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It was after midnight when the New York Mets' Keith Hernandez made the second out in the bottom half of the 10th inning in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series. That's when Hernandez, his Mets trailing the Boston Red Sox 5-3—and three games to two in the Series—retired to manager Davey Johnson's office, cracked open a cold one and watched the now indelible madness unfold on TV.
Gary Carter singled. Kevin Mitchell, pinch-hitting for Rick Aguilera, did the same. Ray Knight singled, too, sending Carter across the plate, his arms waving wildly all the way. Mookie Wilson watched a wild pitch allow Mitchell to score, and then he hit that pathetic little dribbler between the gimpy wickets of Boston first baseman Bill Buckner. Knight scored, Shea Stadium nearly imploded, and 48 hours later New York reliever Jesse Orosco flung his glove high into the chill autumn night after the Mets beat the Red Sox in Game 7 to become world champions.
Back then New York was a team whose Series-saving rally embodied the club itself: full of pluck and blessed by luck. To the frustration of right-thinking fans everywhere, put off by the Mets' swagger, this young and inveterately obnoxious team had surely arrived as a dynasty. "You would get that impression," says Philadelphia Phillie reliever Roger McDowell, who saved 22 games for New York that season. "We had five starters who were unbelievable. I won't say a great, but a good bullpen. You had guys who got on base. Guys who knew how to run the bases. Scrappy guys. Guys who could hit the ball out of the park. Pitching, hitting, fielding—every category."
Today, not one of the aforementioned characters in the 1986 drama is on the Mets roster. A new nameplate has been put on the door to the office in which Hernandez sipped his beer. Last week DAVEY JOHNSON/MANAGER was replaced by BUD HARRELSON/MANAGER. After an 8-3 loss to the Phillies on Sunday, New York was in fourth place in the National League East, four games below .500 and 7½ games behind the division-leading Pittsburgh Pirates. Little more than three years have passed since that championship season, but the team that was once the polish on the Big Apple has turned into a giant pumpkin.
"I don't even recognize half of these guys," said McDowell as he watched New York take batting practice last Friday in Philadelphia. And McDowell, who at week's end led the National League in saves, with 13, was a Met only a year ago.
The turnover is not complete, but like the long balls that once preceded those all-too-frequent curtain calls at Shea, members of the New York team that won 108 games in 1986 come in three categories: going, going and gone. Thirteen of the 17 Mets used against Boston in Game 6 are no longer with New York, though only three have retired. Two players, pitcher Bob Ojeda and rightfielder Darryl Strawberry, who were in the starting lineup that Saturday night, remain, and one of them, Strawberry, wants out when he becomes a free agent at the end of this season. "This pretty much finalizes my decision," he said on May 29, the day that Mets general manager Frank Cashen cashed in Johnson's chips in a room in Cincinnati's Terrace Hilton and elevated Harrelson from his position as New York's third base coach.
The scapegoat, sent home to Winter Park, Fla., grazed for three days on his dismissal for front-office failings considerably larger than his own before saying to Larry Guest of The Orlando Sentinel on Saturday, "I feel drained, disillusioned, humiliated." And well he should. The Mets' 575-395 record in Johnson's six full seasons as manager was 29½ games better than that of the next best team over the same span, the Toronto Blue Jays. New York averaged 96 wins in those seasons, even though it had to replace several older players along the way. "Nineteen eighty-nine was a rough year, with all the new faces working into the lineup," Johnson said of his worst season. "It was a year of transition, and we still finished second. It was a really good year, but I was probably the only one who thought so."
New York won 87 games while giving Gregg Jefferies and Keith Miller, now the starting second baseman and centerfielder, respectively, their first real taste of playing time. However, that wasn't good enough for Cashen, who thinks that the Oakland A's are the only team with talent comparable to that of the Mets and who told the players just that in a somber meeting in the visitors' clubhouse at Riverfront Stadium after he had fired Johnson. Assessing talent is not the only area in which Cashen may be kidding himself. "I have told the players I still think we can win this," he says. He must be talking only about winning the weak Eastern Division, but even that is a long shot given New York's glaring deficiencies.
In the sponsor-heavy home clubhouse at Shea Stadium, where even the chairs carry corporate logos, the Mets pad about in towels emblazoned with the words MET LIFE. Of late that phrase has become an oxymoron. The Mets palpably lack a certain something, whatever you might care to call it. Cashen used the phrase "fire in the belly" in his meeting with the players after canning the oft-laconic Johnson. Harrelson, though he believes its virtues are vastly overblown, calls it leadership.
"This is the first year that we don't have Hernandez and Carter, what we'd call born leaders, who are boisterous, cocky," says Harrelson of the pair of fading 36-year-olds who clearly had to go but who just as clearly took part of the soul of the team with them. Pitcher Dwight Gooden might have best defined that certain je ne sais quoi missing from the Mets after a game on May 15 at Candlestick Park. Carter, who's now with the San Francisco Giants, had doubled in the eighth inning to give New York one of its nine one-run losses this season. "Maybe we've made too many trades for guys who are used to getting their asses kicked," said Gooden. "The guys who used to snap—Wally [Backman], Lenny [Dykstra], Ray, Keith, Mitch—they're gone."