McDowell recalls glory of the '86 Mets

September 15th, 2021

Thirty-five years later, Roger McDowell is still approached by Mets fans who remember exactly where they were when the Mets advanced to the 1986 World Series, courtesy of the five scoreless innings of relief he provided in a 16-inning win over the Astros in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series.

“When you talk to people from New York, they didn’t want to leave work or that they were gathered around a limo or something watching the game,” McDowell said. “They’ve got the game on in the windows of the appliance store and nobody is leaving the city because they don’t want to miss anything. Some had to get home and when they got home, the game was still on. There’s a lot of great memories.”

Memories of that great game in the Astrodome and of the Mookie Wilson grounder that eluded Bill Buckner’s glove in Game 6 of the World Series will be rekindled this week as ESPN airs a 30-for-30 documentary called “Once Upon a Time in Queens.” The four-part show, which chronicles the 1986 Mets season and the many eccentric characters who teamed up to win a world championship that year, debuted on ESPN on Tuesday and Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET.

McDowell and former Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson recently joined director Nick Davis in Central Park for a screening of the documentary.

“What was exciting was the story that was told and how it was told and how it related to the city of New York and the people of New York and the times of the mid-1980s,” McDowell said. “It’s not only about our success as a team, but also what the city was going through and kind of how the city needed something to celebrate. Honestly, there were a lot of things in there that I forgot all about. So, it was a nice drive down memory lane.”

This Mets team featured two of the best young stars -- Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry -- the game has ever seen. It was a group led by the leadership of Keith Hernandez and Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter. Hernandez, Carter, Wilson and Ray Knight watched over this team that fed off the brashness of Wally Backman and Lenny Dykstra.

So, what was the funniest thing McDowell saw during the screening?

“Put it this way, every time Lenny was on the screen, I laughed,” McDowell said. “His last few years have been well chronicled. I’m glad he’s hopefully in a good place now, as well as Doc [Gooden] and Straw. But Lenny, he was the star [of the show].

“Also you get a lot of insight from Keith and learn more about the struggles Darryl and Doc had. There are parts about their childhood that weren’t known. So, it was informative and entertaining.”

Speaking of entertaining, McDowell establishes himself as one of the best pranksters the game has ever seen. Along with wearing a mask, wig or his uniform upside down, he perfected the Hot Foot, which is the art of using gum and cigarettes to light the back of a teammate’s shoe on fire. 

“[Manager] Davey Johnson said, ‘Have all the fun you want, but there is a time and there is a place,’” McDowell said. “So, I always tried to pick the right times.” 

McDowell certainly proved capable of getting the job done on the field, as he recorded 14 wins, notched 22 saves and posted a 3.02 ERA over 128 relief innings in 1986. That was just his second Major League season, but he had already become the Mets’ co-closer alongside Jesse Orosco.

After the Mets tied Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS with three runs in the ninth, McDowell entered knowing he had allowed at least one run in each of the three regular-season appearances he had made at the Astrodome in July. Now he was tasked with doing whatever necessary to help the Mets win and avoid having to possibly face that year’s NL Cy Young Award winner, Mike Scott, in Game 7.

“I came in the game and I couldn’t hear anything,” McDowell said. “The Astrodome was packed and it was loud. But the only thought I had was, if I give up a run, we’ll lose this game. I wasn’t thinking about tomorrow’s game and I wasn’t thinking about Mike Scott. The baseball gods were on my side that day.”

McDowell retired the first 10 batters he faced, allowed one hit and faced the minimum during his five-inning stint. Dykstra capped the Mets’ three-run 16th with an RBI single, which became the game’s decisive hit when the Astros tallied two runs in the bottom half of the inning off Orosco. 

To truly get a feel for how much fun this legendary team had, one would have only had to be on the flight back to New York. The celebration led the Mets to maybe spill some drinks, break a few seats and damage other portions of their charter plane. 

“There was quite a bit of damage,” McDowell said. “We didn’t know. We just were celebrating. [General manager Frank Cashen] came down to the clubhouse, gave us an earful and told us we were going to pay for it. When he left, Davey [Johnson] stood up and basically said, ‘Boys, you just won the National League pennant and you aren’t paying for anything.' But he used different words.”