Welcome to a special Wednesday edition of Flashback Friday: I Saw The Decade End, a milestone-anniversary salute to the New York Mets of 1969, 1979, 1989 and 1999. Each week, we immerse ourselves in or at least touch upon something that transpired within the Metsian realm 40, 30, 20 or 10 years ago. Amazin’ or not, here it comes.
In the span of six summer days in 1989, the Mets traded Mookie Wilson and Berke Breathed stopped drawing Bloom County. Both entities had been a staple of my life over the previous nine years.
That’s it, I thought at the time, the ’80s are really ending.
I loved Opus the penguin. I loved Mookie the centerfielder. Many fine things happened to me in their time. Yet I was never crazy about the 1980s as a decade. I always believed I was loitering in them with a visitor’s pass. Josh Wilker of Cardboard Gods articulated my feelings on these artificially arranged ten-year periods almost exactly earlier this year when he wrote:
I am a citizen of the 1970s. I have resided in other decades, but I have always felt like a foreigner within them, or have mostly ignored them altogether, an expatriate with no interest in participating in the local customs.
Like Josh, I’m at home in the ’70s, a structure I entered at age 7 and exited by chronological necessity the day after I turned 17. No matter how much that decade objectively sucked, it will always be where I live, psychically (sort of like Shea Stadium). When I was forced to leave figurative home on January 1, 1980, I was at a loss. Never mind that it was during the 1980s that I graduated from high school, graduated from college, met my future wife and came of age in all those ways a person naturally embraces. I just disliked it being the ’80s. The values, the politics, the hair…I don’t know what it was, I was just deep-down uncomfortable with what surrounded me for ten years and was tangibly relieved when I crossed the finish line to January 1, 1990.
I’ve had nothing against the ’90s or the ’00s, per se. You get older, you don’t delineate decades as reflexively. I once asked my dad what the ’60s were like. He shrugged. To him, I suspect, they were just years during which he was over thirty. Hell, some days feel so random that if Christmas is mentioned, I can’t remember without thinking first whether we’re closer to the last one or the next one.
Maybe I resented that when the ’70s ended, nobody asked me to sign off on the ’80s. Thus, I mistrusted them — but it’s not like I didn’t enjoy a good bit of them. For instance, I enjoyed Bloom County on the comics pages. “Come On Eileen” was a great song. SCTV was a great show. And the Mets were never better as a long-term proposition.
When we think of the Mets of the ’80s, we tend to jump right to one particular year, 1986, and one particular month, October. Of course that was the height of the decade and, arguably, the franchise. From the standpoint of kicking ass, which is the idea in sports (and a pretty big societal priority in the ’80s), nothing in the annals of Mets baseball touches 1986. Members Only jackets, Trickle Down economics, the staggering popularity of The Cosby Show…lots made me cringe back then, but I had no complaints with the baseball back then.
When the Mets were at the top, it was unimaginable they wouldn’t stay there. Mookie Wilson himself, about as humble a “Bad Guy” as that team featured, stood before the City Hall ceremonies that capped their ticker-tape parade and exclaimed a hope we would all take as an implied guarantee:
1986: Year of the Mets!
1987: Year of the Mets!
1988: Year of the Mets!
Of course. Of course there’d be more than one year for these Mets. There’d be year after year. The Mets of the ’80s were built to last. That they didn’t make ’87 or ’88 their years in the same sense as ’86 didn’t lessen the sense that it was their time. The Mets ran a contest in 1989 encouraging fans to submit designs for a secondary logo, one that commemorated the previous half-decade. The Mets had baseball’s best record from 1984 through 1988. They were, according to their own marketing acumen, excellent again and again…so draw something!
Met hubris wasn’t easily detected by us Mets fans in the last year of the 1980s because it was a way of life. We were in the middle of it, so how could we see it for what it was? We could be asked to create logos celebrating our quasi-achievements and accept the challenge with a straight face. We could read profiles such as that which appeared in a high-flying business magazine called Manhattan Inc. informing us that the Mets were “the IBM of baseball” and be confident of receiving perennial returns on our investment. We could watch a Cy Young winner like Dwight Gooden go down with an injury at the beginning of July and calmly accept as his replacement another Cy Young winner like Frank Viola at the end of July.
We were the Mets. We were excellent. We would be, repeatedly. Everything and everybody said so.
