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Headed For The Future

Welcome to Flashback Friday [1], 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.

In the days following the Mets’ clinching of the 1986 National League East, much was made of the horrible shape the field was in and the horrible shape the starters were in after a night of reveling. Luck would have it that the first game after the clinch was a day game. Pete Flynn’s grounds crew worked all night to create something playable and it worked. The Mets rolled out what in later generations would be called an A-minus lineup that beat the Cubs 5-0.

CF – Stanley Jefferson

2B – Tim Teufel

1B – Dave Magadan

RF – Kevin Mitchell

LF – Lee Mazzilli

3B – Howard Johnson

SS – Kevin Elster

C – John Gibbons

P – Rick Anderson

For the most part, that’s not a bad lineup; makes you think the 2006 version (Ledee, DiFelice, Julio Franco playing third and batting fourth) was graded on a curve. A future MVP, a future biennial 30-30 man, a future .300 hitter, an ace pinch-hitter and half of what was then the current second base platoon occupy more than half of it. Of course Teufel never started against righties and a righty was pitching for Chicago, so that was different. The righty happened to be Cubs rookie Greg Maddux, but then he was just some kid making his fourth start (identified in one Daily News account as his brother Mike). And even if he’d been Greg Maddux, so what? The Mets had just clinched. Rolling out the A-minus lineup was apparently accepted protocol; then-scrubs Rod Gaspar, Bob Heise, Duffy Dyer and Amos Otis started after the 1969 clincher. However he rated his sudden elevation to the cleanup slot, Kevin Mitchell took his insertion as karmic payback for his excessive celebration.

“I may overdose on Tylenol…I can’t drink tequila. I didn’t even know where I was.”

The game would be closed out by Randy Myers, who one year later, right around the same time, would emerge as the Mets’ main man out of the pen and go on to become a three-time league saves leader and the lights-out closer for a World Series winner. That that team wouldn’t be the Mets and that the Mets wouldn’t be a World Series winner again any time soon was, like so many other things about baseball — and life, unknowable in what was then the present.

What could we know about those who had just been plopped into our midst in the late summer of 1986? In years when things aren’t going so well, it is traditional for the baseball fan to look forward to September for the callups. Who do we have who’s going to make tomorrow brighter than today? It was usually a mixed bag. In September 1980, for example, we were introduced to Mookie Wilson, Wally Backman and Hubie Brooks, all of whom became somebody. We also shook hands with Scott Holman. September ’81 brought us Ron Gardenhire, a marginal infielder; Brian Giles, whose claim to fame is that he wasn’t the other Brian Giles; Charlie Puleo, traded to bring back Tom Seaver; and Mike Howard, whose only noteworthy act as a Met was to drive in the winning run in Seaver’s return.

Late-season callups aren’t so much a box of chocolates in that you never know what you’re going to get as they are a bag of M&M’s. You go through them very fast and, before you know it, the bag is empty and you’re not all that satisfied. You don’t take another bite until Spring Training. Did you get an Ed Kranepool (up in September ’62, around through September ’79), an Ed Lynch (1980-1986) or just an Ed Bauta (17 relief appearances, 0-2 between August ’63 and May ’64)?

Kevin Mitchell, three years in advance of his Most Valuable Player season (no other ’86 Met had that prestigious an award still in front of him), was the only rookie to make a sizable impact [2] on the team. His first cup of coffee came in 1984. World/747 was with the team from Opening Day and stuck the entire season, something no other rookie could say. (He also led the team in nicknames.) In the course of the year, other youngsters with no or limited previous experience would dot the roster. Their short-and long-term contributions ranged from memorable to trivial.

In that day-after lineup on September 18, 1986, the one following the clinch, Stan Jefferson jumps out as the quintessential afterthought. He was considered fairly hot stuff, a centerfielder of the future, so to speak. That was going to be difficult on a team that had two pretty solid centerfielders of the present, Wilson and Dykstra. Mazzilli, a relatively storied centerfield of the past, was still hanging around, too. I had hoped somebody would snap a picture of the four of them together, our own Willie, Mickey & The Duke and Stanley Jefferson. I don’t know that anybody did. Jefferson batted 24 times during his shot of Sanka. He would be gone for Kevin McReynolds in short order, play for five other teams and become an officer in the NYPD much later. Don’t remember the scouting report on him then, but eventually it would be accurate to say he had a real gun.

