Reese Kaplan -- "What We Need Right Now is a Wild Pitch!"

With the 30th anniversary of the 1986 Mets World Series championship season, a lot of people are reminiscing about where they were, what they were doing and what impact that period of time had on their lives.

I had been dating my now-wife for about a year and one of the foundations of compatibility we had a was undying loyalty to the Mets.  She was living in Queens Village and there was more than one occasion when we made the journey shorter by starting out or ending up at her apartment rather than trekking back or from New Jersey where I was living at the time.  She grew up during the Rusty Staub years – her favorite player – whereas my fan DNA could be traced to my earliest childhood.

For Game 6 we had been invited to a friend’s home to have a group gathering in New Jersey of mostly Yankee fans who were begrudgingly accepting that the Mets had indeed advanced to the biggest stage but were also indulging in some schadenfreude with the Red Sox up by a 3-2 margin and able to vanquish the Curse of the Bambino once and for all.  The only thing that would have made it more perfect for them would have been to have the backdrop of the Green Monster when the champagne poured, but this game took place at Shea Stadium.

Behind another strong start by Roger Clemens the Red Sox look poised for easy victory, but the Mets kept it close in the middle innings after Bobby Ojeda found his rhythm, but by the time both starters were gone in the 9th inning, the Mets found themselves behind 5-3.  The announcers had commented extensively about how no team had ever come from behind in the World Series.

As the Mets came up in the bottom of the 9th it surely looked like it was all over.  The elation of the 108 win 1986 season after all those long years of misery was about come crashing down.  It just couldn’t be happening!

First came pesky now AAA manager Wally Backman who served as the team’s number 2 slot hitter.  He unfortunately popped out to left field.  He was followed by now Mets announcer Keith Hernandez who promptly flew out to centerfield.  This can’t be happening!  It’s over.  It’s really over!

Everyone at the party who was a Mets fan made the silent decision not to watch the final out drive the last nail into the coffin of championship expectations.  Two of us moved over to the ping pong table to smash our frustrations against the harmless little ball.

From the den came the first shout of, “Oh crap!  Tying run on first!” from one of the Yankee fans when Gary Carter lined a single to left field.  With Kevin Mitchell coming up, it was indeed possible that one swing of the bat could tie the game.  I remember vividly raising my eyebrow at my ping pong opponent as if to ask, “Do you want to watch?”  Again, wordlessly he hooked a thumb in the direction of den as if merely uttering any words would somehow shatter the very fragile vessel containing hope and optimism.

As we arrived, Mitchell was a facing off against ex-Met Calvin Schiraldi and after fouling off a pitch drove the ball into centerfield to put the tying runs on base.  We cheered but still no one said anything for fear of how quickly it could end.

Next up was Ray Knight who’d earlier driven in a run and would eventually have the dubious distinction of being the first ever World Series MVP who was not brought back the following year to play for the team.

Schiraldi got Knight to foul off a pitch before he hit a check swing down the third base line which looked like it could lead to bases loaded, but future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs wisely let it roll foul rather than attempt to make a hurried throw to first.  In retrospect that might have been a better outcome for the visiting Red Sox as Knight launched a ball with an awkward swing into centerfield, driving in the less than fleet-footed Carter and advancing Kevin Mitchell to third base.  We were screamingly wildly, although the Mets still trailed by a run but at least it looked like they would not go down without a fight.

As Bob Stanley came in to replace the sputtering Schiraldi, Mookie Wilson came to the plate to try to figure out a way to bring home that tying run and keep the World Series dream alive.  After getting to a two-strike count, I will never forget turning to the assembled crowd and speaking for the first time since the 9th inning began and saying, “What we need right now is a wild pitch!”  Stanley reared back and indeed threw one too far inside right on cue and Kevin Mitchell raced home past as catcher Rich Gedman went to the backstop to retrieve the errant Stanley pitch.

I’m as cynical and pessimistic as anyone I know, but with this improbable come-from-behind effort to tie the score, I forgot all rational thought and became a true believing fanatic.  I figured the extra innings would come, it was a brand new ballgame and somehow the Mets would pull out victory.

Sometimes truth is indeed stranger than fiction and no one watching could have predicted what would happen next.  On the 10th pitch of Mookie Wilson’s at bat, he trickled the slow roller down the first base line that likely would have kept the inning alive but leaving the Mets with runners on the corners.  Instead, the ball went through normally steady-fielding Bill Bucker’s legs for a key miscue that allowed Knight to come all the way around with the winning run.  Most of us will never forget Bob Murphy’s impassioned and incredulous, “It gets by Bucker!” but the most telling came from Vin Scully who in response to the events of that 9th inning said, “Not only are they alive, they are well!”

When they fell behind in Game 7, I had no lack of faith that they would prevail after witnessing the legendary comeback.  Indeed they did and the Mets secured their second World Series championship.  In a way, Game 7 was a letdown after the emotional rollercoaster of Game 6 and a great many times I’ve started rhetorical arguments with fellow Mets fans about how they would have felt had the Mets won Game 6 but then lost Game 7.  Would it have felt like a moral victory or like kissing one’s sister?

For those of you lucky enough to get out to CitiField to welcome and celebrate the 1986 team, I envy you.  They deserve it.  They created life long memories as vivid today as they were when it happened.  Let’s go, Mets!


Hobie said...

Thanks, Rease, for the happy recap.

There are those events (glorious & tragic) we remember in the most acute detail. "One small step," Nov 22, Sept 11, and "It gets by Buckner." My '86 moment paralleled yours in a way.

Henderson homered, Boggs doubled, Barrett singled driving in Boggs, and Buckner(!) was HBP. I turned off the TV. My kids 8 & 10 had fallen asleep on the couch in their Met gear. I carried them to bed wondering how I would break the news in the morning.

Debated whether or not to turn the TV back on when I returned and with much trepidation did. Michell had just singled and Knight was coming to bat. Stood 5 ft from the screen barely breathing for the next 15 minutes. Finally sat down when the broadcast was turned over to the studio.

Pondered how to explain my kids why I didn't wake them up.

Reese Kaplan said...

Of course I will also never forget the cruel jokes at Buckner's expense, too. A typical one was about how he was so despondent over the course of the winter that he tried to kill himself by jumping in front of an oncoming semi, but it went between his legs.

Hobie said...

That's one of my favorites (along with Casey on Marv Thronberry's birthday, "I would have given him a cake but was afraid he'd drop it.")

Thomas Brennan said...

Great series. Would we be so lucky as to experience a repeat.

Thomas Brennan said...

Great series. Would we be so lucky as to experience a repeat.

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