The date, October 11, 1986. The location, Shea Stadium, Flushing, Queens, New York. The event, Game 3 of the NLCS. The participants, New York Mets vs. Houston Astros. The hero, Wally Backman. The protagonist, me, a slight 11-year-old kid on the cusp of 12.
Baseball was my life as it was for most American kids in the 1980s.
I was a rabid Mets fan (still am) and my friend Kenny, who had invited me along to the game, was an Astros fan. How did a kid growing up on the Jersey Shore become an Astros fan you might ask? It was all about the uniform. He fell in love early and never let go. Even as a Mets fan, I believe the rainbow jersey stands as the greatest uniform in the history of baseball and possibly all of sports.
Kenny and I were there with his dad and his dad’s friend. His dad’s friend had gotten the tickets because he worked for Topps Baseball cards.
(Sidenote: working at Topps at the height of the 80s baseball card craze was the single coolest job an 11-year-old could conceive.)
There’s Something Special About October Baseball
As for the weather it was a typical fall day, crisp and overcast but there was nothing typical about this day. We were in the upper deck along the 3rd baseline. It was a day game and Ron Darling was on the mound. I was a ball of kinetic energy as I sat in my seat barely able to contain my excitement. This was my first playoff game and I’m not afraid to admit that I would act the exact same way if I was sitting in the stands for a Mets playoff game today.
My high hopes were quickly dashed however as the Mets gave up four runs in the first two innings.
I was despondent. My Mets were losing and my favorite player, Wally Backman, wasn’t even playing. I remember the mockery that Kenny was quietly shoveling my way. For five and a half innings I sat there taking his taunts and quietly saying prayers to my gods of baseball, Seaver, Staub, Jones, and Agee. My Holy Quaternity of former Mets.
In the bottom of the 6th inning, our fortunes changed. Singles by Kevin Mitchell and Keith Hernandez put two on. Then “The Kid” walked up to the plate. Gary Carter was larger than life in 1986 and I felt it in my bones that he was going to deliver. He did deliver but in the form of a grounder that was fumbled by the shortstop. It was enough though to bring Mitchell across the plate, push Hernandez to second, and land Carter safely on first. Then the big man, Daryl Strawberry strolled up to the plate and launched a rocket deep into the right-field seats. I leaped from my seat and the hot dog I held in my hand flew from the bun landing somewhere in the lower deck. I didn’t care; I still had my Cracker Jacks.
Mets Small Ball To Rule Them All
The Astros scored one run in the top of the 7th and there it stood 5-4 Astros until the bottom of the 9th. The Astros closer, Dave Smith, was on the mound and he was a beast that year. Sub 3.00 ERA and 33 saves. Due up for the Mets was my man, Wally, Danny Heep (a former Astro), and Nails, himself, Lenny Dykstra.
I can remember that half-inning like it happened yesterday. Wally dug in from the left side of the plate and took the first two pitches. As he took a couple of practice swings he didn’t indicate what would come next but it was Wally Backman and everyone should have expected it. Smith wound and delivered, Wally leaned towards first and dragged a perfect bunt between the pitcher and first baseman. He took the scenic way to first to avoid the tag and wound up sliding sideways into and over first base. Safe.
Danny Heep stood in the batter’s box as Wally took a lead in his dirt-covered uniform. Smith delivered and Heep squared to bunt but fouled the ball back into the stands. He was trying to sacrifice Backman to 2nd in the hopes that Dykstra could drive him in. On the second pitch, Smith came in high and tight on Heep and the ball slipped off the glove of the catcher and towards the backstop. Wally easily advanced to 2nd on the passed ball. Heep had the advantage but popped a lazy fly ball to center field for the first out.
Just a Base Hit…Just a Base Hit…Just Get on Base
This brought up Dykstra. I kept muttering to myself – Just a base hit…just a base hit…just get on base. I just wanted Lenny to keep the inning alive. My entire life was focused on that moment. Lenny took a big swing on Smith’s first pitch and fouled it back. My first 11 years on this planet were relatively easy so I had no idea what true stress was until that moment. Lenny was swinging for the fences and all I wanted was a bloop single to keep this going.
Smith stood tall on the mound as Wally took a modest lead off 2nd. Nails dug in, Smith looked at Wally then back to the plate and delivered a fastball. Lenny swung with all his might and connected. I grabbed Kenny and squeezed his arm as tightly as I could as my Cracker Jacks poured onto the stadium floor. I watched that ball sail over the right-field fence and into the bullpen. Lenny had done it! A two-run home run to win game 3 of the NLCS! The stadium erupted, all except for Kenny and the few scattered Astros fans. My throat was horse within seconds as I screamed with all my pre-pubescent might along with the rest of my 55,000 newly found best friends.
That was it. The game was over and my Mets had won. They were now up 2-1 in the series and that much closer to their first World Series since 1973. I couldn’t believe it. I was beside myself with joy and as any 11-year-old would do to a friend, I rubbed it in Kenny’s smug face.
As we walked down the ramps towards the parking lot a chant began to rise around me. It started softly at first. A faint one-word, two-syllable sound. Len-ny. Len-ny. Len-ny. Voices all around me joined in and the chant grew louder. Len-ny. Len-ny. Len-ny. Voices young and old joined the chorus of fanatics.
Nearly everyone was in unison as we descended those ramps. I say nearly because one very horse and faltering voice didn’t join in. Instead of cheering on Lenny, I began to chant the name of my favorite Met. With a rasp in my voice and a tickle in my throat I began chanting Wal-ly, Wal-ly, Wal-ly, as loudly as I could muster because I knew that if it hadn’t been for Wally Backman’s drag bunt and his grit to reach 1st base then the Mets might not have won the game. He was my MVP for that game. He was the dirt and the grass and the joy of baseball. He was this scrawny and scrappy 11-years-old’s inspiration.
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In that frozen moment in time Wally Backman was everything I loved and love about baseball.