The 1986 New York Mets once caused $7,500 in damages on a chartered flight home after having beaten the Houston Astros in a tense, nerve-wracking 15-inning playoff game.
They snorted lines of cocaine in the plane’s bathroom. They harassed the flight attendants and had a cake fight in various stages of undress. They were a gang of drunks, pill-poppers, barroom brawlers, degenerate gamblers, womanizers, and arrogant blowhards that managed to win the hearts of New Yorkers, but were loathed by the rest of the baseball-loving world. And rightly so. Oh, and did I mention that they also won a World Series title?
The 1986 New York Mets won two of every three games they played (108-54). They averaged almost five runs a game and they beat up on the little guys in the league, going 78-30 against teams under .500, but were only six over against the other teams they played in the regular season.
Unlike the Miracle Mets of 1969, this team was constructed to win and they were expected to win following a 98-64 second place finish the year before.
Their opponent in the World Series turned out to be the Boston Red Sox who had finished the season with a 95-66 record. They had five players who made more than a million dollars that year, with Jim Rice being the highest paid at $1,994,000.
Adding another element of drama to this World Series was the “Curse of the Bambino”, which according to baseball lore was inflicted on the Red Sox when they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees for a few thousand dollars. The curse would remain in effect until 2004, when perhaps fittingly the Red Sox would claim their first championship in 86 years, defeating the same Yankees along the way.
The World Series opened at Shea Stadium, one of those cookie-cutters that were cheap and thus popular during the 1970s and 80s. The Red Sox quickly spun off two wins before the series shifted back to Boston where the Mets returned the favor by taking the first two games at Fenway. The Red Sox took a 3-2 lead in the series, beating the Mets 4-2 in the fifth game.
And so the scene was set for a return to New York with the Mets having their backs to the wall and facing elimination in either of the next two games. Game Six was played on October 25, a Saturday night. It would turn out to be one of the most exciting World Series games ever played. And it would break the hearts of the Red Sox, their fans, and most of all one player in particular who will always be remembered for the ground ball that went between his legs as the winning run scored, giving the Mets life and forcing a Game Seven the following night, which the Mets would also win to snare their third World Series championship.
As we’ll see, the lineup that follows contains players who will stimulate your heart with feats on the field and then break it with their behavior off the field. Neither will be ignored.
The Mets began Game Six with a lineup that featured speed at the top, awesome power in the middle, and a couple of gimme outs at the bottom who could surprise once in a while.
So let’s begin with the leadoff hitter on that Saturday night when 55,078 fans would witness one of the most dramatic finishes ever for a World Series game.
He was the one on the field you couldn’t help but notice, which was just the way he liked it. Hat off, a mop of unruly hair, and that signature clump of Big League chew bulging against his cheek.
But Lenny Dykstra was also a pretty good leadoff hitter for the ’86 Mets. He hit .295 that year, and more importantly he had a .377 on-base percentage with 31 stolen bases. A table setter, he was known for his take-no-prisoners style of play. Unfortunately, that would later lead to his becoming a prisoner.
But before all that developed, he had a shining moment the 1993 NLCS…
Only 23 at the time of the 1986 World Series, he would play in all seven games for the Mets, collecting eight hits, two of which were uncharacteristic home runs. In Game Six, however, he was hitless in four tries with two strikeouts.
In the middle of the 1989 season, Dykstra was unceremoniously traded along with Roger McDowell to the Phillies for Juan Samuel. Because it followed on the heels of fan favorite Wally Backman being exiled to the Twins for three minor leaguers who never had a cup of coffee in the big leagues, a few eyebrows were raised as to what the Mets were doing. Years later when everything came out about the team’s wild ways, speculation presumed that they were simply clearing house.
Dykstra would go on to have several ho-hum years with the Phillies and two spectacular years, the best of which came in 1993 when he led the league in plate appearances (773), runs scored (142), hits (194), and walks (129) in helping his team make a World Series appearance.
Plagued by a series of injuries, he would leave baseball three years later at the age of only 33 and still as wild as ever.
