Attempting to cope with the baseball anxiety attack this listless spring has brought about, I decided to watch something I recently recorded. This from that: the top of the ninth inning of the 1988 division-clincher aired (again) by SNY last week, Fran Healy talking to special guest in the booth Jack Lang…
Fran: Jack, [can] you believe that the Mets right now will win their second division under the regime that took over in 1980?
Jack: That’s right. And what a machine they’ve built. This won’t be the last of these we’re gonna see from them. Not with that pitching staff.
I got chills from that exchange. It was a completely reasonable assessment from Lang (amid not altogether unreasonable hyping and prodding from Fran). The Mets were three outs from nailing down their second N.L. East title in three years. Healy said it would have been three had the Mets been healthy “last year,” a.k.a. 1987. There were no ifs, ands or buts about those late ’80s Mets. Despite a brief bout of dynastis interruptus, we were a powerhouse, plugged in and ready for more.
1986 was considered the norm by September 1988 standards; it was September ’87 that had gone haywire. The Mets were, as the DiamondVision highlight reel would confirm on the final Sunday of the ’88 regular season, back in the high life again, back where they belonged. We were stopping briefly to be coronated against the Phillies on September 22 and obviously we would take out the Dodgers soon enough and probably the A’s right after.
Yeah, with our pitching staff, who would argue? Doc was finishing up an 18-win season. Ron, the man on the mound in the clinch, would get to 17. And theretofore unknown David Cone was piling up a 20-3. Among them and El Sid and closer Randall K. Myers, there was nobody next to 30 years of age. Why wouldn’t 1988 be like 1986, avenge 1987 and, more importantly, set the stage for 1989 and the 1990s?
Why wouldn’t it, indeed? In the eighth, the Phillies had a rally going, causing Mel Stottlemyre to trot out to take stock with Darling and Carter. The whole infield joined in, including third baseman Gregg Jefferies. It wasn’t the Jefferies who would annoy everybody and leave bad tastes in his wake. It was Gregg Jefferies who was earning Rookie of the Year votes based on a late August callup. Standing next to him behind the mound — and moments from starting the inning-ending 6-4-3 double play — was Kevin Elster, in the process of setting a record for most consecutive errorless games by a shortstop. When the top of the ninth rolled around, Lang noted that not only were the Mets blessed by a great young staff and a terrific manager but they featured “the most underrated player in the National League” in left field, Kevin McReynolds.
After Darling got Lance Parrish on a called strike to end the game and give the Mets their second East crown in three years, SNY showed a bit of the postgame celebration. It was rather subdued, owing perhaps to the experience of the ’86 vets. Keith Hernandez — who had missed a sizable chunk of the summer of ’88 with a bad hammy, thus providing quality audition time to yet another young talent, Dave Magadan — admitted it could never be like it had been when the Mets won in 1986, but pledged he would be plenty excited if…when (he corrected himself quickly) the Mets won the ’88 World Series.
I report on what I watched on disc Saturday night not to drag us again through the crushing blow of Mike Scioscia and all those Dodger blues, but because it was so otherwise haunting. Those Mets were a consensus lock to be great for the foreseeable future. Five awesome arms only now scratching their primes. Four youthful position players of high ceiling installed since the last world championship. Plus Darryl Strawberry delivering on all that potential we’d been reading about since Sports Illustrated uncovered him as a high school senior. Hernandez and Carter may have been aging before our eyes, but really: Gooden, Darling, Cone, Fernandez, Myers, Jefferies, McReynolds, Magadan, Elster, Strawberry. What a nucleus! Of course this wouldn’t be the last of these we’d see from them.
Again, this isn’t about 1988 or the years that directly followed. I’m not here to talk about the past. It’s this notion that there exists such a creature as a foreseeable future that got to me while watching this 19-year-old clincher. You would have bet every bit of Monopoly money you had and probably some real bucks, too, that what Fran Healy and Jack Lang were projecting would be so. But there was no knowing. There was no knowing about Scioscia, no knowing about Jefferies, no knowing about the tumult that would spin out of control in what was once a clubhouse of us-against-them fighters, no knowing that a big batch of ’86ers would be dismissed across June, July and August of ’89, no knowing that Davey Johnson’s managing would, depending on whom you believe, not save the sinking ship or maybe contribute to its descent, no knowing that young and stellar talent doesn’t necessarily translate to timeless victory.
That was the chill. That and the fact that there was no followup to ’86 in the offing. There wasn’t even an encore to ’88. Imagine a team packed with the pitchers and players I just described not winning one lousy additional division title. Imagine that the franchise that was feeling warm all over for compiling the best five-year record in baseball since 1984 not finishing in first place again until 2006. If I told you that on September 22, 1988, you’d think I was peddling bizarro science fiction.
I even detected a slight chill over the opponents that clinching night. En route to 65-96, the 1988 Phillies were the epitome of nothing special, but they sent up a few young studs against Darling, names that would surely make an impact in the National League for years to come. Ricky Jordan, Ron Jones, Chris James…all good prospects as I recall. They came and they went (Jones with an assist from the unpadded Shea right field wall he ran a knee into a year later). The Phillies would undergo an extreme makeover in 1989, nabbing Lenny Dykstra — another talented and still-young Met in 1988 — among others, yet continue to fall drastically shy of contention right through 1992. As much as any division winner I’ve ever seen, they captured lightning in the proverbial bottle in ’93, gave their fans one magical season, fell short in the World Series and have been absent from October ever since.
Could the Philophiles of late 1988 have imagined they’d go 1-for-18 in postseason bids clear into the new century? I don’t particularly mind Philadelphia’s lack of results, of course, but it’s scary. It’s scary that as fans, any team’s fans, we get hooked on new players and young players and changes of direction and we’re sure we’re going to benefit — if it’s March — this year or — if it’s September — next year. Yet we just don’t know. It’s the ultimate blind trust.
Theoretically, the future has never been more foreseeably agreeable for the Mets. If the three young pitchers who now seem to have assured themselves of rotation slots each succeed, our 2007 fortunes would figure to do no worse than shadow our 2006 accomplishments. That trio could easily go quartet by April 2008. The outfield would be rehabilitated next, with two of three fast-rising kids patrolling corners currently occupied by short-term elders. Not as publicized but just as tantalizing this spring is an eventual first base candidate who got some good swings in before being sent down. Thus, in a blink, we could be swimming in a plethora of prime: Maine, Pelfrey, Perez, Humber, Gomez, Martinez, Milledge, Carp joining Reyes, Wright and Beltran. Throw in two or three strategically signed free agents by our nonpenurious ownership and we’re looking at a nucleus that rivals our not-so-wild dreams from the crest of 1988. If you’re inclined to take it a step further, there’s the TV network and the new ballpark and the vast resources contemporary sports success seems to yield in staggering amounts every time you turn around. The foundation for this organization shapes up as solid as the accumulated brickage that will define Citi Field.
And you know what it all guarantees for our Mets and our Mets-related happiness? Absolutely nothing. It never did and it never will. Per the in-sickness-and-in-health vows each of us took when we betrothed ourselves to our team, the reality that everything’s a year-in, year-out crapshoot shouldn’t matter one little bit.
But it’s something to keep in mind.