Tom Seaver returned from M. Donald Exile (a.k.a. Cincinnati) on April 5, 1983, and though it was as if order had been restored to Shea Stadium, one element of the Metsian universe had been disturbed. The home uniform Tom donned for his triumphant restoration as king of our hill had been notably altered. The emperor’s blue and orange clothes had been adorned with a triple stripe, perhaps in anticipation of the two triples he’d hit in his succeeding two starts. The wardrobe change caught the eye, but the real vision was Seaver on a mound in a jersey that said Mets. Everything else was gaudy gravy.
As incidentally as could be, the racing stripe was installed as the single most identifiable uniform element in Metsopotamia. It had an out-of-town tryout, anchoring the road garb in 1982, but this initial appearance at Shea, running down the sides and up the sleeves of the Franchise, announced with Jack Franchettian authority that it was here to stay. When Seaver fronted Sports Illustrated that same month — the first Met on the cover of the magazine since, well, Seaver, when he shared “Baseball’s Toughest Pitchers” honors with Jim Palmer, the message was amplified.
Seaver was as tough on the Phillies to start 1983 as his absence from June 15, 1977, through 1982 had been to endure for Mets fans. Oh, how good it looked to know, as it said on the cover of SI’s April 18 issue, YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN. Uni switch of not, it was reassuring to notice the pitching motion on display was almost exactly the same as it had been on the issue dated July 21, 1975. And talk about accurate reporting — the 1983 cover’s subhead said it all: “Tom Seaver Makes A Dazzling Return To The Mets.”
Did anybody call them racing stripes in 1983? Maybe they did, but I might’ve missed it. The Uni Watch culture was a couple of decades from coalescing and, besides, I was in college in Florida for the first month of the season, watching only as much as Seaver from afar as primitive media would allow. Highlights from Opening Day on the local news and that Sports Illustrated were about it. By the time I got back to New York in May, the newly detailed uniform had blended into the background and the Mets had let the momentum of that first win and the one that followed it be overwhelmed by six consecutive losses, setting the tone for the first dreadful month of the no longer so new year. In short order, they were 6-15 and yearning for another hero to rescue them, this one not from the past, but the future: Darryl Strawberry, who debuted 31 days after Seaver returned.
Straw never wore a Mets uniform that wasn’t accented by racing stripes, at least on his pants. Now and then, the Mets wore blue tops in ’83 and ’84, but a decade of orange-blue-orange distinguishing Met players from other players was underway. Darryl was a Met from 1983 to 1990; nothin’ but stripes. Ron Darling showed up late in Darryl’s rookie year and lasted into the summer of 1991: nothin’ but stripes. As late as October 4, 1992, by which time Tom Seaver was safely ensconced in the Hall of Fame, the stripes remained in place. The uniform had been tinkered with in other areas — its pullover top gave way to a traditional button-down shirt — but what Seaver wore on Opening Day 1983 and what was associated with Strawberry, Darling and their contemporaries during their tenure was basically what was still in use on the Closing Day ’92 when Willie Randolph completed his own New York homecoming, finishing his single season as a Met with a walk that drew a standing ovation.
When the Mets and applause returned to Shea on April 5, 1993, ten years to the day that Seaver was the story, the stripes were gone, and the race to the bottom of the National League East was in full gear (exit applause). But that’s another story. The story on Sunday, April 10, 2016, was that the racing stripes were back at the home of the Mets for something more than a cameo for the first time in 23½ years. They were worn, as they will be every Citi Field Sunday this season, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the 1986 Mets, who themselves commemorated the 25th-anniversary season of the team with a patch that has also been liberated from mothballs. They will be worn on good Sundays and less good Sundays, the most recent Sunday falling into the latter category, as the Mets dropped their third game of the thus far five-game-old season.
That’s a 2-3 record for those of you scoring at home (or even if you’re alone). That’s exactly the record the Mets got off to in 1983, the year the racing stripes debuted; and 1992, the year the racing stripes, like Randolph, bowed out; and 1993, the year the racing stripes, like Met dignity, went on hiatus; and 1991, the year Darling was traded; and 1990, the year Strawberry almost carried the Mets to a division title before his back gave out from almost carrying the Mets to a division title and he decided relief awaited him in Los Angeles; and 1989, the year Randolph, as an L.A. Dodger, halted the Mets’ playoff hopes in their tracks with a Pendletonian home run in late August; and 1988, the year the Mets met the Dodgers in the playoffs to ill result; and, yes, 1986, the year known for so much else, but whenever the Mets lose three of their first five, is known mainly for the Mets going 2-3 out of the gate. It was mentioned in 2015 (pretty good year, it turned out) and, because the Mets were so obviously dressed for the comparison, it came up on Sunday.
Just as when I see the racing stripes that reigned from 1983-1992 and don’t necessarily think of 1986 (especially when today’s pants and shirts are worn substantially blousier than they were three decades before), 2-3 doesn’t automatically send me speeding toward memories of That Championship Season exclusively. It would be nice to go there, but as demonstrated above, 2-3 doesn’t always augur 108-54. It can get you 90-72 as it did last year, it can send you to 100-60 per 1988, or it can set the stage for 59-103 if everything goes as wrong as it did in 1993. There’s a 77-84 in there, a 72-90, a 91-71, an 87-75 that sounds better than it was and, where the racing of the stripes commenced, a 68-94 that was better than it sounds. The 1983 Mets of Seaver at the beginning, Strawberry (not to mention Hernandez) by the middle and Darling toward the end morphed into a team on the rise despite having to ascend from a depressing basement address.
