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.
Two of the many things I didn’t know much about in 1986 were blank VHS cassettes and domestic champagne. But I knew I needed both.
It was Friday afternoon, September 12. The Mets would be playing the Phillies in a matter of hours. I had to be ready. I went to Delman’s, the electronics shop that had been on Park St. forever and asked for a videotape. Then I went next door to the liquor store, the name of which escapes me, and bought something bubbly but inexpensive.
One cassette. One bottle. One game. One Met win. One Phillie loss.
One division championship at last.
Something’s coming, something good…tonight. Thirteen years of waiting, but that didn’t really describe why I wanted to preserve and to celebrate what I was about to see.
The last Mets’ division title was in 1973. But that and the years that immediately followed were ancient history. The two periods that concerned me were the seven-year famine that stretched from 1977 through 1983 and the two years succeeding them.
I don’t think there was a worse team in baseball from 1977 through 1983. Almost every team had managed at least one winning season in that span. The Mariners didn’t, but the Mariners enjoyed a brief and vast improvement at one point. The Mariners won 76 games in 1982. The Mariners had a little buzz going for them that summer.
The Mets never had anything of the sort between 1977 and 1983. They didn’t win 70 games in any year of the seven. They never played to a winning percentage higher than .420. The one time they didn’t finish last or next to last was the second half of 1981 when, after the strike, there simply wasn’t enough time for them to lose enough games to finish lower than fourth.
When I bonded myself with the Mets in 1969, I was overwhelmed by their generosity. I didn’t expect what happened to happen every year. But I never expected the seven leanest years in baseball. Put aside the disease of Yankee frontrunning that coincided with the Met despair. Forget the slings, arrows, barbs and insults one suffered merely by being identified as a Mets fan. Ignore how the Mets were ignored when they weren’t being laughed at.
They were just so fucking bad to watch. From the beginning of 1977 to the end of 1983, they won 434 games and lost 641. That’s 207 games below .500. They started being horrible as I was completing eighth grade and they were continuing to be so into my junior year of college.
My reaction to all of this? Hope. Either I was the most loyal, most optimistic, most faithful fan you would ever meet or I was an incredible fucking idiot. A little of both, I’d say. But I had hope. If not miles and miles of it, then just enough to see something better over the horizon for 1984.
The 1983 Mets finished on an up note. An up note for them. They were their usual inept, incompetent selves into late July, their record cratering at 37-65, their asses buried in sixth place as per usual.
But something happened. A spark. A flicker. I don’t know, but there was the slightest sign of improvement. They swept a doubleheader on July 31 from the Pirates in what we would later refer to as walkoff fashion. Both wins took twelve innings. The guys who came up big that day were guys like Mookie Wilson, Hubie Brooks, Keith Hernandez, Darryl Strawberry and Jesse Orosco. Jesse won both games. Mookie scored from second on an out to secure the nightcap. A team with players like these couldn’t suck for long.
From July 31 to the end of the 1983 season, the Mets went 31-29. It was the first time the Mets had finished the season on a serious up note since 1976, and 1976 begat 1977. This didn’t feel like a portal to more of the same. This felt like a change was gonna come.
It did. 1984 turned everything about the Mets around in one glorious swoop. They lost on Opening Day but then won their next six. They had young pitchers named Dwight Gooden and Ron Darling and, by July, Sid Fernandez. Darryl was getting better. Keith was taking charge. Rafael Santana came up. Wally Backman took over his position. Davey Johnson had replaced Frank Howard who had replaced George Bamberger and was guiding this heretofore hapless bunch into first place. First Place. It sounded so good. This wasn’t the first place of 1-0 or 3-1 or 9-6 when the back pages of the Post and News would get an annual April chuckle out of the first-place Mets. This was the Mets in first place in June and July. It was such a vibrant feel that it felt like the preceding seven years had never taken place.
But now there were new concerns, new frustrations, new disappointments. The Mets couldn’t hang on to first in 1984. It had been a very, very good season — 90 wins! — but falling helplessly behind the Cubs in August and September dampened the impact. Fortunately, the Mets were now clearly in the realm of good teams. They were only going to get better.
