’86, baby!

’86, baby! That’s what I would call out down the halls of my middle school, scrawny first pumped in the air, another baseball-mad kid as my friend Michael–  still my friend, a now a fan of ‘the Amazin’s’– would gently mock me.

Tenafly Midle School.  Just 15 years old, and already living in the baseball past.

Maybe it’s because I spent the weekend at the restaurant, fending off the masses of Yankee sympathy (I don’t want it!), but I settled in front of the TV for yesterday’s SNY pregame show, in which four members of that ’86 franchise were inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame (which now has a surprisingly high number of 25 honorees).  Maybe I watched because it reminds me of being a kid– eight and then nine– for that frustrating ’85 season (excellently detailed by Davey Johnson in his smart baseball book) and then the all-the-way season of ’86, when my father and I went to Game 7 of the World Series (still a highlight of, yes, my life–  is there anything better at that age, to be at Shea when it’s rockin’?!).  Maybe I watched because though I’ve heard tales, seen the old video and read the stories of Seaver, Koosman, Agee and the ’69 team, it doesn’t belong to me, not really.  ’86 is what I have.

I’m typing this wearing my replica ’86 hat.  My old, vintage ’86 T-shirt rests upstairs in the closet.  Framed (and somewhere in a storage unit on Santa Monica Boulevard) is my ticket stub from that amazin’, come-from-behind game, along with the front page of the paper from that day.  (After the Buckner play of game 6, people forget what a nail-biter that game 7 was, and how it looked– again– like Boston might win.)

So there they were yesterday:  Mookie, Kid Carter (the HOF-er who was my favorite player growing up), Mex (everyone’s favorite player from those years now), ’69 and ’86-er Buddy Harrelson, Le Grand Orange, Mr. R. Staub.  Older men now, some familiar faces from the TV, some having disappeared.  And with them, of course, the four inductees (the first honorees in eight years):  GM Frank Cashen, manager Davey Johnson, and Doc and Darryl.  (I can still hear the old chants:  DAR-RYL, DAR-RYL.)

Cashen, of course, with the bowtie in those days, was class personified, and understood the stage that NYC is (Omar could learn a thing or two from him–  as good as Beltran is, some players can’t handle the Big Apple.  Randy Johnson, anyone?).  It was truly awesome to see Johnson, especially when he did an inning in the booth and it became clear he had nothing to apologize for, the way he managed in New York, and loved the city–  and was happy nowadays, too.

But of course these kind of days always belong, ultimately, to the players, those who thrilled us long ago with their sweet swings and hard-throwing strikeouts.  Perhaps no one personifies baseball (as Bart Giamatti said, “A game designed to break your heart.”) more than Doc and Daryl.  Did they even deserve the Mets HOF, having squandered the talent that seemed inevitably to lead to Cooperstown?  They were forgiven, of course, three seasons ago at ‘Shea Goodbye‘ (if not before), but I can’t help but feel that Doc and Daryl deserve compassion, yes, but also a still-stern talking to:  What were you thinking?!  (Many years ago I read the excellent The Ticket Out: Daryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw, by Michael Sokolove– it’s a true tale of heartbreak.)  We could forgive ’em for both attempting (even finding, at some moments) redemption with the damn Yankees, but their past?

Ultimately, of course, we do forgive ’em–  Tom Wolfe and F. Scott Fitzgerald be damned, New York loves second acts and coming home.  All you have to do, it seems, it show up, play the old highlight reels in which their brilliant form is all ahead of them, and enjoy.  But I can’t help wondering how many fans watched like me:  With one eye on the physical grace and beauty, and one eye on the tainted legacy we were celebrating.  (Though the point is, I tuned in–  I felt like I owed to those guys, that team.)

’86, baby! Some years ago I made the minor mistake of reading Jeff Pearlman’s definitive tale of that year, The Bad Guys Won!.  I say ‘mistake’ because, like your parents and Jim Henson, your childhood heroes should stay that way, and these hard-living athletes were anything but.  But as an adult, I was glad to have read it–  they were just a bunch of rowdy, young, something-to-prove competitors who both embodied and captivated a city.  It was a time when it was cool to be a Mets fan, when Shea was actually a hip place to be seen–  even when a video like this was embraced.

Oh, and the other reason we celebrate that ’86 team?  They knew how to win.  (Their 2010 colleagues tanked the ballgame, losing to woeful Arizona by a score of 14 to 0.  Yup, 14 to 0.  ’86, baby!).

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