The temperature was in the 80s. The energy was out of the ’80s. I needed neither a weatherman nor a meter reader to know which way the wind was blowing or how much the juice was flowing. It didn’t take a meteorology degree to discern it was a warm summer day. You didn’t have to be Frank Cashen to understand the impact of putting together a winner.
The Mets of the middle of the 1980s never leave us. I don’t mean the players themselves, though it’s great so many occasionally come around and a couple have stayed around. I mean the feeling of what it meant to root for this team when we shook off failure and stepped right up to greet success. It explains why so many had descended on Citi Field on Saturday afternoon. Keith Hernandez  and the Mets of the 1980s instilled an inextinguishable fire in Mets fans. It’s not always blazing, but it’s really something when you can feel it rekindling.
We often invoke 1969 and 1973 for purposes of never giving up when the going gets tough, and we certainly value the later peaks we scaled after wandering aimlessly through competitive valleys. But only the mid- and late-1980s — 1986 at the heart of that era — live on as aspirational to us. Situationally we might cross our fingers and hope real hard for another Grand Slam Single or Tears of Joy homer, but what we really want is the reincarnation of Baseball Like It Oughta Be. We want to be fans of the one team that we’re certain will get it done, that we’re certain will do in whoever dares to take the field in opposition to them. We want to go 108-54 in the regular season and 4-0 in brawls. We want to face impossible odds and live to repeat stories of how we overcame them because there was no way we weren’t. We want to conclude we are invincible.
That sensation has endured deep in the soul of the Mets fan who experienced the Mets as molded on high by Cashen and on the ground, where the leather and the lumber met the road, by Keith Hernandez. For all the woe-is-usness that pervades the Metsopotamian psyche in the 21st century, there resides in a deeper recess the sense that we’re the biggest, we’re the baddest and just you try to fuck with us. It’s alive and it’s dying to come out and play. I could feel it rise up from the throng that was trundling down the LIRR boardwalk around 1:15 Saturday, preparing to merge with the mass of humanity queued up partly to secure a bobblehead, mostly to reclaim the birthright issued unto us on June 15, 1983, and notarized for all time on October 27, 1986.
I wasn’t there for a bobblehead, though I wouldn’t have turned one down. I was on my way to the media will call window, having arranged for press credentials in order to cover a historical milestone, the retirement of No. 17. So on one level, I had the distance to act as dispassionate anthropological observer of the Met phenomenon. Yet I’m never not a Mets fan, even when I waive my Stengel-given rights to yell like an idiot by taking a seat in the press box. That walk from the train through the plaza took me back. I’ve been in loads of Met crowds since 1986. This one was a crowd from 1986. Not just for the retro threads (some of those World Champion t-shirts were vintage) but for the prevailing attitude. We only came here to do two things: kick some ass and grab some bobbleheads. Looks like they’re almost outta bobbleheads.
This was the gathering crowd that congregated to usher Keith’s No. 17 into official Met immortality, as if a ceremony were required to confirm everything Hernandez did and represents . As with the bobblehead, you’ll take it. The Mets sold every ticket they had because Keith Hernandez was the center of attention Saturday. The 1980s showed us Mets games with Keith in the middle of everything inevitably attracts waves of attendance and enthusiasm. Keith was very much there and very much into it. Keith was on point, as Keith likes to say, from the moment he entered the Shannon Forde Press Conference Room. Keith was as passionate about being honored as he was when he went about earning the honor. He didn’t take a drag from a Winston or a swig from a Michelob as he might have when he addressed reporters in the clubhouse between 1983 and 1989. He spoke to us through teary eyes (a symptom of having trouble sleeping the night before, he swore) and a full heart. A guy who displayed determination rather than a grin on his face while he was plotting ways to attain victory explained what made him smile in 1986:
“When you win 108 games, that’s a lot of fun coming to the ballpark.”
When you arrange to unveil 17 and invite a passel of Keith’s relatives and a sprinkling of his former teammates — Mookie Wilson, Tim Teufel, Ed Lynch, the ever-present Ron Darling — to the field to celebrate it alongside 43,336 who were on hand to thank Keith for making this day absolutely necessary, that’s fun, too. The Mets have upped their commemorative game  the last couple of years. The people who choreograph these events understand the beauty is in the details. Hits of the ’80s played throughout the pregame for the man who recorded so many hits during the ’80s, though when the playlist departed its demographic foundation for one very specific track from 1999, “17 Again” by Eurythmics, it couldn’t have been more purposeful. There was a 17 tarp covering home plate. A 17 sculpture rising at second base. A 17 mowed into center field. A 17 emblazoned on The Apple. First base itself was dyed gold. A gorgeous mosaic of Keith’s face pieced together from Keith Hernandez baseball cards and (what a touch) 1986 Mets Strat-O-Matic cards was presented as the loveliest of tokens of appreciation. The owner of the club, who received an uproarious ovation, comprehends the resources devoted to something like Saturday are well worth the emotional payoff.
Keith came through, as if with the bases loaded and Hurst on the mound. “Little old me in St. Louis,” he reflected of his mindset in the middle of June 1983, “wasn’t very happy. What did I know? A life- and career-changing event, I cannot tell you.” But he did tell us, recounting his first debriefing by Cashen (“we have not squandered our draft picks and we feel we’re ready to turn the corner”) and his tempered reaction (“I was disbelieving”). But the last-place Mets Keith came to were about to find better places. Second, then second again, then first in the division, the league, the world. Then a few more years when the Keith Hernandez Mets didn’t repeat as world champions but they were still the Keith Hernandez Mets, and what an era it was to realize you rooted for this man and his team. And what a gift it was to hear Keith connect himself to all that came before him and came after him:
“I am absolutely humbled and proud that my number will be up in the rafters, for eternity, along with Casey, Gil, Tom, Mike and Jerry. Sixty years of New York Mets!”
