The wildest on-field moments for '86 Mets

ESPN doc 'Once Upon a Time in Queens' premiered Tuesday.

September 14th, 2021

Thirty-five years after they walked off the field as World Series champions, the 1986 Mets remain one of the most iconic teams in modern baseball history. Considered a team on the rise that couldn’t quite finish the job for two years running, the 1986 Mets both dominated their way to a franchise-record 108-win season and then came off the mat numerous times when it looked as if their season was finished.

With ESPN set to release its latest 30 for 30 Documentary “Once Upon a Time in Queens” on Tuesday and Wednesday (8 p.m. ET), is opening up its video vault and turning back the clock. Here, in rough chronological order, is a look back at the most memorable moments from that unforgettable ‘86 Mets season.

Statement made in St. Louis

New York had put up 98 wins in 1985 but fell three games short to St. Louis in the NL East. The Mets and Cardinals figured to be contenders for the division again ‘86, but the Mets let their rivals know in late April that the story would be different this time around.

In Game 1, Howard Johnson hit a game-tying, two-run homer in the top of the ninth that stunned the St. Louis crowd. George Foster followed with a go-ahead single in the 10th.

The Mets went on to sweep the four-game series, jumpstarting their season and setting a sub-.500 Cardinals campaign in motion. Dwight Gooden twirled a five-hit shutout in Game 2 ...

… and a brilliant double play started by Wally Backman sealed a tight victory in Game 3.

Playing with an edge

The 1986 Mets were beloved in New York, but maybe not so much in opposing towns. They were brash and they didn’t back down, as they proved repeatedly in some memorable brawls on the diamond. On May 27, Foster belted a grand slam off Dodgers right-hander Tom Niedenfuer to blow the game open. Niedenfuer then threw inside to Ray Knight, spurring Knight to charge the mound. Somehow, nobody was ejected, though the umpires got an earful from Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda.

About two weeks later, Mets first-base coach Bill Robinson shoved Pirates pitcher Rick Rhoden and set off another benches-clearing brawl in Pittsburgh. Check out Bucs manager Jim Leyland needing to be restrained by umpire Joe West (yes, that Joe West).

And don’t forget about this old-fashioned rivalry scrap between the Braves and Mets in July. After Gary Carter cleared the bases with a three-run homer, Braves righty David Palmer plunked Darryl Strawberry in the back. Strawberry immediately charged the mound, and Palmer flung his glove at him.

Down, but not out

The 1986 Mets were never out of a ballgame, and they got clutch contributions from up and down the lineup. On June 10, it was Tim Teufel coming off the bench in the 10th inning to hit a walk-off grand slam against the Phillies. At first, it seemed that Teufel had merely lofted the sac fly or base hit the Mets needed to win, but the ball kept carrying until it cleared the fence.

On July 3, it was Strawberry and Knight’s turn for fireworks. Strawberry mashed a game-tying, two-run homer deep to the center-field batter’s eye at Shea Stadium in the bottom of the 10th, and Knight -- who had struck out in each of his first four at-bats -- followed three batters later with a walk-off shot to left. Knight waved the ball over the fence as he jogged to first.

The Cincinnati rebound

The Mets rolled into the All-Star Game with a 13 1/2 game lead in the NL East, but they lost steam by dropping three of four to the Astros and also saw four players arrested for fighting with an off-duty police officer at a Houston disco.

New York needed to correct its course in Cincinnati, and it did so in rather bizarre fashion. After winning Game 1, the Mets trailed with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 2 when Dave Parker dropped Keith Hernandez’s fly ball to right. Parker’s error sent the game to extras, and Knight got involved in another fistfight with Eric Davis at third base.

Both Knight and right fielder Kevin Mitchell were ejected following the benches-clearing fracas, spurring Mets manager Davey Johnson to protest the game because the ejections shortened his bench. But in the meantime, Johnson got creative. He replaced Knight with reliever Roger McDowell and moved Jesse Orosco, the reliever on the mound before the brawl, out into right field to take Mitchell’s spot. Ed Hearn came in to catch and Carter moved to third base, one of only three hot-corner appearances in the Kid's career.