Dave Magadan competed for a batting title in 1990 and played in the Majors until 2001, but it’s not unreasonable to say he’s most remembered for replacing Keith Hernandez brilliantly for one night [1] and not altogether successfully thereafter.

Kevin Elster snuck under the August 31 deadline to make the postseason roster, purely as managerial insurance. Davey Johnson wanted to be able to pinch-hit for Rafael Santana, and if HoJo were otherwise engaged, he needed someone to sub at short. Elster was sold as a defensive whiz. Looked shaky in his spot duty, but if you’re 22 and thrust onto the best team in baseball from Double-A, so might you. Was a Met through 1992 with a very good glove, but never really developed into the all-around player the Mets hoped for. Drove in 99 runs in 1996 after having driven in all of 90 in the six previous seasons combined.

John Gibbons, drafted in the same first round as Darryl Strawberry and Billy Beane, was supposed to be the great young catcher who caught the great young pitchers in 1984. Got hurt in a spring game (fractured left cheekbone) and never regained the starting job, losing it first to Mike Fitzgerald and permanently to Gary Carter. His first Met stint in ’84 yielded an .065 average. His second in ’86 resulted in .474. Was called up in ’85 and ’87 but saw no action. That résumé makes him uniquely qualified to tell younger players of the ups and downs of baseball. He’s managing in Toronto, at least for another week or so.

Rick Anderson threw the most innings of any Met pitcher who didn’t make the 1986 playoff roster, but he’ll be in the postseason in 2006 as Ron Gardenhire’s pitching coach, same as he’s been three times in this decade in Minnesota. Nice career coda for someone known otherwise, if at all, as a fill-in [3] and a throw-in, the latter for David Cone, accompanying Ed Hearn, the rookie backup catcher in ’86, to Kansas City in perhaps the greatest pro-Met steal ever. Hearn, like Gibbons, got hurt (and more seriously ill later in life), but he was a pretty good backstop in his one year of championship reserve duty. He has a story to tell [4] everybody. Hearn usurped the job of Barry Lyons in May. Lyons was up with the big club out of Spring Training, down for good on June 23, back in ’87 through ’90. He’s presently persevering after Hurricane Katrina hit him hard [5] in Mississippi last year.

Anderson went five in his September 18 start against the Cubs, followed to the hill by John Mitchell. It was Mitchell’s third appearance following a stellar season in Tidewater when he was named the International League’s Most Valuable Pitcher. Shipped to the Mets with Bobby Ojeda for apparent stiffs like Wes Gardner, LaSchelle Tarver and Calvin Schiraldi before ’86, Mitchell’s promise threatened to make him the Leroy Stanton of this Nolan Ryan-ish deal. Didn’t exactly work out that way, but Mitchell, though not to as positive an effect as perennial cameoist Terry Leach, threw some yeoman innings in the Great Starting Pitching Shortage of 1987, keeping the defending champs from completely cratering.

Randy Myers, who picked up for Anderson against the Cubs, was hyped more than any other ’86 rookie. He had one inning at the end of 1985 and 10 appearances as a Tidewater shuttler in ’86, but big things were expected. He was a hard-throwing lefty the likes of which the Mets hadn’t had. It wouldn’t be long before he made Jesse Orosco obsolete and Roger McDowell expendable. His place in 1986 lore was cemented in Jeff Pearlman’s The Bad Guys Won as the object of Ed Lynch’s ire. Lynch was with the Cubs when the Mets clinched against them, his six years here having expired in June via injury, overcrowding and trade.

“It was,” Lynch recalled, “like living with a family the whole year and getting thrown out of the house on Christmas Eve.”

The Mets celebrated their first division title in the home clubhouse. Lynch was in spritzing distance of the fun, but it was no longer his fun. It was presumably one thing to see the Oroscos and Wilsons and Backmans, guys he came through the bad years with, get their due, but…well, here’s what he told Pearlman about one particular 1986 Met callup:

“There’s Randy Myers, who had been with the team about a week, and he’s got his arm around two gals, and he’s got a bottle of champagne in each hand. I remember just looking at him and thinking, ‘Where’s a grenade when you need one?'”