Thursday, April 24, 2014

The 1986 Mets Squandered Greatness

A recent analysis appearing in The New York Times suggests that the presently hapless "other" major league team in New York  has an unusually high number of committed fans born in 1978 whose allegiance was probably cemented by the Mets epic season in 1986 when they--the fans--were eight years old. But from a longer perspective, where one great season does not a great team make, the '86 Mets turned out to be mere pretenders to greatness with dysfunctional superstars Gooden and Strawberry--a dynasty that should have been, but was not.

The 1986 Mets and Squandered Greatness

Must be something about spring.  A data-pattern analysis on the blog FiveThirtyEight addresses the issue of what age political partisan loyalties are formed--"Partisan Loyalty Begins at Age 18"--and, more relevant to this blog, a data-pattern analysis in an article by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz in the April 20 Sunday Review section of The New York Times asserts that life-long baseball team allegiances--especially for males--correlates to their team's winning performance when they were in their baseball-formative years between eight (especially eight) and twelve years old.  (  Female fans, by contrast, can be hooked on their favorite team at different points of their lives. That said, the eight-years-old marker for team loyalty helps to explain for me the uncompromising rooting interest of Missy the Mets Fan, a professional colleague whose live-or-die-by-the-Mets'-fortunes during the baseball season has seemed to me extraordinarily self-punishing in recent years, beginning with the Mets' back-to-back folds in 2007 and 2008, not to mention their final batter in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS being flummoxed by a devastating Adam Wainwright curve. Turns out, Missy the Mets Fan was eight years old in 1986.

Unlike now, in 1986 the Mets were up and the Yankees down.  The Mets went into first place to stay on April 22--their tenth game of the year--in the midst of an eleven-game winning streak and 18 wins in 19 games.  By mid-June they were up by 11-1/2.  They ended the season with a 21-1/2 game advantage in the NL East, having won two-thirds of their games--108 in total.  They went on to win a thrilling NLCS against the Astros in six games, winning Game 5 in 12 innings and capping it off with a 16-inning triumph in Game 6 in Houston in which they overcame a 3-0 deficit in the ninth inning, could not hang on to a one-run lead in the 14th and gave back two of the three runs they scored in the 16th before, finally, securing the out that sent the Mets to their first World Series since 1973.  (For that season, see my post from last summer, "Last on the 4th of July: The 1973 NL Champion New York Mets,"  That, of course, was nothing compared to being one strike away from losing Game 6 and the World Series to Boston, only for the Red Sox to be snakebit once more (courtesy or Bill Buckner, but he not alone) as the Mets rallied for an improbable win and came from behind to win Game 7 as well.

If that doesn't build a strong following among impressionable young fans, it's hard to imagine what would. The Mets became the baseball powerhouse in New York City for the rest of the decade, certainly as far as winning ways were concerned.  They also drew more fans to Shea Stadium every year between 1984 and 1992 than the Yankees did in their far-more storied stadium.  The Mets dominated.  They intimidated.  They had swagger, which played especially well in The Big Apple because the 1980s Yankees had lost theirs, which can happen when--despite high profile free agent signings--the team in the Bronx failed to live up to the expectations of a demanding owner and a demanding Gotham fan-base, perhaps made more demanding by the perennial championship expectations of Boss Steinbrenner.  Anyway, the Mets had swagger.  They had no doubt they were the best on the field.  They were great in their own mind.  Two years later they won their division by 15 games, with 100 wins, only to be upended in their quest for another championship in the NLCS by the Los Angeles Dodgers, who they had beaten 10 times in 11 games during the regular season.

The Mets had Darryl Strawberry, whose arrival as a 21-year old rookie sensation in 1983 heralded great things to come; over the next five years (1984-88), Strawberry was possibly the most feared slugger in the league, hitting 160 home runs and driving home 474 runs.  They had Doc Gooden, whose arrival as a 19-year old rookie sensation in 1984 started the Mets' glory days.  Through his first five years in the big leagues (1984-88), Dr. K was 91-35 with a .722 winning percentage.  Both seemed on their way to Hall of Fame careers until derailed by drug and alcohol abuse.  Perhaps the Mets' most indispensable players when it came to inculcating a winning ethos were Keith Hernandez, a slick-fielding first baseman and clutch hitter, who came to the Mets in a 1983 mid-season trade and assumed a veteran leadership role that he shared along with catcher Gary Carter, who came to the Mets in 1985.  In 1987 the Shea faithful were introduced to David Cone, who was a sparkling 20-3 when the Mets won their second division title in three years in 1988. They had gritty role players and fan favorites like Lenny Dykstra, Mookie Wilson, Wally Backman and Ray Knight (not to mention sentimental favorite Lee Mazzilli).  And pulling it all together, the Mets had Davey Johnson as manager, who was on the cutting edge of computer literacy and quantitative analysis to guide him strategically over a full season and tactically in making in-game decisions on hitters and pitchers.

With a 488-320 record over five years, translating to a .604 winning percentage, the Mets were the best team in baseball between 1984 and 1988.  They were the only major league team to be genuinely competitive all five of those years.  But they went to the World Series just once and finished first in the NL East only twice, when they likely could have won four division titles in a row, beginning in 1985, were it not for injuries, substance abuse and the inspired play of the St. Louis Cardinals.  In both 1985 and 1987, the Mets came up three games short to the Cardinals, but they might have won the division both years were it not for one or the other of their two best players being missing in action for an extended time during the season: in 1985, Strawberry missed more than a quarter of the season with a ligament injury suffered in early May, and the Mets went 20-23 in his absence on their way to an otherwise excellent 98-64 record; and in 1987, Gooden missed the first 50 games of the season--the Mets going 25-25 on their way to 92-70--while undergoing rehab for cocaine abuse.  Lesson not learned, living on the wild side with all its attendant curses remained a problem for Gooden (and Strawberry) for the remainder of their years with the Mets.

The 1986 Mets had one of the great seasons of all time, certainly in terms of post-season drama.  Their 108 wins tied the 1975 Big Red Machine for the third-most in National League history,  trailing only the 1906 Cubs (116 wins) and 1909 Pirates (110).  But the ultimate legacy of their 1986 championship that was at the center of their five-year run from 1984 to 1988 with the best record in baseball is one of fast and furious underachievement for what could and perhaps should have been.  Their unraveling began in 1989 with consecutive second-place finishes, and the Mets turned to self-destruction in 1991. They burned out too soon, burned out because of undisciplined immaturity, and a sort of teenage-like belief in their own indestructibility, all of which was manifest in the wild lifestyles of their best players that epitomized, in part, an American culture at the time that many condemned for drug and alcohol abuse and an emphasis on individual fulfillment rather than any collective good.

That said, their epic 1986 season--and particularly how they won both the NLCS and then the World Series--their promise and potential, and maybe even their "bad guys" persona, was the inspirational foundation for a generation of Mets fans (including Missy) . . . who are now, alas . . . long-suffering Mets fans.


  1. I became a Mets fan in the early 70's. Living and growing up in South Dakota and Colorado, I fell in love with the Miracle Mets story of 69 and adopted them as my team, since I had no other in the states I lived.

    Fortunately, the Colorado Rockies were born in '93, and I have been a Rockhead ever since. Attending every Opening Day and suffering through some miserable seasons, at least we made it to the Series in '07.

    Happy to no longer be a Mets fan!