Welcome to Flashback Friday: Tales from the Log, a final-season tribute to Shea Stadium as viewed primarily through the prism of what I have seen there for myself, namely 395 regular-season and 13 postseason games to date. The Log records the numbers. The Tales tell the stories.
10/2/88 Su St. Louis 4-3 Darling 5 22-28 W 7-5
I watched on television when Cleon Jones wrapped his glove around Dave Johnson’s fly ball to the left field warning track on October 16, 1969. I had the same long-distance view when Marty Barrett swung through Jesse Orosco’s final pitch on October 27, 1986. Both events took place at Shea Stadium, but I wasn’t there. I was happy, exhilarated, overjoyed. But I wasn’t there.
I’ve been there to see the Mets win a pennant, two division series, a division title, a Wild Card and the right to play for a play-in game for a Wild Card. None of those clinchings, as stupendous as they were to witness, left me with the feeling that the Mets were indisputably on top of the world. Only winning the World Series could do that.
The closest thing I’ve experienced was the day I was sure they were on their way there.
Seven banners are displayed above Shea’s right field fence to signify seven postseason appearances. The least loved among them, I am certain, is the one representing the 1988 National League Eastern Division championship. Show “1988″ to a Mets fan, and it’s not a Rorschach test. There’s nothing left open to interpretation. Everybody sees roughly the same thing:
An LCS that couldn’t have possibly gone wrong but did.
The dynastic Mets stopped dead in their tracks.
The turning point of the franchise that went, in a seven-game span, from dominant to disappointing.
A team commencing on a long march to mediocrity and worse.
A playoff drought that wouldn’t find a drop of hydration for more than a decade.
I see that, too. I see how 1988 could be taken that way. I mostly take 1988 that way, partly because losing to the Dodgers (against whom, as every schoolchild knows, we won 10 of 11 in the regular season) as we did was so shocking and painful and partly because 1988 as a year was, for me personally, so shocking and painful. If the Mets had beaten the Dodgers as they were supposed to and then went on defeated the Athletics, I don’t know if 1988 would have felt materially better, but at least the banner above right field would have a little more oomph to it.
Which would have been welcome in 1988.
I didn’t get out to Shea much that year. My first game was a Saturday night in early July. I had bought two tickets but couldn’t get anybody to go with me. So I went by myself. Drove and found murderous traffic to go with full parking lots. Parked in Corona in a private lot for the ungodly sum of five dollars. Wondered if my car would be there when I got back. It was. I returned to it with a win, courtesy of Dwight Gooden (five-hit shutout) and Darryl Strawberry (two-run homer off Bob Knepper in the first) and rewarded myself with a Mr. Softee cone. But it was a very lonely night in a very lonely summer.
Commencing around then, my life pretty much fell apart. My freelance writing career was in tatters, as my two primary clients each dropped me in a hairtrigger huff over a competitive misunderstanding that was exacerbated by some heroic ass-covering on the part of individuals of low degree. So I was basically making no money and still living at home three years after college. Before I could be completely consumed by moping over what the hell I was going to do next, my mother’s chronic back pain (along with her propensity to panic out loud) went into overdrive. After three excruciating weeks, she agreed to be checked into the hospital. Within a week, she was diagnosed with cancer.
The first-place Mets, meanwhile, alternated as background noise and welcome refuge. Those ’88 Mets were good if maddeningly inconsistent. They had maybe more talent than any Mets club ever, even ’86, and they burst out of the gate as if bent on proving the cigarless second-place finish of ’87 was a typographical error. By May 22 — at the end of a Houston-California trip no less — they were 30-11, leading the East by 5½ games. Surely it would be a cruise from there.
The cruise, however, slogged through choppy waters. Carter pressed for his 300th homer and slumped. Hernandez pulled a hammy. The pitching was flat awesome but the offense was plain flat. If it weren’t for Darryl regularly going deep in the first and the starters making it hold up, I swear they would have sunk. The young Pirates of Bonds and Bonilla rose above their station and challenged the mighty Mets, always coming up a bit short but never quite going away. Three months had passed since the Mets left Los Angeles 30-11 when they returned to Chavez Ravine in late August. Their record since then was a most pedestrian 41-41. Pittsburgh was 3½ back. Even with Gooden, Darling and the breakout season of David Cone…even with Darryl Strawberry truly living up to his monster notices, the Mets were well-positioned to blow a sure thing.
Instead, they took off. Mookie Wilson was given center field full-time and Gregg Jefferies was recalled and the Mets became unstoppable. Starting August 22, they won 23 of 28 and, exactly a month after appearing exceedingly vulnerable, they were division champs. The Mets were peaking at what seemed like the perfect time.
I watched the Mets beat the Phillies and clinch the division with my mother at home. She was released from the hospital before Labor Day and was going in for outpatient treatment every day: radiation. It was said to be working. She wasn’t in terrible pain. She wasn’t in a total state of dread. Everybody was calming down a little. I still wasn’t writing much of anything for a living, but I guess I felt secure enough financially to buy a ticket to the final game of the regular season. I knew I needed to get out of the house and feel, for a few hours, good about things.
