Twenty years later, '86 Mets are eternal
World Series champions among greatest in game's history
The 108 victories speak for themselves, and do so eloquently. They mark the 1986 Mets as a team of distinction, a team of unquestioned superiority in the regular season, one of nine teams, at the time, to reach that total and one of 11 in history to reach that figure. That said, the '86 Mets were distinguished from their contemporaries by more than numbers and from all other teams by a unique mixture of excesses and successes.
But none of what they were would have mattered or lingered so prominently in our sports consciousness if they hadn't been so good at what they did. "So good," Ron Darling says, "that Kevin Mitchell couldn't play for us every day." And Mitchell was three years shy of a Most Valuable Player season.
"We were so good," Tim Teufel says, "that Howard [Johnson] couldn't play for us. And he went 30-30 the next season."
"So good Doc [Gooden] wasn't even our best pitcher," Roger McDowell says.
So good, Rafael Santana says, "that we could have won five or six more games if somebody pushed us."
And so it went. "We were so good, it just seemed like we shouldn't lose," Lenny Dykstra says. "We were so much better than everyone else, we should have won at least 120 games."
But all that winning, the extraordinary drama or their National League Championship Series against the Astros and their remarkable World Series victory against the Red Sox would have mattered less and faded somewhat from our memories if the '86 Mets hadn't been who they were -- an extraordinary collection of personalities that captured the fancy of a city and a market that weren't easily seduced. They were partiers, Ivy Leaguers, dirtbags and kids from dirt-poor backgrounds, crossword-puzzle junkies, born-agains, womanizers and thug-wannabes.
Their overwhelming talent, their youth, their style and lifestyle and, yes, their overriding arrogance were the primary factors in an equation that worked. As much as any team, the '86 Mets were all things to so many people and a collection with a total impact that far exceeded the sum of its parts.
Their mere mention -- the merger of number and noun -- creates an image as powerful and distinctive as the '57 Chevy, '68 Democratic Convention, 18-wheeler or The Three Bears. The impression is permanent.
"I think it is that way now," Darling says. "We're not fading away."
Certainly not this year, not in the 20th anniversary season of the most successful team in the history of a 45-year-old franchise. They're being celebrated all year. The Mets of Mex, Kid, Straw, Doc, Nails and Mookie haven't displaced the 1969 team in the Mets pantheon. But they are a close second and, in this city with all its rich baseball history, they stand with that '69 team, the '55 Dodgers, the '51 Giants and the Yankees teams of 1927, '36, '61, 78, '96 and '98.
The '86 Mets were different from the other teams in the game almost from the day they assembled in St. Petersburg, Fla., for Spring Training, still smarting from their runner-up finish in the NL East race of the previous summer. Their flaws addressed in the interim, they were primed for more than garden-variety success.
Davey Johnson, their bold and calculating manager, brought them to a boil before the exhibition season. "We're not going to win, we're going to dominate," he told them. And his team responded as if his words had been an order rather than a prediction.
"We didn't think we were competing for the division [championship]," Wally Backman said in December. "Right from the get-go, we thought we were winning it. You can't plan on being in the World Series. But I think we expected to be."
It was Backman, as much as any one of them, who reflected the manager's boldness. In the afterglow of the stunning four-game sweep in St. Louis in late April, he taunted the team that had denied the Mets seven months earlier.
With the elevator door in the bowels of Busch Stadium closing, the brazen second baseman and two fellow passengers were about to be shut off from the outside world. Backman extended his right hand and pushed the trigger mechanism to reverse the process. He had spotted Cardinals pitcher Ricky Horton innocently walking toward a nearby staircase and, in that irritating, sing-song manner kids use, Backman issued this warning. "Don't let us get too far ah--e--ad."
A different door soon after closed on the Cardinals. By mid-May, their manager Whitey Herzog conceded: "No one's catching those SOB's. Not this year," he said.
Most victories in MLB history
"When Davey spoke to us in Spring Training -- or maybe it was just when we started the season -- he brought up that Cardinals series," Gary Carter said. "He told us 'You go in there, take three out of four, and you'll have 'em.' "
The teams were to meet earlier in New York, but Johnson looked beyond three games at Shea Stadium, ignoring baseball's time-honored, one-game-at-a-time mantra. "I knew what we had," Johnson said last summer. "I knew what kind of attitude would appeal to my team."
Still, no one planned a sweep in St. Louis -- not in a four-game series. "We went in there pretty much thinking we'd win three," Carter said. "But when we won four, we weren't surprised. We had so much talent, and we were still disappointed about the previous year."
The Mets went on to bury the division. They day they clinched the franchise's first championship in 13 years, Sept. 17, their lead over the second-place Phillies was 19 games. The third-place Cardinals were 22 behind. The Mets' final margin of victory was 20 1/2 games. The 1975 model of the Big Red Machine was the only other National League team in a sequence of 77 summers to reach 108 victories. No National League team has reached that number since 1986.
