Toast of the Town

In 1985, a very talented Mets team – some would argue the most talented Mets team ever – fell short in its season-long battle    for the National League East title with the Whitey Herzog’s St. Louis Cardinals.

After coming back and beating the Pittsburgh Pirates to cut the Cardinal lead to three games, the Mets faced a winner take all three-game series in St. Louis. The Mets won the first two games, the punctuation mark being a mammoth home run in the 12th inning by Darryl Strawberry off of Ken Dayley in Game 1.  Dwight Gooden put the finishing touched on his remarkable season with a win in Game 2, but rookie Rick Aguilera couldn’y seal the deal, and the 4-3 loss ended their journey.

The loss left a lasting bad taste on their collective palette.

“When we didn’t get the third game to tie it,” Ron Darling remembers, “although it wasn’t said, everyone to a man knew we were not going to allow this to happen again.”

A talented mix of players, led by the amazing Dwight Gooden and his Cy Young Award-winning 24-4 record and Bob Gibson-like 1.85 ERA, the raw power and speed of Darryl Strawberry, veterans Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter (easily the best players in baseball at their respective positions), a coaching staff led by the popular Budd Harrelson, and a manager in Davey Johnson, who two years earlier had transformed a motley bunch of guys into a formidable team, were destined to become a dynasty.

It didn’t quite happen, and the reasons for it have been well-documented in Gotham Baseball , as well as other places.

At this particular time, we’ll remember – as most Mets fans do – just how incredible a ride the 1986 season was – and why, no matter the subsequent disappointments, it will always be a special year.

It will be special, because, as the 2006 New York Mets found out, dominance in the regular season means nothing in October.

It’s hard to win a World Series.

Just ask the Houston Astros, who were born in 1962, the same year the Mets brought NL baseball back to Gotham for the first time since the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants left for the sunny skies of California.

Or the Boston Red Sox.  Sure, Boston reversed the Curse of the Bambino is truly magical fashion in 2004, erasinga 13-0 defict in the ALCS against the Bambino’s Yankees along the way.  Try asking one of the Royal Rooters about 1986 and see what he says.

Those two clubs nearly made the 1986 season one to forget, rather than one to always cherish.

It was a hell of a ride.  A cocky, triumphant, spit in your eye, and dance on your grave type of season.  The 1986 Mets played with a chip on its shoulder all year; four on-the-field brawls, curtain calls after every home run, and were pounded the Cards into submission by the All-Star break.

“The thing I always remember was the St. Louis Cardinals at the All-Star Break announcing the fact that it’s over, that the Mets have won this thing,” said reliever Doug Sisk.  “You never realize until 20 years later how huge of a year that was.”

Strengthened by offseason deals that added veteran left-hander Bobby Ojeda and second baseman Tim Teufel, and the infusion of young talent like Kevin Micthell, the returning core of homegrown lauyers like Wally Backman, Mookie Wilson, Lenny Dykstra, and Roger McDowell would all play their part in the postseason.

Given the failed races of seasons past (both with the Mets in 1985 and for his Expos in 1981), Carter, as cocky and exuberant as any player on that ’86 club, was no braggadocio early in the season.

“We don’t feel we’re a dominant team; we just figure we’ll always find a way to win,” Carter told the Toronto Star.  “ “There’s a really good blend on the team of youth and experience, speed and power, maybe a little like the depth of the Cincinnati Reds of the 1970s and some other good teams.”

History is often romanticized, so Mets fans that lived though 1986 know full well that year was hardly a cakewalk.

At least it didn’t start of that way.

A spring training injury to Mookie Wilson, the team’s most popular player, could have cost them dearly, as Strawberry’s thumb injury cost his team 43 games the year before,m which proved quite costly.

The insertion of Lenny Dykstra into the everyday lineup proved that the Mets’ depth was astounding.  He, along with Backman, gave the team a 1-2 top of the lineup that would score early often and drives other teams nuts.  When Wilson returned, his adaption to a new role as a platoon player would prove quite beneficial later on.

The middle of the lineup was equally effective.  The prototypical No. 3 hitter in Hernandez, the slugging power of carter and the devastating Strawberry – whose ability to carry the team for weeks on end was invaluable.

