sports

The Day the Mets Died

Dwight Gooden holds his head in his hands in the 1988 NLCS.  This just about sums it up.

Dwight Gooden holds his head in his hands in the 1988 NLCS. This just about sums it up.

The night before I wrote this, the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2013 National League Championship Series.  I’m not sure if the Cardinals will win the World Series and as a Mets fan with a longtime grudge against the Redbirds, I can tell you that I don’t want them to.  Had the Dodgers made the series it would have been the first time in twenty-five years since they’d been to the fall classic, a series which they won in five games and whose most famous highlight is Kirk Gibson’s dramatic home run off of Dennis Eckersley in the ninth inning of game one.  But as big of a baseball fan as I was when I was eleven years old, I did not watch a single inning of the 1988 World Series because the Dodgers had completely broken my heart.

They weren’t supposed to beat Oakland; furthermore, they weren’t supposed to be there.  All season, the National League East champion New York Mets had cruised to the title much like they had in 1986, winning 100 games, fifteen games more than the Pirates.  The Dodgers won their division handily as well, but they hadn’t even been able to touch the Mets all season, losing ten out of eleven games and losing badly as well.  With the 1987 season (and TERRY FUCKING PENDLETON) behind them, the Mets looked like they were back to the “true form” of 1986 and I was so excited to see them play Oakland in the World Series.  With a solid offense, surging rookie phenom Gregg Jeffries, and a solid backup catcher in Mackey Sasser (don’t laugh–I remember having at least a few conversations about how good he was during that summer), the playoffs (I didn’t refer to the postseason as the Championship Series and World Series, it was “the playoffs and the Series”) were just a formality.  The Mets were going to destroy the Dodgers.  Maybe not in four games because they had to face Orel Hershiser, but definitely in five or six–after all, they’d beaten the mighty Astros and gotten around Mike Scott back in 1986, right?

Now, one of the tougher things about my childhood following baseball was that I had an early bedtime.  Even through junior high school, I had to be in bed by 9:00 on most nights, so staying up to watch every game was out of the question.  I only watched all of games three and four because they were played over Columbus Day weekend, so the rest of the series was seen in bits and pieces and highlights on Eyewitness News the following morning before getting on the bus to school.  On one hand, this was annoying–going into the games I could watch, I had really no perception of how badly the team was underperforming.  Oh sure, I saw the highlights on the news, but without access to the internet, cable, or even a daily newspaper in 1988, I wound up remaining pretty naive that the Mets were as good as they were throughout the regular season and were going to cruise to what was going to be the most awesome of awesome World Series.  They’d lost two games against Boston in the 1986 Series and won that … so they’d take this, right?

Game three kept my hopes up despite the fact that it was pretty messy, but game four?  At eleven years old, I had no idea what it was like to wake up with a hangover and wonder if the previous night was really as bad as it seemed, but  that’s exactly what it was like.  After he settled down, Dwight Gooden started out pitching a pretty solid game, striking out nine, and the Mets went into the top of the ninth with a solid 4-2 lead and it looked like it would only be a matter of another win before taking on the “bash brothers.”

Then, this happened:

Until I watched it while working on this post, Mike Scioscia’s home run was a surreal blur, something that I remember seeing but not seeing as I was half-asleep when it happened and went to bed soon after, not having the stamina to stay up until the wee hours of the morning to see Kirk Gibson knot the series at two.  The Dodgers would win game five and shift the series back to Los Angeles, where the Mets would tie things up in game six.

My friend Tom has quite possibly the most vivid memory of game seven of anyone I know.  He was watching the game at a local restaurant with our friend Evan and I remember him telling me a few years later that after the game was over, they went back to his place and could do nothing else but sit in stunned silence.  I missed the game but went to bed optimistic that my Mets would pull it out and go to another Series.  When I saw footage of Tommy Lasorda celebrating with a champagne bath on the morning news, I began sobbing.  They couldn’t have lost.  They couldn’t have lost.  They just … couldn’t.

The front page of Newsday summed everything up perfectly.  It was a Mets logo on a black background with @#$%! written underneath.  Mr. Lewin, our elementary school gym teacher, put it up in the hallway along with other recent sports headlines that we’d look at whenever we walked by the gym, and I remember him giving me that front page because I liked the headline so much, thought it would be therapeutic in some way, or I was that much of a masochist.  I was eleven and I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t capable of many deep thoughts about getting over pain, so it probably was because I liked the cover.