From there, his personal life took a downward spiral culminating in 2012 when he was sentenced to three years in a California state prison after pleading no contest to grand theft auto and providing a false financial statement.
“Nails” as he was known, plead not guilty to 25 counts after police arrested him and found cocaine, Ecstasy and synthetic human growth hormone at his Los Angeles home last April. He changed his plea in October to no contest and in exchange prosecutors dropped 21 counts.
More recently, he has regained the spotlight by publishing two books in which it would seem he disses everyone who he has ever had contact with, including several members of the 1986 New York Mets. Most of them wisely chose to ignore him.
In fact, his behavior would conform more with a few other teammates (which we’ll get to) who also had a difficult time adjusting to life after baseball.
Second baseman Wally Backman would play in only 124 games for the 1986 New York Mets while hitting .320 with 29 RBI. His job was to get on base, though, and that he did with a .364 on-base percentage.
Much like his teammates, he was young and brash and was noted for his hard, in-your-face style of play. New York fans took to that and he quickly became a favorite. And what he couldn’t produce in the way of run production (three career home runs and 240 RBI over 13 years), he made up for with his hard-nosed play and the fact there was a ton of hitting talent coming up behind him.
He did nothing of consequence in Game Six, going 0-for-4. Other than a sacrifice and four assists in the field, his name is not mentioned in the box score.
In 1989, the Mets pretty much dumped him by sending him to the Minnesota Twins for three minor league players. He spent one year with the Twins and then played with four other teams before calling it quits in 1993.
He would then embark on a one-man crusade to become a manager in the big leagues. His career as a manager includes stints with 12 teams, several of which were in the Mets’ farm system. In fact, he was on the verge of quitting when he finally begged the Mets to take him on, which they did in 2010, but forcing him to start with their low level Class A team in Brooklyn.
From there, he proceeded to rise through the ranks of the Mets system, making it all the way to the top at Triple-A Las Vegas. The trouble was, though, that as this was going on and the years were ticking by, Backman only watched as the Mets continued to hire others when an opening occurred in New York
At the same time, it was really more that Backman kept shooting himself in the foot. In 2004 for instance, he was hired by the Diamondbacks and then just four days after he was introduced as manager, he was fired following revelations he was arrested twice and struggled with financial problems. The fact that he withheld this, despite having gone through a series of interviews with their front office, probably doomed his chances of career advancement forever.
More recently in September of this year, Backman was either fired or resigned from his job with the Mets depending on who you want to believe. Backman said this to ESPN:
“When you work for an organization and do everything, you want to be respected for what you do. I just felt for my time being there, the respect wasn’t there. I could be wrong. They could say different. They could say they respected me. The things that went on this year turned my head in the direction it was time to move on.”
But the Mets insist that he was openly insubordinate and refused to follow instructions from back east about who to play where and how often they should play. The words are still flying back and forth, but never the twain shall meet again.
First baseman Keith Hernandez was a 10-year veteran who was having a solid career with the St. Louis Cardinals when he was traded to the New York Mets in exchange for Neil Allen and pitcher Rick Ownbey. The trade, which by and large stunned most people in baseball, was later explained by Hernandez’s manager Whitey Herzog:
“What I couldn’t live with was his attitude. I’ve got two basic rules – be on time and hustle – and he was having trouble with both of them … His practice habits were atrocious. He’d come out for batting practice, then head back to the clubhouse to smoke cigarettes and do crossword puzzles … It was getting to the point where I was fed up with him.”
But there was more than met the eye and it turned out there was more of a problem than most knew. Because in testimony two years later in a federal court case, Hernandez said he had used “massive” amounts of cocaine, starting in 1980 after he was introduced to the drug by Cardinals teammate Bernie Carbo, and had developed an “insatiable desire for more.”
So clearly, Hernandez arrived to the Mets with some baggage in 1983. But he would have four solid offensive years with them while also being a rock at first base. In 1986, his line would read .310 BA, 13 HR, 83 RBI along with a staggering .417 on-base percentage.
In all likelihood, though, his drug habit would continue when he learned he was joining a team that did nothing but party hearty 24/7 while continuing to play winning baseball.
