less an amateur clip than the result of somebody turning on a camera and forgetting to turn it off until three minutes later. Sung to the tune of “Jailhouse Rock,” it was catchy enough (“everybody in the whole ballpark/is dancing to the Red Sox rock”), but the video consisted primarily of Bostonians entering a bar and being given the high sign by a juiced-up bouncer. Then some dude shows up in a Yankees cap and everybody takes great pleasure in grinding it with their heels.
By comparison, Roger McDowell with a bat in his pocket (or was he just happy to see us?) was the work of Oliver Stone. And the FNV audience agreed, spending 50 cents a call to choose the Mets video over the Red Sox’ by about a 70-30 margin.
Video stardom obviously agreed with our boys. After it debuted, the Mets won seven of nine. After sweeping the Padres a Sunday doubleheader on September 7, the Mets were an intergalactic 92-44, 21 ahead of the Phillies. Twenty-six games were left. The magic number was 6.
The next night was my final game at Shea in 1986, only my sixth all season. It was my delayed-gratification birthday present to my mother in July. It would be the third year in a row I went to a Mets game with my parents. It would also turn out to be the last one we went to together. I’m sorry it didn’t turn out better. From out in the rightfield loge, we could see Bobby O didn’t have it for one of the few times all year. First he was outpitched by Bob Sebra then outhit by his Expo mates. The Mets were mysteriously behind 7-0 in the seventh.
Not great, but not a problem in the scheme of things. So obvious was the impending clinch, that the Mets had printed the phrase A SEPTEMBER TO REMEMBER in white block letters at the base of the left and rightfield walls. They also handed out at every single game that month a pennant with a fuzzy team picture and a clear team message: PENNANT FEVER! The only accoutrement missing from the newly presumptuous décor was a gigantic MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner over the scoreboard.
Pennant literally and figuratively in hand, my mother seemed to enjoy blurting out “Let’s Go Mets Go!” now and then. Bandwagon jumper (back in ’84) that she was, she actually thought that was the chant of choice at Shea Stadium, having picked it up from the video. She also kept asking who would backing up Ojeda. I always had to explain that there is no designated second pitcher to come into a game, that it depends on the situation who relieves. But let the record show that Rick Anderson backed up Bobby Ojeda, and John Mitchell made his Major League debut backing up Anderson, who was worse than Ojeda.
Given the score and the hour — Monday night, pushing past 9 o’clock — my dad asked if I wouldn’t mind if we could maybe leave early since the Giants and Cowboys were kicking off the first Monday Night Football game of the year. I couldn’t really argue. As we got up after the eighth, I felt compelled to tell our row that things weren’t so bad, we were going to have a division title by the end of the week. My mother gave it one more “Let’s Go Mets Go!”
By the time we got to the car in the lot across Roosevelt Avenue, we could hear a mighty cheer. Darryl had launched a cosmetic shot to make it 9-1. Dad turned on the Giants on WNEW. They eventually lost a heartbreaker 31-28. But Ed Lynch had defeated Mike Maddux that afternoon in Chicago, so the magic number dipped to 5. And we stopped at Lenny’s Clam Bar in Rockville Centre for a late supper. Not a total loss by any means.
The next night, the Mets lost one of the few games they genuinely blew in 1986. Orosco gave up a two-run homer to Andre Dawson in the ninth and another run besides. The 9-7 loss unleashed the hounds of hell in the stands. If there had been a WFAN then, callers would have pierced the predawn stillness insisting there was no way Jesse Orosco can be trusted to close tight games for the Mets in the postseason. The scornful booing occurred hours after Leon Durham went deep off of Steve Bedrosian in extras. For all of the angst, the magic number was 4.
Thankfully, Ron Darling righted the ship and stopped the suicide epidemic the next night after the Cubs beat the Phillies again. On September 10, the magic number to clinch a division that would technically still be playing through October 5 was 2. Any combination of Mets wins and Phillies losses adding to 2 would make the Mets the champions of the National League East for 1986.
No game for either team on Thursday, September 11, but that morning on K-Rock, following Howard Stern, Maria Milito announced a great giveaway. Be the 92nd caller and you will win tickets and accommodations for the Mets’ weekend trip to Philadelphia — see the Mets clinch at the Vet. Milito, who wasn’t even in the Let’s Go Mets! video, made it sound like a sure thing. All it will take is one win, she said, so you know it’s going to happen.
I pushed all the requisite buttons on my phone to no avail. But Maria was right. You knew the Mets, leading by 22 with 23 to play, would come through as soon as mathematically possible. All it was going to take was one lousy win. For a team that already had 93 in its pocket, there was no way it wasn’t going to happen Friday. Saturday and Sunday were only there to pitch backup.