At any rate, twenty-five years after the fact, I can point to this series as a loss of innocence when it came to sports.  I’d seen the Mets lose before, but I had spent the summer so ensconced in baseball–looking at stats, collecting cards and stickers, watching as many games as I could–that to have it end this way was crushing and a small part of me died with the dream of another championship.  They were, after all, supposed to win, and soon I would realize that being a Mets fan is less about taking home championships and more about waiting for the other shoe to drop.

16 Days of Glory

As of my writing this, we’re about knee-deep in the 2012 London Summer Olympics.  In fact, as I glance over to my television, the NBC Sports Network is showing a U.S.-North Korea women’s soccer match (it was either that or tennis).  I’ve always been a huge fan of the Olympic Games, both summer and winter, especially at how it has me watching and enjoying sports I would never watch otherwise (I went to lunch with some work friends the other day and we watched a water polo match that was on at the restaurant).

This love of the Olympics has its roots in my love of sports, of course, because if I didn’t like sports I wouldn’t care about the Olympics; however, I feel like sometimes I am the only guy who watches the games for the sheer pageantry of it all.  Which is why, by the way, I kept tweeting out snarky bon mots throughout last Friday night’s Opening Ceremonies, pissing and moaning about how badly NBC was mangling their tape-delayed coverage.  In fact, NBC’s fail on this part has been so epic this year it’s like a running joke among tweeters and bloggers, especially those who look forward to the games every four years.

But I’m not going to spend this entry complaining about NBC (that’s what Twitter is for).  No, I thought it might be cool to sit down for a few moments and think about why I am so enthralled by the Olympic Games and why I will spend so much time watching them, even staying up until ungodly hours to watch women’s gymnastics prelims in the summer or a curling match in the winter.  And thankfully it’s not a hard thing to figure out because the very first games I watched were I think the games that people my age think of the most when they think “Olympics.”

Okay, maybe I shouldn’t be speaking for my entire generation but I think that the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics really did come to define “Olympics” for quite a number of Children of the 1980s.

I turned seven in 1984, which meant that this was the first Olympic Games that I actually remember.  I’m sure that people who are even slightly older than me will tell me they have memories of the 1980 Winter Olympics, especially the “Miracle on Ice,” and to that I say that they’re seriously lucky.  Being born in June 1977, I was all of 2-1/2 years old when the underdog U.S. hockey team beat the U.S.S.R. and then Finland to win the gold medal, so if I saw the game against the Russians (which I highly doubt), I don’t remember it at all.  Had there not been a boycott of the Moscow games that same year, I may have seen the 1980 Summer Games, but that wasn’t to be.

The 1984 Summer Olympics soundtrack cassette. This is not available on CD or digitally, so I kind of regret not getting it back in the 1980s when I really wanted it.

So, the summer when I was seven years old and was allowed to stay up slightly later than usual, I saw some of the competition, but most importantly I caught quite a bit of the opening ceremonies.  I don’t know if it was because my parents thought it was important for me to see it or if ABC aired it live instead of on tape delay (which may have been the case — a 3-hour time difference meant it might have aired live; then again, ABC tape delayed the U.S.-Soviet hockey game in 1980 so I wouldn’t put it past them), but I saw quite a bit, including parts of the Parade of Nations (or as my wife put it, “The Model U.N.”).

In my mind, I thought it was the most epic thing I had ever seen (which is saying a lot because I had been watching Star Wars every morning for the past two years).  The audience all had cards on their seats and after a guy came flying in on a jet pack–yes, a JET PACK, which is awesome on so many levels–the PA announcer told them to hold up the cards and the entire stadium was then decorated in the flags of the participating countries.  Plus, you had a theme composed by John Williams that to this day stands as one of my top five John Williams pieces (and next to his NBC News theme, one of his most underrated).  In fact, I loved it so much that when I saw a copy of the soundtrack on cassette at TSS a few years later, I wanted it.  In fact, I coveted that soundtrack so much that I actually took it out of the place where it had been placed and put it behind another cassette on another shelf where nobody but me would find it, not realizing that I probably wouldn’t ever get the money to buy it or that I didn’t have to hide it because it was 1988 and nobody but me was coveting the soundtrack (for the record, I never did get the tape).

