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.