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.
You know who wanted the Astros to beat the Mets in 1986? George Bush.
Both of them.
The elder Bush was the vice president at the time. His home away from Washington was a Houston hotel room. He was throwing out the first pitch at the Astrodome before Game One. As he was leaving, a Channel 4 reporter, Mike Taibbi, had a clear shot at him, so to speak. “Mr. Vice President!” he called out. “Who’s going to win the series?”
Bush, who looked almost as annoyed as he would when chatting with Dan Rather two Februarys hence, answered curtly. “The Astros.”
I had no plans to vote for Vice President Bush come 1988, but that sealed it.
As for the younger George Bush, my introduction to him came in 1992 via Richard Ben Cramer’s masterwork, What It Takes: The Way to the White House. No mere Making of the President, Cramer’s book sought to discern how a man — each of six men who ran in ’88 — could possibly think he was qualified to lead the free world. It’s a half-dozen psychobiographies in one, with a particular amount of attention paid to George Herbert Walker Bush. Unlike the Astros in 1986, he would go on to win.
Cramer kicks off his book at the Astrodome, with the veep prepping to fling the ol’ ceremonial horsehide.
This is about as good as it gets, as close as American politics offers to a mortal lock. On this night, October 8, 1986, the Vice President is coming to the Astrodome, to Game One of the National League Championship Series, and the nation will be watching from its La-Z-Boys as George Bush stands front and center, glistening with America’s holy water: play-off juice. Oh, and here’s the beauty part: he doesn’t have to say a thing! He’s just got to throw out the first ball.
The author goes on to explain that in executing something so simple, there are a thousand details and a million egos to hurdle. Nobody was more of a problem than the vice president’s son, George Walker Bush. See, a box, the box of Astro owner John McMullen, was arranged for family and staff and somebody had the temerity to include “Junior” out. He wouldn’t have bad seats, he just wouldn’t be sitting with his dad in camera range. Cramer portrayed the offspring’s anger before Game One. It had nothing to do with Mike Scott or Dwight Gooden. It had everything to do with that staff man.
Maybe he doesn’t know Junior’s here — the hell he doesn’t, he oughta — or that he might want to sit with his parents, have a few laughs with the family…or that he likes to be seen in Texas, might want to run in Texas someday. What would that asshole know about running?
Typical Junior, according to the author.
They were screwing around with the wrong guy. Junior was the Roman candle of the family, bright, hot, a sparkler — and likeliest to burn the fingers. He had all the old man’s high spirits, but none of his taste for accommodation. In fact, he was more like Bar, the way he called a spade a spade. But it wasn’t so easy for him to do it in the background, the way she’d done it all these years.”
(“Bar,” of course, was then-second lady Barbara Bush. She’d come into some infamy in the very same Astrodome 19 years later when she suggested that for the evacuees of Hurricane Katrina, living in this arena was probably an upgrade over whatever the floods had washed away in New Orleans.)
Worse for the staffer was that the seats George W. Bush wanted for himself and his wife Laura were to be occupied by that particular staff man and his aide. With his new nemesis in full earshot, Junior, indeed throwing off sparks, expressed his dismay to another family retainer, Lee Atwater.
SEATS AIN’T WORTH A SHIT. I GUESS THE BOX GOT A LITTLE CROWDED. PEOPLE WHO THINK THEY GOTTA BE HERE…
Eventually, George W. Bush calmed down or got distracted and took off with his entourage for an Astrodome skybox. His father the vice president threw the first pitch. It bounced in front of the plate. Embarrassed, he buried his head in his hands. So much for that holy water play-off juice.
George W. Bush was a footnote to a constitutional appendage in 1986. We didn’t know who he was. We didn’t know he was 40 and that years later we would be told that when he turned 40 he decided to forsake alcohol for the Almighty and that, as Cramer noted then, “these days, control, discipline — some of that old Bush medicine — was what he was always teaching himself.”
What that would imply for this nation’s future in how it was run and where it would head…totally unknowable and unimaginable then. On October 8, 1986, George W. Bush was simply an unpleasant character in some way associated with the Houston Astros.
He had plenty of company.
This isn’t about politics. It’s about pitching. The Astros had it but good. But boy was it unlikable.
