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Terry and the Pirates (and then some)

If you figured this one was coming eventually, then it’s the Flashback Friday [1] you’ve been dreading at Faith and Fear in Flushing.

Usually I get to sneak these commemorations in on the sly. Goodness knows I’ve had an exclusive on the tenth anniversary of 1997 [2]. Nobody scooped me on my 1977 Newsday route [3], Joe Torre’s 1967 Topps card [4] or Susan Prince’s 1957 birth [5].

But you’d have to get up pretty early to beat the rush to remember the Terry Pendleton game before anybody else. And I don’t get up particularly early.

Even if every night this week on SNY — with two real, live actors from the original production re-airing their grievances in a veritable loop — hadn’t been a veritable Pendletonian parade of regret, and even if Dan Graziano hadn’t recorded in the Star-Ledger the searing irony [6] of Pendleton and his pitch-server Roger McDowell sitting at Shea in archrival uniforms twenty years to the day since they became linked in Met infamy, sneaking the Pendleton anniversary past Mets fans would be like trying to sneak sunrise past a rooster.

No Mets fan doesn’t know about it. No Mets fan with working organs doesn’t ache from it. Every Mets fan who was around for it remembers where he or she was when it happened.

It was September 11, 1987. Last year I read a blog that referred to it as “the other September 11,” which I thought was astoundingly insensitive…but not altogether without contextual accuracy.

If you were out of the country or born later or never once thought to ask why there is no disc between the 1986 and 1988 placards on the wall above the right field corner, this is the essence of what happened:

• The Mets were about to win a very important game.

• Instead they lost it.

• Pendleton, third baseman for the Cardinals, hit the home run that tied it in the top of the ninth.

• Somebody else did something else and the Cardinals won in ten.

• And there, more or less, went the 1987 Mets.

Reflecting on all that went wrong during that worst 92-win season in Mets history, Keith Hernandez worked himself into a tizzy the other night. He recounted the pitching shorts that afflicted the Mets and how that year was the most disappointing of his career and how they should have won in ’87 as they did in ’86, as they came closer to doing in ’88. Then, like the Mets during that September twenty years ago, he pulled up short.

“Oh well,” he concluded. “Such is life.”

Me, I threw a shoe. Not this week, but two decades ago. I threw a shoe that took out a chunk of the hallway wall opposite my bedroom. It wasn’t repaired in the four years between that night and the day my father sold our house. I’ve driven by it a handful of times since 1991 and have occasionally wondered what would happen if I parked, walked up the front steps, rang the bell (much as the families of previous owners did when I was a kid in presumably more trusting times) and explained that I used to live here and I’d like to come in and have a look around to see if the dent my shoe and Terry Pendleton left in the upstairs wall still stands as a memorial to that lost season.

No disc on the Shea Stadium wall between 1986 and 1988. Just a dent from 1987 in a wall in Long Beach. Probably lots of them in lots of walls throughout the Metropolitan area.

I’m wary of giving too much spotlight to any event that already gets a little too much credit or blame amid a sequence of events. That the Pendleton game is so instantly remembered and so widely rued indicates its impact can be overstated. There was an entire season of missteps leading to September 11, 1987 and, more importantly, there were three weeks that remained to wipe up their residue. In a way, the Pendleton home run was the Scioscia home run writ large. Neither one of them technically ended anything, not even the games in which they were hit. On October 9, 1988, the Mets had the bottom of the ninth and several extra innings in which to answer Scioscia, followed by Games Five, Six and Seven. A year earlier, Pendleton’s punch to the gut didn’t have to be definitive [7]. It wasn’t the last game of the season. It wasn’t even the last game of that series.

But Pendleton’s who and what we institutionally remember. It was dramatic. It was hit with two outs. It did come with the Cardinals — the Braves of their day and then some — behind by two. It was hit off McDowell, the quasi-zany but generally reliable reliever we could generally count on to not give up three-run leads in the ninth inning in games that not only would have been horrible to lose, but wonderful to win.

It wasn’t McDowell’s night. He walked Ozzie Smith, but teased an advancing grounder out of Tommy Herr for the first out. He struck out Dan Driessen. Then Willie McGee doubled to make it a two-run game. Then Pendleton. 4-1 became 4-2 became 4-4.

It wasn’t any Met’s night, nor any Met’s year, not in a way that would have done anybody any good. But there was still a chance to come back. McDowell himself gave up another base hit, a double to David Green, but struck out Tom Pagnozzi to leave it tied. There was no rule declaring the Mets couldn’t have won it in the bottom of the ninth. Yeesh, Bill Almon singled with one out and jogged to second on a wild pitch with Mookie Wilson at bat.