That winter, ’84 going into ’85, they added Gary Carter, a legitimate All-Star catcher. It meant giving up Hubie, but it would mean the heart of the order would have heart: Hernandez, Carter, Strawberry. Gooden had been Rookie of the Year. No telling how good he’d be. Howard Johnson came along, too. He could play third with Ray Knight, a veteran with a rep. Another young reliever, Roger McDowell, came up. Another young starter, Rick Aguilera, too. When Mookie couldn’t play, Lenny Dykstra debuted.
These 1985 Mets were better than the 1984 version. They were tougher, stronger, older. Their ace pitcher, Gooden, was the best anybody had ever seen. It was a dream season in so many ways. The only nightmare was not being able to build a lead. A little time in first place, even in September, didn’t cut it anymore. Their competition, the Cardinals, outlasted them, outmaneuvered them, outwon them. The Mets had played meaningful games every day from April to early October, but they came up three games short in the end.
Hence, there were two collected sets of weight hanging on the shoulders of the longtime Mets fan entering 1986, the year when Davey said our team would dominate. There was the residual ridicule still festering deep down in our innards. And there was the more vital bitterness of having been the Marvelous, Exciting, Terrific, Super M-E-T-S for two almost-joyous seasons yet having nothing but moral victories to show for it.
1986 was supposed to change all that. 1986 did. The Mets had the big start and never stopped. They ran over everybody who got in their way from the outset. They had a double-digit lead before July. They were inevitable.
All that awaited was the single moment that would make it all official, wipe away the shame of 1977-1983 and avenge the unfairness of 1984-1985. That is why I wanted to record the game that would make it so and then drink a toast to it. That is why, an insurmountable lead of 22 games with 23 remaining notwithstanding, it was going to mean so goddamn much to actually clinch the National League Eastern Division.
I couldn’t wait.
But I would. We all would.
I can’t imagine I was the only person in the Metropolitan Area stocking up on tape and champagne, Friday, September 12. The setup was so perfect. We had a magic number of 2 and the team whose loss could combine with our win to change it to 0 was the team we were playing. The Phillies.
And there was no reason we shouldn’t beat the Phillies. We had seven of 12 times in 1986. We had beaten everybody more times than we lost to them. They shouldn’t be any different.
They were talking brave. Mike Schmidt said something about not celebrating on his field. I’d have been more impressed if he’d thrown down that gauntlet in April and made it stick. The Phillies were three years removed from a pennant. They had been the opposite of us from ’77 to ’83, winning the division most of the time. They were the opposite of us again. We were on the verge of being certified winners. They were talking like losers.
“Not on our field.” Whose field? Veterans Stadium was conveniently located on the other side of the Jersey Turnpike. When I was there in August, the joint was easily one-third Mets fans, probably 40 percent. I clapped for the Mets with impunity. Some local started loudly comparing the relative fortunes of the Flyers and Rangers. You know you’ve got nothing if hockey’s what you bring to a baseball game.
Of course the Mets lost that particular game, but they weren’t swept the series. They’d have to be swept this series to be kept from clinching in Mike Schmidt’s face.
Mike Schmidt’s face went unclinched upon. The Phillies, who had shown no real interest in competing for the balance of 1986, got motivated and got hot. The Mets, perhaps pressing with the prize right in front of their eyes, got tense. Or they were just having a bad weekend when an average one would have done. The bottom line is the Phillies outplayed the Mets every step of the way. Mike Schmidt was Mike Schmidt, Steve Jeltz was Ozzie Smith and 1986 felt suspiciously like 1982.
Three games, three losses, 19-game lead with 20 to play. Magic number still 2. Champagne in the visitors’ clubhouse shipped to St. Louis. Champagne in the Prince fridge still chilling. Videotape still clean.
Monday brought no movement in the situation. Schmidt and the Phillies, crackling in over WCAU 1210 AM, won their fourth in a row, over Pittsburgh. Darling and Tudor dueled like they had a year earlier. Alas, this thing felt a lot like 1985 without Darryl hitting the clock. The Mets lost in the 13th. The magic number wouldn’t budge.