This was all a long way to say that it’s a long season and a short stretch is not a reliable measuring stick. You already knew that, but you also already knew that after five games, the 1986 Mets were 2-3.
After five games, the 2016 Mets are 2-3. At this pace, they will play a sixth game tonight, weather permitting.
The fifth game, despite its presence in the best-forgotten file, gave us two highlights that were not sartorial.
1) Yoenis Cespedes fought off pitch after pitch until he got the pitch he wanted from Jeremy Hellickson in the sixth inning, and then he whacked it like he preferred to never see it again. Nobody on the field of play would, for it flew with fury over the Whatever Somebody is Paying to Call It Now section in left and briefly raised hopes that the Mets would stop screwing around with the Phillies. They didn’t, as evidenced by the 5-2 final, but gripping theater ensued while Cespedes dueled mano a mano for eleven pitches versus Hellickson (who I languidly mistook for Mark Hendrickson, the pitcher who lost to Johan Santana on Opening Day 2008…a year when the Mets started, yup, 2-3).
Guidance derived from five-game samples is about as useful as that which one extracts from the first four games of a season, but you can’t blame a Mets fan for clapping extra hard at the TV as Yo’s blast cleared the advertising-laden fences. He couldn’t have been much worse coming into Sunday. He may be getting going based on Sunday and, more significantly, everything he’s done in his career.
2) Jim Henderson is either pitching way better than we could have expected or exactly as we should’ve expected. After a season in the minors rehabbing a surgically repaired shoulder, the former Brewer closer (and old-friend protégé) is pitching with a vengeance. In three innings, he’s faced and retired nine batters, seven of them on strikeouts. Given Henderson’s recent track record, no, you couldn’t have expected that. But given the Hendersons’ track record, yes, of course we knew he was gonna be splendid.
The Mets have had three prior Hendersons in their history. Every one of them emerged in a blaze of glory.
In 1977, the Mets acquired Steve Henderson on June 15, a date that already came up once in this piece for reasons that are more familiar than even the 2-3 launch of 1986. Steve went 2-for-4 in his first start, hit an eleventh-inning walkoff homer in his fourth game and was batting .357 a week after the Wednesday Night Massacre. Steve Henderson didn’t make us forget Tom Seaver, but he did make us embrace Steve Henderson.
In 1978, veteran outfielder and previously projected Willie Mays successor Ken Henderson alighted in St. Petersburg as the player to be named later from a trade made earlier in which a slew of name players shuttled hither and yon. Jon Matlack and Al Oliver had already been shipped to the Rangers, John Milner and Bert Blyleven to the Pirates, Tommy Boggs and Adrian Devine to the Braves, and we knew the Mets had already received Willie Montañez and Tom Grieve. Henderson’s mid-March marching orders made the swap a done deal. Joe Torre anointed him right fielder and batted him fifth on Opening Day at Shea. Ken delivered the first run of the new season when he doubled home Montañez in the second on April 7. Three days later, he and Steve each doubled in the third to create a run; in the eighth, both of them walloped two-run homers. Bob Murphy raved about “the Henderson men”. Why shouldn’t he? Steve had placed second in Rookie of the Year voting in ’77 and now Ken and his impeccable credentials were Met property. The Mets were 4-1 after five games. Everything was looking up.
In the seventh game of 1978, Ken twisted his left ankle and sprained his big toe in pursuit of a fly ball. He never played for the Mets again and was traded to Cincy for Dale Murray in May; none of his three Red homers came in support of his new team’s ace, Tom Seaver.
In 1999, left field, for almost four seasons the province of Steve Henderson (who these days teaches hitting to the Phillies, who pick the most inconvenient times to absorb his lessons), was presented to Rickey Henderson, who presented himself to the Mets in the preceding offseason. Rickey was already a Hall of Fame lock when he arrived in Port St. Lucie. He kicked his bid for immortality up a notch in the third and final game of the year’s opening series at Pro Player Stadium: 4-for-4 with a walk, two homers, two doubles, two ribbies, four runs scored. Rickey was being Rickey in a fashion more ostentatious than any throwback uniforms could ever accomplish. By the end of business on April 7, 1999, he was batting .545, slugging 1.364 and performing generally as out of this world as the Mercury Mets outfit he’d reluctantly suit up in come July. Six months later, he’d be part of a Mets playoff team, something maybe one more Henderson will be able to say eventually.
Stay tuned. The last 157 games are usually the ones to tell the tale.
Speaking of tales told, you can read 2015’s in Amazin’ Again, my book that covers the journey of the National League Champion New York Mets from 2-3 to 90-72 and then some. Personally inscribed and signed copies are available here, regular copies are available here, a friendly discussion about it can be listened to here and you can check out some kind words written about it here and here.