A lot has been made of Ray Knight’s 1986 season, and well it should, because the veteran third baseman’s last great year in the big leagues would eventually earn him a World Series MVP.

However, when all was said and done, all of this offense was overshadowed by the team’s real strength; pitching.

The rotation of Gooden, Darling, Ojeda, Sid Fernandez (with help from Aguilera later in thye season) would dominate the league from start to finish.  The bullpen, anchored by McDowell and Jesse Orosco, were nearly as good.

Then the postseason began.

“I felt, and everyone else on this team felt, we would blow the division away,” said Darling, who – along with fellow ’86 teammate Hernandez – is one of the color men for SportsNet NY broadcasts of today’s Mets. “We had doubts that entire postseason. We knew every night we could put a person on the mound in the regular season who can start that was better than their guy. We knew that wasn’t true in the playoffs. We knew our strength hurt us in the postseason.”

[Gene Bera1]

But if it wasn’t for that good ol’ Mets Magic in October (See Al Weis, Cleon Jones’ shoe polish etc), those 108 wins would be a footnote in history.

First up were the NL West champions, the Houston Astros.

History has forgotten how talented this team was, but Mike Scott, Bob Knepper, Nolan Ryan headed a pitching staff that in the Championship Series.   Houston had played as well as the Mets had in 1986, and is fanbase didn’t have a 1969 World Series to keep it warm at night.  Plus, ex-Met Mike Scott had become Don Drysdale – and nearly as dominant as Gooden had been in 1985

That was evident in Game 1, as Scott out-dueled Gooden, 1-0 at the Astrodome, Ojeda and Hernandez led the Amazins’ Game 2 5-1 win, and the series moved to Shea Stadium for Game 3.

Houston jumped out a 4-0 lead, but the Mets tied it in the sixth behind a three-run homer off Nolan Ryan by Strawberry.  Tha Astros would add another run to go up 5-4, and in the ninth, Dykstra, the little guy (well, then he was little) slammed a two-run homer to put the Mets up 2-1.

“I wasn’t thinking about going up there to hit a home run to win the ballgame<” Dykstra told reporters after the game.  “ I was just thinking base hit. I saw the pitch real well and hit it real well. Don’t get used to this. You’re not going to see too many more game-winning home runs from me.”

That victory was short-lived as Houston tied the series the next day, after Scott – who their ex-teammte was scuffing the ball —  beat Sid Fernandez 3-1, setting up a Ryan vs. Gooden catchup for Game 5.

Von Ryan’s Express matched the Doctor pitch for pitch with the only runs coming in the fifth. Eventually in the 12th,, Carter’s  little dribbler found its way through the infield, and Backman scored the game-winner.

Game 6 of the NLCS was one of the most famous games in Mets history. If they couldn’t win this game, Scott loomed ready to pitch Game 7, which would have been a near-insurmountable mountain to climb. After falling behind  to 3-0 to Bob Knepper, the Mets tied the game up in the ninth off Astros closer Dave Smith.

In the 14th, the Mets made their bid to win it, but in the bottom of the inning, outfielder Billy Hatcher tied the game once again with a homer right inside the foul pole. The Mets scored three in the 16th inning, but tired closer Jesse Orosco let in two runs in the bottom of the inning, and with the tying run on second and the winning run on first, Kevin Bass came to the plate. The Mets’ lefty threw six sliders, eventually inducing Bass to strikeout and sent the Mets to their third World Series in dramatic fashion.

After the series, Hernandez said in the clubhouse: “What can you say? I just don’t ever want to go through another playoff series like this.”

Well, the first baseman and the now-National League Champions would had an even more dramatic struggle to come.

The Boston Red Sox had just won their own miracle LCS against Gene Mauch’s California Angels, coming back from the brink of elimination to win Games 5 through 7  and were set to break their 68 year-old World Championship drought.

After the first two games of the World Series, it looked like just that was going to happen. Boston, led by their ace Roger Clemens and Hall of Famer Wade Boggs beat the Mets at Shea in the first 2 games, 1-0 and 9-3,  and was sitting pretty going back to Fenway Park.

The Mets pounded Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd, 7-1, and Al Nipper, 6-2, in Games 3 and 4 respectively to tie the series, but Gooden lost Game 5, 4-2, to Bruce Hurst, sending the series back to Shea with the Sox needing only one game to win it.