In Game Six of the World Series, he would manage a single and an intentional walk in five trips to the plate. He did not score or drive in any runs.
He would play three more years with the Mets with continued declining production and end his career in 1993 with a brief stint in Cleveland. Unlike many of his teammates, Keith Hernandez made his way out of the mess he created for himself, putting drugs aside and moving on to a very successful second career as a broadcaster for the Mets’ SNY network.
Teamed often with former teammate Ron Darling, the duo is regularly applauded for their insight and casual exchange of barbs with each other.
“He was a human backstop back there. Early, before his knees went bad, you couldn’t steal on him in Montreal. When he wasn’t able to throw because of his knees, that never affected his performance. He was running on and off the field after three outs. This guy played in some pain and it was hustle, hustle, hustle.”
Carter spent the early part of his career with the Montreal Expos . He came to the Mets in 1984 at a time when the organization was just putting the team together. Gary Carter was the missing piece of the puzzle.
He would lead his ‘86 team to a World Series championship, hitting .276 with two home runs and nine RBI in the Fall Classic. His two-out, 10th-inning single ignited a three-run rally that resulted in a Mets win to even the series. New York went on to win the Fall Classic in seven games.
Here’s the video of those two home runs in Game 4:
In Game Six, he went 1-for-4, scoring a run and driving one home on a sacrifice fly to the outfield. A typical game for Gary Carter in his brief time with the Mets.
Slowed down by aching knees, he would leave the Mets and play for for the Giants and Dodgers before returning to Montreal to end his career in 1992.
He waited quite a while, but eventually he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003. Stricken with brain cancer, the world of baseball and especially his former teammate Keith Hernandez took it hard when he died at only 57 in February of 2012.
Darryl Strawberry didn’t just hit home runs. He hit long, towering, and majestic fly balls that would give pause to look in wonder when they finally disappeared over the wall. He hit home runs with a swing that was at least as long as his 6’6” body would allow, uncoiling at the last possible moment to meet the ball in the sweet spot 335 times in his brief, but eventful, major league career. Even his 1,352 strikeouts were something to behold.
Born and bred a New York Met, Strawberry was their first round pick and the number one overall in the 1980 baseball draft. A product of the streets of Los Angeles in the tough neighborhood of Compton, Strawberry arrived in New York with wide eyes and a naive look at the big city that would eventually swallow him up and spit him out.
Blessed with all the God-given talent in the world, Strawberry, with a bat in his hand, took Mets fans by storm for seven years beginning in 1984 and ending with an early departure to his home to play for the Dodgers. Eventually he would return to New York with the Yankees when George Steinbrenner attempted to rescue him from his drug- and alcohol-infested life.
In 1986, Strawberry would contribute 27 home runs and 93 RBI. These were not the best numbers he ever put on the board. But just the fact that he was in the lineup gave pitchers across the league a moment of recognition and trepidation that, “I’ve gotta be careful with this guy.”
That was witnessed by the fact that in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, he came to bat four times and was walked twice while going 0-for-2 in the other two at bats. On one of those walks, he eventually came around to score.
And then in Game Seven, he hit this moonshot…
In 1990, his walk year from the Mets, he slammed 37 home runs and knocked in 108. Oh, almost forgot, he had 110 strikeouts, too. But that was Darryl Strawberry.
As we’ve seen, like many of his teammates, Strawberry’s life spun out of control, especially after leaving baseball. He made several attempts to achieve sobriety and still considers himself a risk for going back to that life. But by all accounts, he’s staying clean by doing a lot of community service work in an attempt to reach the young kids in the New York metropolitan area.
More than most, though, he is looked upon with regret when measured by what could and should have been, versus what is actually there regarding his final numbers. Ah, but that swing and its results were something to behold…
Breaking news: Ray Knight was a member of the 1986 world champion New York Mets. That’s Ray Knight, conveniently hidden toward the bottom of the lineup so you hardly knew he was there. Until he was there. And by that time, you were bound to be thinking, “We can get this guy.“
Like maybe the Red Sox were thinking when Knight came to bat with two outs in the 10th inning with the Mets trailing, and he hit a single to score Gary Carter and move Kevin Mitchell to third, where he would score and tie the game. Ray Knight would move to second with… well, you know the rest.
