Unforgettable, Though Many Try: The 1986 Mets

Their 25th anniversary seems to be more sober than an awful lot of the team was. But Allen Barra is right. Twenty-five years ago tonight launched the 1986 World Series, which the New York Mets would win in rather dramatic fashion. There was and remains nothing wrong with that. The 1986 Mets may have steamrolled the National League on the regular season, but there was nothing like a pair of hair-raising postseason sets to remind people that even teams as good as those Mets have to work, good and hard, for their prizes.

Yet it seems as though even Met fans, often enough, see the 1986 edition as the team you’d rather forget. They may or may not be the only World Series winner to enjoy that questionable position.

Keith Hernandez---his acquisition in 1983 really started rebuilding the Mets . . .

Yes, those Mets did drive the rest of the league nuts, with their randy on- and off-field style, and I acknowledge that “randy” may be the most polite way possible of phrasing it. But one suspects that what really drives New York nuts about the team, what really leaves New York unable to know just how to remember or commemorate the team, is not their wild, wicked, and whacky ways. It’s that the Mets of the mid-1980s were the dynasty that never happened.

What a difference two quarter centuries make. The Mets were born as the National League’s greatest comic troupe who just so happened to play (if that’s the word for it) baseball. Eight years old, they won a miracle pennant and World Series and became the national darlings. (From your ancient history: the Baltimore Oriole who flied out to left to end that World Series with New York going insane with glee—Davey Johnson, future Mets manager and ’86 World Series winner.) Four years later, they were still somewhat darling even as they were picking themselves up from the National League East’s floorboards, dusting themselves off, rallying around a flaky relief pitcher’s clubhouse sarcasm, following a forlorn general manager’s rah-rah speech (“You gotta believe!!!”), upending a weak East, upending the Big Red Machine, and nearly upending the Mustache Gang Athletics in the only World Series in which those A’s would need a seventh game to prevail.

Ten years later, having been reduced to losers who were about as comic as open heart surgery, a new general manager, Frank Cashen, who’d already planted a gigaprospect named Darryl Strawberry in the system, swung a deal with the St. Louis Cardinals to acquire a multitalented but troubled first baseman who’d already been a batting champion and co-Most Valuable Player. Keith Hernandez had to be brought kicking and screaming to New York, but once he got a taste of the city and the team’s intent he proved to be the brick that laid the 1986 foundation, after all.

The 1986 Mets played in the twenty-fifth year of the team’s existence. Even their worst enemies seemed to agree that the dynasty launching in earnest in 1986 should have happened. It only began when Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog, who ran Hernandez out of St. Louis over the first baseman’s cocaine use, and who wasn’t exactly a fan of the Mets as that deal began to make them, dared to enunciate, early in 1986, “Nobody is going to beat the Mets.”

Well, now. The Houston Astros got thisclose to doing it in the National League Championship Series. The Boston Red Sox got even closer in the World Series, a strike away from doing what the White Rat said nobody was going to do. Those two clubs may—may—have been the only clubs in the Show that year capable of beating those Mets. The Mets ended up beating them on the field. (Red Sox manager John McNamara, immortally: We lost Game Six, but they won Game Seven.) Unfortunately, the Mets ended up beating themselves in the aftermath. Dwight Gooden’s shocking absence from the World Series victory parade—he admitted in due course he was wasted over from a long night’s partying after Game Seven was in the bank that he didn’t want anyone to see humble, meek Dr. K. in that kind of shape—was only the first self-inflicted blow.

Beginning in 1984, the Mets began a surge that included two straight close second-place finishes in the National League East, and climaxed with a 108-54 regular-season 1986. From 1987-1991, five seasons in which the should-have-been dynastic team was disassembled, little by little, the Mets won one more division title, finished second three times, and then collapsed to fifth in the last of those seasons. They lost a 1988 National League Championship Series to a lesser team of Los Angeles Dodgers after winning 100 games on the season. That was the second and final time they’d win more than 92 games in the span. They finished 1991 with a 77-84 record, 20.5 games back of the division-winning Pittsburgh Pirates . . . which was one game closer to the Pirates than the ’86 Mets finished ahead of the second-place Philadelphia Phillies.

