Adultery! Teenage mistresses! Gambling! Oh, what lurid tabloid fodder New York Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca has provided the last two weeks. And how he must ever wish he could page Doc Brown, crank up the DeLorean and send himself back 20 years.
“Had Lo Duca played with us, it wouldn’t have even been a footnote,” says Bobby Ojeda, and by “us” he means the 1986 Mets, baseball’s boozers, users and, according to legend, feline abusers. Ojeda is talking from his New Jersey home about an hour from Shea Stadium, where Saturday the Mets will celebrate the 20-year anniversary of their World Series victory. And while he admits time inflates all good stories, he knows the years haven’t exactly been kind to the ’86 Mets’.
In those two decades, the headlines have trumpeted drugs, drink, steroids, rape, spousal abuse, suicidal thoughts, prison, bankruptcy, sexism, sexual harassment, DWI, battery, animal cruelty and, yes, gambling. The most famous stemmed from Dwight Gooden, unable to make the reunion because he is imprisoned in Florida, and Darryl Strawberry, who just Thursday sent his RSVP after the Mets prepared for a no-show because of a money dispute. To think the issues stop with them would be to think the Watergate scandal ended with G. Gordon Liddy.
“We’ve stayed in the public eye, and not always for good reasons, either,” says Davey Johnson, the Mets’ manager in ’86 and a regretful absentee this weekend because he’s managing Team USA in its Olympic-qualifying games. “That’s the bad thing. It was a very special time. New York embraced this team. We were arguably more popular than the Yankees.”
There was no argument. The ’86 Mets were, and in many ways still are, New York’s team. Full of characters, teeming with energy, playing harder than they worked and still working harder than anyone else, winning 108 games, crushing the NL East by 21 1/2 games and winning a dramatic World Series over the Boston Red Sox in seven games, the Mets embodied the city and the city embraced the Mets.
And not necessarily in spite of their flaws but because of them. The Yankees were staid, their pinstripes like button-down collars. The Mets were arrogant. They recorded “Get Metsmerized,” a cheesy rap song boasting their greatness, in the season’s first month. They were boorish. Veterans Danny Heep, Jesse Orosco and Doug Sisk nicknamed themselves the Scum Bunch, and their job was to indoctrinate the young players with diets of booze. They were miscreants. Ojeda, Ron Darling, Tim Teufel and Rick Aguilera were arrested outside of a Houston club called Cooter’s for beefing with off-duty cops working as bouncers.
What happened during the ’86 season was innocent enough for New Yorkers to stomach – and embrace.
“People are still interested in the ’86 Mets,” Ojeda says. “We’re going to be popping up in headlines until we’re on Social Security.”
Gooden has seen his share for cocaine and alcohol addictions, alleged domestic violence, thoughts of suicide and jail. Strawberry’s got all of those, too, plus tax evasion and bouts with colon cancer.
Lenny Dykstra seems to pop up every so often, whether for allegations that he groped one of his female car-wash employees, used steroids while with Philadelphia or gambled heavily.
Wally Backman lost a job managing the Arizona Diamondbacks because of his past, which included a DWI and bankruptcy. He had held the position for all of four days.
Keith Hernandez, one of the elders on the ’86 Mets and familiar to a later generation for his “Seinfeld” appearance and Just For Men commercials, caused a stir earlier this season when, as a broadcaster for the Mets’ SportsNet New York television station, he spotted massage therapist Kelly Calabrese in the San Diego Padres dugout and said, “I won’t say that women belong in the kitchen, but they don’t belong in the dugout.”
And who can forget Kevin Mitchell? He allegedly beat up his girlfriend in 1989, was arrested in 1991 on suspicion of rape (charges were dropped), was arrested in 1999 for punching his father because he didn’t pay rent, was kicked out of the Western Baseball League in 2000 for punching Solano Steelheads owner Bruce Portner and, according to Gooden’s autobiography, once beheaded his girlfriend’s cat.
It is good to know things have calmed down, as Ojeda says they have, at least as much as things can calm down for the ’86 Mets
“These guys are boring as hell,” Ojeda says. “I talked with Keith Hernandez and Teufel and Darling. And I told them, ‘Quite honestly, I don’t want to go to dinner with you. You’re old, fat, ugly. You have two beers and want to go to sleep.’ ”
After Friday’s dinner, Ojeda will step outside for a cigar with Howard Johnson – now a coach at the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate, Norfolk – who, true to ’86 form, just completed a 10-game suspension.
Johnson wanted to watch his son play in a baseball tournament, the Mets said no and Johnson left anyway. Twenty years later, authority still doesn’t matter.
Which is why when the ’86 Mets step onto the field Saturday night, one by one, they will hear cheers as loud as any of the ’06 Mets have. They cared about winning, and that was it. They were the epitome of a team, 25 men who were better together than they were individually, a fortune that eventually played out for the world to see in big, bold letters: champions in 1986, tragedies thereafter, unforgettable always.
“It happened only once,” Ojeda says. “But I think some of the greatest things in life are meant to happen only once.”
|KEY PLAYERS, 1986 NEW YORK METS (108-54)|
|CF||Lenny Dykstra||.295||8 HR||45 RBI||31 SB|
|2B||Wally Backman||.320||1 HR||27 RBI||13 SB|
|1B||Keith Hernandez||.310||13 HR||83 RBI||94 R|
|C||Gary Carter||.255||24 HR||105 RBI||81 R|
|RF||Darryl Strawberry||.259||27 HR||93 RBI||28 SB|
|3B||Ray Knight||.298||11 HR||76 RBI||24 2B|
|LF||Mookie Wilson||.289||9 HR||45 RBI||25 SB|
|SS||Rafael Santana||.218||1 HR||28 RBI||36 BB|
|P||Dwight Gooden||17-6||2.84 ERA||200 K|
|P||Bob Ojeda||18-5||2.57 ERA||148 K|
|P||Sid Fernandez||16-6||3.52 ERA||200 K|
|P||Ron Darling||15-6||3.52 ERA||184 K|
|P||Rick Aguilera||10-7||3.88 ERA|
|P||Jesse Orosco||8-6||2.33 ERA||21 SV|
|P||Roger McDowell||14-9||3.02 ERA||22 SV|
|P||Doug Sisk||4-2||3.06 ERA||1 SV|
|OF/IF||Kevin Mitchell||.277||12 HR||43 RBI||22 2B|
|2B||Tim Teufel||.247||4 HR||31 RBI||32 BB|
|3B||Howard Johnson||.245||10 HR||39 RBI||30 R|