Ray Knight was a low round draft pick by the Cincinnati Reds where he established himself as a steady and reliable third baseman before coming to the Mets in 1984 with a brief stop of three years in Houston in between.
He was brought to the Mets because he was a consummate professional who went about his business quietly but effectively. As a player he could bridge the gap between himself and the young but wild talent the Mets were assembling.
Together with Gary Carter, he was the glue that held the team together. For the record, his line in Game Six reads 2-for-4 with two runs scored (including the last one of the game), two driven in, plus a walk. All in one day’s work. Fittingly, he was voted the MVP of the ‘86 World Series.
The next night he was again in the middle of everything with this at bat.
Not so fittingly, though, was a riff that developed between Knight and what he only refers to as the “front office” of the Mets as he describes here:
“What really stung me was some of the publications that the Mets put out — whether it was a yearbook or a poster or something commemorating the ’86 team — there’d be seven or eight pictures of guys on there, and I’d never be on there. And it’s hard for me to understand, as much as I contributed to that team, why I was never even featured in the small thing. Sensitivities are big. We just want to be appreciated. I knew my teammates appreciated me, but the powers that be, I don’t know that they did at that time.”
All sides made up in time for Knight to attend the 30th anniversary of the 1986 championship team.
By the way, have you noticed a theme developing here?
William Heyward Mookie Wilson was a second round draft pick by the New York Mets in 1977. He played three full seasons in the Mets farm system, hitting .295 with 50 stolen bases in the final year of Triple-A before joining the Mets in 1980.
His entire career was remarkably unremarkable until that fateful night when he and Bill Buckner became forever joined together. As recently as this summer, the duo appeared in a TV ad using “The Error” as a jumping-off point. And this, of course, is 30 years after the fact.
For Buckner, all it really meant was that he would spend a good portion of his retirement appearing at card shows around the country with expenses paid and a cut of the autograph action.
Here’s the video of that little white thing slowly rolling down the first base line…
But Mookie Wilson wanted a different life, and most of all he wanted a job in baseball. The Mets gave him that chance hiring him as a coach. In 2011, though, things went downhill when Terry Collins was hired as the manager.
Typically, this often becomes a time when the organization, or sometimes even the manager himself, uses the change to clean house by bringing new personnel on board. And that’s pretty much what happened to Wilson who ended up losing his job as first base coach. He was noticeably not fired, just moved.
Apparently Mookie stewed about it for some time because three years later he had a lot to say to the New York Post:
“It’s sad to admit this, but I have basically become a hood ornament for the Mets,” Wilson wrote in “Mookie: Life, Baseball and the ’86 Mets,” according to the New York Post. “I have no decision-making role at all in my job description. I would have liked an explanation as to why I was moved from first-base coach to the ambassadorship, but none was ever given.”
He then went on to add even more remarks about his teammates and the Mets organization:
“The Mets have shied away from that iconic club because they don’t want the current one exposed to that hard-partying culture which, while well-documented, has also been somewhat exaggerated at times,” Wilson wrote. “The guys from that championship team are older and more mature now and can warn the current Mets about some of the pitfalls of fame.”
Maybe, maybe not. In any event, he continues to be a favorite of the fans who only remember him for what he was. A pretty good ball player with some speed on the base paths and a natural smile that he didn’t shy away from flashing. Oh yeah, and that little roller he dribbled down the first base line late on a Saturday night in October.
When Rafael Santana was released by the St. Louis Cardinals in January of 1984, the Mets claimed him on the very same day. Labeled as a good-field, no-hit shortstop, Santana fit nicely into the needs of the Mets team in 1986.
All he needed to do was make all the plays at shortstop that should be made as well as to provide competitive at bats in the the eight-hole of the lineup. Mission accomplished.
During the 1986 regular season, he would have almost 600 chances in the field but would make only 16 errors. A .246 lifetime hitter in the major leagues, he slid down even further in the 1986 season, batting a paltry .218. But it hardly mattered.