What happened next would be talked about from Lowell to Lynbrook for years to come.

Game 6 saw the Sox take a 2-0 lead with the Mets coming back in the fifth inning to tie it. Then, in the seventh, eventual series MVP Ray Knight made a crucial error to put Boston up 3-2.

The Mets tied it in the eighth, on a Gary Carter sacrifice fly.  The Mets had an opportunity in the ninth, as pinch-hitter Lee Mazzilli hit was looked like a walk-off home run, but it fell a few feet foul.  Had it stayed fair, well, you know the rest.  But it didn’t, and the Red Sox got out of the inning.

In the top of the tenth, Dave Henderson hit a home run and Boston tacked on another run off Aguilera to give the Sox a 5-3 lead.

“Coming off the mound I felt a couple of horns puncturing through my skull,” Aguilera said. “To sit there and there wasn’t such an extreme emotion swing in that half hours’ time. It was an incredible half inning – not for me personally – but one I will never forget.”

The pulsating Shea that had been their hangout all season was now a graveyard, as Backman and Hernandez each flied out to put the Sox one out away.

Always aggressive, Carter slashed a base hit.  He slipped first base coach Bill Robinson the two-finger shake, and pumped his first with a grim determination on his face.  Sans a protective cup and his min on his flight back home to San Diego, the “what, me worry?” Mitchell  calmly poked another single.  That brought up Ray Knight, who went down quickly 0-2.

One more strike and the Red Sox would be dancing on the Shea grass, and all of America would rejoice.

Knight  ended that fantasy  with a soft liner over the head of second baseman Marty Barrett to cut the lead in half, and put the tying run on third and the winning run on first. Red Sox Manager John McNamara pulled his closer in favor of Bob Stanley with Mookie Wilson coming to the plate

“I just didn’t want to be the last out,” Wilson said recently. “Being a hero was not what I was trying to do.”

But the hero he was. After the count went to 2-2, the Mets left fielder fouled off two balls. Then, on the seventh pitch of the at bat, Stanley sent one to the backstop, scoring Mitchell to tie the game. Knight went to second and Shea Stadium shook under the weight of 55,078 fans in Flushing.

Wilson the fouled off two more pitches and on the tenth pitch of the at bat, he hit that famous slow roller up first.

The late Bob Murphy made this iconic call on WHN that day:

…and a ground ball, trickling, its a fair ball..gets by Buckner!! Rounding third, Knight! The Mets will win the ball game! The Mets win! They Win!

After Knight scored, Vin Scully remained silent on NBC and let the images do the talking for three minutes, until he chimed in with this:

If one picture is worth a thousand words, then you have seen about a million words, but more than that you have seen an absolutely bizarre finish of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The Mets are not only alive, they are well, and they play the Red Sox in Game 7 tomorrow.

Though rains forced the final game to be pushed back to Monday and McNamara was able to replace Boyd with Game 5 winner Hurst, Game 7 didn’t disappoint.

The Sox took a 3-0 lead off Darling, but the Mets were given a much needed boost out of the bullpen by Sid Fernandez who came in and stymied Boston for 2 1/3 innings with four strikeouts.

The Mets tied it in the sixth, on a Hernandez single, and then Knight hit a homer off Schiraldi to lead off the seventh to put the Mets ahead for good. Strawberry iced the game in the eighth with another long ball.

Jesse Orosco worked the scoreless ninth and ultimately struck out Barrett to crown the Mets champions.  Even today, Mets fans lucky enough to have been around then can re-call with almost frightening detail the image of Orosco throwing his glove in the air, then kneeling on the field with arms extended overhead – the everlasting image of the 1986 World Champion New York Mets.

That moment was the pinnacle of work started by general manager Frank Cashen in 1980 and the core of players four years later.

“If you ask real Met fans, 1984 was real special and ‘85 built on that special-ness,” Darling said. “Then in ‘86, it wasn’t that we knew it was going to be special. What we didn’t know was how close the team would become. Not only winning, but getting a third year with each other, fighting against a lot of teams and a lot of comeback wins.”

And now, 20 years later, the Mets and their fans can look back and really see how special that team really was.