And he reserved a few words for the first-place team representing the sixty-first year, already in progress:
“This current team I love to watch. You Mets fans, you’re on top of it, this teams comes out, it hustles, they play hard and comport themselves like professionals. It is a treat. You should give your support to this team like you gave us in the Eighties.”
We did. I use “we” in the Met-aphorical sense because I spent most of the game that followed in the Jay Horwitz Press Box (gosh, the Mets are getting good at naming things) and could only monitor rather than contribute to the din supporting the 2022 Mets. Except for one inning, the sixth, when I emerged from the air conditioning and embraced the heat of the day up in Promenade with my friend Kevin. There echoes of Shea’s Upper Deck resonated as Francisco Lindor wrapped a pitch around the left field pole to give the Mets a one-run lead of 3-2, regaining an edge that had been briefly yielded in the top of the inning when the Marlins — who weren’t even alive in 1986! — dared cobble a one-run lead of their own. We’d built the first one-run lead of the day, in the fourth, when Pete Alonso homered loudly to make it 1-0. Alonso, you’ll note, is a first baseman like Keith. Not as good defensively. Has more power. Also has a ways to go in growing a mustache, but he’s trying.
Back in Jay’s box, I watched the Mets not add to their three runs in the seventh, eighth or ninth, which was a pity because the Marlins sourced power from Jesus Aguilar’s leadoff at-bat versus Adam Ottavino and tied the game at three. We went to extras, though not exactly as we might have in 1986, because nobody was intentionally putting runners on second to start innings. The Marlins pushed across their unearned runner ASAP to make it 4-3 and put Keith Hernandez Day in peril.
Not many days featuring Keith Hernandez in Flushing ever stayed in peril. We got our own free runner on second, we got our chance to manufacture a run or, better yet, two, and, after two outs, we capitalized. Don Mattingly’s Marlins facilitated, as Don Mattingly’s Marlins will (Mattingly himself was ejected earlier — and he wants to be our latex salesman?). But what’s a first-place Mets team if it doesn’t accept a bobble like it’s a bobblehead? Tómas Nido, playing in place of a potentially injured James McCann (there was a bit of that going on, with Ender Inciarte having to replace Starling Marte), making contact. Never underestimate contact. I didn’t think the ball Nido sent to third with Mark Canha on second was going to result in a run, but it did. Miami third baseman Brian Anderson couldn’t lay a glove on it and, just like that — snaps fingers, conjures visions of Carter, Mitchell and Knight this other time it was tied in the bottom of the tenth — it was 4-4. Brandon Nimmo came up next with Nido, a slightly more earned runner, on second. Nimmo also made contact, less of it than Nido had, but he hadn’t struck out. Mookie once made contact after fouling off a whole lot of pitches. In Nimmo’s case, he hit a ball all the way back to closer Tanner Scott. Scott had already left the door ajar. He was about to blow it wide open. First he couldn’t handle the comebacker. Then he threw it in the dirt rather than within proximity of Aguilar’s mitt. Nido scampered home. The Mets won, 5-4 .
Word from Jacob Resnick on Twitter  was this was the first Met victory pulled from the jaws of defeat in more or less this manner — two outs, extra-inning, error, walkoff — since the sixth game of the 1986 World Series. Of course it was. Jake produced his Stathead receipt that showed it had happened twice before in Mets history. One was Buckner, but the other was also in 1986. It was a sloppy game from the end of May that stumbled into the tenth inning at Mets 6 Giants 6. Robby Thompson led off the visitors’ tenth with a home run off Jesse Orosco. If doom was in the air, the Mets didn’t inhale. In the bottom of the tenth, that Hernandez fellow singled to lead off. One out later, Kevin Mitchell, pinch-hitting for sore-thumbed Darryl Strawberry, singled. A wild pitch moved them both up a bag. Howard Johnson walked. Ray Knight lifted a sacrifice fly to score Keith. It was 7-7. The Mets were still alive. As would be the case in late October, and again in a far-off July, the Mets now knew they couldn’t lose in ten. They could very well win.
Light-hitting Rafael Santana — I’m sure that was his full legal name — batted next. He popped up over the infield. Second baseman Thompson moved underneath it to catch it. So did shortstop Jose Uribe. Instead, they caught each other, colliding while Santana’s ball dropped to the ground. “They both called for it,” Will Clark said afterward. “Heck, I was calling for it, too.” (Baseball Reference mysteriously lists the play as a ground ball, but as the 1986 Mets who lost 54 games in the regular season and five more in two postseason rounds could assure them, nobody’s perfect.) Mitchell crossed the plate. The Mets raised their record to 31-11 that night, the best a Met record had ever been after 42 games. There’d be a lot of “best ever” to come for those 1986 Mets, but that Friday night may have been the game that signaled the down/out quotient that would define that team would be its constant. Sometimes down. Never out.
The 2022 Mets seem to have a handle on such an equation. Fans of the 2022 Mets, with a heaping helping of Twisted Sister’s and Keith Hernandez’s shared credo of we’re not gonna take it inhabiting their subconscious, figured it out, too. People stuck around to the coulda-been bitter end. People raised the 17-laden rafters with their vocals when the bitterness of falling behind the Marlins went the way of the Marlins’ short-lived lead. As I rejoined the throng on the staircase, again an impassioned fan rather than a detached witness, “LET’S GO METS” bounced off the walls every bit as much as Scott’s throw bounced in the dirt. I did a little of that bouncing myself.