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” fourth game in any Mets season, the “best” fifth game in any Mets season, the “best” sixth 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.
GAME 004: April 7, 1984 — Mets 3 ASTROS 2
(Mets All-Time Game 004 Record: 23-28; Mets 1984 Record: 3-1)
As befits a legend in the making, the numbers grab your attention: The hotel was a 4-mile walk from the stadium; the fence that had to be scaled was 8 feet high; the pitcher who was too antsy for his 1st start was to wait for the team bus or for the Astrodome gates to officially open showed up 4 hours early. “I beat the trainers there,” the kid would recall later, when he was a little more mature. No wonder he was so full of nervous energy, though — he was only 19 years old.
Actually, you can’t say “no wonder,” because there was ample evidence Dwight Gooden was a wonder, which is why he made the big-league roster out of St. Petersburg more than 7 months shy of his 20th birthday. As 1984 would prove, he was nearly as close to 20 wins as he was to 20 years. The proving began on the Mets’ initial road trip of the season when new manager Davey Johnson had the bright idea (the very bright idea) of throwing him in the proverbial fire almost immediately. Johnson handed his potential-laden phenom the ball in Houston, and seeing what Gooden had.
Gooden had plenty. Gooden definitely had enough so that his very first big league batter knew it right away. “It took only one pitch to know this guy was headed for greatness,” Bill Doran would say several years down the road. In the present of April 1984, the Astros’ second baseman would ground out to second to lead off the bottom of the first; right fielder Terry Puhl would do the same; and shortstop Dickie Thon would become the first strikeout victim in what promised to become the mythic career of Dwight Eugene Gooden, just then making himself known to Mets fans as Dr. K.
It would make for better legend if the strikeouts came fast and furious from there, but it was a relatively human start. Gooden kept the home team off the Dome scoreboard through four innings, by which time his teammates had built him a 3-0 lead. There was a little trouble in the fifth. With two on and two out, Doran (who had struck out in the third) singled home Denny Walling. But Gooden’s first night was destined to be his and his alone. The kid drew a fly ball to center out of Puhl and the Houston threat was over. Ahead 3-1, and conscious of building rookie pitchers’ confidence like few skippers before him, Johnson pulled Gooden after five.
Doc’s first line: 5 IP, 1 ER, 3 H, 2 BB and, most alluring of all, 5 SO. More K’s would come. More W’s, too. The bullpen held Gooden’s lead, making him the youngest Met since reliever Jim Bethke in 1965 to post a win, and the only starter in Mets history to earn a victory before the age of 20.
Dwight Gooden was a young man in a hurry in Houston that night. And the rush of 1984 was only beginning.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On April 4, 2003, Shea Stadium hosted an unforeseen homecoming, when hurling stud of yore David Cone made his first Met start since August 23, 1992. Cone’s career, which continued to blossom after the Mets traded him to Toronto, appeared to be over when he didn’t pitch at all in 2002. But the competitive itch got to him and he made a (very) makeable Met rotation in Spring Training ’03. A frigid Friday night in Flushing thus became Turn Back the Clock Night for five innings, as Cone held the Montreal Expos scoreless, striking out five batters, including the dangerous Vladimir Guerrero to finish the first and third with flourishes (and singling off Tomo Ohka to help his own cause). The Mets won 4-0, giving Coney the 194th and final win of his major league career and hardy Coneheads one last chance tip their, uh, hats in their old hero’s direction.
GAME 005: April 19, 1964 — METS 6 Pirates 0
(Mets All-Time Game 005 Record: 15-36; Mets 1964 Record: 1-4)
Two years of waiting didn’t dim the enthusiasm one iota. Once it opened, there was no holding back the thrill Mets fans felt at having a ballpark of their very own. “You’ve gotta see this stadium,” announcer Bob Murphy urged his radio listeners in advance of the inaugural game there. “Every seat is a beautifully painted individual seat.” It was probably no accident Murph mentioned that little fact, as the scramble to ready Shea Stadium for its previously postponed closeup was so frenzied that the paint was still drying as customers were finding their way up its 21 gleaming banks of escalators.
Something else wasn’t quite 100% ready that sunny Friday afternoon: the Mets. As was the case in 1962 and 1963, the 1964 Mets were masters at not getting off to a good start. They lost their first pair of games in Philadelphia, then came home to big, bright, beautiful Shea Stadium only to blow a 3-1 lead to the Pirates. As the stadium settled in Saturday, so did the Mets…into their usual rut, absorbing yet another defeat, this one 9-5 to Pittsburgh.
Can’t anybody here christen this thing?
It fell to “Little Al Jackson,” as Murph was fond of calling him, to make the Mets winners in their new home for the very first time. Jackson figured as the prime candidate for the assignment, as it was he who tossed the first Met shutout ever two years earlier. Now Little Al would put the team on his formidable back and do at Shea what he did as admirably as any early Met could possibly hope to at the Polo Grounds — lead the worst team in baseball to one of its infrequent triumphs. Jackson threw nine scoreless innings versus the Bucs on Shea’s first Sunday, scattering six hits and striking out six batters. A four-run fourth, built on a two-run singles from Rod Kanehl and Ron Hunt, provided Jackson ample support.