The lead was down to 18. Down to 18. There was no way, no ever-lovin’ way, that this division wasn’t going to get clinched sooner or later, presumably sooner. But by Tuesday morning we’d been saying the same thing since Wednesday night. The Daily News was quoting Waiting For Godot, for cryin’ out loud. It wasn’t urgent, but it was a little disturbing.
Was there reason to believe the failure — a word we hadn’t used in the first-person all year — of the Mets to wrap this thing up was foreshadowing? Poll a hundred Mets fans in a hundred places in 1986 and a hundred would tell you we would march through Houston and then either Boston or California. None of the four division leaders was in a race, but none of them had so separated themselves from the pack as we had. If we could be tripped up by the Phillies and Cardinals, could any of them give us trouble? Was Sports Illustrated on to something when it dared to ask on a September cover, “Are the Mets as good as their record?”
On September 16, they were, breaking their second four-game losing streak of the season. The Mets beat St. Louis 4-2. Because the Phillies beat the Pirates, the Magic Number was 1. The Mets had clinched a tie for the N.L. East. That meant that if the Mets lost their next 18 while the Phillies won their next 18…what it really meant was the Mets and me couldn’t open our champagne, but the Mets could give each other shaving cream pies in the face as they packed to come home.
I might have shaved. I don’t remember.
It would have been very, very nice to have clinched as soon as Metropolitanly possible. Would have been fine to have done it in Philadelphia. Would have been OK to have done it in St. Louis. But now they could do it at Shea. Where better? It was September 17, still a week earlier than they nailed down their first division title 17 years earlier, two weeks before they achieved their second. The ’86 Mets were still way ahead of schedule. They were also right within the sweet spot of Bob Murphy’s and Gary Thorne’s predictions. The two announcers had guessed the 16th or the 19th. I thought they were overly cautious. Turns out they were more or less right.
On the 17th of September, a future Hall of Famer faced a pitcher whose promise was wrecked by substance abuse. Dennis Eckersley, who had once won 20 games, had bottomed out as a starter and an alcoholic. Even though he had fallen off his 1985 pace, Dwight Gooden was still considered in the midst of the early stages of a brilliant career. Poll a hundred baseball fans in a hundred places and a hundred would tell you which man was headed for the Hall and which was on the path to oblivion.
Eckersley wasn’t bad, but was easily overcome. Keith Hernandez, who could catch everything, caught a nasty cold, so first base and the three-hole were covered by callup Dave Magadan. Magadan drove in the game’s first run in the fourth. A Strawberry single made it 2-0. Magadan — should we call him Mags? — plated another in the sixth to make it 3-0. He would finish the night 3-for-4, his only “out” mishandled, so he reached on an error. A resourceful fan used a Sharpie and an empty personal pizza box to craft a DAVE MAGADAN FAN CLUB sign that got picked up by TV. The new kid was removed in the eighth. Hernandez felt just well enough to want to be on the field when the game was over. Who would deny him?
Gooden did what Gooden did across most of 1986. He pitched well. Not blindingly brilliantly, but decisively competently, especially against a bad team, which — despite the presence of three or four long-term Cooperstown candidates (Sandberg, Maddux, Palmeiro and, though no one would have guessed, Eckersley) — they were. The Cubs of 1984 were long gone. Like the Cards of 1985 and the successes they attained over our live bodies, they were about to be downgraded to the collective subconscious.
The Phillies were finally losing, at home to the Cardinals. Bad timing. If they lost before we won, wouldn’t that be anticlimactic? Luckily there was a total of 13 runs being scored at the Vet. Our evening moved along more rapidly.
Doc struck out eight and scattered six hits. He also walked five and gave up a two-run homer to Rafael Palmeiro, the second of his career, in the eighth. That cut the lead to 4-2. Gooden persevered and finished the inning and came back out for the ninth.
On the field behind him: Hernandez, Backman, Santana, Knight, Wilson, Dykstra, Strawberry. Gooden threw to Carter. For all the clever platooning and maneuvering Davey Johnson was wont to do, the nine men most responsible for making 1986 different from every Met year since 1974 were in the game.
In the booth, Steve Zabriskie and Rusty Staub concentrated on how this would make up for the near misses of the previous two seasons. Tim McCarver and Ralph Kiner were down in the clubhouse, awaiting a drenching.