Twenty-five years after the 1986 conquest, you’d think that even New York would prefer to forget those Mets. What happened to them? Barra, in his splendid Clearing the Bases, has one pretty point:

Try looking at the ’86 Mets as the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers in reverse. The Dodgers of that era featured several future Hall of Famers . . . and several near-misses. (Certainly Don Newcombe would have been a likely candidate if not for two prime years lost to the Army, or several seasons lost later to a losing battle with alcoholism, and Gil Hodges has his defenders and always will) but could never quite win the big one (that is, they couldn’t beat the Yankees). When they finally did in 1955, the victory had an autumnal flavour to it, and not just because it was October. In little more than a year, the team was broken up and in two the franchise would be forever relocated. The Mets . . . also had numerous Hall of Fame candidates or players that looked as if they would be, and a fine, proven manager in Davey Johnson to guide them.  Unlike the Jackie Robinson Dodgers, though, the ’86 Mets won it all relatively early in what should have been the prime years of their best players. Then they began, season by season, to fall apart, until, by 1991, the dream was gone. They didn’t lose their best players to free agency, either. They lost them to . . . life.

It may only have begun with Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, those two larger-than-life talents who turned out to be larger-than-life troubled and self-destructive young men. But it was absolutely unfair for then-general manager Frank Cashen to throw them under the proverbial bus, as he did when talking to Jeff Pearlman for The Bad Guys Won, the best single-volume study of the 1986 Mets, and blame them almost entirely for the team’s undoing.

I built the goddamned team, and I built it around those guys . . . That club should have won for the next three or four seasons without fail. Those two men let not only themselves down but the teams and the fans of New York. That team was destined to be a dynasty. Maybe I take this too personally, but in my opinion those two men cost us years of success.

Darryl Strawberry---the most elegant power swing on a most troubled '86 Met . . .

Nobody says Strawberry’s and Gooden’s substance abuse didn’t have an impact on the team. Nobody suggests Strawberry’s concurrent personality issues didn’t, either; nobody would suggest the jolt of Gooden landing in the Smithers Alcoholism and Drug Treatment Center a week before the 1987 season was to begin (It was just a huge setback. It just wasn’t the same feeling in the clubhouse. We still had chances to win but the swagger was missing. Some of the magic was gone.—Gary Carter), or his (as well as Strawberry’s) inability to handle his early and explosive rise to fame, didn’t, either.

But was it Strawberry’s and/or Gooden’s fault that Gary Carter, the most obvious Hall of Famer in waiting when he arrived with the Mets in 1985, turned out to have had only three good seasons left in his wearing-down body when he first donned the Mets’ silks?

Was it their fault that Keith Hernandez, who certainly did look like a Hall of Famer in the making (and was probably the best defencive first baseman the game had seen in years, to the point where opposing managers even refused to bunt against his teams) through the end of 1986, and had cleaned up from his drug issues, would be shaved down in what still should have been prime seasons for him by back, knee, and hamstring trouble before he was allowed to leave via free agency—the day before the Mets released Carter likewise—after 1989?

Was it their bright idea to tell Dwight Gooden in spring training 1986, in effect, that his explosively riding fastball and voluptuous curve ball weren’t sufficient, that a pitcher who already knew what he was doing on the mound needed more repertoire after he’d just spent two seasons absolutely burying the league, in the second of which he was the pitching triple crown winner and the National League’s overwhelming Cy Young Award winner? With the net result that Gooden became, by comparison, a mess of shot confidence who won 17 games and struck out 200 on reputation more than repertoire in 1986? (Who’s to say whether that shot confidence didn’t leave him prone to the seduction of cocaine in the first place?) And, though he’d still be a good pitcher for years enough, would never solidify as the great pitcher he began as being, in the meantime picking up a passel of shoulder injuries that helped keep him from staying or returning to be great?

Was it their bright idea that Ron Darling, who looked like a comer and pitched like one until 1988, would lose his fastball while acquiring (it was whispered) too much taste for the bright lights and, it was said, battling with his manager almost constantly over overthinking on the mound?

Sid Fernandez---unhittable, underachieving . . .

Was it their bright idea that Sid Fernandez—a lefthanded pitcher that nobody could hit (his lifetime batting average against: .209—.209!), and who probably saved the 1986 World Series for them, when, moved to the bullpen for the set, he shut the Red Sox down ice cold in his stints including, and especially, his lights-out Game Seven relief (four punchouts in two and a third, including a violent swishout of Jim Rice to open an inning)—should compile a career in which he was just 114-96 and averaged barely six innings pitched per game?