McDowell briefly ran into the dugout to grab a new glove, causing Reds manager Pete Rose to also protest the game, arguing that McDowell shouldn’t have been allowed to leave the dugout. Meanwhile, McDowell and Orosco began switching back and forth from the mound to right field depending on who was at the plate.

“I’d seen [Cardinals manager] Whitey Herzog do it with [pitcher Todd] Worrell earlier in the year,” Johnson later said. “I thought it would be interesting to try.”

Got all that so far? Here’s another curveball. After Reds pitcher Carl Willis laid down a bunt in the bottom of the 12th, Hernandez charged over from first base and threw over to Carter at third to start an incredibly nifty 3-5-4 double play.

Hernandez would later describe this play as “an easy two.” Sure ... maybe if your name is Keith Hernandez.

Johnson finally helped the Mets break through with a 14th-inning home run and McDowell finished off the bottom half, giving New York the most incredible late-July, 6-3 win you could dream up.

The Mets pull away

The 1986 Mets didn’t just win the NL East, they sprinted away from the pack in one of the most dominant performances of the divisional era. New York grew its lead to as many as 22 games in early September and wound up winning the NL East by 21 1/2 games.

They thrived at Shea Stadium and they were just as good on the road, going 53-28 away from Queens thanks to games like Aug. 27 at San Diego. Tim Flannery singled through the middle for the Padres, but Lenny Dykstra threw out Garry Templeton at home and catcher John Gibbons nabbed Flannery at third for a crazy game-ending double play.

Gooden put the icing on the cake with a complete-game win over the Cubs on Sept. 17 to clinch the division crown

Showdown with the Astros

The 1986 postseason stands among the best baseball Octobers of all time, not only for what the Mets pulled off in the World Series but also for the incredible back-and-forth Championship Series showdowns in both leagues.

The same Astros club that gave the Mets trouble during the regular season was waiting for them in the NLCS, and Mike Scott worked the Astrodome crowd into a frenzy with a five-hit, 14-strikeout shutout in Game 1 to beat Gooden. Lefty Bob Ojeda helped the Mets right the ship in Game 2, sending the series back to New York for a pivotal Game 3.

Houston had the upper hand early, but the Mets came roaring back in the sixth when Strawberry hit a huge game-tying, three-run homer.

The Astros bounced right back with a go-ahead run in the seventh, and they held the lead into the bottom of the ninth before Backman started a rally with a beautiful drag bunt single. Houston contended that Backman ran outside the baseline to avoid a tag, but the call went New York’s way.

Backman advanced to second on a passed ball, but that ultimately didn’t matter. That’s because Dykstra laid into a Dave Smith fastball for a rousing walk-off homer.

Scott shut the Mets down again in Game 4 to even the series, but New York had another dramatic answer in Game 5. An all-time postseason pitchers' duel between Gooden and former Met Nolan Ryan kept the contest deadlocked at one into extra innings (Ryan went nine innings, Gooden went 10). After Charlie Kerfeld’s errant pickoff throw helped Backman advance to second in the bottom of the 12th, the Astros intentionally walked Hernandez to bring up Carter, who was mired in a 1-for-21 slump. Carter responded with a walk-off single, giving the Mets a 3-2 series lead going back to Houston.

All the drama across the first five games was merely a preamble for Game 6. Houston put up three runs in the first, and the Mets couldn’t buy a hit across the first eight innings. But that’s why they play nine. Dykstra led off New York’s last licks at bat with a pinch-hit triple, Mookie Wilson singled him home and then Hernandez doubled Wilson home. After Smith came in and walked the bases full, Knight brought in the tying run via sacrifice fly to stun the Astrodome crowd.