Nolan Ryan? He was ours, damn it. Was. The previous Met regime, the one Grant’s fingerprints were all over, traded Nolie in his youth and he would never forgive us. Old Timers Days — occasions he wouldn’t be ready for until he was 47 — would come and go but Nolan would never come, not even when the only team with whom he ever won a World Series, the 1969 Mets, were the guests of honor. He may have been great, and projecting cool may have contributed to his greatness, but he was too cold for my taste. Oh, and he dusted Lenny Dykstra in Game Two of the NLCS. Lenny retaliated by singling and sparking the Mets’ first rally of the playoffs. He also slightly outpitched Doc Gooden in Game Five. As it happens, we won both games.
Bob Knepper? Something about him rubbed me the wrong way. Probably the four wins the Astros gained in the four games he pitched against us in ’86. One of them was a relief appearance decided on a bum 15th inning call. Knepper was the original impossible-to-hit lefty. He also said his religion forced him to speak out against women striving to be umpires (or fill any position of authority) and, after the National Organization for Women criticized him, he publicly characterized NOW as “a bunch of lesbians”. Saw his efforts in Game Three evaporate via a combination of Darryl Strawberry, Lenny Dykstra and Dave Smith. Only two of them played for the Mets. We won that game.
Charlie Kerfeld? One hot year as a setup man revealed him as a massive clown. He did the Rocker thing on a smaller scale. Of New York he said, “I’m ready to get away from this zoo. I’m ready to get back to where some real people are and get away from these animals.” Having induced a crucial bounceback to the mound from slumping future Hall of Famer Gary Carter, Kerfeld displayed his Homo sapiens qualities by grabbing the ball and practically waving it at the Kid before throwing it to first in Game Three. Carter got even two games later, delivering a twelfth-inning hit, laying waste to Ryan’s nine big innings and putting the Mets one game from the pennant. (Later, when I noticed that a sponsor of our games on WHN was Astro Nissan, I wondered if either the advertiser or the station was paying the least little bit of attention.)
Mike Scott? Ryan was immortal but the Mets won the games he started. Knepper was close to impenetrable but the Mets got past him in his first start. Kerfeld had finally seen his act boomerang on him. But Mike Scott was Mike Scott. Middling ex-Met turned unremarkable Astro turned filthy cheat turned untouchable cheat. Scuffed the ball — no serious person denied it — to unprecedented success. Owned the Mets in Game One and Game Four. Mike Scott clinched Houston’s division championship by no-hitting the Giants. He hadn’t done the same to the Mets…yet. He was, famously, the guy the Mets didn’t want to see in Game Seven, the game after Game Six.
All that and two George Bushes. No wonder the 1986 National League Championship Series was the most polarizing event under the Astrodome until Pat Buchanan’s declaration of a culture war at the 1992 GOP convention.
I entered Game One confidently rooting for the Mets and left Game Six sweaty, exhausted and rooting for the Mets. In between, I discovered a team called the Houston Astros in ways you don’t want to discover somebody. They weren’t all pitching. Glenn Davis was a legit MVP candidate. Kevin Bass should have been. Everybody else was either terribly savvy or slightly underrated. But it was the pitching, particularly the pitching of Scott, that made them a nightmare.
It’s true. I had a bad dream before the playoffs. I dreamt the Red Sox were playing the Astros in the World Series while I was wandering through the Green Acres mall parking lot toward the freestanding Alexander’s department store. This was at odds with what I prognosticated in my journal on October 4.
ALCS: Angels in 7
NLCS: Mets in 5
WS: Mets in 4
On the afternoon of Game Six, our Game Six, the Red Sox and Angels were knotted at three. They were playing that night. I didn’t care, not anymore. I cared about us. We were up but there was That Man again. Out damned Scott!
But first Knepper. And he was a pain in the ass, too. There must have been something in his religion that permitted the torture of Mets hitters. Over eight innings, he had allowed two hits and no runs. Less successful was Bobby Ojeda, hailed on New York back pages as THE EQUALIZER (a new show on CBS that fall) for tying the series at one. Houston got to our Bob for three runs in the first. Atypical. It was only a squeeze play gone awry that rescued him. And us.
Bobby O settled down. He pitched four shutout innings after the first, but left for a pinch-hitter down 3-0. Rick Aguilera picked him up for three more, but it was still 3-0. If Knepper was untouchable this Wednesday afternoon, what would Scott be Thursday night?