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Merry Metsmas

So back in October, when I was wrapping up my look at the 1986 Mets with all of the memorabilia that I had collected over the years, I left one particular item out of my list.  At first, I thought that I had forgotten to include it, but then I realized that it actually commanded its own entry, in a way.  That’s because I can’t write about the 1986 World Champions commemorative ornament without writing about Christmas itself.

I received the ornament as a Christmas gift in 1986 and while I am not 100% sure who gave it to me, I’m going to say it was my Uncle Lou because around the same time he also gave my sister and I copies of the 1986 World Series program.  And since we always went to my grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve, we more than likely hung it on the tree that night before we went to bed.  Soon after, however, I became insistent that every single year it go on the center of the Christmas tree, to the point where I would make sure it was the first ornament on the tree.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This weekend, my wife and I will be putting up our Christmas decorations and our pre-lit artificial tree is in a bag in the basement all ready for us to take it out and put it together.  This is a radical departure from what my sister and I had to go through when we were kids and it was time to put up the tree.  You see, my family was never one to rush a holiday, so we actually waited until after Thanksgiving to think about decorating for Christmas (as opposed to people who start putting inflatables up in September), but once Black Friday hit, we were shopping and were also commencing what was a 42-step process of putting Christmas together:

  1. Go to St. Ann’s church on Middle Road in Sayville.  Find a tree.
  2. Set that tree aside and wander around the lot in search of a better tree.
  3. Re-locate that first three and purchase it.
  4. Put tree in a bucket of water and lean against fence in backyard.
  5. Wait two weeks, during which children ask, “When are we going to put the tree up?  When are we going to put the tree up?  When are we going to put the tree up?”
  6. Decide on a day to decorate.  Wait until late afternoon to get started.
  7. Open attic stairs, do impression of Chevy Chase taking stairs to the face in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
  8. Go up to attic, realize how dark it is.
  9. Go to basement and get droplight.
  10. Hang droplight in attic and plug into bathroom outlight using extension cord that is longer than most “Turkey Trots” run on Thanksgiving weekend.
  11. Locate giant cardboard box that once held case of Luvs diapers but now holds every Christmas ornament that family has owned since the Carter Administration.
  12. Drag box across attic floor, almost fall to death when attic stairs are misjudged.
  13. Carry box down stairs, to den.
  14. Take Tylenol for back pain.
  15. Bring the tree in bucket from the back fence to the deck.
  16. Attempt to pry bucket off with hands.
  17. Give up on hands, start kicking the bucket.
  18. Give up kicking the bucket, use a hammer.
  19. Realize that water poured into bucket has frozen and chisel is required
  20. Chisel ice.
  21. Find tree stand bought during Eisenhower Administration in decorations box.
  22. Spend twenty minutes sawing tree trunk and fitting tree to stand.
  23. Bring tree into the house.
  24. Spend twenty more minutes making sure that tree is straight.
  25. Listen to kids bitch impatiently.
  26. Spend twenty more minutes making sure that fullest part of tree is in front.
  27. Continue to listen to kids bitch.
  28. Put on Christmas music to shut kids up or drown them out.
  29. Listen to kids bitch that Celine Dion’s Christmas album is an affront to the season.
  30. Begin stringing lights.
  31. Discover one strand of lights is not working properly.
  32. Spend twenty minutes finding malfunctioning light.
  33. Replace bulb.
  34. Realize you put in bulb that makes lights flash.
  35. Replace bulb again.
  36. Continue stringing lights.
  37. Continue stringing lights.
  38. Insist that tree is neither straight nor full, which leads to further tree adjustment.
  39. Wash sap off hands from tree adjustment.
  40. Continue stringing lights.
  41. Allow first ornament to be put on tree.
  42. Watch sun rise.

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating on that last one but when you’re nine or ten years old and your life during the latter part of the year centers around celebrating Christmas, you have to admit that the process of putting a tree together seems to take an eternity, and every year I would spend that eternity fondling the blue ball that had the classic Mets logo on the front at 1986 World Champions, waiting to place it front and center, usually next to an orange light so that anyone that came by could bask in the awesomeness of the 1986 Mets.