In the only mildly lucky break I’d come across in ages, I received a seat upgrade. I’d asked Joel if he wanted to go, but Joel was bringing his girlfriend. He’d even gone through a ticket broker to get really good field level seats. So I checked with Fred and he said sure and I got pretty lousy upper deck tickets, all that were available. But then Joel’s girlfriend decided Joel and she had to bring along her little brother and his friend (two kids Joel wanted nothing to do with). Joel’s loss was my gain. He traded me his two good seats for my two lousy seats, which were easier to combine with two other lousy seats upstairs.
I don’t know if it mattered where I sat on the final day of 1988 as long as it was at Shea. It probably mattered that the Mets won. The Mets might have clinched already, but I sure as hell needed a win. And I’m not talking about The Log.
There were plenty of milestones floating about. One more win would give the Mets 100 for the third time in their existence. Two rainouts were never made up, so 100-60 would account for an even better percentage than 1969′s 100-62. Darryl came in on the cusp of all kinds of round numbers. One steal would give him 30. He didn’t get it, but that’s because he didn’t spend nearly enough time on the basepaths, rounding them as he did. Straw homered twice, which got him to within one dinger of 40 and shot him past 100 RBI; he finished with 101 (the same as his run total for the year). Kevin McReynolds came into the game with 99 runs batted in and stayed there. Ron Darling notched his career-high 17th win to leave him at 17-9, same as Jerry Koosman in ’69…not a round number, but highly Metsian.
The Mets built a 7-0 lead. It all seemed pretty safe. It all seemed worthy of the contemporary hit that played during a pitching change: “Don’t Worry Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin. I kind of silently bopped along with it, surprised when Fred said this was one song he couldn’t stand. I dunno, I thought. I kind of like the idea of not worrying and being happy for one day.
Giving up a 7-0 lead on an October Sunday at Shea was the stuff of Jets, not Mets. Alas, the Cardinals did put up some impressive yardage late in the game, closing the gap to 7-5, but you never really thought the Mets back then could blow a big lead. And they didn’t. It wasn’t quite as comfortable as it should have been, but the Mets maintained control clear into the ninth. Randy Myers came on to get the final three outs and was two-thirds of the way home when Mackey Sasser visited the mound and, after a bit of stalling, Davey Johnson jogged in from the dugout.
It looked strange. It was strange. It was, in fact, a setup the likes of which I never saw before and haven’t seen again. The Mets cooked up a scheme to lure Davey — he had never been Dave since he’d been a Met — onto the field so the P.A. could hail the fantastic job he’d done as manager since 1984 and all of us could be asked to show him our appreciation. And we did, 42,000-some standing as one and applauding. It struck me as a little presumptuous, but well-deserved. I hoped it wouldn’t blow up in our face karmawise. Randy walked the next guy but the third out was recorded soon enough and the most successful manager in Mets history had his second hundred-win season.
That wasn’t it for us, though. We got the final-day video treatment. This year’s theme was “Back In The High Life Again,” one highlight after another showing how 1988 was a lot like 1986 and nothing like 1987. On DiamondVision the Mets swung and connected, pitched and baffled, won and won again. Bobby Ojeda’s face materialized and there was an extra cheer. Bobby O nearly cut off his finger while clipping his hedges in September. He would live even if he wouldn’t pitch again until 1989. But we had Gooden (18-9) and Cone (20-3) and Darling and Fernandez. We could lose a pitcher and keep winning.
The general adoration morphed into purposeful encouragement. I thought of it at the same time tens of thousands of Met minds did. We chanted it with no prompt from the scoreboard.
BEAT L.A.! BEAT L.A.! BEAT L.A.!
OK, so we borrowed it from Boston, from basketball, but it was appropriate to the occasion. We had beaten the Cardinals. We had beaten the Pirates. We had beaten back the disappointment of ’87 and avenged the indifference of summer. We bookended that lackluster 41-41 midsection with a 30-11 start and a 29-8 finish. If you put the pieces together correctly, you’d have to say that the 1988 Mets, for half a season, were, at a staggering 59-19, the best Mets ever. Now all we had to do was doom the Dodgers. They had Orel Hershiser and his 59 consecutive scoreless innings, sure, but we had taken care of them 10 of 11 times. We had Darryl Strawberry, MVP in waiting. Him or McReynolds. We had Gregg Jefferies en route to the Hall of Fame. We had it all.
We just so overflowed with confidence when we left Shea that day. As Fred and I headed toward the train, we saw a crowd lined up by the player parking lot. They were chanting at a bus, presumably a bus that was going to carry the Mets to LaGuardia for a plane that would carry them to Los Angeles from whence they would carry home a couple of formality victories, setting the stage for a pennant to be won at Shea by the next weekend.
BEAT L.A.! BEAT L.A.! BEAT L.A.!
I wouldn’t be here for that, but I was here for this, this feeling that the Mets couldn’t be stopped. They were 100-60, the last time they would reach the century mark while calling Shea Stadium home. I was 2-0, the last time my record for a season at Shea would be perfect. I still had no career of which to speak. My mother, radiation and remission notwithstanding, still had cancer. 1988 as a year still sucks whenever I think about it. But for a few moments that first Sunday afternoon in October, that final day at Shea two decades ago, I swear I was on top of the world.