In Game Six of the World Series, he had only one appearance at the plate in which he struck out. He was then pinch hit for by Danny Heep who promptly grounded into a double play. His replacement in the field, Kevin Elster, made an error, too.
Santana also has a different take on the makeup of the 1986 team telling the New York Daily News in 2015:
“We had the best chemistry,” says Santana, the shortstop of the ’86 Mets, the last Met team to win the World Series. “That’s the memory I have, the chemistry as a team. “We never gave up. We were a ballclub that fought, the whole time. We were good in ’84 and ’85 and we knew we had a chance. We challenged ourselves in spring training in ’86 to win and then carry it over into the season and that’s what we did.”
Even though it sounds like it, Santana was not oblivious to what was going on around him. Because in the same interview he cautioned:
“We were a young team and we played hard. I’m pretty sure there were other clubs that did the same things we did. But we won. I’m not saying you can do whatever you want if you win, but you can enjoy yourself.”
Santana has stayed connected to baseball and is now the head of player development in the Dominican Republic for the White Sox, supervising players and “making sure they follow things the way the White Sox do them.”
Bob Ojeda would pitch six strong innings in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, allowing eight scattered hits, two runs, and surrendering just two walks. Typical of his starts, he would also pitch to contact, striking out only three. He did not figure into the decision.
During the regular season that year, he was the most reliable Mets starter, going 18-5 with a 2.57 ERA. He also led the league in winning percentage (.753).
Ironically, he came to the Mets in 1985 in an eight-player swap with the Red Sox. And in the same deal, the Mets would send Calvin Schiraldi to Boston. Shiraldi then became the losing pitcher in Game Six for the Red Sox.
Over a span of 15 years, Ojeda averaged a 12-10 record pitching in the majors with five teams before ending his career in 1994 after a very brief stint with the Yankees.
In September of 1988, he suffered a career-threatening injury yesterday when an electric hedge clipper nearly severed the upper part of his left middle finger as he was trimming the honeysuckle bushes at his home in Port Washington, Long Island. This prevented him from pitching in the playoffs that year.
Later in 1993, tragedy of a different kind would strike Ojeda when he sustained serious scalp injuries in a boating accident with Cleveland Indians teammates Tim Crews and Steve Olin. His friends would both die in the accident and Ojeda would take it hard with survivor’s remorse setting in for a while.
In 2009, Ojeda took a job as a studio analyst for the Mets’ SNY network and grew to become an entertaining antidote to the shills and flag-wavers who often populate airwaves owned by other teams.
But there was a falling out and Ojeda was let go in 2015 after he criticized the Mets front office, in particular General Manager Sandy Alderson, saying essentially that the Mets could not win as long as Alderson was there.
So as we end this, there are some common themes among these players and their experiences with each other, as well as their interactions with the New York Mets organization.
The New York Mets of the 1980s, and in particular the team that won a world championship in 1986, represent all that was good and bad about baseball during this decade.
We know from their own testimony that the team was infested with alcohol and cocaine. What we don’t know though is if they were the lost souls of baseball during their time, or if they were typical of other teams as well who were just as wild but also a little more discreet about it.
Either way, it was difficult to write one segment after another that contained some negative truths in a story that was supposed to be all about celebrating what this team accomplished on the field. In doing the research, I could have ignored it all. But in the end I chose not to. Because it would be like telling the story of Richard Nixon without ever mentioning Watergate.
It is sad though how many of them went the “wrong way” after baseball, and we didn’t even mention (because he didn’t play in Game Six) Dwight Gooden, whose problems with drugs persist even to this day. Or Kevin Mitchell, who was shot three times in his youth growing up in San Diego, and now has a rap sheet as long as his career in baseball.
And with regards to management, was it just a case of them looking the other way, or were they so naive they didn’t even see it? Either way, they lose, too.
And perhaps with the exceptions of Gary Carter and Rafael Santana (of the players covered in this piece) the escape from that negativity was this one surely good thing: the Mets were the world champions of baseball in 1986.