Then we traded Mookie Wilson.
With him went our would-be magnum opus of a decade. Well, him and Wally Backman, traded the December before; him and Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell, sent to Philadelphia in June; him and Rick Aguilera, part of the payment for Viola; him and Lee Mazzilli, waived the same frenzied night that Frankie V was acquired and Mookie W was shipped to Toronto for Jeff Musselman.
The Mets traded Mookie Wilson for Jeff Musselman. Next time you watch a clip of Mookie hustling down the first base line during Game Six of the 1986 World Series, try to think of anything Jeff Musselman did in a Mets uniform or could have conceivably done that would make a trade of Mookie Wilson for Jeff Musselman sound remotely reasonable.
You’ll be thinking an awful long while.
The last year of the 1980s was truly a last gasp for the Mets of the 1980s the way we remember them. Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez, each 35 and hobbled, were still on hand but had faded badly in ’89. Mex hit .233, Kid .183. Neither played in even half of the team’s games. Both would bid adieu to Shea at season’s end twice: on the field to standing ovations in the team’s last home game on September 27 and at a press conference in the old Jets locker room on October 3.
“I can still play this game, and I know there’ll be an opportunity out there. But these have been five great years. I heard the cheers and I heard the boos, and I like the cheers a lot more. Maybe I’ll hear more of them.”
”It’s sad because these have been six-and-a-half great years, and I’ll always be a New Yorker and a New York Met. But then come the cold realities. You can’t retire at 65 in baseball.”
That left Doc and Darryl as the 1986 stalwarts who would lead the Mets into the new decade. Darling, Fernandez, Ojeda, HoJo, Teufel and Elster were the only other veterans of the World Series team to see 1990 in blue and orange. The ’90 Mets would contend to the final week of the season but fall short. They’d also be the last Mets team to finish over .500 until 1997. The IBM of baseball went bust.
Mookie Wilson wasn’t exactly igniting the 1989 Mets toward an encore as division champion when he was traded. Having ceded centerfield to the cleverly obtained Juan Samuel, Mookie was batting .205 as a reserve and the Mets were seven games out of first when he was cut loose. That said, you don’t trade Mookie Wilson from the Mets. You just don’t.
And if you do, you don’t trade him for Jeff Musselman.
The Mets, despite an encouraging August surge, fell flat in September. They finished in second place, six games behind the Cubs, at 87-75. It was a respectable record for mere peons, but these were the alleged paragons of Excellence Again and Again. All those moves were supposed to be the stuff of a forward-thinking IBM-type enterprise, one for which progress was paramount. Yet the 1989 Mets signaled a return to mediocrity. They were a huge disappointment in real time, the first Mets club to not win at least 90 games since 1983.
Even for someone who never fully embraced the decade in which they occurred, 1983 and 1989 make for fascinating ’80s Met bookends. If you checked out of Metsdom after their seventh consecutive losing season in ’83, you’d walk away thinking the ’80s were and always would be a terrible time to be a Mets fan. The team started the decade with the last four of those losing seasons, showing only intermittent promise that things would ever get better. By the middle of 1983, mired in last place with a record of 37-65 (their worst 102-game mark since 1965), there seemed no tangible progress on which to hang one’s Mets cap. The Mets’ marketing slogans in those dark days — The Magic Is Back; The Magic Is Real; Now The Fun Starts — could have been brought up as evidence in a false-advertising lawsuit. It was all talk and no action…except for the losing that wouldn’t stop.
Then it began to stop. Not enough to save the 1983 Mets from their fifth last-place finish in seven seasons, but enough to propel them to a final record of 68-94 — if one could be said to be propelled to a record that encompasses 94 losses. It was better than it sounds. The Mets won 31 of 60 in their final two months. Two months of winning baseball was an accomplishment for those Mets. Winning 68 games was an accomplishment for those Mets. It was the most they’d won since the 86 they posted in 1976. These were baby steps, but longer strides awaited in 1984, when 90 victories became the norm and success would become expected.
As viewers of this decade’s greatest television drama Six Feet Under will recall from the episode in which Nate Fisher began to fade badly, the ecotone is that space where two environments overlap. For the Mets of the ’80s, 1983 and 1989 were most ecotonic.
