Welcome to The Happiest Recap, a solid gold slate of New York Mets games culled from every schedule the Mets have ever played en route to this, their fiftieth year in baseball. We’ve created a dream season consisting of the “best” first game in any Mets season, the “best” second game in any Mets season, the “best” third game in any Mets season…and we keep going from there until we have a completed schedule worthy of Bob Murphy coming back with the Happy Recap after this word from our sponsor on the WFAN Mets Radio Network.
Quick prologue in honor of the only “game number” that has its own universally recognized name. It needs no introduction. It is our introduction — and reintroduction — to the baseball season. It tells us it’s here, it’s real and, if we win, it’s especially spectacular.
There is no such thing as a bad Opening Day win; that is to say there’s no such thing as an Opening Day win that’s “worse” than any other. I guess that’s all self-evident, but there’s nothing run-of-the-mill about winning on Opening Day, even for a franchise that — 2011 notwithstanding — has almost trademarked the habit. There are no also-rans among Met Opening Day wins. Every Opening Day win is, at the moment it is achieved, the best win of the year.
It can go downhill from there, but there’s no way it can get much better.
You’ve waited all winter for Opening Day. You’ve invested every bit of symbolism in it that you can. If your team wins, this day will validate you. It will validate your offseason. It will tell you that whatever happened last year, if it was bad, is erased. It will tell you that whatever happened last year, if it was good, was merely prequel.
You can’t go wrong with an Opening Day win. They all provide the Happiest of Recaps. Yet in the spirit of what we’re constructing here, one must stand out as Happier than all the others.
GAME 001: April 9, 1985 — METS 6 Cardinals 5 (10)
(Mets All-Time Game 001 Record: 33-18; Mets 1985 Record: 1-0)
A rather famous baseball player came along in the 1980s and declared an intention to announce his presence with authority. His name was Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, hard-throwing righty phenom for the Durham Bulls. But obviously LaLoosh was cribbing from a more famous ballplayer who arrived in New York a few years earlier in the very same decade.
Gary Carter loomed as a game changer. He all but promised he’d be a game changer. After the Mets exchanged four young players of considerable promise to have him, he stood up at a press conference, pointed to his right ring finger and said he was saving it for a World Series rock.
How’s that for announcing one’s presence with authority?
It would become something of a teamwide tic for the mid-’80s Mets to let you know what they were going to do before they could possibly do it. Carter may have set the trend in December 1984. He definitely showed the Mets were set on being a team of their word in April 1985.
Gary Carter was a game changer before he ever played a game as a Met. He wasn’t imported à la George Foster to make the Mets respectable. The Mets respected themselves plenty in 1984. They won 90 games without the benefit of a massive offensive superstar. Foster wasn’t that anymore. Strawberry wasn’t that yet. Hernandez was wily and able and as clutch as they came, but he — and we — needed a companion piece. A massive offensive superstar…and then some. Gary Carter was that guy. He was the catcher in the National League since the sun set on Johnny Bench. Despite the wear and tear crouching and blocking wrought, he led the league in runs batted in as an Expo. He’d been around for ten years, and though Montreal was, by their own assessment, through as a contender, Carter wasn’t.
He was what the Mets needed. He landed at Shea and in the Mets fan imagination as that proverbial last piece of the puzzle. The puzzle had only been unveiled in ’84, but here we were, frenzied to finish it. Gary Carter made us view our team differently. Maybe for the first time ever, we entered the upcoming season looking at ourselves not as a contender, but as a favorite. As the favorite in the National League East. We had Hernandez, who wasn’t getting any dumber. We had Strawberry, who was only going to get better. We had Foster, who at least had stopped being altogether awful. And we had all that pitching — Gooden and Darling fronting the rotation, Orosco capping the bullpen. Look who was going to catch them! And look who was going to hit in the middle of all those other hitters!
Look! It’s Gary Carter! It’s the 1985 Mets! They’re going to kick ass! WE are going to kick ass!