Was it their bright idea that Bob Ojeda, who might have been their best pitcher in 1986 (2.57 ERA; league-leading .783 winning percentage; team-leading 18 wins) should lose a fingertip in a horrid home gardening accident after 1988 and never again be the same pitcher (good-to-borderline-great) he was?

Was it their bright idea that Jesse Orosco—who looked like he might become one of the greatest relief pitchers the game had ever known (his ERAs in his first five seasons were never higher than 2.73, and he finished one of those seasons with a 1.47 mark), with 44 relief wins and 91 saves by the end of 1986 (and they weren’t all single-inning jobs, either)—should have nine saves only once and would have a mere 40-37 won-lost record from 1986-2000? Orosco proved durable and useful, but he never again looked like even a borderline relief pitcher, never mind a prospectively great one.

Was it their bright idea that Lenny Dykstra, a package of talent to burn, should be bedeviled by a combination of injuries and, as a Met, inconsistency (not to mention the damn fool idea, because he’d hit some rather unexpectedly in the postseason, that he should try to become a power hitter), until the Mets felt compelled to trade him (with Roger McDowell, the prankishly flaky co-closer on the ’86 Mets) to the Phillies for Juan Samuel? A deal that looked smart at the time, because of Dykstra’s injury-marked inconsistencies, but turned out to look like one of the ugliest in Met history . . . until he proved finished by a series of back injuries and recklessness (the two may have gone hand-in-hand) after his brief ascension as a Phillie?

Was it their bright idea that Howard Johnson, a spare part in 1986 who came into his own in 1987 and would be one of the National League’s most feared hitters from 1987-91, should just drop out of sight completely at the plate after that?

Was it their bright idea that reaching the top of the heap should move the Mets’ front office to use their once-well-rebuilt minor league system to develop trading chips, mostly, while making (in Gooden’s own eventual words) “too many trades for guys who are used to getting their asses kicked. The guys who used to snap—Wally (Backman), Lenny, Ray (Knight), Keith, (Kevin) Mitch(ell)—they’re gone”?

Was it their bright idea to unload live-wire middle infielder Wally Backman to open an infield home for superprospect Gregg Jefferies, a superprospect who turned out to be ill-prepared for the major leagues in spite of his staggering minor league statistical performances? ([A]n outcast because he was an arrogant kid who thought he was better than everyone else—Roger McDowell.) A minor league super-phenom who turned out to be a middling major leaguer who looked like the hitter he was projected to be at times, otherwise chafed under bloated expectations (he eventually admitted he was bothered by the comparisons he often received to Mickey Mantle), but who refused coaching, reportedly, from anyone other than his father? Jefferies had to leave the Mets in a trade, after he’d turned the 1989-91 Met clubhouse into a mine field, in order to play serviceably, even competently, if nowhere near his promise as the best minor league prospect of the 1980s.

Jesse Orosco---Nailing down a World Series is never ugly.

Was it their bright idea to unload talented 1986 rookie Kevin Mitchell—a future MVP and home run champion, who wasn’t anywhere near the worst of the 1986 Mets—in favour of the talented but indifferent Kevin McReynolds when the World Series triumph was still so fresh? (McReynolds brought nothing to our club. He didn’t want to be there, so it didn’t matter to him. And Mitch, for all his faults, always wanted to be there. He was an intense ballplayer.—Bob Ojeda.) Because Mitchell’s hard, sometimes thuggish ghetto boyhood made the Mets’ brass a little too nervous about his prospective influence, ignoring that he was actually one of the clean Mets, a rookie clubhouse favourite known for giving competent haircuts to his teammates?

Was it their bright idea that the front office give Ray Knight the cold-shoulder after the ’86 Series, despite a solid comeback season and finishing as the World Series’ Most Valuable Player? (You were the key. You killed us.—Bruce Hurst, Red Sox pitcher, who had been voted the Series MVP award, until the Mets tied Game Seven on him and Knight, facing his reliever Calvin Schiraldi, broke the tie with a missile of a home run to lead off the bottom of the sixth.) At age 34, Knight was deemed obsolete with HoJo in the wings and Jefferies on the infield horizon. The Mets let Knight walk to the Baltimore Orioles; his unhappiness married to his age may have help speed his final decline. (Ray-Ray  was a leader. You can’t get rid of leadership and expect things to stay the same.—Roger McDowell.)

Cashen might have been willing to designate a pair of scapegoats, but Al Harazin, his assistant general manager, wasn’t. “If you give us credit for any of the success,” he told Pearlman, “then you have to give us blame for the downfall. But it’s impossible to keep the exact personnel all the time. Change in baseball is inevitable. You have no choice.” But you have the choices as to just how the changes could or should be made when necessary.

