Believe it or not, there was a time in New York when the Yankees
did not own the city. Twenty years ago, New York was a Mets’ town.
On August 19th, the Mets staged a 20th anniversary celebration of the 1986 championship team with a reunion at Shea Stadium. The Mets rolled to a 108-54 record that season, winning the National League East Division title by a whopping 21 1/2 games. They went on to defeat the Houston Astros in the NL championship series and the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.
One could debate where the 1986 Mets rank in relation to some of the greatest teams of all time, but one thing is for sure. It was a wild bunch with quite a cast of characters. The Mets played hard on the field and partied just as hard off it. In that regard, they had the perfect manager in Davey Johnson, who was anything but a disciplinarian. Those Mets were smug and arrogant but they knew how to win and they were adored by their fans.
The ’86 Mets were led by two young budding superstars who seemed to have Hall of Fame talent before their lives and careers were derailed by drug addictions. With an overpowering fastball, pitcher Dwight Gooden was the ace of the staff, posting a 17-6 record with a 2.84 ERA. The year before, when the Mets were edged out of the division title by the St. Louis Cardinals on the final weekend, Gooden fashioned one of the greatest seasons in major league history as a 21-year-old. In 1985, Gooden was virtually unhittable, going 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA.
Strawberry was the Mets’ other young star, hitting monstrous home runs. In 1986, he belted 27 homers and drove in 93 runs. Those numbers seem fairly modest but this was before the home run explosion in the late 1990s. A decade later, Strawberry helped lead the cross-town Yankees to their first World Series title in 18 years.
If you are a Mets’ fans – and there’s a few left (just kidding, Mets fans) – the names of the players on that team easily roll off your tongue. Gary Carter, who never met a camera he didn’t like, behind the plate, Keith Hernandez (of Seinfeld fame) at first base, Wally Backman at second, Rafael Santana at shortstop and Ray Knight (husband of LPGA golfer Nancy Lopez) at third base. The starting outfield consisted of Mookie Wilson in left field, Lenny Dykstra in center field and Strawberry in right field. Wilson, perhaps the most popular Met of that era,
forever will be remembered for hitting the ground ball that went through the legs of Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner to allow the Mets to win Game Six of the ’86 World Series. Top reserves included Kevin Mitchell, Howard Johnson and Tim Teufel.
Gooden anchored a deep rotation that also featured Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Bob Ojeda and Rick Aguilera. Roger McDowll and Jesse Orosco shared the closer duties.
While the regular season was a cakewalk for the Mets, the postseason was anything but. They needed six games to dispach the pesky Astros in the NLCS and the clinching game was a 16-inning epic in the Astrodome. Actually, the Mets needed extra innings to win the last two games of the series. They won the fifth game, 2-1, on a single in the bottom of the 12th inning by Carter, who was just 1-for-21 in the series to that point.
The Mets were three outs away from being forced to win a seventh game on the road against Houston ace Mike Scott when they rallied for three runs in the top of the ninth to tie game six, 3-3. After each team scored a run in the 14th, the Mets appeared to put away the Astros with three runs in the top of the 16th inning. But Houston wouldn’t go quietly, scoring two runs off Orosco in the bottom half. With two outs and runners on first and second, Orosco finally put away the Astros by striking out Kevin Bass. The Mets captured their third National League pennant with the other titles coming in 1969 and 1973.
However, the NLCS was merely a warmup for what followed in the World Series. The road team won the first four won games of the series before Boston claimed the fifth game on home turf to grab a 3-2 lead. The series shifted back to New York for game six and the
Red Sox found themselves one strike away from their first World Series title since 1918 after scoring two runs in the top of the 10th inning.
NBC was setting up for its celebration in the Boston clubhouse and the scoreboard at Shea Stadium briefly flashed a message, congratulating the Red Sox.
Two outs, nobody on base. What could happen? Everything.
Calvin Schiraldi couldn’t get the last out, giving up consecutive singles to Carter, Mitchell and Ray Knight that pulled the Mets within a run. Red Sox manager John McNamara brought in Bob Stanley to face Wilson and it turned into one of the most dramatic at-bats in World Series history. With the count at 2-2, Wilson fouled off two pitches to stay alive. On the seventh offering, Stanley uncorked a wild pitch, scoring Mitchell with the tying run. Incredibly, Wilson fouled off two more deliveries before hitting a slow roller to first base on the 10th pitch of the at-bat. Somehow, the ball got past Bucker and Knight scored the winning from second base to give the Mets a 6-5 victory.
You can still here the incredulous voice of the late Mets announcer Bob Murphy describing the play: “And the pitch by Stanley. And a ground ball, trickling – it’s a fair ball. Gets by Buckner. Rounding third is Knight. The Mets will win the ballgame. The Mets win. They win.”
An excellent hitter who recorded more than 2,700 hits, Bucker probably will be haunted by that single play until the day he dies. Even after the Red Sox finally won the World Series two years ago, the fans could not forgive him. McNamara also was villified for not making a defensive replacement. McNamara wanted the veteran Buckner on the field when the Red Sox won the World Series but he managed with his heart and not his head as Buckner never was known as a great defensive player.
Red Sox fans have long memories. Buckner was booed until July of the following season, when the Red Sox released him probably more for his own good than anything else. A decade later, Bucker was managing a Red Sox minor league team in New england and still getting booed. The abuse got so bad that Bucker finally left Boston for good and never has been back.
Scheduled for a Sunday night, Game Seven was postponed due to heavy rain, meaning it would go head-to-head with a Monday night football game between the New York and Washington Redskins at Giants Stadium. That was one of the most remarkable sports nights in New York history as many fans brought radios to the Meadowlands.
What some fans may not recall about Game Seven is that the Red Sox actually grabbed a 3-0 lead but there was no way the Mets weren’t going to win after what happened two nights earlier. They rallied for an 8-5 victory, joining the ’69 “Miracle Mets” as the only teams in franchise history to win World Series crowns.
In retrospect, the Mets of that era probably should have won more than just one championship. They missed the playoffs in defense of their title in 1987 and suffered a disappointing loss to the underdog Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1988 NLCS, but at least the Mets weren’t alone that season. The Dodgers went on to sweep the heavily favored Oakland Athletics in one of the biggest upsets in World Series history.