Between the eighth and ninth, just after 5 o’clock — the thing started at 3:00 and was going to be over in a blink — I flipped from Channel 7 to Channel 4 to see if Live at Five had anything to say. There was Mike Taibbi, still covering the series as news, outside the Astrodome. He explained to anybody who wasn’t actually watching the game that we could look forward to a seventh and deciding game, Scott and Darling, tomorrow night.
I flipped back. Dykstra pinch-hit for Aguilera. He tripled.
At that very moment, I shit you not, I knew the Mets were coming back. Mike Scott no longer mattered. It was 1986. It wasn’t the year of the Astros, not even the year of Scott, no matter how hard the sandpaper industry was rooting for its next spokesman. It was the year of the Mets. If lefthander Lenny Dykstra was going to triple off lefthander Bob Knepper and over Billy Hatcher’s head in center, the year wasn’t going to end today/tomorrow.
For the record, I wasn’t ‘fraid of no Scott. I wasn’t. We got nothing off him in the first game. We scratched out a run in the fourth game. We were bound to break through.
But who the hell wanted to find out? So it was of utmost importance that once Dykstra imbued me with confidence
• that Mookie drive him in (he did) and
• that Mex bring home Mookie (he did) and
• that once Smith replaced Knepper we tie it right away (we did, on two walks and a Ray Knight sac fly) and
• that pinch-hitter Danny Heep take advantage of Smith’s uncontrollable wild streak and accept the BB the battered closer was dying to deliver for the go-ahead run.
He didn’t. I’m still peeved  about it, but 3-3 in the middle of nine was better than 0-3 after eight.
Roger McDowell came on in the bottom of the ninth and never stopped. He pitched innings 9 through 13. He alternated closing and setting up with Jesse Orosco all year, yet with the flag hanging seductively behind the door marked W and a killer hiding sandpaper in his back pocket behind the door marked L, this was no time for pitch counts. Roger McDowell was considered a good-natured flake. For five innings, he was serious as death.
The Astros scored nothing off him for five. The Mets scored nothing off Smith and Larry Andersen for four. It was 3-3 in the middle of the ninth and it was 3-3 in the bottom of the thirteenth.
Did I mention the pennant and two kinds of survival — psychic for the Mets, actual for the Astros — was on the line? The impact of this game was reverberating everywhere. I don’t know how the Six O’Clock Newses were covering it. I never flipped away again. I know stories came out later and still circulate about how commuters stopped in and on their tracks to follow this game. I wouldn’t know. I was a freelance writer then. I worked from home. I do know that my phone rang a lot in extra innings. Larry, the well-meaning non-baseball pal since high school who didn’t exactly know what was going on but knew something significant was happening in my world; Jeannine, engaged or engaged to be engaged to my college buddy Tony in Florida, neither of them fans of the Mets but both of them sympathetic to me; Chuck, my best friend who rooted for the Mets “for my sake”…they all called multiple times. The words varied, but their theme was consistent:
“What a game!”
The fourteenth was and is a blur. I’m not sure I remembered it by the fifteenth. The Mets scored a run in the top of the fourteenth. What a game! Jesse replaced Roger in the bottom of the inning. He gave up a homer to Billy Hatcher. What a game? It hit the leftfield fair pole, but it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair at all. Hadn’t we fought back from the dead in the ninth? Didn’t we just take the lead? Isn’t that all we needed?
So Jesse Orosco would have to give us his best without giving up a thing. He did. He got out of the fourteenth. He got out of the fifteenth after Aurelio Lopez — scored on in the fourteenth — did the same. Lopez would be followed by Jeff Calhoun in the top of the sixteenth, which begged a question.
Where was Jim Deshaies? Deshaies was the Astros’ fourth starter, a lefty no less. He was 12-5 in the regular season. Where was Danny Darwin? He was a vet, 5-2 after coming over from Milwaukee. Two perfectly good pitchers and Houston manager Hal Lanier ignored them for the length of the series. Come to think of it, Kerfeld, maddeningly brilliant until the day before, wasn’t called on either. I don’t know if Bush the younger was on hand after Game One, but talk about witnessing first-hand the folly of stubbornly staying the course.
