“Hey Pop, the time you hit Hazen in the mouth, was it worth 30 years?”
—Paul Crewe, The Longest Yard
“That’s how you become great, man. Hang your balls out there.”
—Jesus at the CopyMat, Jerry Maguire
The Mets have been to the postseason seven times. I cherish all seven appearances, including the one that crested and crashed 25 years ago tonight.
That was 1988. Hardly any Mets fan cherishes 1988. Scioscia happened in 1988. Scioscia tends to blot out everything.
• 100 Met wins for the third and (thus far) final time.
• A 15-game Met romp over the National League East, created by a 31-11 start, confirmed by a 29-8 finish and accented by a knack the Mets had in prevailing over the ultimate bridesmaid Pirates in every showdown series they played that summer.
• The individual exploits of, among others, David Cone, Darryl Strawberry, Kevin McReynolds, Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Randy Myers and Gregg Jefferies.
• Three National League Championship Series victories — in Games One, Three and Six — that were as impressive as they were entertaining.
• A seventh game that determined whether or not the Mets would compete for another world championship.
The Mets got to that precipice, on October 12, 1988, three days after Scioscia. They tripped and fell off of it and that was the end of 1988’s goodwill forever more, which is too bad because, well, how often do the Mets get even that far?
Seven times, give or take a game.
I watch these current playoffs. I feel the engagement of the crowds. I pick up on the vibe that every pitch matters, that every swing can shift momentum, that every time a ball goes somewhere, it could very well be headed into history. That’s the reward for getting here, to live on an emotional high wire until either someone knocks you to the ground or elevates you even higher. That’s what it was like for Rays fans until their team was dispatched by the Red Sox last night. That’s what it will be like for one group or another tonight and again tomorrow. Somebody will go on, somebody else will go home.
It will have been worth it. It was worth it in 1973, even when Darold Knowles popped up Wayne Garrett. It was worth it in 1999 when Kenny Rogers lost the strike zone while Andruw Jones stood idly by. It was worth it in 2000 when Mike Piazza could muscle a Mariano Rivera cutter only so far. It was, I swear to you, worth it in 2006 when one of the great postseason players of his generation looked at a nasty curveball on oh-and-two.
And it was worth it in 1988 when Orel Hershiser froze Howard Johnson to conclude Game Seven three days after Mike Scioscia homered against Dwight Gooden to tie Game Four, the result of which seemed to be in the bag but, once Scioscia struck, was now rolling loose for anybody to grab.
The Dodgers grabbed it. They evened the score in the ninth, took and held a lead in the twelfth, won Game Five the following afternoon, withstood a Game Six loss the night after that and, come Game Seven, earned a trip to the World Series.
The Mets, who had been three Gooden (or maybe Myers) outs from a three-one lead in the NLCS, went home, but I still say it was worth it.
For seven games played in a span of nine days, it was worth it. The Mets were still playing in 1988 when almost everybody else wasn’t. Had they succeeded — and they came far closer than is generally appreciated — they’d have kept playing. If they’d kept playing, perhaps they win a third world championship. Or they lose to Oakland as they did in 1973. There was no saying once what could’ve happened once they bowed to Los Angeles in ignominious fashion in Game Seven.
But they got to Game Seven. They got to Game Five and Game Four and Game Two, same as they got to the games they won in those playoffs. It was so much better than it was the year before when they got to the end of the 1987 season several games short of qualifying for the postseason. It was so much better than it would be in the ten succeeding seasons that came up either just shy of October or expired well in advance of August.
This is where you wanna be, where the Pirates and Cardinals are tonight, where the A’s and the Tigers will be tomorrow night, where the Red Sox and Dodgers have already assured themselves of being this weekend and, yeah, where the Rays, Braves, Indians and Reds have been only to exit earlier than they would’ve liked in 2013. Their fans got to the next stage, a stage we haven’t entered in seven going on eight years. It was our stage in 1969, 1973, 1986, 1988, 1999, 2000 and 2006. We didn’t always own it at the moment the curtain was lowered, but good god how I loved our time upon it, no matter how long it lasted.
Scioscia and his teammates pulled the wings off of 1988. There’s no whitewashing it. His home run was a dagger through the heart, a kick in the head, any metaphor indicating damage to a vital organ or body part you care to name. The loss of that series prevented a great year from going down as extraordinary. But it was a great year. It was great because we got as far as we did. It was a terrible way for it to go awry, but what isn’t a terrible way to not win a championship?
You can fall out of contention and watch other teams’ fans hang on every pitch or you can immerse yourself in October on account of your own team’s actions, knowing all the while that you very well risk a Scioscia blowing up in your face. It’s not even a choice. Give me a 4-2 lead in the ninth inning of a Game Four every time and I’ll take that risk. The risk is its own reward this time of year.
Meanwhile, at Sports On Earth, Jason shares his thoughts on what might be going through the minds of some other fan bases.