'It gets by Buckner'
The '86 Mets won 108 games and finished with a .667 record, the best in team history. But it was the dramatic postseason (and doing their part to fulfill "The Curse of the Bambino") that will be remembered. This is an abridged version of a commemorative story written before the 1996 season.
Here's a story that bears retelling in any recollection of the 1986 baseball season. On the one side were the Mets, representing New York's teeming masses with a swagger demanded by their manager. After consecutive seasons of strong second-place finishes, Davey Johnson used spring training to challenge his club not just to win but to dominate. "The mind-set," he recalled' "was that we were not going to be denied. I told them I didn't care if people didn't like us.''
Their opponents were the Red Sox, who brought their trademark pathos to the occasion. Unlike the upstart Mets, the American League survivors had a long and lamentable history of stumbling on the top step of baseball achievement. They hadn't laid claim to a championship since Babe Ruth pitched for his supper and they had carried the curse of the Bambino, whom their owner had sold to the hated Yankees, for more than six decades.
"If we had played any other club but Boston, there wouldn't have been as much hype," Mookie Wilson reflected this spring at the Mets' camp in Port St. Lucie. "We all know what's happened to Boston."
Indeed, the saga of the Red Sox lent a Shakespearean weight to the drama that unfolded over days in late October of 1986.
By all rights, it shouldn't have been the struggle it became. The Mets had taken Johnson's edict to heart and pillaged the National League. They were a remarkable blend of veteran leadership and youthful enthusiasm, power and speed, crackling offense and dependable defense, supported by a deep pitching staff.
"We had an army to conquer the world,'' Keith Hernandez noted. And conquer they did, seizing first place in the NL East on April 23 and romping to 108 victories, equaling the total amassed by Cincinnati's Big Red Machine in its signature season of 1975. The parade to the postseason featured brash boasts, periodic brawls and countless curtain calls that grated on opponents but swelled attendance in Flushing to record levels. The NL championship showdown against the Astros was a jarring reminder that anything can happen in a short series.
Tied after four games, the Mets won Game 5 on Lenny Dykstra's 12th-innning homer at Shea and then took Game 6 in a 16-inning marathon.
"We were exhausted afterward,'' Jesse Orosco said. "Every game in that series went to the wire.'' The "Astros," Wilson agreed, "wore us out. "
The Red Sox weren't expected to contend for so much as a division title at the beginning of the season and yet they not only finished atop the Al East but won the pennant in a manner even more theatrical than that of the Mets. They were one strike from elimination in Game 5.
Teased and taunted for generations, the Red Sox and their fans were about to suffer the cruelest blow of all. On the night of Oct. 25, they carried 3-2 game advantage into Flushing. Needing only one victory for their first world championship in 68 years, they assumed leads of 2-0 and 3-2, only to have the Mets tie the score on each occasion. Then, in the top of the 10th, Boston pushed across two runs against Rick Aguilera, setting the stage for the newspaper story alluded to earlier.
It was after midnight when the Red Sox took the field behind reliever Calvin Schiraldi, a former Met, and all the East Coast papers were under severe deadline pressure for their Sunday editions. None more so than the Boston Globe, which was preparing to tell its readers that the curse was banished, the sports equivalent of hell freezing over.
A gaggle of Globe reporters huddled quickly in the work room directly behind the press box to receive their assignments, not far from where Newsday staffers were meeting to divide the soils of a New York defeat. Schiraldi retired the first two batters, Wally Backman and Hernandez, on routine fly balls, and his teammates in the dugout advanced to the top step in anticipation of the greatest celebration of their lives. But Gary Carter lined a single. So did rookie Kevin Mitchell, a pinch hitter. And then Ray Knight, down to his last strike, hit a looping single to center, slicing the deficit, to a lone run.
The two newspaper "teams'' stopped talking to stare through the windows at the proceedings below. At the announcement that Schiraldi was being replaced by veteran Bob Stanley, a collective cry of anguish arose from the Globe contingent. "It's over,'' one of them yelled and he and his partners abruptly switched their discussion to covering the most colossal collapse in Boston annals despite the fact the Red Sox still maintained a 5-4 lead. They knew their history, even if the current players and manager John McNamara publicly discounted it.
As Stanley completed his warmup tosses, Wilson walked to the plate. "I just wanted to make sure I hit the ball, to give us a chance,'' he recalled. "The last thing I would have expected was a wild pitch.''
But with a 2-2 count, Stanley came inside and Wilson jackknifed out of the way. The ball sailed to the backstop, allowing Mitchell to score from third. Tie game.
"I still don't think it was a wild pitch,'' the batter said a decade later. "Maybe the ball moved. It was inside but I thought the catcher [Rich Gedman] could have caught it. After that, I thought, 'I'm free now. I can't lose."' Wilson fouled off the next two pitches and then topped a roller toward first base, guarded by sore-legged veteran Bill Buckner.
"When I hit the ball," Wilson sald, "I knew I could beat Stanley to the bag. I had no doubt. With two out, Buckner was playing deep. Even if he gets the ball, my chances are pretty good." But an infield hit only would have enabled Knight to advance from second to third.
Although the play served only to tie the Series at three victories apiece, it became the defining moment. Remember, the opponent was the Red Sox. Alter a day of rain, Boston took a 3-0 lead into the sixth inning of Game 7. Big deal. Eleven years earlier, the club took a 3-0 lead into the sixth inning of Game 7 against the Reds and lost, 4-3.
This time the Mets tied the score at 3-3 in the sixth and rolled to an 8-5 triumph. Knight's leadoff homer against Schiraldi in the seventh provided a jolt of confidence and Orosco closed out the proceedings with two hitless innings before flinging his glove into the night sky.
"I was one pitch from being a hero," Stanley deduced. "Now I guess you can call me a goat."
It sustained the Mets and their supporters through a frustrating and disappointing decade. It has increased the burden on the Red Sox, now 78 years removed from a championship. "I can't believe it's been 10 years." Hernandez said.