This was a change to our thinking, and that itself was a game changer.
And then there was the first game Gary Carter changed, Opening Day, one packing as much anticipation as any in the half-century there have been Met seasons. Dwight Gooden pitching to Gary Carter. Gary Carter batting after Keith Hernandez and before Darryl Strawberry. How could we not win on a massive scale?
Yet it didn’t come so easy at first. The Opening Day on which Gary Carter put his right ring finger where his mouth was unfolded as a frozen slog. Vice President George Bush showed up at Shea for first-pitch duties, but it was too cold for Tampa native Gooden to get a good grip; he lasted into the seventh, leaving with a 5-2 lead. Foster (homer), Hernandez (a pair of RBI singles), fellow new acquisition Howard Johnson (bases-loaded walk) and shortstop Rafael Santana (run-scoring double) built the lead. With Gooden gone, Carter turned his attention to catching Doug Sisk. But Sisk, a weakening link as 1984 wound down, gave up a two-run single to Andy Van Slyke in the seventh.
It was 5-4. It grew colder. And then it turned positively icy. Sisk loaded the bases in the ninth. With two outs, he faced Jack Clark. Carter caught ball four. Tie game.
Gary Carter didn’t promise that.
The game moved to the bottom of the ninth. The Mets loaded the bases this time, but failed to score. It was extras, now. Tom Gorman came on to pitch, relieving Jesse Orosco, who had bailed out Doug Sisk. Gorman escaped the top of the tenth. To the bottom of the inning, then, where Neil Allen, a Met from 1979 to 1983, faced the man for whom he was traded, Keith Hernandez. It would be dramatic as anything if Hernandez (who reached Allen for a game-winning single the previous summer) could end this now-frigid game with one swing.
But Hernandez struck out.
Drama, however, didn’t. Allen vs. Carter would do fine.
“Welcome to New York, Gary Carter!” is how Channel 9 announcer Steve Zabriskie called it when the Kid’s game-winning home run soared over the left field fence. “That’s what he’s here for,” is how Hernandez described it in the clubhouse. The Mets had won 6-5, courtesy of the game changer. Carter, like the Mets, was 1-0 in 1985. Welcome to New York, indeed. Nobody had ever made himself at home so quickly at Shea Stadium.
One great ending is enough for one Opening Day, but there really was a beginning there at the end. Carter’s benediction seemed to charm the atmosphere around him, and the 1985 Mets would take the stage 161 more times and produce enough drama to match anything playing on Broadway. The only thing they couldn’t produce was quite enough wins to extend their run that fall.
Thus, they took a winter’s intermission, added a few more (if less massive) puzzle pieces and picked up just about where they left off in ’85 come ’86. With hindsight, you could say they created one almost unbroken two-year singular sensation of a season, lifting the curtain the night we learned Gary Carter became a Met, and taking their final and customary curtain call the night Gary Carter caught strike three to seal the 1986 World Series (and decorate his right ring finger).
That, young Nuke, is what it means to announce — and sustain — your presence with authority.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On April 5, 1983, Tom Seaver returns from Cincinnati exile, electrifies Shea Stadium and pitches six shutout innings as the Mets beat Steve Carlton and the Phillies, 2-0. The unlikely winning pitcher is rookie Doug Sisk. The hitting hero, soon to completely disappear from view, is right fielder Mike Howard. He drives in the winning run in the seventh and he never plays for the Mets again.
GAME 002: April 11, 1968 — Mets 4 DODGERS 0
(Mets All-Time Game 002 Record: 26-25; Mets 1968 Record: 1-1)
If we lose on Opening Day, there’s always tomorrow. Tomorrow is what the Mets depended on after every Opening Day that commenced their earliest campaigns, back when the only luck they had on Opening Day was typified by getting stuck in an elevator (as happened to many of them before their first Opening Day in 1962).
