Prelude to a Clinch (or Von Hayes, how I hated thee)

Von Hayes's 1986 Topps baseball card.

My memories of my freshman year of college may be a little cloudy at times, but I do remember talking to my roommate Drew about baseball and at one point during our conversation, he mentioned that one of his favorite players from his childhood was Phillies first baseman Von Hayes.  Now, I wasn’t surprised, considering that Drew was from the Pennsylvania and had grown up in the shadow of Philadelphia just as my Long Island childhood was spent in the shadow of New York.

Still, I bristled at the mention of the name.  I shouldn’t have–after all, Hayes retired from baseball in 1992 and we started college in the fall of 1995–because he’s not a name that most baseball fans really know.  It’s easy to not like a Derek Jeter because he commands a huge salary and gets an incredible amount of attention and while I do think he is overrated, I will say that he is a clutch performer, the type of player you’d hate to have at bat against your team in a tight game.

But Von Hayes?  Who, as far as an everyday baseball fan, was going to look at the Phillies and not see Mike Schmidt as the big gun of the 1980s?  Well, it’s not so much that he was a “big gun” for the team, but he was definitely a “Met Killer.”

You probably know what I mean when I say “Met Killer”: the batter who will destroy your hopes and dreams, at least for a win that evening.  Met Killers have come in the forms of players of all positions and have all contributed to my fan angst over the years, and for a while there during my childhood it seemed that there was at least one player that just killed the Mets for that year.  In 1985, it was John Tudor; in 1987, it was Terry Pendelton (oh, Terry Fucking Pendelton, how I hated thee …); in 1988, it was Mike Scioscia; and in 1986 it was Von Hayes.

The Daily News's "Magic Number" cartoon that ran during the 1986 season and counted down how long the Mets had to go to clinch the NL East.

In a manner of speaking, anyway, because by the middle of September of that season, there was very little doubt as to the Mets’ clinching the NL East divisional crown.  As the music video said, “It’s not a question of how, it’s just a matter of when.”  Well, it seemed that “when” wasn’t going to come as quickly as anyone expected.  The team’s magic number hit 2 on September 10 and the clinching was more or less a done deal as the team made its way through several series with its division rivals the Expos, Phillies, and Cubs, they began to stall, and kept that number at 2 for the better part of a week.

Of course, I didn’t know that was going to happen and when the Mets headed into Philadelphia for a weekend series on September 12, I figured that I was going to get the chance to watch the Mets “clinch it,” a term I had only learned not too much earlier that season, when I first caught a glimpse of a cartoon Davey Johnson pulling a rabbit out of a magic number hat in a Daily News that was at my grandparents’ house.  What I also didn’t know was that the Phillies had more or less owned the Mets that year and so when they beat the Mets 6-3 on Friday, 9/12, it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise to anyone.

But it came as a surprise to me, and if I had known that they were going to screw the pooch so badly I would have saved some time and watched Sledge Hammer! when my mom allowed me to stay up late on Friday.  Bedtime was pretty consistently enforced during the week, so whenever Friday rolled around I made sure that I milked that extra time for all it was worth, and by the time I went to bed, the Phillies were up 5-0, the first run having been batted in by their lanky first baseman, Von Hayes.

So the number stayed at 2 and my friends and I hung out on Saturday like we normally did, talking about whether tonight would be “the night” and if the team would be playoff-bound by morning.  I think my friends Tom and Evan were probably going to watch the games at their houses because they both had cable television and I had to contend with the seven channels that my parents picked up by having a giant antenna mounted to the roof of the house, something that wouldn’t go away until I was in college.  But they did know how much the Mets meant to me and they did have neighbors who had cable television, so that Saturday night, they decided to have our next door neighbors over for dinner and told me that I could spend the evening in their living room watching SportsChannel.

Excited, I ran next door at exactly 7:05 that evening to watch the team of Ralph Kiner, Tim McCarver, and Fran Healy call the game from Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.  Since the two teams were first and second place in the division, a Mets win could mean that my team clinched their playoff spot, and I would get to see it live on television.

Unfortunately, nobody told Von Hayes.

When we look back at great baseball games, we tend to pick out the best moments or the ones that have the biggest highlights and forget that for the most part, watching an entire game of baseball on television is really boring.  I should have probably realized this at this point already, considering the number of times I sat on the couch in the den while Ed Lynch dealt with runners on first an second in an interminably boring at-bat by the likes of Bob Horner or Buddy Bell, but I was still young and impressionable and I believed that the game lived and died on every pitch.  I even paid attention to Kiner and McCarver’s ramblings through the pregame.

A reproduction of the Daily News sports page of September 15, 1986. Taken from the Daily News Scrapbook History of the 1986 Mets

And things did start off very well.  Lenny Dykstra led the game off with a home run and the Mets were up 3-0 by the time the first inning was over.  But then what has been my luck with watching Mets games kicked in.  As in, they started to blow it specifically because I was watching and expecting a win.  The Phillies scored two in the bottom of the fourth, the Mets tacked on one in the top of the sixth, and then tied the game in the sixth.  Then, in the seventh, Hayes took a 2-1 Roger McDowell pitch out of the park to put the Phillies ahead, which is where they would stay until my parents came to get me because I was up way past my bedtime.

The next day, Hayes had two hits in a 6-0 routing of the Mets and I would have to go back to school on Monday without an NL East crown, and then could only follow them on the news as they played two against the Cardinals and then opened up a two-game series against the Cubs on Thursday, September 17.  That game would be on Channel 9 but since it was a Wednesday I wasn’t able to stay up, so I watched the first few innings when Dave Magadan started at first base and the Mets scored two in the bottom of the third.  When I woke up on the 18th, they had not only clinched, but the fans had stormed the field and taken much of it with them.

The Mets’ clinching was the talk of the school the next day and at least a couple of teachers had the cover of Newsday hanging on their walls for the better part of a few weeks until the playoffs began in October.  So, it’s not like having to watch Hayes get the game-winner in that one game completely destroyed the 1986 season (again, he wasn’t Terry Fucking Pendelton), but I think it’s understandable why, years later, when Drew mentioned that he liked the guy, I couldn’t help but think of how that Met Killer ruined my night.

A Bill Gallo illustration that ran in the Daily News after the Mets clinched the NL East.

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