Neither team scored again in an intense back-and-forth affair until Backman singled home Strawberry to put the Mets ahead in the 14th. But Billy Hatcher brought the Astros right back with a thrilling, game-tying homer off the foul pole in the bottom half.

The Mets finally broke through with the runs they needed in the 16th thanks to a wild pitch and RBI singles by Knight and Dykstra. Houston almost rallied back again, scoring two off Orosco before the southpaw bore down and struck out Kevin Bass on a 3-2 slider. After 16 of the most memorable innings in postseason history, the Mets were NL champions.

A Fall Classic for the ages

Yes, the enduring image of the 1986 World Series is Wilson’s dribbler through Bill Buckner’s legs, but there was so much that took place beforehand. Red Sox lefty Bruce Hurst shut down the Mets in Game 1, and things started looking bleak when a marquee Dwight Gooden-Roger Clemens matchup in Game 2 turned into a slugfest win for Boston.

The Mets needed to steady themselves on the road in Game 3, and Dykstra helped wash away those first two defeats when he took the third pitch of the game out to the right-field seats.

The Red Sox then shot themselves in the foot with a bizarre botched rundown after they seemingly had Hernandez dead to rights coming home. That helped the Mets put up four first-inning runs, and they cruised to a critical 7-1 win at Fenway Park.

The Mets traveled to Boston knowing they just needed to win two of the three games to give themselves another chance to finish the series at home. They got that second win in Game 4, downing the Red Sox, 6-2. Dykstra homered again, this time on a ball that popped out of Dwight Evans’ glove and over the fence (Strawberry would suffer the same foible in Game 7).

Two incredible nights at Shea

Hurst beat the Mets again in Game 5, forcing the Mets to win both games at home to raise the Commissioner’s Trophy. Looking back, the baseball world should have known wacky times were ahead in Game 6 after actor, director and Mets fan Michael Sergio (“an unexpected guest,” in the words of Vin Scully) parachuted onto the field during the top of the first inning.

But it was the Red Sox who cruised behind Clemens in the early innings before the Mets broke through for two tying runs in the fifth. The Sox then held a one-run lead in the eighth when, just like the Astros did, they intentionally walked Hernandez to get to Carter. The Kid responded again with a game-tying sac fly.

Neither team scored in the ninth but Dave Henderson, Boston’s ALCS hero, put himself on the cusp of all-time glory with a go-ahead homer in the 10th. Marty Barrett tacked on another run with a single, putting the Sox up two heading to the bottom half.

Mets fans can probably recite the rest from here. Backman and Hernandez quickly flied out to put New York against the wall. But then Carter, Mitchell and Knight hit three straight singles to slice the lead to one, and Bob Stanley’s wild pitch brought home Mitchell to tie it. Then, on the 10th pitch he saw, Wilson hit his “little roller up along first,” and the rest was history.

After one of the most improbable victories in postseason history, the Mets still had to win Game 7 -- and it wasn’t easy. The Red Sox struck first with three second-inning runs, and Jim Rice threatened more before Mitchell threw him out with a strike to second base.

New York finally responded in the sixth with Hernandez’s two-run single and Carter’s game-tying RBI groundout. Red Sox manager John McNamara lifted Hurst for Calvin Schiraldi in the seventh and the move backfired. Knight greeted Schiraldi with a homer to set off a three-run Mets rally.

The Red Sox rallied back in the eighth to cut the lead to one, but Strawberry helped put the series away with a towering homer off the right-field scoreboard.

The Mets scored one more insurance run in a way no one saw coming. As Orosco came to the plate with one out in the eighth, broadcaster Joe Garagiola joked that he would “bet his house” that Orosco would bunt the runner over. After the Red Sox crowded Orosco thinking just that on the first pitch, Orosco decided to give Boston a little surprise. Two pitches later, he pulled off a butcher-boy swing for an RBI single, prompting Scully to rib Garagiola, “Joe, you just lost your house!”

Orosco then K’d Barrett for the final out, and it was pandemonium at Shea. The Mets had won it all.