Ergo, you had to seek solace in the second game of the season, and the Mets really needed it in 1968. They came so close to breaking their first-game jinx in their seventh year. They had their first certified ace, Tom Seaver, starting his first Opening Day, in San Francisco, and he carried a 4-2 lead into the ninth. Alas, even Tom Seaver, sophomore deluxe, wasn’t impervious to whatever it is that kept the Mets from getting off on the good foot. Seaver came out with a lead. The Mets lost 5-4.
Which made Jerry Koosman’s emergence as the ultimate No. 2 starter in the second game of the 1968 season that much more crucial. Kooz had sipped his share of coffee during brief stints in 1967, but he had yet to make an impression in the win column. He, like the ’68 Mets, had something more in mind when they headed down the coast to Los Angeles to try and even their record.
Koosman was a revelation. The lefty from Appleton and Morris, Minn., went the distance, shutting out the Dodgers 4-0. New manager Gil Hodges considered taking the rookie out when he seemed to be tiring but explained afterwards, “When you see a kid still have that kind of stuff so late in the game, you know he’s got the ability to win up here.” Hodges proved a prophet, as Koosman’s victory was the first of 19 he’d collect in 1968 (still a team rookie record) and the first of 140 he’d garner as a Met (third-most behind Seaver and Dwight Gooden). And in what would become known as the Year of the Pitcher, Jerry Koosman stepping up and joining Tom Seaver atop the Mets’ rotation assured us we’d be able to use the plural — “pitchers” — for many years to come.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On April 8, 1978, Ed Kranepool, the man who’d been a Met in every Met season since the first, pinch-hits with one on and two out in the bottom of the ninth at Shea against Stan Bahnsen of Montreal, the Mets down by one. For the first and only time in his Mets-llustrious career, the Krane launches a walkoff homer, pulling out a 6-5 win for the suddenly 2-0 Mets.
GAME 003: April 10, 1969 — METS 4 Expos 2
(Mets All-Time Game 003 Record: 26-25; Mets 1969 Record: 2-1)
How often does a home run leave a mark that requires a full demolition crew to remove? We can think of one in particular whose aftermath you couldn’t help but notice nearly four decades after it occurred.
Tommie Agee crushed a Larry Jaster pitch in the second inning of the third game of the 1969 season.
Crushed it? Mashed it.
Mashed it? Pulverized it.
Whatever he did to it, two things were immediately apparent:
1) Tommie Agee was emerging from his miserable 1968 (.217-5-17) and setting the tone for a different kind of season for him, and hopefully the Mets, in 1969.
2) Tommie Agee had struck the first fair home run to ever land in the Upper Deck of Shea Stadium — and the first of two home runs on the day as the Mets captured their first series of the year.
Few were there to witness it, not even 9,000 on this April afternoon (when Gary Gentry made his major league debut), and nobody was sitting anywhere near where it smashed into way above left field. Yet everybody who was on hand swore it traveled to where no other ball had dared to soar. “That one today,” Ron Swoboda admired, “would have gone over the third fence and hit the bus in the parking lot if it hadn’t hit the seats.”
Funny Rocky put it that way, because other sluggers would go on to dent buses and the like, but never again in the life of Shea would a home run make it fair to the Upper Deck. If it wasn’t immediately clear how significant a wallop Agee unleashed that day, it came to be understood as something unmatched in the quarter-century to follow. Come 1994, at Mets Extra host Howie Rose’s urging, the Mets commemorated the approximate spot where Tommie’s homer touched down. A generation of Sheagoers would make pilgrimages up to Section 48 to check it out and gasp in awe. That marker — listing the batter’s name, his number and the date — stayed painted in place clear through to Shea’s demolition in 2008.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On April 17, 1966, Ron Swoboda walks with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth to allow the Mets to beat the Atlanta Braves 5-4. A Ken Boyer two-run double had tied matters for the home team in the eighth. By coming back late, the Mets raise their record to 2-1…the first time the Mets peek their heads above .500 in their brief history…and the last time they’ll do so until Tommie Agee’s power-packed third afternoon of 1969.