If Doc were still Doc, he would have finished off the Cubs three up, three down, maybe on six high heaters and three Lord Charles. But style points weren’t a factor. In the top of the ninth, Jody Davis drew Dwight’s fifth base on balls. Dunston grounded to Santana who got Davis at second. One out. Chris Speier, a veteran who gave Gooden fits, pinch-hit and singled. First and second. Though it seemed unlikely, the Cubs had the tying runs on and the go-ahead run at bat. Gooden was still pitching. He was the ace. You don’t take the ace out of a 4-2 game in the ninth when you’re trying to win something important. Davey wouldn’t anyway.
Doc struck out Mumphrey. Two out. Chico Walker stepped in. He grounded to Backman. Backman tossed it to Hernandez.
WE DID IT!
“We” didn’t do anything. The Mets did. The Mets clinched their first division title in 13 years. They slew the dragons of finishing sixth, sixth, sixth, fifth, fifth/fourth (’81), sixth and sixth. They eased the pain of finishing second and second. But after 145 games, it felt that they did it for us, the fans who stuck by their predecessors and then them for so long. No matter what the Mets would do in the next month, the simple act of moving 18-1/2 up with 17 to play was all the gratification I could have asked for at that moment.
WE DID IT!
That’s what I yelled as Hernandez clenched the clincher. I ran over to my mother and hugged her. It was the first time I voluntarily did that since I was old enough to make such choices. Mom, who had pressed REC on the VCR when the ninth started, had been a Mets fan since 1984. Dad had been a Mets fan since 1984. They missed the grinding numbness of bad baseball but they felt the sharp annoyance of coming close and missing. This was something besides a roof that we could share. We opened the champagne, poured, clinked and drank.
WE DID IT!
The front door buzzed. It was Joel. Joel was taking a business class at Nassau Community that fall, something my mother was always encouraging him to do. I think he skipped out early so he could hear the clinching. He drove right over. My mother gave him a glass of champagne. On TV, we noticed it was a riot. Most of the nearly 50,000 fans (not quite 48,000 paid) remembered the way previous crowds stormed Shea after final outs in 1969 and 1973. ’69 was spontaneous. This seemed 13 years premeditated. The players, we would hear, barely escaped with their equipment and their well being (Aguilera’s shoulder was grabbed hard enough to bother him). But the players looked pretty raucous, too, in their clubhouse. Lots of champagne for them. And shaving cream. And everything else. No reprimands for the players; they deserved it. The fans were already coming in for criticism. The Mets would need their field the next afternoon for a 1:35 start. They’d also have a bunch of games after the regular season ended. Groundskeeper Pete Flynn surveyed his grass and eventually opined that these fans didn’t deserve a champion.
WE DID IT!
We emptied our bottle. Joel and I took the celebration to the Beach House, a bar a couple of blocks away. I put on my Mets jacket. Was disappointed when that didn’t generate more instant camaraderie among strangers.
WE DID IT!
I had business in the city the next day and bought every newspaper I could find along the way.
The News had its trademark bunny hop out of its familiar magician’s hat and high-five Davey on the back page under a headline that said, simply, CLINCH! The front page? AT LAST!
The Post: WE’RE NO. 1 on the front, How sweet it is! on the back.
They Clinch It! and FINALLY! for both editions — Long Island and New York — of Newsday.
The Times dutifully reported that Finally, the Mets Achieve the Inevitable Title.
The Asbury Park Press sedately announced, The number is zero.
USA Today alerted America: METS FIRST TO CLINCH.
El Diario went with a Mets logo and CAMPEONES.
On the LIRR home, I noticed nobody had left any newspapers on the seats as was the custom. Everybody, like me, was saving theirs.
WE DID IT!
The playoff previews and such would wait. The big story was the fans and the field. TV kept showing it. Channel 9’s newscast played the bullrush accompanied by Lionel Richie’s current hit, “Dancing On The Ceiling”. Strangely, they hadn’t thought to flip images upside down the way Lionel partied on in the video. It would have been appropriate. The world we had been stranded in for 13 dry years was turned on its head.
The Mets were champions of something. We had done it.