And there is this rather remarkable feat: Four other National League teams outscored their opponents that year, and their composite differential was plus 206 runs. The Mets outscored their opponents by 205. With all due respect to Casey Stengel's original Mets team, THOSE were the Amazin' Mets.
Amazin' and extraordinarily talented. Dwight Gooden wasn't the irresistible force he had been the previous season, but he won 17 games. Left-hander Bobby Ojeda, imported from the Red Sox to defuse the Cardinals' running game and to turn around their swift switch-hitters, won 18 games. He and Ray Knight were the lone veteran members of the team to produce career seasons that year.
Darryl Strawberry and his five-tool belt wasn't yet the player he would become in 1987, but his talent prompted Dykstra to coin the phrase "Awesome Strawsome."
Those Mets played the game properly, with unmatched intensity and resolve -- most of which was directly attributable to the influence of Keith Hernandez, their soul, unquestioned leader and most valuable player. But sometimes when fundamental execution, intensity, resolve and all that pitching was insufficient, Strawberry would assert himself and just win a game or fuel a comeback on skill alone.
His skills were such that he once innocently pluralized a singular in a self-evaluation saying "With my potentials." His misspeak still prompts a chuckle from Darling "because it's true. Straw could do everything."
The home runs Strawberry hit against left-hander Bob Knepper and against Nolan Ryan in Games 3 and 5 of NLCS, respectively -- both one-run victories -- were largely obscured by developments that followed in those games. Without them, the Mets almost certainly wouldn't have reached the World Series.
Carter, the Hall of Fame catcher imported before the 1985 season to provide counterbalance to the left-handed swings of Hernandez and Strawberry, was an enormous presence in the batting order and behind the plate. He and Knight, who was in a personal renaissance, were clubhouse presences, too. Hernandez asserted himself on the field and in the dugout.
Even when talent wasn't in abundance at a position, the Mets had complementary players in tandem to handle the responsibilities -- Dykstra and Mookie Wilson in center field, Backman and Teufel at second base, Mitchell, Santana and Howard Johnson at shortstop and Knight and Howard Johnson at third.
And Davey Johnson used them all expertly; Witness a team dominating a league without a 20-game winner, a 40-home run hitter, with only one player with 100 or more RBIs -- Carter, none with 100 or more runs and neither an MVP or Cy Young Award winner.
And the starting rotation -- Gooden, Ojeda, Darling, Sid Fernandez and Rick Aguilera -- was perfectly matched, a unit with five different looks and enough strikeout acumen and Hernandez Gold Glove presence at first base to allow Johnson to use lesser defensive players in the infield. It may seem unnatural now, but Mitchell, the chunk that he was, started 20 games at shortstop (and played five other positions) for that team.
Being superior and from New York made the Mets arrogant, and arrogance made them better. It was the high-octane additive that made them unpopular, unapologetic and often unbeatable. Long before "refuse to lose" became part of sports lexicon, the Mets won a lot because of their overwhelming talent and elevated intensity. And they won even more because they were convinced they should.
They had an abiding intolerance for losing. Losing was inconsistent with their self-image. Even though most teams that play deep into postseason lose 60 games in the regular season, those Mets saw a loss as a permanent blemish. "We want a hundred wins bad," Howard Johnson said after they had reached 95. "And why stop there? We're good enough to win 110."
That sort of bravado prompted hatred in the league. Years later, when Cardinals second baseman Tommy Herr joined the Mets, he called the '86 team "insufferable." Howard Johnson's reaction: "Nah, we were just unbeatable."
Oh, how those Mets loved to say things like that! How they loved being hated! Backman chirped incessantly. Howard Johnson often was indiscreet in his postgame comments. Strawberry didn't know tact, and not even Knight or Carter introduced him to it. How could they after they had punched the air in a curtain-call response.
Carter, though respected, was disliked in the league because of what opponents called his "I-me" manner. His curtain-call exuberance made it worse. "I would have hated us," Darling says now.
Dysktra had more swagger than a second-year player should. Darling and Hernandez -- now Mets TV announcers -- would slyly point out the team's superiority, and manager Johnson treated it as fact. And Mitchell, a rookie and hardly a regular, liked to rub their faces in it and often looked for a fight.
No wonder that, by midsummer, with the division race all but decided, the Mets hardly were considered favorites. They enjoyed adding insult to insult. Never apologetic, they became targets. The term contenders had a different meaning when applied to them.
They were involved in four bench-clearing incidents in two months. "And we've won all of them, too," Dykstra said after the fourth.
They beat their chests like that all the time.
"And," as Dykstra loved to point out, "we beat everything and everybody that year."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.