If I didn't have a job, I probably wouldn't have gone to Citi Field on May 28.
I had gone there twice last year to watch the New York Mets. The first time was before their resurgence in early August, which culminated in them winning the National League pennant and going to the World Series for the fifth time in 54 years. I wound up going to the final game of the regular season, which they won. I wasn't particularly eager to go back, but I didn't have much choice in the matter. From May 27-29, the Mets would be honoring the 1986 team that won the World Series, peaking with a salute on Saturday. And I had to go.
Sports fans probably get where I'm coming from. If you're lucky, there will come a team that will enthrall you totally, a team that would be yours forever. In 1986, the Mets won 108 games, the most of any squad in that decade. They defeated the Houston Astros in the National League Championship Series in six games, and went the distance against the Boston Red Sox, coming from two runs down in Game 6 to win in 10 innings, en route to their second (and last) title. Never mind that the "dynasty" from 1984-1990 had the team winning a mere two National League East crowns. Or that most of the team were assholes, as chronicled in The Bad Guys Won! by Jeff Pearlman. Or that tragedy would dog the players for years afterward. Even as the current edition of the team is holding their own in a competitive environment, old-school fans (particularly the ones such as myself, not born when the Miracle Mets won their title in 1969) will have a soft spot for the '86 team.
I had to go to Saturday's game. On Friday, the Mets were giving out t-shirts modeled after the '86 squad's uniform, with the pinstripes and orange and blue streaks running down the sides. On Sunday, they planned to give out replicas of the World Series rings to the first 15,000 fans. They did the same thing for kids 29 years ago. I should know . .. . I got one of those. And I would have gone back, but the game was scheduled at 8 p.m. because ESPN was broadcasting it. Even with Monday being Memorial Day, I wanted to get back home at a decent hour. Even if parking was free, I probably would have made it back home after midnight . . . never mind mass transit. Despite the lack of giveaways on Saturday, I decided to bear witness. The team's site had standing room tickets, but I managed to get one from StubHub. And that was before I found out that Fox was covering the game, meaning that neither WPIX nor SNY would be airing the ceremonies.
I got to Citi Field in plenty of time, and that was a good thing, because there were lines to get in that reached the subway platform. I wouldn't call my seat a "nosebleed," but I did have the presence of mind to bring the camera with the most zooming available. Even though it took a while to get into the stadium and obtain food (had to get a Nathan's frank with fries and soda in a souvenir cup for $19 total), I got to my seat in plenty of time. There was a red carpet (or something like it) leading from center field to the infield, where uniform numbers were laid out. After a brief delay, this started playing on the scoreboard:
Like the 1985 Chicago Bears before them, the Mets were far enough ahead of the pack to warrant starring in their own music video, "Lets Go Mets." Thankfully, none of the Mets went behind the mic, settling for appearing in the video. I remember it vividly, because I was at Shea Stadium with my parents for a doubleheader when they were recording the crowd scenes. A lot of it was us shouting "Lets go Mets, GO!" This was a departure from the "Lets Go Mets!" chant that was prevalent for the team
After "Lets Go Mets" played, the scoreboard led a chant using a graphic I recognized as playing on DiamondVision at Shea back in the day. Then radio announcer Howie Rose came in to emcee the event. He started by introducing Greg Cashen (representing his father Frank, the general manager and acclaimed architect of the team) and Davey Johnson (the manager whose use of computer analysis was ahead of his time). Next came the main coaches, Bill Robinson (represented by wife Mary and son Bill Jr.) and Bud Harrelson (the only man to be in a Mets uniform for both championship teams), followed by trainer Steve Garland (wearing uniform number 86). The players came out as highlights played out. The only folks I know that didn't come were shortstop Kevin Elster (a late-season call-up who played in the Series), reliever Doug Sisk (who was never embraced by the fans) and Roger McDowell (the prank-playing fireman who is the pitching coach for the Braves . . . poor bastard). Everybody got a round of applause . . . even obscure guys like Ed Hearn (the bespectacled backup catcher who would be traded to the Royals in the offseason in a deal that brought David Cone to New York), Randy Niemann (a guy who was buried in the bullpen), and Danny Heep (the heir apparent to Rusty Staub in terms of pinch-hitting, and the first Met to start as a designated hitter).
Of course, the big names got the most applause . . . like Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling, who do color commentary on Mets broadcasts; cautionary stories Darryl Strawberry (he's a minister these days) and Dwight Gooden (runs a baseball academy on Staten Island); and the late Gary Carter, who many saw as the final piece of the puzzle for the team (he was represented by wife Sandy and son DJ). The clips led into the World Series and Game 6, where the Mets came back from two runs down and two men out in the tenth inning to shock the Red Sox. Of course, the guy everybody cheered was Mookie Wilson, whose epic at-bat against Bob Stanley ended with him rolling the ball between Bill Buckner's legs, scoring Ray Knight to win the game. Actually, there was less cheering and more mooing from the crowd. The tribute ended with head reliever Jesse Orosco, who got the final out in Game 7, striking out Marty Barrett and throwing his glove in the air and going on his knees in celebration. Once the 1986 team took their places in the infield, they were greeted by the current squad. For the 2016 team, this would be the high point of the night. After Glenn Close sang the National Anthem (which she did in the Series), Jesse threw the first pitch to DJ. And in a cute touch, he threw his glove in the air and got a bear hug from DJ, echoing how Jesse and Gary celebrated back then.
