I have to admit that I didn’t realize that the 1986 baseball season had started. But I feel that since it was my second year following the Mets and the first year that I actually followed them from beginning to end, I have an excuse. That March, I’d watched a little bit of spring training (after finding out what spring training actually was) and my cousin Brian and I had what would be the first of numerous arguments over the years about which team was better, the Mets or the Yankees. Opening day was set for April 8 in Pittsburgh and by the time that Monday rolled around, the team was 2-2 and facing the St. Louis Cardinals in their home opener.
A year earlier, Gary Carter had hit a home run to beat the Cardinals on opening day and the two teams chased one another throughout the late summer, with the Cards winning the NL East and then going to the World Series (where thankfully they lost to the Royals). So with all of that baggage going into this first game at Shea, I’d say that it was definitely going to be one that set the tone for the year. If the Mets ever were going to compete for the division, they knew they were going to have to go through St. Louis to get there.
It was a day game, as were most of the home openers, and I was at school when it started at 1:35. But with any luck I would be able to catch part of the ending on WOR, which is how at least a few of the games that season would wind up. I can’t be sure, but I am pretty positive that I wound up going over to my neighbor Matt’s house to watch it, even though I could have watched it at my house.
When I got there, the game was in extra innings with the teams tied 2-2. With Bruce Berenyi on the mound in relief and the bases loaded, Tito Landrum hit a ground ball to Howard Johnson at third. It was, for all intents and purposes, a routine ground ball and HoJo should have been able to field it cleanly and get an out or two. But that’s not how it went. “I was playing in,” he said to the Daily News, “I was ready for the ball. When I reached down, it seemed like all of a sudden the ball wasn’t there. I was shocked as anybody.”
Two runs scored as the ball trickled through his legs and then Ozzie Smith doubled home two more to make the score 6-2. The team didn’t recover and fell below .500 for the first time in nearly three years. Having reading scrapbooks, yearbooks, and other works about the season, it seems like the press pushed the early panic button–although I am sure that if 1986 had happened in today’s media that sucker would have been slammed–but I don’t remember worrying. Yes, it sucked that the Mets lost but even at the age of eight, I knew that the baseball season was long and a 2-3 start didn’t mean that the team was going to finish 2-160 (well, unless it’s, say 1993, but that’s not today’s topic).
I took away three things from that game. First, my not being afraid was validated when the Mets went on a huge winning streak, which included a sweep of the Cardinals in St. Louis, one that shut the door on their arch-rivals and had the Mets looking to “wrap up” the pennant early, which they’d do more or less by the summer. Second, the ground ball error would become crucial and almost symbolic of 1986 season so it’s almost fitting that it began like that. Finally, every time the Mets have lost their home opener, I’ve taken it as an omen that things are going to do well because they won the series in 1986.
I know that sounds silly, especially considering it’s been 25 years since that game but I think that very often you view a team the same way you did when you first started following them, and considering the lack of innocence of that team (as I’d find out), I think holding on to a little bit of innocence isn’t a bad idea.