Nails, Gary, and the Greatest Game Ever Played

Mike Scott, the bane of the Mets' existence in the 1986 NLCS

I always hated the Astrodome.

Granted, in my entire life, I have spent an hour in Houston and that was for a layover between Austin and Washington, D.C., so I don’t have any personal experience with the Astrodome, but ever since I sat down and watched the 1986 All-Star Game, which was broadcast from the Eighth Wonder of the World, I hated the stadium, and I still kind of do.  Part of the reason for that is my aversion to outdoor sports being played in domed stadiums, but part of it is that it seemed whenever I watched a Mets game in the Astrodome back when I was nine years old, they were bound to lose.

That certainly seemed the case when I turned on the sixth game of that year’s National League Championship Series in the seventh inning and saw that the Mets were down 3-0 and it looked like they weren’t going to be able to go to the World Series like I had hoped because Bob Knepper had been mowing them down left and right and the starting pitcher for game seven was scheduled to be Mike Scott, a name that I had become as familiar with and angry at as I had with Cardinals ace John Tudor the year before.  Prior to my turning on the game in the late innings, I had been at school, so I had missed the Astros’ three runs off of Bob Ojeda in the first, but I have to say I wasn’t surprised by the lackluster performance in the Astrodome because I’d watched the first few innings of game one, when Glenn Davis had hit a home run off of Dwight Gooden for the game’s only run and an Astros win.

In fact, I don’t think I can talk about that sixth game of the ’86 NLCS without going all the way back to that All-Star Game and my first experience with the Astrodome.  It was the first time I had ever seen a game inside a domed stadium and even though the Tigers’ Lou Whitaker homered pretty early in that game, I remember wondering how anyone ever hit a home run there.   It didn’t seem that visitors fared well offensively because during the next four days, I watched a sporadic amount of Mets-Astros games from Houston and the Mets dropped three out of four, plus three of the Mets were arrested in an infamous nightclub brawl.  Of course, I didn’t know that this particular Mets team was known for its debauchery (and many of the stories of said debauchery would go unknown until I read Jeff Perlman’s The Bad Guys Won! nearly twenty years later); all I knew was that I hated Houston, I hated the Astrodome, and I hated the Astros.

Mike Scott didn’t make things better.  A rather mediocre pitcher that the Mets had off-loaded a few years earlier (a fact I only knew from a baseball card as it was before I had started following them in 1985), Scott had emerged as a dominant pitching force in 1986 due to his split-fingered fastball, a pitch that destroyed hitters and led to accusations that he was scuffing the ball, something that the Mets seemed a little too obsessed with as he beat them twice in the series–in the aforementioned game one and then game four, which was the only night game in three games played at Shea.  So looking at a 3-0 Astros through seven, and then eight innings and Scott scheduled to pitch the next day, it was safe to say that it was over.  All over.

Or was it?  I certainly couldn’t believe that, even at the age of nine, not after I had watched two insane endings earlier that week.

I had watched part of game one, but had to go to bed by the time the third inning rolled around and had completely missed game two, which the Mets won solidly by a score of 5-1, but game three was held on a Saturday afternoon at Shea Stadium, and it was going to be the only game of the series I had the opportunity to see in its entirety.  That is, if I hadn’t been invited to my friend Patrick’s birthday party, which would have interrupted my viewing and since my parents were of the philosophy that you honored every commitment you made, even when it came to kids birthday parties and playdates, I found myself in the back of my dad’s 1982 Honda Accord headed to his house on a rather cloudy October Saturday afternoon.

Truth be told, I was probably happy to get away from the game anyway, because Ron Darling had been smacked around in the first two innings and were losing 4-0.  But Patrick’s mother had the game on in the living room and by the time we headed outside to play some party games, the Mets were losing 5-4 as the bottom of the ninth started.  I remember that two or three of us excused ourselves from some game that involved wrapping people up in toilet paper to watch the end of the game, and came in when Astros manager Hal Lanier was in the middle of what seemed like an interminable argument with the first base umpire over whether Wally Backman had broken a rule by doing a sort of rolling slide into first base on a close play and was actually out, rather than being called safe.

Lenny Dykstra hits the game-winning home run in the ninth inning of game 3 of the 1986 NLCS

Personally, from my experience with Little League, I thought he was out too.  We were taught that you were supposed to run through first base and not slide into it and in fact that sliding into first base was not allowed.  Now, this could have been due to the fact that the people making the Little League rules were concerned for our safety, and it seemed that Backman was right according to rule 7.09, which concerns runner interference.  Lanier himself even admitted as much in the next day’s Daily News, saying “I thought [Astros’ first baseman Glenn Davis] had a chance to tag [Backman] but he didn’t,” meaning that even though Backman’s slide on the play was outside the baseline and more like an extended roll in the dirt, it really didn’t create any sort of interference because there wasn’t a play.

It probably wouldn’t have been a big deal for Houston, but it wound up putting the tying run on first and after a passed ball, Backman ended up on second.  Danny Heep would fly to center and then Lenny Dykstra, who at the time was skinny and didn’t have a host of financial and personal problems, launched an 0-1 Dave Smith pitch into the air and toward right field.  It flew and flew and it seemed to just hang in the air forever while we watched in Patrick’s living room and when it landed in the right-field bullpen, we lost it.  So did the Mets and so did the crowd at Shea.  In the 1987 Mets yearbook, Keith Hernandez would reflect on the unbelievability of the moment, saying, “I’ll be on my death bed, dying, delirious, saying, ‘Lenny, Lenny, Lenny …'” and that really did sum up how unreal Dykstra’s postseason performance was, from that homer to the triple that would start the Mets’ game-tying rally in the top of the ninth inning of game six, to his leadoff homer in game three of the World Series.