Of course, there was a game to be played, between the Mets and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Originally, I had thought that Bartolo Colon would be taking the hill for the Mets. This was fun for me, since he's become a bit of a folk hero at Citi Field, a guy who is the team's third mascot after Mr. and Mrs. Met. Turned out I was off by a day . . . instead, Noah Syndergaard would start. With Matt Harvey having early season troubles, the man dubbed "Thor" by the fans and the media was the de facto ace of the rotation. With the Dodgers in town, this meant that second baseman Chase Utley would face a hostile Citi Field crowd. In the National League Division Series last year, Utley performed a dirty slide that broke Ruben Tejada's leg, knocking him out of the remainder of the postseason. Never mind that Major League Baseball changed the rules to prevent similar situations, or that the Mets cut Tejada loose in the offseason. Utley had taken his place in the all-time villains gallery for Mets fans, joining the likes of Pete Rose (tried to murder Bud Harrelson in the 1973 NLCS), Mike Scott (alleged scuffballer whose split-fingered fastball stymied the Mets in 1986), Larry "Chipper" Jones (the Braves third baseman who dominated at Shea Stadium, and who implied that Mets fans put on Yankees gear when the team gets knocked out of contention), and John Rocker (whom I wrote about in 2014). Also, Utley hit a bases-clearing double the previous night in the ninth inning off Jeurys Familia in the previous game, so he had not endeared himself to the Mets' faithful.
As far as nostalgia, it was a good night. For the entire weekend as well as all Sunday home games, the Mets wore 1986-themed throwback uniforms. The scoreboard showed old-school graphics, and songs from that year were played between innings. Fans were quizzed on Mets trivia and were "surprised" by members of the '86 team. And after the seventh inning, they played an Eighties staple at Shea: "The Curly Shuffle." This was a song about The Three Stooges. Yes, really. Here's the proof:
The game itself started promisingly enough, Utley struck out to start the game, much to the fans' delight. Curtis Granderson (last night's hero with a walk-off home run) got the first hit for the Mets, singling to right field. Unbeknownst to the audience, this would be the last hit past the infield until the eighth inning. Granderson was caught in a double play on an Asdrubal Cabrara grounder. Michael Conforto followed that by hitting a line drive that smacked pitcher Kevin Maeda. He would stay in the game, working five innings total.
Things were uneventful until the top of the third inning. With one out, Utley came to the plate to intense jeers. And then . . . from my angle, it looked like Noah hit him with a pitch. Terry Collins, the Mets' manager, came out to argue, and he was run out of the game. I was confused, especially when the scoreboad announced that Logan Verrett (the team's emergency starter) was warming up in the bullpen. Once he entered the game, Utley got back to the plate. What the hell had just happened?
Because I can be a slave to technology, I whipped out my iPad and looked up coverage of the game on ESPN.com. It turned out Thor had thrown behind Utley, and the home plate umpire wound up ejecting him without any prior warning, as well as Terry. Utley had not been forced to eat dirt from a fastball to the head. He did not get a pitch to the ribs. He was intact, and Thor had gotten run out of the game. Had most of the crowd had not come to honor the 1986 team, I suspect they would have filed a lawsuit against the ump for taking the Mets' best pitcher out of the game. Utley would strike out again, but the damage had already been done.
The Mets and Dodgers did not score for five innings, as Logan and Maeda stymied each other's lineups. In the top of the sixth, Utley came up again. Cue the booing. And Utley hit a solo home run to right field, putting the Dodgers up 1-0. They scored another run in that inning. Meanwhile, the Mets' bats were unable to make a peep.
Seventh inning. Antonio Bastardo (no, really) had relieved Logan. He gave up a double to Adrian Pederson and a single to Howie Kendrick, followed by a walk to Yasmani Grandal. The bases were loaded with nobody out. Bastardo was taken out in favor of Hansel Robles, who shared a number with Jesse Orosco (47). He struck out pinch hitter Enrique Hernandez for the first out. Enter Chase Utley. Cue the boos. And then . . .
Oh, fuck no.
Chase Utley hit a grand slam, putting the Dodgers up 6-0. As Warner Wolf would probably have put it, "Turn your sets off there." Robles stayed in the game, giving up solo shots to Adrian Gonzalez and Kendrick before being mercifully taken out of the game. In the ninth, reliever Jim Henderson saw a pitch to Cory Seagar go into the stands for the Dodgers' ninth run. By then, most of the fans had elected to get an early start towards the exits. The Mets sole run came off a pinch-hit homer from Juan Lagares in the eighth. The final score: Dodgers 9. Mets 1. Not a good night at all.
Still, I did feel a sense of satisfaction. The 1986 New York Mets were an important part of my life. Even though the uglier stuff was swept under the rug that night (including the four fights they got into that season; five if you count the brawl at the Houston strip club), there was a good feeling for me, even as the umpires and Chase Fucking Utley conspired to throw the Mets under the bus. For his sake, I hope the Mets and Dodgers don't meet again in the postseason this year. Or ever. As that night proved, the fans had long memories, for good and for ill.
PS: Noah "Thor" Syndergaard and Terry Collins were neither fined nor suspended for the events of May 28. Yes, I'm still bitter, even two weeks after the game.
PPS: Here are the pictures I took from that night, from the faithful waiting for the 7 train at Grand Central to the dejected masses vacated Citi Field. At least it was an eventful day.