C’mon! A guy named Bill, a wild pitch, Mookie up…c’mon!

In 1987, Mookie strikes out. Even a walk to Tim Teufel goes for naught when Keith Hernandez, the all-time Mr. Clutch for this franchise, grounds out to Driessen.

Orosco replaces McDowell and allows consecutive one-out singles to Vince Coleman, Smith and Herr (5-4) and an RBI grounder to Driessen (6-4). The bottom of the tenth consisted of Darryl Strawberry striking, Kevin McReynolds flying and Gary Carter lining out against Ken Dayley.

Gone was this game.

Gone was the opportunity to move within a lousy half-game of the Cardinals.

Gone was the momentum that had carried the Mets from 10-1/2 out on July 23 despite the steady diet of Don Schulze starts that held the fort for all the disabled pitchers.

Gone was the vibe from the Newsday back page from that week that I clipped immediately and I saved for years until I couldn’t stand to look at it any longer, the one that turned a Mets cap into a birdcage about to trap a runnin’ Redbird.

Gone was the reprieve from the exhaustion of the long season in which players accused other players of jaking, players demanded more playing time, players demanded trades and almost everybody was kind of a jerk at one point or another.

Gone was Ron Darling’s near no-hitter, which lasted until there was one out in the sixth, until Coleman put down a bunt on which Darling managed to mangle his thumb and miss the rest of September.

Gone was the good sidebar cheer from Darryl’s and HoJo’s 30-30 chases.

Gone was the renaissance of the human spirit represented by Doc’s comeback from drug rehab.

Gone was anything but “oh yeah, that’s nice” from Terry Leach’s sterling 11-1 record as a spot starter and long reliever.

Gone was the shimmy from the Teufel Shuffle, a hippy hippy shake that translated to a totally unforeseen 14-61-.308 right half of the second base platoon.

Gone was the sense that there was no way we couldn’t come all the way back on these White Rat bastards.

Gone was what could have been a great and a noble comeback for the ages, to be replaced by a story pockmarked by bitter recriminations.

Gone were the defenders of the 1986 world title.

Except that there were 22 more games after September 11. From early in 1987, every time a caller to Mets Extra panicked, calm Howie Rose [8] reminded them there were still ‘x’ number of games to be played (the first suicide he prevented came with 152 games to go after Herr socked a grand slam off Orosco on April 18). A championship-caliber club could make up 2-1/2 games with 22 to play, especially with two more at Shea against the Cardinals immediately and three at the schedule’s end. All we had to do was treat this like the bump in the road it technically was and continue to pick up ground the way we had from July 23 until September 9, when we took 29 of 45 and picked up those nine games on the Cardinals. Why couldn’t we do that?

That’s not a rhetorical question. We couldn’t do it. I just want to know why.

By September, we had most of our pitching back. OK, Darling was lost (replaced by the once great John Candelaria) but Gooden had been pretty much on fire since June. Except on September 12, he was doused. The Cardinals acted as if Saturday afternoon was simply an extension of Friday night and jumped the Doctor for five runs in the first. Still, there were 21 to go.

We did win Sunday after an insanely long rain delay (St. Louis’ last trip in and all that). Then we took three straight from the Cubs and the Expos. We even managed to close the gap back to the 1-1/2 it was before Pendleton. In fact, we hung on exactly 1-1/2 back clear through September 19, eight days after Terry’s tater. And a championship-caliber club could make up 1-1/2 games with 14 to play, especially with those three at Busch.

I thought so. But the Pirates didn’t. And the Pirates are unremarked-upon villains in the story of the 1987 Mets. For as much as you hear about Terry and the Cardinals on a Friday night in September, it was the Pirates on a Sunday and the Expos on a Thursday and the Phillies on a Wednesday all in the same month who determined there would be no Mets celebrating in early October.

Crusher No. 1: Sunday 9/20 at Three Rivers

Friday at Three Rivers had been bad enough. That one went back and forth, the Mets leading 8-5 in the fifth, but the Pirates winning 10-9. OK, those games happen, especially when you’re using your twelfth starting pitcher (Candelaria) of the year. The Mets won on Saturday, the night the Pirates got around to retiring Ralph Kiner’s number.

But Sunday…bloody Sunday. A 6-2 lead in the sixth for Sid Fernandez after Teuf jacks a three-run job off Bob Kipper. The Pirates, waking up from a several-years nap, are just beginning to feel their oats in late 1987. They have kids named Bonds and Bonilla leading their pack. They have a second-year manager named Jimmy Leyland. But they are still the Pirates. And we are still the Mets.