Mets Madness

When I sat down to write about the afterglow of the 1986 World Series, I started to consider what it was like to be a fan of a championship-winning team and how that carried over into the 1987 season when I was sure that the Mets would “do it again” as the promos kept saying. But the 1987 Mets were a bit of a letdown (Thanks a LOT, Terry FUCKING Pendelton!) and the afterglow of the 1986 World Series is something that I don’t remember as well as my repeated viewings of 1986 Mets: A Year to Remember had made it seem.

Then, I began to sift through the massive amount of 1986 Mets crap that I own or have owned at one point during the past 25 years, and thought I would simply “catalogue” it.  Partially because I’m lazy and don’t feel like writing anything with an actual point, and partially because even I am amazed at how much stuff there is.

1986 Mets: A Year to Remember.  This is the official team highlight video, which my friends and I rented repeatedly from Video Empire, so much so that it was impossible for anyone to find it because one of us always seemed to have it out.  I do happen to have my own copy because sometime in the late 1990s I rented it one more time and hooked two VCRs together in order to dub the video.

The video itself starts with a highlight of Game Six and then goes month to month through the regular season, with a few montages thrown in, the most famous of which definitely has to be the Len Dykstra and Wally Backman “Wild Boys” video set to the Duran Duran song of the same name, as well as a great clip of Howard Johnson and Roger McDowell telling the audience how to pull the “hot foot” prank on a player.   The playoffs and series are covered as well, with most of the play calling coming from Bob Murphy, the radio voice of the Mets, which I have to say is awesome because as much as I like hearing Vin Scully, Bob Murphy’s voice calling the Mets is one of the best things you’ll ever hear. (more…)

1986

[A quick note:  I originally published this on my old website, Inane Crap, five years ago.  Since I have been writing about the 1986 Mets, I thought it would be appropriate to repost.  There will be another post tomorrow.]

I think that one of the biggest problems you face when you grow up normal is that you grow up being a good kid. Technically there is nothing wrong with parents instilling their children with a sense of morality, a work ethic, and awareness of the world around them. The problem is that normal kids do not make good criminals.

I mean, I am a terrible liar. I can embellish and exaggerate, but when it comes to fabrication, I flat-out suck. Luckily, I discovered this in the fourth grade when I tried to con my way out of getting in trouble for not doing my homework.

When I was nine years old, I began the fourth grade at Lincoln Avenue Elementary School in the fall of 1986. My teacher was a very nice woman named Mrs. Balcewicz, whom everyone called “Mrs. B.” Fourth grade was a huge year from anyone at Lincoln because it meant that you moved into the “big kid” hallway and got actual grades on your report cards instead of weird letters like “S,” “N,” and “U.” And not only was being in the 4-5-6 hallway exciting, I was poised to do very well because my third grade year had been stellar.

Unfortunately, this year of school was where I began my very slow descent into the social awkwardness that defined my adolescence. Like other years, I spent most of my days playing G.I. Joe and Top Gun and beating up on girls (not in the “future domestic violence case” way, though; more like in the “pulling pigtails” way). But most importantly, my brain was trying to tell me that it was time to start maturing, and that was by getting in trouble.

For the most part, this was not through any violent behavior, because I was a good kid. Nor was it through refusing to be clean, because I’d had a messy desk since I was in the first grade. The way I rebelled when I was nine years old was by not doing my homework. Mrs. B didn’t assign a lot of homework, but during one week in October 1986, thought a little homework was too much and refused to do it. What’s worse is that when she came to collect my homework and I didn’t have it, I used the excuse of going to see my ailing grandfather in the hospital. It was underhanded and mean, and my come-uppance was quick because on the Friday of that week, she handed out progress reports that had to be signed by our parents. Mine said that I was missing a couple of assignments, and had this comment: “Tommy has been telling me about going to see his grandfather in the hospital.”

Now when you’re in the fourth grade and you have never really done anything wrong in your life, you don’t’ have the smarts to know that the jig is up and you should come clean to your teacher about not doing your homework. I was a likable student, who would eventually be named “Teacher’s Pet” in my high school yearbook, so I probably would have gotten off with a warning. Instead, I hastily signed my mom’s name on the progress report and hid it in my desk at school until the day she collected it. Mrs. B was not stupid, and a few days later on October 28, 1986, she called my parents. (more…)

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. (more…)

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. (more…)