Looking back on the Mets' 1986 title run

February 28th, 2022

NEW YORK -- They were brash. They were edgy. They were memorable.

Beyond everything, they were good. On talent alone, the 1986 Mets ranked among the greatest teams in National League history. But it required a World Series title to seal their legacy as one of the greatest professional sports teams New York has seen -- a legacy that continues to live on in the stories and legends of the summer of 1986.

“The city was just dying for a winner,” first baseman Keith Hernandez said in 2016, during the club’s 30th anniversary celebration. “It was a team that I think typified New York’s grit, and the fans took to us. They came out early, and there was always energy in the ballpark. We loved to play in front of them. ... I’m just proud of what we accomplished.”

Those looking for the initial threads of a championship tend to point to the Mets’ acquisition of Hernandez in 1983 as the move that changed their trajectory. Following their first two pennants in 1969 and ’73, the Mets entered into a decade of uninspired play that seemed for a time as if it might never end. A string of high Draft selections finally provided a bit of hope in the early 1980s, landing the organization two cornerstone pieces in Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden. But it was not until Hernandez arrived in 1983 that the Mets’ narrative arc began bending acutely upward.

“He was the leader from Day 1,” said pitcher Ron Darling, who later became Hernandez’s SNY boothmate on Mets broadcasts. “He had done so much in the game. None of us had done a thing.”

The culture change began accelerating in 1984, when the Mets won more than 68 games for the first time in eight years. It continued the following year, when the acquisition of Gary Carter turned the team into an instant contender. That summer, the Mets won 98 games for the first time since their 1969 title season, though they finished three games back of the Cardinals in a tight pennant race. For a Mets team that had already begun captivating the city, it was a disappointing end to a promising season. But most in Flushing understood it was only the beginning.

Bold and brash

By 1986, all the pieces were in place at long last for a pennant run: Hernandez and Carter, Strawberry and Gooden, Darling and Jesse Orosco, and so many others whose names were about to enter the history books. Entering the year among the league favorites, the Mets wrapped up April with 11 consecutive wins to take over first place in the NL East. They never relinquished that position.

“Everybody has the confidence now,” Strawberry told the New York Times following New York’s 11th in a row. “When everything is going well and everybody seems to be making things happen, there’s really nothing to complain about.”

Seemingly the only thing that could stop the Mets was themselves. Known for their hard-partying ways off the field, the Mets suffered a setback when four Mets players were arrested at a Houston nightclub in July. Later that month, infielder Ray Knight brawled with Eric Davis during the 10th inning of a memorable game in Cincinnati -- one of several benches-clearing events over the course of the season.

Off-color stories from that summer seemed to pop up constantly. But no matter what happened to the Mets over the course of a turbulent season, they simply kept winning. Each month, they increased their division lead, from six games at the end of May to 9.5 at the end of June, then 15.5 and 19.

The clinch finally occurred Sept. 17 at Shea Stadium, where fans streamed onto the field to celebrate, many of them jumping from atop the dugout to mingle with the Mets. So aggressive was the celebration that Shea Stadium’s grounds crew could not repair all the damage before the postseason, which was to set to begin in early October.

Gets through Buckner!

Winners of 108 games during the regular season, the Mets entered the playoffs as World Series favorites. But unlike from April through September, nothing came easy for them in October.

New York’s most significant problem was Mike Scott, a talented pitcher whom the Mets had traded to the Astros four years earlier for platoon outfielder Danny Heep. Following that deal, Scott blossomed into one of the National League’s finest pitchers, with 1986 serving as his opus. Scott would go on to win the NL Cy Young Award, but not before holding the Mets to one combined run in Games 1 and 4 of the NLCS.

A vintage pitching duel followed between Gooden and another Mets castoff, Nolan Ryan, in Game 6, setting the stage for a wild, extra-innings Game 6 to decide the series. The Mets scored three runs in the top of the 16th to take the lead, then watched closer Jesse Orosco give two back before striking out Kevin Bass to clinch the pennant.

“This,” said Fred Wilpon, the team president who would later become principal owner, “is sensational for New York.”

Three days later, the Mets began one of the most memorable World Series in baseball history. Despite once again being favored, the Mets struggled to gain an advantage over the Red Sox, who won Games 1, 2 and 5 to put the Mets on the brink of a runner-up finish.

Next came one of the classic World Series games of all-time. Erasing both a two-run Red Sox lead in the fifth and a one-run lead in the eighth, the Mets found themselves down to their final out in the 10th with a two-run deficit and nobody on base. But the Mets gained life when Carter, Kevin Mitchell and Ray Knight all singled in succession, prompting Boston to switch pitchers from Calvin Schiraldi to Bob Stanley, who immediately allowed the game-tying run to score on a wild pitch.

Stanley made the pitch he needed to escape the jam, but first baseman Bill Buckner allowed Mookie Wilson’s routine ground ball to trickle through his legs for a walk-off error.

“I knew Buckner very well, and I know the player that he was,” Wilson said recently. “[He] catches that ball in his sleep. Most people do. But like I said, crazy things happen for a reason.”

For the Mets, the craziness culminated two nights later in Game 7, when they again deconstructed an early Red Sox advantage to take the lead for good in the seventh. In a now-iconic image, Carter leapt into Orosco’s arms as Mets players swarmed around them on the infield. This time, a cavalcade of horses rode in from right field to stop fans from storming onto the turf as they did after the NLCS.

It had been 19 years since the Mets had won the World Series and, with this sort of talent on their roster, they understood the pressure to bring a title back to Flushing. When they succeeded, the Mets -- Gooden and Strawberry and Hernandez and Carter and so many others, brash and bold and ultimately winners -- became New York City legends for the rest of their lives.

“That was the team, man, and fans were so supportive,” Orosco said during the 2016 anniversary celebration. “They stopped us where we were in our tracks to give us the support. As time goes on, it slowly fades a bit. I walk around and fans still recognize me, but not like before. And I can understand. They’re all 30 years or 25 years younger than me. But it’s still a feel-good story every time.”