Bigger wins awaited in Shea’s future. That was hard to imagine in 1964. The way the Mets played back then, it was hard to imagine any wins awaited in Shea’s future, especially the immediate future. Good thing Little Al Jackson came up so big.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On April 14, 1985, Mets fans could quit biting their fingernails, assuming they had any left from the first four games of the season. Every contest to that point had been a matter of collective breath-holding, but the exhaling was always victorious. The 1985 Mets began their year prevailing by scores of 6-5, 2-1, 1-0 and 2-1. Three of those were last at-bat episodes; two went to extra innings. On the season’s first Sunday — Kodak K Kard Day at Shea — the picture developed a little less stressfully. Dwight Gooden (he for whom the free posters were distributed) threw a complete game shutout, striking out 10 Cincinnati Reds and, for once, the Mets kind of cruised. Gary Carter belted a homer in the sixth (his third) to break a scoreless tie and drove in another run in the eighth on a sac fly. When the Doctor struck out Davey Concepcion in the ninth, the Mets had won 4-0 were off to a 5-0 start. It remains the best they’ve ever strung together.
GAME 006: April 10, 2005 — Mets 6 BRAVES 1
(Mets All-Time Game 006 Record: 21-30; Mets 2005 Record: 1-5)
The worst variety of panic is the perfectly reasonable sort. It’s irrational to panic after losing one game. You’re a nervous Nelly if you’re sweating and shuddering after losing two games. Take the collar after three games…it happens.
But then you lose your fourth game. And your fifth game. And your patience. And your perspective. 0-162 doesn’t appear all that illogical when you’ve fallen in that deep a hole to start your season. At times like those, your best hope is that someone down there with you in that hole knows the way out.
Enter Pedro Martinez.
2005 was intended to be the year of the New Mets. Decorated free agent Martinez came aboard from the world champion Red Sox the previous December. Glittering superstar Carlos Beltran, fresh off lucratively timed playoff heroics in his abbreviated stint as an Astro, accepted a generous Met contract offer in January. That was two superstars with varying degrees of prime remaining added to a stew that included one revered if fading icon (Mike Piazza), two kids charging fast along the rail (Jose Reyes and David Wright) and a mélange of Mets befitting a team in transition.
But the transition was supposed to be to a team better than the one that finished 2004 a mostly indifferent 71-91. The Mets of Pedro Martinez were supposed to energize New York, not put it to sleep. With a six-game road trip hitting nothing but potholes, the Home Opener that awaited this team if it didn’t start driving its way north in the standings promised to offer a most unwelcoming reception.
That’s where Pedro enters. His first Met start, on Opening Day in Cincinnati, was made-to-order brilliant, but the script got fouled up at the end as closer Braden Looper blew the lead Martinez built. So on this Sunday, to ensure nothing like that could possibly occur, Pedro left little to chance…or the Met bullpen. Through seven innings at the den of Met iniquity known as Turner Field, Martinez allowed only three baserunners to the perennially first-place Braves. Unfortunately, two of them (from a Chipper Jones walk and a Johnny Estrada double) were arranged in an inconvenient enough fashion to give Atlanta a 1-0 lead. Inconvenient as well was the presence of John Smoltz on the mound in the tops of innings. Smoltz kept his opposition not so much scoreless but helpless through seven, striking out a Met-boggling 15 batters.
0-6 was a distinct possibility. 0-162 was only 156 losses away. But then the eighth, and a real chance. Reyes singled. New and presumably desperate Met pilot Willie Randolph instructed Miguel Cairo to bunt Jose to second, which he did. Beltran then struck the mightiest blow of the young season, homering to deep right, ending the shutout, ending Smoltz’s day and ending the Mets’ role as the team trailing. Lefty specialist and ex-Met Tom Martin came in, and slugger Cliff Floyd picked up where Carlos left off, homering to left-center. Doug Mientkiewicz followed with a double. Roman Colon came on to pitch, but to no avail for Atlanta. Wright homered and suddenly, shockingly and thankfully, the Mets owned a 5-1 lead.
From there, it was back to Pedro. He retired the Braves in order in the eighth and the ninth. The Mets came away with their at-long-last first win of 2005. Martinez’s first Met win, too, of course, and it was exactly the kind of gem GM Omar Minaya had in mind when he signed him to a four-year contract: a complete game two-hitter; one walk; nine strikeouts; plus the biggest sigh of relief any April Met starter ever generated.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On April 15, 1976, a Wrigley Field kind of day to be sure, Dave Kingman brought the Mets from behind 8-7 on a ninth-inning three-run homer off the Cubs’ Tom Dettore. It wasn’t just that Sky King had blasted his second homer of the game and fourth homer of the season or had driven in five runs or even that he put the Mets ahead to stay at 10-8. What made this Kingman blast particularly memorable was where it landed: well out of the so-called Friendly Confines, crossing Waveland Avenue on its own power and, according to Jack Lang’s account, “hit[ting] the porch roof of the third house up the block on Kenmore Street.” Maybe it was 550 feet. Maybe it was 600. What was certain was North Siders now knew to pull in their patio furniture whenever the Mets were in town.