Decades apart, Mets clubs connected
Current club's supremacy reminiscent of championship team
NEW YORK -- In 1986, Arizona was home to Paul Lo Duca and snakes, but not to uppercase Diamondbacks. Lo Duca could have followed any one of 26 big-league teams back then. He chose to follow the Mets and suffer the slings and arrows of friends who considered him a front-runner.The baseball roots of Roberto Hernandez were decidedly blue and orange, too. He knew the Mets and embraced them, recognizing something special in Mookie Wilson six summers earlier. And he had seen Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter come to Flushing, witnessed the grand emergence of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. He was there, in the city, when the Mets began their remarkable 1986 season. But his own baseball interfered with watching that summer; the Angels drafted him and sent him to Salem, Ore. Outside Boston, a 20-year-old Tom Glavine was more attuned to the developments of the Boston Fens.
"I knew the Mets were good," he said. "But I was New England."No television cable stretched from Queens to Arizona, Oregon or Massachusetts in those days. The respective distances separating Lo Duca and Hernandez from their baseball passions was something akin to what separated the first-place Mets from the rest of the National League East in 1986.
"We know what we read, mostly," Lo Duca said.And TV or no TV, Glavine remained Mets-apathetic. The three veteran Mets, like most of their current colleagues, have little sense of all that happened 20 years ago in the ballpark they inhabit. Of course, they all know how Billy Buckner became Bill "E" Buckner. Some know about the 16-inning playoff game in the Dome and Mike "Dread" Scott. One or two even know that Kevin Mitchell, already a chunk of a man in 1986, played shortstop on occasion and that nails was an adjective -- it meant good in '86 Mets jargon -- before it became a proper-noun nickname. "Most of us were too young then to remember anything now," the 30-year-old Chris Woodward said. "Or they just didn't care." Then he feigned more ignorance. "Were they any good?" It is to that team of 20 years past that the current Mets are most often compared in these summer days -- not because the '06 edition has a Doc or a Darryl, a Nails or a Knight, but because the current Mets have spent most of the season bullying the National League as the '86 club did. So many of the achievements of the current team have parallels to accomplishments of the 1986 team -- biggest division lead after so many games, best road trip since, most games over .500 since, et al -- that comparisons are inevitable. Even the three-game glitch in Philadelphia this week could be linked to a four-game misstep in mid-August '86. Most players hate most comparisons, even when the evaluations are flattering. These first-place Mets are no different. But the comparisons and their limited knowledge of the franchise's second set of World Series champions occasionally prompt intrigue and wonder. "I know we had some pretty good teams in Atlanta," Glavine said one day in May, "and we never won 108 games." "Did they really have as much fun as they seemed to?" Aaron Heilman asked recently. "You think their pitching was that much better than ours?" Billy Wagner wondered. Some of their questions may be answered on Saturday when the '86 team reunites and is celebrated on the Shea diamond, where it piled on Jesse Orosco 20 years ago on Oct. 27. They won't wonder about Strawberry too much -- they saw him in March in Port St. Luice, Fla., and enjoyed his presence. But all will undoubtedly be touched by the warm reception Straw is certain to receive. The love-hate of '86 is love-love now. Shea Stadium, running out of future, loves its past. Lenny Dykstra is also a curiosity, even to those who know him well. Does he still chew? Does he still walk that way? How has a man whose uniform was always so dirty made millions keeping other peoples' cars clean? Hernandez and Ron Darling are so visible in their new roles as SNY commentators that the mystique that might have existed about them won't be there. The same holds true for Carter and Howard Johnson, who have been Spring Training fixtures the last few years. Sid Fernandez was there in March, too. But Wilson hasn't been around much. And everyone loves Mookie. They'll all replay his ground ball, wonder if he would have beaten Buckner to the base and whether he could outrun Jose Reyes even now. He looks as trim as ever. There is a mystique about Mitchell, who may not be so trim. He was gone after '86 after one season of production and promise, to become something no Mets player ever has been, an MVP. Mitch was a rookie in '86, but he, like Dykstra, had clubhouse impact, adding to the vernacular and the bully image the Mets loved. "The way Mitch used to talk," a former teammate said, "he wasn't a good bet to be alive for the 20th anniversary. Those not there will be conspicuously absent -- Ray Knight, the World Series MVP, manager Davey Johnson and, of course, Gooden. The Mets of '06 and '86 will lament the troubled turns his life has taken.
"I'd like to know he's all right," said Wagner, briefly Gooden's teammate with the Astros in 2000.Lee Mazzilli, twice a Met, is now more a Yankee than a former Met. Roger McDowell is the Braves' pitching coach. He and his good friend, the Upside Down Man, can't make it. His other good friend, Bobby Ojeda -- the Mets' leading winner 20 years ago -- will be there. Draw a parallel between Bobby O, with his Red Sox past and offspeed left-handed stuff, and Glavine. There are no parallels that can be drawn to Sid Fernandez, not as a pitcher. He had a unique on-mound manner and delivery. * * * The '86 Mets were, and remain, everything the current Mets want to become -- a team of ongoing distinction. They have their place in New York's grand and rich baseball history because they won and because they were, as current manager Willie Randolph recalls, "pretty wild -- a bunch of renegades who enjoyed themselves and could play." This Mets manager, like Davey Johnson a former second baseman with a championship resume, watched Johnson's Mets.
"I can't be sure of how they behaved. You hear so much," he said. "I'm sure how they played -- with attitude."People said they were arrogant -- nothing wrong with that," he added. "They earned the right to be anything they wanted. They weren't real popular in the game, you'd hear people say. "I like my teams to have swagger. They cut themselves a nice, little niche. They wanted to roll over you and be remembered for it. That probably helped them get through the long season focused." Randolph and Howard Johnson were chatting on the field in March when the topic turned to the '86 Mets.
"We were a pretty good team late," Johnson recalled. "We knew how to beat a bullpen. We had great players, and we had character."Darling stood nearby innocently eavesdropping before he footnoted Johnson's assessment.
"That team did its best work late," he said. "We had character and characters."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.