On October 18, 1986, the World Series between the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox began. Little did we know, it would turn into one of the most memorable in baseball history.
All these years later it is hard to really convey how cocky New York Mets fans were in 1986. The Mets owned the city, owned it entirely. Every bartender who wanted to earn a tip made sure the 108-win Mets were on the TV as people lined up to get their drink and their Mets on.
Even a Manhattan bar run by a minority owner of the Yankees had no choice but to put the Mets on the tube. And given that in the mid-1980s parts of New York still did not have cable, the idea of multiple-set cable setup was something only top-of-the-line sports bars could manage. And then in a Houston instant, it looked like it all might evaporate in a Championship Series from hell.
But the Mets pulled out wins in their last at-bat for their final three wins, two of those coming in a white-knuckle, 27-hour, 28-inning span played in two time zones. The Mets won Game Six of the NLCS in 16 innings at the Astrodome, trashed the interior of the plane, and landed in New York only to get scolded by GM Frank Cashen for their boorish behavior. If fans were cocky, you can only guess how cocksure the Mets were!
A couple of days later I was on a flight north from college in Virginia for Game One of the 1986 World Series at Shea Stadium against the Boston Red Sox. My buddy, Paul, who traveled up by bus, had a much tougher time getting north in time. My dad finagled tickets for two games at Shea, but he said I must choose: Games One and Two or Games Six and Seven. Fuggedaboutit!
There probably won’t even be a sixth or seventh game. (I told you how cocky Mets fans were—if you have further doubts watch the “Let’s Go Mets” video that played between every inning at Shea that fall; try it with the sound off.)
No matter how you got there, the first thing that hit you as we arrived in Flushing was the cold. Look at the box score today and it says 50 degrees at game time, with a 9-mile wind, but it cut through the ski jacket I’d dug out of the closet at home. I wasn’t the only one feeling it.
As the Mets lined up along the first-base line for introductions, the Mets all wore jackets or at least had turtlenecks or long sleeves—except for the bare-armed Keith Hernandez and Tim Teufel. After an inning, Teufel went into the clubhouse and put on a sweatshirt under his pullover jersey with the racing stripes.
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Few of the starters on either side had ever played in a World Series. Boston’s Bill Buckner had last appeared in the 1974 World Series; Dwight Evans had been the right fielder in the epic 1975 Fall Classic against the Reds; and Jim Rice had been an injured rookie forced to watch the ’75 goings-on from the bench.
Among the mostly homegrown Mets, Hernandez was the only starter who’d appeared in a World Series, helping the Cardinals take the 1982 world championship. Reserve infielder Howard Johnson had one at-bat in the 1984 Series for the victorious Tigers.
Mets starting pitcher Ron Darling had grown up in Worcester, Massachusetts, where the cult of the Red Sox was strong and he’d even attended the 1975 World Series as a teenager. He’d gone to Yale and was a first-round pick by way of the Texas Rangers, who’d traded Darling and Walt Terrell for Lee Mazzilli on April 1, 1982. The Mets turned Terrell into HoJo and had picked up Mazzilli to fortify their bench in August of ’86. If only all Mets trades could work out that well.
Despite the cold, Darling was on fire. The only baserunner he allowed through the first 11 hitters was erased on a double play. With two outs in the fourth, however, he allowed a single to Billy Buck and then wild pitched him to second. Darling walked Rice but got out of the jam by inducing Evans to fly out.
The Mets made Red Sox starter Bruce Hurst work hard, with runners in scoring position in the second, third, and fourth innings while stealing two bases. They stranded five through four frames. The Mets put two runners on base with nobody out in the sixth, but Hurst got Darryl Strawberry looking and then Ray Knight bounced into an around-the-horn double play.
The seventh inning was the turning point. It began with a walk to Rice and then a wild pitch moved him to second. That was key because a grounder back to the mound that might have been a double play was just the first out of the inning. Boston catcher Rich Gedman had grown up in Worcester and attended rival St. Peter’s, where he faced Darling at St. John’s of Shrewsbury.
Gedman had gotten the better of the matchup in high school, but Darling got him to hit a ground ball to second. The ball skipped under Teufel’s glove and Rice chugged around to break the scoreless tie. As if that wasn’t tough enough for Darling, he collided with on-deck hitter Dave Henderson while backing up home plate on Strawberry’s throw home.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen three players move in such an all-out way toward the same spot on the field,” Darling later wrote in The Complete Game. Vin Scully, calling the game for NBC and 36 years into a 67-year broadcasting career, said he’d never seen such a collision before, noting that both players went “heels over tea kettle.”
Henderson and Darling would be all right, the Sox center fielder coming out the better as his team had a 1-0 lead. Darling got through the inning. After Teufel tried to make amends with a single, Kevin Mitchell was caught looking and Mookie Wilson grounded out to end another Mets threat. Boston loaded the bases in the ninth against Roger McDowell, so Boston manager John McNamara pinch-hit for Hurst. The game remained 1-0 and Calvin Schiraldi entered for the Red Sox.
Schiraldi knew Shea. He was the key piece for Boston in the Mets’ biggest offseason move, an eight-player deal that brought Bob Ojeda to New York. Schiraldi, a former first-round pick out of the University of Texas, had been thrust into the closer’s role for the Red Sox. He’d excelled, pitching to a 1.41 ERA with nine saves. Despite a blown save against the Angels in the ALCS, he’d closed out Games Five and Seven as the Red Sox rallied to take the pennant after being down three games to one.
He walked the leadoff batter. Knight, who’d hit into a double play earlier, bunted the first pitch. McNamara had replaced Buckner at first base with Dave Stapleton—a move he repeated in every Boston win that October (and famously did not do in Game Six a week later). Stapleton grabbed the hard bunt, spun, threw to second, and barely got Strawberry. With far less drama, Schiraldi retired the next two batters and the Red Sox had the opener.
Though perhaps a little concerned, cocky Mets fans expected the Mets to even the World Series with Dwight Gooden pitching the next night. The Mets lost again.
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For me, it was a very long flight from New York back down south, feeling like I’d come from Vegas where I’d seen a sure thing land on red instead of black on the roulette wheel. The losses went beyond baseball for me, as most of my savings meant to last the school year were invested in the wrong games, the wrong weekend. I’d be more than happy to watch the events unfold at Shea from Paul’s dorm room a week later, safe and warm and spectacular.