Thursday, November 1, 2007

Jay Busbee loves the Mets ... just kidding ... just the '86 version

As a result of a tied bet, both myself and Atlanta blogger/writer/connoisseur of southern things Jay Busbee decide to write our favorite versions of the other's favorite team. Unfortunately, Jay is a Braves fan so I had to write about the Braves on his site. And here is his take on the Mets team that absolutely won me over those many moons ago. Jeez, has it really been 21 years since the Mets won anything?

Hey there, Serious Tip readers. I’m Jay Busbee, head honcho over at the Atlanta sports site Right Down Peachtree. Being an Atlanta sports site, one of our obsessions is the Atlanta Braves ... which puts us directly at odds with Mets fans like Jordi here. So back at the beginning of this season, Jordi and I made a little wager, much like those cheesy mayor-versus-mayor bets. Whoever’s team won more games would get the benefit of a post from the other guy. Worse, the loser would have to write about the winner’s team ... in positive terms.

Well, the Braves and the Mets split the season 9-9. If either team had managed to put together a winning record against the other, they would’ve probably been in the playoffs. But it wasn’t to be, for either of us. (Tom Glavine has been spotted driving a brand-new red-and-blue Lamborghini around the streets of Alpharetta, Georgia, but that’s another story.) Anyway, earlier this week Jordi turned in a fine essay on the 1977 Braves, perhaps the most woeful team ever assembled.

Me, I’m taking the opposite tack. My personal favorite Mets team—besides the ones that finished in second place behind Atlanta, of course — was the 1986 squad. Thanks to legions of annoying Red Sox fans — who make me want to embrace Mets fans at this point — the 1986 season is known at least as much for “it gets behind the bag!” as it was for the Mets.

And that’s a damn shame, because the 1986 Mets were — oh my lord, I can’t believe I’m typing this — one of the coolest teams of all time.

Look at that team: Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, a couple of young phenoms who were already being sized up for Hall of Fame plaques—and, based on what they’d already demonstrated, deservedly so. Keith Hernandez, probably the best defensive first baseman of all time. (Before baseball ruled it illegal, he used to stand in foul ground to make it easier to lay tags on runners leading off.) Gary Carter and Ray Knight were among the best in the game at their respective positions. Lenny Dykstra, Mookie Wilson, and Wally Backman, young loons who were every bit as talented as they thought they were. And Davey Johnson, a manager who had no problem declaring right from the start that this team was going to kick in the teeth of the rest of the league ... and proceeded to inspire his team to do just that.

The team began with a 20-4 record in April, and — much like the 2007 Patriots — didn’t let up at any point during the season. They got into no less than four bench-clearing brawls over the season; in July, so many players got thrown out of the game that Johnson had to put nutjob pitcher Roger McDowell in right field. The team finished with an astonishing 108 wins, running away from the league and fooling the rest of the sporting world into thinking that collections of wacko personalities could actually gel into a cohesive unit.

But as impressive as the regular season was, it couldn’t compare to the ’86 Mets’ postseason—particularly the two Game 6s. In Game 6 of the NLCS, facing the Astros, the Mets found themselves down 3-0 after the first inning, and wouldn’t tie up the game until the ninth. The game ran until the 16th, when the Mets put three across in the top of the inning, the Astros followed with two in the bottom, and Orosco closed the door with the winning run on base.

Game 6 of the World Series saw the Mets down to their final strike before Mookie hit that fateful slow roller up the line. Of course, the Red Sox still had a chance to win the Series in Game 7, but much like the Bartman fiasco with the Cubs nearly two decades later, the Sox were dead before the first pitch of Game 7 was ever thrown. (Interesting side note: I was at the 1993 Old-Timers’ Game befre the All-Star Game in Baltimore. Buckner was playing first. Somebody hit a slow roller up the line, Buckner fielded it flawlessly, and you could hear 50,000 people go “ohhhhh ...” — as in, “Why couldn’t he have done that seven years ago?”

Anyway, the ’86 Mets were a once-in-a-lifetime collection of insanity, and sure enough, they all fractured not long afterward. Strawberry, Gooden, and Hernandez saw their careers affected or derailed by drugs. Dykstra achieved more fame as the sparkplug of the grubby 1993 NL Champion Phillies, and is now — I swear this is true, here’s the link — a stock-picking columnist for Hernandez and McDowell were the first and second spitters in that famous Seinfeld episode, and McDowell is now the mild-mannered pitching coach of the Braves.

So raise a beer — or something stronger — to the 1986 New York Mets. (Check out Jeff Pearlman’s The Bad Guys Won! for far more on the subject.) They were baseball’s last great team of knuckleheads that actually won anything. (The 2004 Red Sox were self-promoting, self-aware knuckleheads, which is infinitely worse.) In a world of 24-hour sports scrutiny, we’ll never see their like again, and that’s a damn shame.