Book Excerpt:

One Oh Eight, Eighty-Six

Unlike agonizing 1985, with its drama and heart-rending finish, 1986 cuddled a Mets fan and whispered, “Nothing bad’s gonna happen. Nothing bad.” A Mets fan couldn’t believe this type of optimism. All good things either came crashing down or were won after countless hours of angst. Even the first two pennant-winning Mets clubs endured many moments of doubt. This team would be different. Oh, really? Really.

This team was built to dominate. The 1985 team won 98 games, so no overhaul was needed. The new pieces were designed to fill specific needs. Southpaw Ojeda came over from the Red Sox in a trade involving eight players, most noatbly Calvin Schiraldi. Ojeda prospered with the change of scenery and getting away from Fenway Park’s short fence in left field. He was one of four Mets pitchers to start the season with a 5-0 record. Tim Teufel also came over from the American League. The former Twin gave the Mets something they’d never had in a second baseman: power. He also produced from the right side, something switch-hitting Wally Backman never could. That second base platoon begat limited job sharing by Howard Johnson-Rafael Santana at shortstop, George Foster-Danny Heep in left, and Lenny Dykstra-Mookie Wilson in center. The flexibility in the lineup made the Mets far more formidable offensively.

Davey Johnson, armed with a three-year extension, wasn’t concerned about hurt feelings. These were grown men. And he had no intention of finishing second for the third straight year.

The season began in Pittsburgh. New York would pummel the Pirates 17 of 18 times as initiation to rookie manager Jim Leyland. (The only Bucs blemish in 1986 came in the first game of a makeup doubleheader in June, when leadoff man Barry Bonds hit his second career home run.) The Mets reached their nadir at the home opener when they fell to the Cardinals in 13 innings. The Mets were 2-3 with Randy Niemann, the only pitcher who would spend all season with the club and finish with a losing record, absorbing two defeats in the first five games.

The Mets embarked on an 11-game winning streak, tying a franchise record, and laying waste to the National League East by the end of April. New York swept through St. Louis in style. The Mets tied the series opener in the top of the ninth on a home run by Howard Johnson off Todd Worrell; they won an inning later. On Saturday, a ninth-inning Cardinals rally was scotched on Wally Backman’s diving stop that turned a game-winning hit into a game-ending double play . . . on national television.

“I could see the frustration in their faces,” Keith Hernandez said of the Cardinals after the four-game sweep. “You can see the way they look as they make a right and head back toward their dugout.”

Yes, the ’86 Mets were cocky. They were involved in brawls, blowouts, and barroom brouhahas. They had the ex-boxer Knight taking on massive Dodgers reliever Tom Niedenfuer in May. David Palmer, a former teammate of Gary Carter’s, resented “The Kid’s” fist-pumping curtain call after his second home run in as many innings; so he drilled Darryl Strawberry with the next pitch. When Straw came calling, Palmer threw his glove at the outfielder’s face. Nothing he threw that night was effective. Just after the All-Star Game, a celebration of the birth of Teufel’s first child turned into a fracas with off-duty Houston police officers; four Mets were arrested. New York lost the next three games at the Astrodome, including a 15-inning affair that was the longest game the team played all season . . . but they’d take it later at the dome in October.

Even after a bad series in Houston, the Mets were still 60-28 midway through July. They swept the next series in Cincinnati, punctuated by Knight grappling with sinewy Reds speedster Eric Davis after a hard slide. Ejections forced the Mets to put pitchers in the outfield as the game dragged on, but—surprise!—they won, anyway.

The Mets had barrel-chested rookie Kevin Mitchell starting games at shortstop in Davey Johnson’s “power lineup.” Mitchell played five other positions, too. he spent more time in left field, as did Mookie Wilson. Incumbent George Foster suggested his benching was racially motivated, although it was pointed out that Mitchell, Wilson, and Foster were the same color. Foster was cut on August 7. Davey Johnson had been calling for the move even before the Foster flap, but the incident caused a few singed feelings on the club about the way it was handled. Lee Mazzilli, one-time Shea heartthrob and now just holding on as a pinch hitter, took Foster’s place on the roster.

Lenny Dykstra, playing 138 games in center field, took over the leadoff spot against righthanders, and batted .295 in his first full season in the majors. Though not known for his arm, he started one of the most unlikely double plays of the year to end the most successful West Coast trip (8-1) in club history. After blowing a 5-0 lead earlier in the game, the Mets’ one-run lead in the bottom of the 11th in San Diego looked shaky. Tim Flannery singled to center as Gary Templeton raced to the plate from second base. Playing shallow, Dykstra fired to catcher John Gibbons, who absorbed a collision and held on to the ball. Hearing pitcher Doug Sisk call for him to throw to third base, Gibbons got off the ground and threw to Howard Johnson to nail Flannery to end the game.

Set to clinch after just 139 games, the club experienced its worst slump of the year: six losses in seven games. After getting swept in Philadelphia, a two-game split in St. Louis denied the Mets the pleasure of clinching in the place where it had all ended in anguish a year before. On the bright side, it allowed them to celebrate at home. Dwight Gooden, whose emergence in 1984 had signaled a sea change in the club’s fortunes, captured the clincher with his 55th career win at the tender age of 21. The fans tore the place apart. The team celebrated with gusto, too.

A week later the Mets won their 100th game. They beat Ed Lynch, the Brooklyn native who’d been a Met for five years only to be traded to the Cubs. (Lynch had also endured the celebration at Shea from the opposing side.) The Mets reeled off eight wins in their last nine games to finish with a 108 wins, eight more than the 1969 club.

The Mets won in very conceivable fashion. They shutout opponents 11 times, they beat them in one-run games 29 times (against 20 losses), and, not surprisingly, won more extra-inning games (13) than any Mets team in history. They’d need all that extra-inning practice for October.

By the Numbers

5 Number of Mets on the 1986 All-Star team, the most in franchise history. Four were starters: Dwight Gooden, Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, and Darryl Strawberry. Sid Fernandez struck out the side in his inning of work.

Trivia

Which future Met made the last out of the division-clinching game at Shea stadium on September 17, 1986?

By the Numbers

21 ˝ The number of games the Mets finished ahead of the Phillies in 1986. It was the largest margin in the National League since the Pirates won by 27 ˝ games in 1902, the year before the first World Series between the NL and AL.

Trivia Answer: Chico Walker. Walker, batting leadoff for Chicago, grounded out to Wally Backman to give the Mets their first division title since 1973. Walker would play for the Mets in 1992 and 1993, homering in his final major league at bat on October 3, 1993.

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