They, however, have Darnell Coles. Entering Sunday, Coles, the starting rightfielder, owns a batting average of .186 for 1987. He has five home runs and 24 RBI. Yet with two out, El Sid, the pitcher nobody hits all that well, loads the bases for him and Coles unloads them with one swing. It’s a grand slam, it’s 6-6 and it’s a nightmare in broad daylight.

Mazzilli and Dykstra double in the top of the eighth to retake the lead for New York, but unknown Pirate pinch-hitter Mack Daniel Sasser — Mackey, they call him — in his thirteenth big-league plate appearance, singles home the seventh Buc run of the day in the bottom of the inning.

It stays 7-7 ’til the twelfth when Teufel doubles home Keith Miller. Same inning, different half: Barry Bonds singles, is moved around the diamond on a bunt and a fly until Bobby Bonilla singles to make it 8-8.

Finally the 14th, the bottom: Bobby Ojeda surrenders a one-out triple to young Bonds. Randy Myers comes in and gives up the fly ball necessary to bring him home. Mets lose 9-8.

We’re 2-1/2 back with thirteen to go, ending with those three in St. Louis.

Crusher No. 2: Thursday 9/24 at Shea

Somehow we’ve lost no more ground to the Cardinals in the intervening three days since Darnell Coles. The margin is still 2-1/2. And the Expos are giving us every chance in the world to sweep them a two-game set. We beat them Wednesday night but trail here 5-2 in the eighth. Darryl reaches on a miscue by second baseman Tom Foley, steals second with one out and moves to third on the bad throw. He then scores on an error by the third baseman Tim Wallach. The Expos have been entertaining pennant race notions of their own all season, their record only a bit behind ours, but they are playing like they’re afraid customs will give them a hard time at LaGuardia if they beat the locals.

Come the ninth, the Mets have a golden opportunity: Mookie singles and steals off of Tim Burke. Dave Magadan strikes out, but Teufel drives him in. It’s 5-4. Bob McClure replaces Burke, a lefty to face Keith, dangerous Keith. He, too, strikes out. No worries, though: Strawberry walks. Randy St. Claire comes on to face McReynolds. Another walk. Now the bases are loaded for Gary Carter. Future Hall of Famer Gary Carter. Journeyman Randy St. Claire. World Champion Mets. Shea Stadium.

St. Claire induces a bases-loaded groundout from Kid, Wallach unassisted. Mets lose 5-4. Mets lose in three hours and fifty minutes. Mets lose by leaving eleven runners on base, including three in the ninth. Mets lose at home. And the Cardinals won.

We’re 3-1/2 back with nine to go. Three of them, if you hadn’t heard, would be on the road versus the Redbirds.

Crusher No. 3: Wednesday 9/30 at the Vet

The Mets didn’t completely fold after St. Claire. They took two of three against the Pirates to finish out their home schedule and bused down to Philly on Monday night. An unlikely combination of pitchers — Candelaria for five, Aguilera for three-and a-third and freshly minted closer Myers for the last two outs — shut down the Phillies 1-0. We had narrowed the St. Louis lead down to two again. But the next day it was the Mets who were whitewashed, Carman (a one-hitter) besting Cone. Thank goodness we had our ace going on Wednesday night.

Dwight Gooden was everything one could have hoped for once he was straight again. You could overlook that his addiction we hadn’t heard anything about until April Fool’s Day cost us two months of his badly needed services. He came back to the majors and pitched very much like the Doc we knew and loved his first three years [9]. He was 15-7 since June 5. He would have won 20, we told ourselves, had he pitched in April and May and not snorted cocaine in the months just prior. And on this final night before the showdown in St. Louis, in this game we absolutely had to win to make those games mean anything at all, amid a do-or-die situation for the team that was struggling to stay alive, Doc Gooden did all he could.

It should have been enough. He went nine innings. He struck out ten, including two in the eighth and all three in the ninth. He retired 16 of his last 17 batters faced from the fourth ’til the ninth. He had given up three early, but following the contours of his unanticipated 1987, he righted himself in the middle and was finishing strong.

He gave the Mets life and gave Mets fans hope. Darryl homered in the fifth, a solo shot. Teufel went deep with Mookie on an inning later. It was 3-3 then and stayed 3-3 through nine. In the top of the tenth, with two out, Gooden was due up. Davey Johnson had never, ever let Dwight Gooden pitch past the ninth inning in a regular-season game before (not common for starters, but not unheard of for studs). He had permitted Doc a tenth inning in Game Five of the NLCS the year before, that classic duel with Nolan Ryan. This moment in baseball time was every bit as crucial to the Mets as that playoff game had been.