Look at your 1983 Mets. They started the season with Tom Seaver pitching, Ron Hodges catching and Dave Kingman in the infield. That’s how they ended the 1975 season. Everybody was happy to have Seaver back, but still — Hodges, Kingman, Craig Swan, Rusty Staub, Mike Jorgensen, John Stearns…does this sound like a team that was about to turn a corner? Or relics uncovered during Shea’s 1980 refurbishing?
Ah, but Mookie Wilson was there. So was Wally Backman, albeit in a limited role. Doug Sisk made the Opening Day roster (winning what Seaver started). Darryl Strawberry was called up in early May. Ron Darling was given his first start in September. Danny Heep pinch-hit most reliably. Neil Allen, a reliever whose welcome had clearly worn out, was famously traded in June for Keith Hernandez, not only solving first base and the third slot in the batting order, but clearing the closer role for a rapidly developing Jesse Orosco. By the end of 1983, fully one-third of the 1986 World Series roster was in place. The torch was being passed to a new generation of Mets.
Six years later, once Hernandez and Carter said goodbye, only eight World Series Mets survived. In the six months prior, as Dykstra, McDowell, Aguilera, Mazzilli and Wilson were cleaning out their lockers, the 1989 roster hosted Frank Viola and Juan Samuel; Don Aase and Wally Whitehurst; Phil Lombardi and Jeff McKnight; Tom O’Malley, Craig Shipley, Blaine Beatty, Lou Thornton and the immortal Manny Hernandez — no relation, talent or otherwise, to Keith.
The 1989 roster had its share of talent that came along after the formation of the ’86 champs and before their dissolution: Cone, Jefferies, Myers, Magadan, McReynolds to name a few good to very good players. Samuel had been a star not long before 1989 and Viola would win 20 games in 1990. But the times they were a-changin’ in Flushing and not for the better, not the way they were in 1983.
Thing is the 1989 Mets were a legitimate contender, if a continually frustrating and ultimately disappointing one. If you went to one of their games, it probably meant something in the standings. You at least thought it did. You could legitimately spend that entire spring and summer watching the scoreboard and worrying that glorious worry of the fan whose team has something to play for. This was what you had been told the 1980s Mets were all about.
But was it as much fun as the other bookend, 1983 once 1983 foreshadowed an era of potential greatness? The Mets weren’t rising from last no matter what they did that summer, but what a delight it was watching them not fall even further through the floor. There was Keith Hernandez being everything you hoped he’d be when you heard he was en route from St. Louis. There was Darryl Strawberry simultaneously getting used to major league pitching and earning Rookie of the Year honors. There was Jesse Orosco saving or winning nearly every game in which he pitched. There was Ron Darling giving you an idea of why they traded Mazzilli to get him. There were Walt Terrell and Hubie Brooks, too. They wouldn’t stick around to 1986, but they were showing enough to make you optimistic for 1984. Again, no contention with that ’83 team, no chance of it, but no boundary for what you could imagine they might do with a little growth and a little help.
The Mets of the ’80s, circa 1983, were Mookie Wilson racing out of the box no matter how futile the prevailing competitive circumstances. The Mets of the ’80s, circa 1989, were Mookie Wilson donning a Blue Jays uniform as part of an ad hoc reconfiguration aimed at remaining viable in the short term.
The 1983 Mets nurtured players whom we would come to know as 1986 Mets. The 1989 Mets shed them.
The 1989 Mets finished six out yet were more done than we realized. The 1983 Mets finished 22 out yet were just getting started. I’m not sure we realized that either, but it began to feel pretty good there toward the end. At any rate, nobody was calling valedictory press conferences and saying sad farewells.
It’s the section between these bookends we remember best about the 1980s Mets. It’s the story smack in the middle, 1986, that defines the decade. It was the Year of the Mets, just as Mookie said it was. It guaranteed we’d willingly accept nothing less in the years that would follow, even it meant rather cavalierly offing those who got us to 1986 in a lame effort to lunge for one more echo of that once-in-a-lifetime season.
It’s not like the Mets haven’t sent their key players away in other decades. But doing so to those players from that team…no wonder I’m still a little uncomfortable with the 1980s.
Todd Pratt’s 1999 NLDS-winning homer is underranked on Mets Walkoffs’ list of the Fifteen Most Metmorable Postseason Home Runs, but I can’t say any of those slotted ahead of his are unworthy either. Check it out here.