Wanting to cauterise the kind of wild and crazy atmosphere that seemed to dominate the 1986 Mets is one thing. A season of brawling, boozing, bimbo-chasing, and championship baseball with . . . the rowdiest team ever to put on a New York uniform—and maybe the best, read Pearlman’s subtitle. When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change, said Edmund Burke. If they were that desperate to end the wildness and craziness, Cashen, Harazin, and company were likewise blind to what they would get in return.

Darryl Strawberry’s story may be told best in The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw, written by Michael Sokolove (also known as Pete Rose’s most soberly relentless biographer, in Hustle: The Myth, Life, and Lies of Pete Rose). He seems today to understand his fatal flaw, the flaw that led him to drink, drugs, sexual excess, and finally dissipated talent. He even seems at peace with his baseball past, with the manner in which he destroyed his career, because he could not accept his own importance while feeling as though any and every performance short of “the black Ted Williams” (as he was, so help me, called as he ascended to the Mets and in his first year or two there) equaled disaster.

Dwight Gooden, a more composed soul than Strawberry (how often did we hear Gooden was as polite and as accommodating as Strawberry could be churlish and temperamental?),  has told his own story too candidly. It is, unfortunately, still far enough from resolved. Anguished nearly to the point of suicide by his fall and his substance abuse battles (he recently received probation for a 2010 DUI automobile crash that preceded his reported departure from his family), the man who once pitched a no-hitter in a Yankee uniform and dedicated it to his dying father, who prompted Sandy Koufax himself to say in 1985 that he’d trade his past for Gooden’s future, continues that struggle just as arduously.

I wasn’t ready for that kind of attention at nineteen. No teenager is. To be honest, I’m not sure I’m ready for it now.—Dwight Gooden, before the 1996 World Series.

We stole Dwight’s youth.—Davey Johnson, to Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post, when Gooden was admitted to Smithers in 1987.

Strawberry and Gooden were only the most visible elements that made and unmade the 1986 Mets. They weren’t even close to the only ones. It’s time to quit blaming them alone for the rise and collapse of the dynasty that never came to be. And it’s time to quit treating the 1986 Mets like the lepers of New York or any major league baseball. They weren’t the first great baseball team to rise on wild and crazy times and fall on wilder and crazier times, and they won’t be the last. And they weren’t the first, and won’t be the last, great baseball team to be dismantled almost before their staggering conquest really sank in, because their upper management panicked over the wild contingent and lost their vision in trying to neutralise it.

And for all that they aggravated, annoyed, and infuriated the opposition during that stupefying 1986 ride (“Can you beat these assholes?” someone in the Phillies’ spring training 1987 complex scribbled across a team portrait of the 1986 Mets for incentive), there wasn’t one team in the league who would have said no way, Jose if they’d been asked whether they’d have let themselves become the same band of evil angels if it meant they’d have won it all. Just ask the 1993 Phillies, who almost did win it all.

Look, I probably had it worse than most watching that team, in New York and elsewhere. I’d been (and still am) a Met fan since the day they were born, and a Red Sox fan (and still am) since the 1967 pennant race. Would you like to see my drug bills from October 1986?

So the 1986 Mets were their decade’s version of the Gas House Gang. You think the Gas House Gang were unofficially blacklisted from the memories of St. Louis? You think Philadelphia has performed a memory dump on the Philthy Phillies of 1993? You think the Bronx has kept the 1977 Yankees in terminal Phantom Zone exile? It’s well past time for New York to pull its head out from between the wrong pair of cheeks and give the 1986 Mets their due. There’s no reason for New York to ignore their World Series silver anniversary in a town where there are more excuses for Yankee anniversaries (let someone learn when any Yankee legend played his first Yankee game with a hangover and some jerk would initiate an anniversary commemoration for it) than there are protesters in the Occupy Wall Street throngs.

Yes, they were a great baseball team composed of flawed, sometimes self-destructive, sometimes tragic men, sometimes spectacularly so. (Name one team who ever celebrated an arduous league championship triumph by breaking an entire airplane.) But the key is in the first seven words of the preceding sentence: Yes, they were a great baseball team. The one thing they did harder than partying was playing baseball. Warts and otherwise, that is how the 1986 Mets deserve to be remembered. And, commemorated.

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