Howell's postseason began to unravel the day before, during the eighth inning of soggy Game 3, when he relieved the omnipresent Hershiser. Los Angeles had gone ahead 4-3 in its half of the inning, and it was up to Howell to protect that precarious lead. He failed, but not for the usual reasons.
While Howell fell behind 3 and 0 to leadoff batter McReynolds, Mets coach Bill Robinson was fixing him with a suspicious stare. Robinson thought he had seen something unusual about Howell's mannerisms on the mound in L.A.—something about the way he tugged at the strings of his glove as if it were a good luck charm. Robinson suggested to Johnson that he, too, keep an eye on Howell. Sure enough, Howell went to his glove again, and Johnson went straight to plate umpire Joe West and suggested he take a look.
Umpire crew chief Harry Wendelstedt trotted in from his post in leftfield and the two umps fingered the glove. Although nothing rubbed off on their hands, they told the two managers they detected something sticky there. Howell, they said, was in violation of baseball rule 8.02 (b), which prohibits the use of a foreign substance by a pitcher and calls for immediate ejection of the offending party. Howell got the heave-ho. Wendelstedt carried the unsanitary glove over to Giamatti in his front-row box, and the law-and-order president and future commissioner announced the next day that Howell would be temporarily lost to the Dodgers.
Game 3 was also a lost cause for L.A. The Mets scored five times off Howell and his three successors and won going away, 8-4. But the talk afterward was mostly about weather and pine tar rather than the game itself. Howell freely admitted dabbing the heel of his glove with the sticky stuff. But it was the Lord and the miserable conditions He had wrought that made him do it, Howell protested. It had rained Friday night, forcing a one-day postponement of this game. It was still raining on Saturday, but not hard enough, in the prejudiced opinion of league officials and ABC television, to merit a second postponement, which would hopelessly confuse an already muddled travel and broadcast schedule. So this one was played with the temperature at 43°, an arctic wind lashing Shea Stadium and a steady drizzle falling from the first out to the last.
Even Hernandez, a 10-time Gold Glover who is ordinarily flawless in all phases of the game, could not function under these conditions. He gave the Dodgers their first run by throwing away Mike Scioscia's drag bunt in the second. And he cost the Mets a run in the sixth when he went into a Chaplinesque romp in the swamp between second base and third, first slipping and sliding in place, then stumbling crazily forward and finally falling on his face in the mud. He was tagged out a foot from third base as he crawled there, like a supplicant at a revival meeting, on hands and knees. Gibson also took a header chasing Mookie Wilson's line drive in the fifth, but somehow he reached up while on his way to a belly flop and made a sensational catch.
It was just such inclement conditions that led Howell to the tar can, he said. "I use pine tar to get a better grip on the ball in cold weather. I don't use it to change the flight of the ball. Let's face it, it's illegal, but I don't feel I've done anything wrong. This is not on the same level as scuffing the ball."
Lasorda, quite naturally, bemoaned Giamatti's initial three-day sentence as "unjust." And Hernandez agreed. "Howell should not be suspended from the playoffs," he said before the judgment was announced. "Pine tar may give an edge, but it's not cheating. We're not choirboys here. These two teams have come too far. We should be able to play with our best."
This series was awash in controversy before it even began. Strawberry started it all off by telling Los Angeles Times baseball writer Ross Newhan that when his Mets contract expires after the 1990 season, he would like nothing better than to return home to Southern California and play with the Dodgers.
But Strawberry's loyalty was never seriously in question, and when Game 1 was on the line, he was playing for the right side. The Dodgers were leading 2-0 in the ninth, and Hershiser, Captain Zip, was on the mound. He had gone 67 consecutive innings without allowing a run, and he seemed in command. But the Mets had won 19 games in their last time at bat this year, and Hershiser or no, they were primed for another bang-up finish. The 21-year-old Jefferies—Master October?—led off the inning with his third hit of the game. He was running when Hernandez hit a screaming grounder to first, thus avoiding a double play. When Strawberry belted a line double to right center, scoring Jefferies, Lasorda lifted his ace for Howell. He walked McReynolds to put the go-ahead run on base, but fanned Howard Johnson for the second out and had two strikes on Carter when he hit a dinker into centerfield. Shelby, playing deep, raced in tardily, dived and got a glove on the ball. But it trickled away and, when he finally retrieved it, McReynolds was steaming for the plate. This base-path daring caused Shelby to double-pump before making a throw that reached Scioscia an instant after McReynolds bowled him over to score what would prove to be the winning run.
The Dodgers and their fans were stunned. Their invincible pitcher had been undone and their star reliever had suffered the first setback of these, for him, forgettable playoffs. To make matters worse, the Mets seemed to be gloating over it in print the next day. David Cone, who had won 20 games and would be the Mets starter in Game 2, was also moonlighting as a guest columnist for the New York Daily News, passing on his observations to a ghostwriter, News staffer Bob Klapisch. The comments about Game 1 that appeared under Cone's byline—particularly those likening Howell to a high school pitcher—struck Dodger supporters as cheap shots of the worst kind. Unfortunately for Cone, copies of his tactless epic reached the Dodger clubhouse, and that night, Cone was forced to eat his words during a 6-3 win for L.A. Cone survived only two innings, giving up five runs, and promptly announced his retirement from the newspaper business.