Did I miss it, or has someone written tributes to the 1986 Mets that I didn’t see? October 18 marks the 25th anniversary of the first game of the great 1986 World Series, and we just passed the 25th anniversary of perhaps the greatest division series ever, the one with the Houston Astros — you know, the one Tim McCarver famously called “an epic of our time … like Beowulf.”
Don’t people think silver anniversaries are important any more? Have the Mets’ miseries this past season — for the past few seasons, for that matter — drowned out memories of the one of the greatest teams and greatest seasons in baseball history?
I have a theory: The Mets’ fans get a pang when they remember the ’86 team because it was a dynasty that never happened.
They won 108 games, a total surpassed only by the 1975 Cincinnati Big Red Machine in the previous 77 years of baseball history. Where are the documentaries? Where are the specials? The Yankees have anniversaries about every eight months — where are the Mets’ fans when it comes to honoring their greatest team?
The 1986 New York Mets had more players than any other team who, at their peaks, were headed for the Hall of Fame and didn’t make it. A quick review:
Darryl Strawberry, who looked as good or better in 1986 than Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, or Duke Snider at the same age. In 1986, he was just 24 and already had hit 108 home runs.
Dwight Gooden was one of the youngest players ever to be named rookie of the year and the youngest ever to lead the league in strikeouts — and that by age 20! In 1986, Doc was just 21 years old and had already won 58 games.
How about Keith Hernandez? Nobody thinks of him now as a Hall of Fame candidate, but in 1986 he hit over .300 for the seventh time in his career and was on the verge of living down the ugly drug-related incidents back in St. Louis. With the possible exception of Don Mattingly, he was the best fielding first baseman in baseball. Suppose he had hit over .300 for, say, three more seasons? How many people would have argued against him for Cooperstown? He was 33 in 1986 and should not have faded so quickly. But he had just four more seasons to play in MLB, and his last two seasons were miserable: in 1989 he hit .233 in 75 games, and the following season, after being traded to Cleveland, hit .200 in 43 games, pulling his career average below .300.
And then there was Ron Darling — or, as a gay friend of mine used to call him “Ron, Darling.” No one thinks that Darling was on the way to a HOF career, but in 1986, at age 25, he had gone 15-6 with a 2.81 ERA and pitched 18 consecutive scoreless innings against the Red Sox in the World Series. That made him 44-24 for three full major-league seasons and part of a fourth. Who can say how good he could be? But something happened to his fastball, and only two more seasons did he ever again have more than 14 victories in a season — 1988, when he won 17, and 1992, with Oakland, when he won 15. When he retired in 1995, he had won just 20 more games for his career than he lost.
Ah, and then there was Sid Fernandez. For most of his career he pitched at least 30-40 pounds overweight, and the strain it put on his left arm and shoulder left him largely ineffective after 1992. But, man, at his best he might have been the hardest pitcher in baseball to get a hit off of. He was 24 in 1986 and was 16-6. In fact, he was harder to hit at his peak than Dwight Gooden at his: Three times Fernandez led the league in “Lowest Batting Average Against.” How good was that? Well, Whitey Ford never did it once.
In fact, throughout his disappointing career, Sid held hitters to a .235 batting average. Warren Spahn, who won 363 games in his career, allowed a .244 BA. Walter Johnson, at the very least the greatest pitcher before 1930 and winner of 417 games, held opponents to a .227 BA. Think about that: Nobody could get a hit off Fernandez and yet he wound up at just 114-96 for a .543 W-L percentage. He stands — or perhaps sits — today as one of the biggest or at least the heaviest puzzles in Mets history.
I could name several other players on the 1986 roster who looked like potential HOFers, but let me close with the closer, Jesse Orosco. With the possible exception of Randy Johnson, Orosco inspired more butt-ugly jokes than any other player in baseball. He stuck around so long and was mediocre-to-bad for so many seasons that nobody remembers how good he was looking at the end of the ’86 season. From 1979-1986, when he was only 29, Jesse had won 44 games and saved 91; from 1982 through 1986 his ERAs were 2.72, 1.47, 2.59, 2.73 and, in 1986, 2.33.
Actually, the player on the ’86 Mets who most deserved the HOF was Gary Carter, who was one of the — what? — eight best catchers in baseball history. But Carter, who retired after the 1992 season, had to wait through six years of eligibility to finally get his plaque.
In 1986 everyone remembers the Red Sox as still being under the “Curse of the Bambino,” or whatever. But in retrospect a quarter of a century later, it seems like it was the Mets who were cursed.