Davey pinch-hit Bill Almon for Dwight Gooden with two out and nobody on in the tenth. Almon struck out.

Jesse Orosco, no longer the closer, no longer a reasonable facsimile of the man who dropped to his knees and flung his glove skyward twice the previous October, no longer to be trusted in a tie game with the season on the line, was sent out to pitch the bottom of the tenth. He popped up Ron Roenicke for the first out. And then he threw a gopher ball to Luis Aguayo. Aguayo took note and swung.

The Mets lost 4-3.

Just as it completely escaped me why Orosco was on the mound instead of a well-rested Myers, it completely escapes me why the name Luis Aguayo doesn’t live in Met infamy alongside Terry Pendleton’s (to say nothing of Darnell Coles and Randy St. Claire), maybe ahead of it given the timing of their respective crimes. Who the hell was Luis Aguayo to be crushing a season? Pendleton would eventually win a Most Valuable Player award. Pendleton is a Major League hitting coach. I don’t know what Luis Aguayo’s doing right now [10]. I’m sure I don’t want to know.

The Mets had played 159 games and were 3-1/2 behind the first-place Cardinals. We would be off Thursday. The Cardinals would play at home against Montreal that night. Our prospects could be summed easily:

• If the Expos beat the Cardinals, we’d be three out with three to play against the Cardinals and have at least a chance to sweep them and force a one-game playoff, one last shot to bundle 1987 with 1986 as truly Amazin’ years.

• If the Cardinals beat the Expos, the Cardinals would be division champs and we would be left to defend nothing.

What do you suppose happened?

The game was on the radio in New York. WNEW-AM broadcast a network feed. WFAN sent Howie Rose, who didn’t usually make road trips and who had repeatedly reassured us that there were still games left until there was only this game, with the team to St. Louis. He played the role of correspondent for the first and only time I can recall. He wasn’t the only member of the Met traveling party at Busch. Since the Mets were already in town, Cardinal management gave a bunch of players — including beloved Bird turned insidious city slicker Keith Hernandez — a luxury box to watch the game…to watch their demise.

On October 1, 1987, Danny Cox threw a five-hitter and the St. Louis Cardinals clinched the National League East title 8-2 in front of 48,763 fans and several of their humiliated enemies. It was perfect for them: The Cardinals led by four with three to go.

It was perfectly appropriate for us, too. It was a season of almosts. We almost caught the Cardinals who were only as good as they had to be to hold onto first. We almost won the Pendleton game. We almost beat the Pirates that Sunday. We almost came back on the Expos. We almost extinguished the Phillies. If we had taken care of those four particular bits of business — Pendleton (+3) — we win a second consecutive division title for the first time ever. We play the Giants in the NLCS and if we beat them (the Cardinals did), we play Frank Viola and the 85-win Minnesota Twins in the World Series.

But we didn’t do any of that. We were the 1987 Mets. We weren’t the 1986 Mets. We were sixteen games worse in the win column and one notch lower in the standings and utterly out of tune the entire year. In 1986, every radio station in town played that catchy “Let’s Go Mets Go” all through October. In 1987, after the Cardinals eliminated us on October 1, WNEW-FM played “The End” by the Doors. Then you didn’t hear a thing about us the rest of the month.

It was the end. Four out with three to go will clinch that much for you.

Terry Lee Pendleton did not act alone. He had accomplices all over the East, including on the amazingly unmagical Mets, where the pitchers couldn’t stay in one piece, the batters couldn’t bring runners home, the manager couldn’t remember which of his relievers he could rely on and everybody sniped, carped and nitpicked everybody else to death. It was a horrible month that ended a horrible year, one of the most horrible years I’ve ever lived through as a fan, the most horrible year I ever experienced that didn’t accompany a severe losing record because even a hot pennant race couldn’t mask the sadness and anger and shoe-flinging frustration that was perhaps due us after such a joyous ride the year before. It short-circuited the dynasty every blessed one of us expected to blossom following 1986. It wasn’t a nice and valiant try like 19 [11]85 [12]. It laid the groundwork for the perception (cemented by the loss to the Dodgers in the ’88 playoffs) that the Mets of the late 1980s weren’t anything special unless you’re impressed by all-time disappointments. 1987 basically wrecked an entire era. Of all Met seasons, I can’t believe how mad that Met season makes me to this day.

Oh well. Such is life.

Next Friday [13]: I wish I’d said goodbye.