The Mets, on the other hand, were cutting — swinging and connecting for three hits — and running…toward home. Straw doubled and Knight singled him in. A flurry of walks and wild pitches preceded a Dykstra single. Suddenly, after fifteen long and grueling and long and intense and long and long and longer innings, the Mets were up by three runs, 7-4, and in need of only three outs to become league champions.
Jesse was still pitching. He had gone three innings twice in 1986. He was being asked to do it a third time without surrendering three runs in the process. But after all the momentum the Mets had, how could he?
He could try.
Cut Jesse some slack here, a commodity Mets fans didn’t provide him much of in 1986.
He was tired.
He was 29.
He started pitching professionally in 1978.
He had come in to hold the fort in the first, third and fifth games of this series.
He was 2-0 by dint of his own good work and two walkoff hits.
He was making his 61st appearance of the year.
He was embarking on his 89th inning since early April, almost all of them were pressurized, especially the seven since Saturday. This would be his eighth of this postseason.
Jesse was very tired.
Another blur ensued. Astro batters became Astro baserunners. The phone rang. The talk was profane. Outs were needed. They weren’t arriving. My insides were pretzels, my outside was producing enough perspiration with which to salt them generously.
Kevin Bass stepped up with two on, two out and two in. It was 7-6 Mets. You’ve probably heard there was a conference at the mound among the pitcher, his catcher and his first baseman. You’ve no doubt read accounts that explain how Mr. Hernandez urged Mr. Carter not to encourage Mr. Orosco to throw a fastball on the off chance that Gary would or Jesse could.
Here’s a version you might not have read or heard. It’s from Philip Roth’s Patrimony, a memoir about the end of his father’s life. In the fall of 1986, Herman Roth, born in 1901, battled a brain tumor but kept his son, then in London, informed via phone of the Mets’ doings. London was five hours ahead but where baseball was concerned, a world away. There was no technology to transcend the time difference or the ocean. Phillip Roth and Herman Roth would have to communicate by telephone the morning after the sixth game of the National League Championship series.
The subtitle on its cover says Patrimony, like the NLCS that sneaks in on page 146, is a true story.
Why wouldn’t it be?
“It’s Dad. You’ve never seen anything like it. Mets won in the sixteenth.”
“Great. I was going to phone you a little later.”
“I only just got up. I knew you’d be wondering. They were down three in the ninth. Did I tell you this last night, about the ninth?”
“Don’t worry. Tell me everything.”
“Get this. They get three runs in the ninth. They go ahead four three. That pitcher is in there.”
“Kerfeld, for Houston?”
“No. For the Mets. I can never think of his name.”
“No. The other guy.”
“Yeah, Morosco. The Mets go ahead four three. Then Houston gets a home run, ties it up four four. In the sixteenth inning the Mets get three runs. They go ahead seven four. Houston gets up. Guy gets on base and the next guy gets a home run. Seven six. And then Kevin Bass strikes out and they won the series.”
“So They won the series.”
“They won the series.”
“How’d the Mets get the three runs?”
“Dykstra. I’m telling you! After Morosco gave up the runs in the sixteenth, Hernandez came out to the mound — I just read this in the paper — and you know what he said to him? ‘If you throw another fastball, I’ll kill you.'”
“I wonder if he would have.”
“I would have,” my father said, laughing, and sounding as though whatever had floored him in the spring was a fluke and he was going to live a thousand years.”
The Roths were ecstatic. The Bushes couldn’t have been too thrilled. The Princes? After the last out, Bass’ 3-2 strikeout on Orosco’s slider — “heartstopping baseball,” Bob Murphy called it — I found myself doing what I did after the Mets clinched against the Cubs . I ran over to my mother and hugged her. It was the second maternal hug and I had sought as an adult. Just before doing so, I tossed my cap toward the ceiling of my parents’ bedroom and screamed, “THAT’S IT!” Funny, I thought shortly thereafter, in September I used first-person plural as in “we did it!” This time after sixteen innings, four hours and forty-two minutes, I couldn’t claim “we” had done anything. October 15, 1986 was all them, the players and the manager and the coaches leaving their guts on the Astrodome turf.
The game went so long and ran so close to the ALCS affair that ABC had to cancel its network newscast. The Mets and Astros became the Red Sox and Angels almost without pause. I still didn’t care who won there. Whoever it was, they’d be meeting the Mets, as Murph saw fit to note, “in the World Series, Saturday night at Shea.”
Mike Scott’s next start would be April 6, 1987.