However, before Dykstra could come through again, we had to see some more grit from Backman.  Game five was one of those tense pitching duels that makes you feel exhausted by the time someone actually breaks through.  Another game where I had been at school when it started, I missed most of the 1-1 fight between Dwight Gooden and Nolan Ryan (and a quick aside here: I know that I’m a big Mets fan but there is no denying that the pitching staff of the 1986 Houston Astros was a killer staff.  Scott, Ryan, and Knepper were forces to be reckoned with throughout that playoff series and deserved all of the attention they got) and was sitting in my parents’ den watching the teams’ respective bullpens keep the game tied as the Mets weren’t able to even buy a hit between the bottom of the seventh and the bottom of the twelfth.

Gary Carter wins game 5 with an extra-inning hit. From the Daily News Scrapbook of the 1986 Mets Season

Then came Wally Backman again, lining a single off the glove of the third baseman and going to second when Charlie Kerfeld–a portly reliever with the type of glasses that looked like goggles–threw away a pick-off attempt.  However, the Astros weren’t worried about that because Gary Carter was two lineup spots away from Backman and he had been 1-21 so far in the series.  Kerfled intentionally walked Hernandez to set up the double play and pitched to Carter, who smacked one up the middle.  Backman motored–and I mean motored–from second all the way home.  The Mets won 2-1 and would head to Houston with a 3-2 lead in the series.

Which is where we came in.  Game six.  Top of the ninth inning, three runs down.  I was at a neighbor’s house, waiting for my mom to pick me up and hating Bob Knepper, The Astros, their stadium, and every single person in it.  Then, Lenny Dykstra tripled.  Mookie Wilson singled and scored Dykstra.  Kevin Mitchell grounded out but Keith Hernandez doubled to center and Mookie scored. Lanier made the call to the bullpen for Dave Smith and I said, “That’s the guy Dykstra hit the home run off of,” knowing that the Astros were definitely vulnerable and the Mets could complete this comeback.  Smith walked the next two batters and then Ray Knight hit a game-tying sacrifice fly.  After the Mets’ ninth ended, I went home and immediately turned on the television.

The tenth inning went by, the eleventh, the twelfth, the thirteenth.  My parents made dinner and in what was an unprecedented moment in the Panarese household, Nancy and I were allowed to eat our dinners in the den instead of shutting the Mets game off and going to the kitchen.  The Mets scored in the top of the fourteenth to take the lead but it wouldn’t last because Billy Hatcher hit one of those really annoying home runs, the type that hits the foul pole and is barely in play but because a home run is a home run no matter where it lands in fair territory and the game was tied again.

Keith Hernandez scores the tying run in the ninth inning of Game Six of the 1986 NLCS. The game would go sixteen innings.

In the sixteenth, the Mets would score three huge runs and Jesse Orosco would take the mound in the bottom of the inning and fight for two outs while Houston cut the lead to 7-6.  Kevin Bass stood up and Keith Hernandez called timeout for the second time in the inning.  He went to the mound and offered support that fans watching in the stadium and at home couldn’t hear but would later be recounted in several stories about this game.  In fact, I think it’s probably the game’s most famous story. During that first mound conference, Hernandez had bluntly told Orosco, “If you throw so much as one fastball, I will kill you.”  Now, after encouraging words from Ray Knight and Wally Backman, Hernandez simply said, “Slider.”

Orosco threw five straight sliders against Bass, who was one of the Astros’ better hitters.  The count went full, and Orosco looked exhausted as he threw the sixth.  Bass swung and missed, and the game was over.  Orosco’s glove went flying into the air and I jumped off my couch and was dancing around the den.  They’d won.  It took sixteen innings and everything they had, but the Mets were going to the World Series.

It would be a couple of years before I realized how revered this game was, mainly because it wound up almost immediately being overshadowed by another game six about a week later.  That Game Six would become so important to baseball history that it would become part of Ken Burns’s nine-part march of boredom in 1994 and a war wound for Red Sox fans.  But if you really do look at it, the Mets-Astros war  of attrition of October 15, 1986 was a better, more all-around intense game.  Was it The Greatest Game Ever Played?  Jerry Izenberg seemed to think so, anyway, when he wrote a book of the same name about game six of the 1986 National League Championship Series.

My (now rather beat up) copy of Jerry Izenberg's The Greatest Game Ever Played.

Truth be told, I wouldn’t have ever known about this book if my sister and I weren’t forced to placate my parents’ desire to visit every gift and antique shop in New Hampshire and Vermont while on our annual family vacation (seriously, we went to a glass factory one year.  A FREAKING GLASS FACTORY).  I wound up in a used bookstore next to one of those stores and while I watched the  network coverage of the 1988 Democratic National Convention (Michael Dukakis was handing Jesse Jackson his ass in the delegate voting), I noticed a copy of Jerry Izenberg’s The Greatest Game Ever Played in a bin.  The book was beat up but the price was about $3.00 and since I had been a good sport about going on the excursion with my parents, my dad let me buy it.

I read it in a day and a half and it was my first exposure to book-length sportswriting.  Isenberg gets the stories of individual players, both during the game and throughout their careers, and it was such a revelation to me as a reader and a fan that I devoured it.  About a decade later I would randomly come across Mike Sowell’s One Pitch Away in a Barnes & Noble and devour that in the same way.  The difference with that book was that he also detailed the 1986 ALCS, a series that at the time it was going on I was not that interested in because I was nine years old, a Mets fan, and had not discovered the joy of watching baseball for the sake of watching baseball. It never occurred to me at that time that I was watching something that would be part of the game’s lore, but I’m very grateful for that, especially considering what would come later in the World Series.

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