There’s a certain sort of fan, a certain sort of media member, and a certain sort of social media account that tends to glorify old school sports, with “old school” these days generally consisting of the 1970s and 1980s.
Sometimes it’s serious glorification, with the point of view being that of an old-timer who genuinely thinks the olden days were better and who laments the alleged lack of hard-nosed play in today’s game. Sometimes it’s a lot more tongue-in-cheek. Tweets or stories in which the speaker praises mustaches, bright polyester uniforms and elevates less-than-savory characters into admirable anti-heroes. There’s overlap, of course. Both sorts like to call guys of a past era “badasses” for stances, attitudes, appearances, and acts that, if a modern player were to do it, would more likely lead to criticism. Even the tongue-in-cheek remembrances have a heavy dose of sincere admiration for their historic subjects.
We’ve all done this to some extent. I’m sure I have a load of posts on this site singing the praises of some guy from 30-40 years ago simply because he played 30-40 years ago. I’ve posted that photo of Dave Parker smoking in the dugout many times and have uncritically shared countless anecdotes about facial hair, doubleknits, multipurpose stadiums and the behavior of players who trod the base paths when Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan ran the show. It’s fun. It helps connect people to a part of the game’s history they may not be familiar with or which, if they are, they may simply be happy to remember. Baseball’s past is more important to its present than the past of most other sports are to their own so it makes perfect sense that those of us who write and talk about it are going to walk down memory lane a fair bit.
But there’s a danger in all of this. The same danger there is with respect to all nostalgia: in fondly remembering the past, we tend to whitewash parts of the past that should not be fondly remembered. Or, worse, we simply forget the ugly parts of the past that we should never forget.
One of the most commonly-recalled teams of the old school era are the mid-to-late 1980s Mets. It’s rare to go even a few weeks in a baseball season when they are not name-checked, written about, or otherwise remembered by someone in the sporting press. There are many obvious reasons for this:
The 1980s Mets were a great team that won one of the most memorable World Series in history. That the Mets are a franchise known more for dubious accomplishments than triumphant ones makes that dominant 1986 club even more memorable than it’d be if it were another franchise;
Like a lot of winning teams those 1980s Mets teams had a lot of superstars — a future Hall of Famer included — but it was also a colorful team with big personalities and with players whose life and career arcs make for great storytelling. Some of that storytelling is heroic. Some of it is comic. A lot of it is tragic. More than most baseball teams, those Mets lend themselves to almost any sort of narrative a writer wants to pursue;
Finally, the fact that the Mets play in baseball’s biggest media market no doubt raises their historic profile. When a lot of reporters are scrounging for stories, some of them are likely going to check back to the past to give their version of a story a different, historic angle. “The Mets just did something dumb? Hey, let’s remember back when they weren’t a laughingstock for a couple of years!” Add in the fact that a few of the players on that club later joined the early parts of the 1990s Yankees dynasty, and you have a story that can potentially relate to both teams in the market, giving the story some nostalgic synergy.
So yes, it makes perfect sense that the Mets are the most often-recalled baseball team of the 1980s. It makes perfect sense that they have ensconced themselves in the minds of fans, writers, and historians alike. But it also means that, more than any baseball team in living memory, the dark side of the 1980s Mets has been glossed over and, in some cases, forgotten.
Earlier this week Daniel Engber of Slate wrote a staggering, must-read piece about something which occurred at the tail-end of the Mets’ not-quite dynasty. It was quickly pushed aside for the Astros’ sign-stealing news, but you should set aside some time to read it. It’s not for the feint of heart or for those who may have difficulty reading accounts of rape or sexual assault.
The story is about a woman who accused three New York Mets players — Dwight Gooden, Vince Coleman, and Daryl Boston –of raping her during spring training in Florida in 1991. They were never charged with a crime. The woman, who has since died, was one of many who came forward with accusations of sexual assault, sexual impropriety, and domestic violence against Mets players over the years. Like almost all of the others, however, her story was basically ignored by police and the public and her character was attacked. She was a “baseball groupie” the police and the press said. Nothing probably happened, but even if it did, she was probably asking for it. Her account is particularly harrowing, however, mostly because of the specifics of the alleged rape, but also because, unlike some other accusations against Mets players, hers has not been talked about much over the years. Indeed, while it made the news at the time, it was quickly forgotten and even many hardcore Mets fans have no memory of it or never heard of it in the first place.
Even if it had been better-remembered, however, I’m not at all confident that it ever would’ve been treated with the gravity it is owed. That’s because, this story aside, the bad behavior of those Mets players has not really been forgotten. It’s talked about a lot, actually. It’s simply been whitewashed and minimized. The edges sanded off by nostalgia, the players portrayed as something-less-than-angels as opposed to abusers, and their dark sides and violent acts often cast as the other side — sometimes even a necessary side — of their competitive fire and larger-than-life personalities. Indeed, as Engber notes in the Slate article, a book about the 1986 Mets — written in 2004 — portrays the team as “really lovable” despite being “a big bunch of dicks.” The author, after recounting countless acts that probably should’ve led to prison sentences, praised them for their “fire” and “panache.”
I’m not suggesting that the Mets of that era did not have “fire” and “panache.” But it’s quite clear that in the 33 years since the Mets won that World Series, the “fire” and “panache” of that bunch has been more than covered and their odious, misogynistic, criminal and allegedly criminal acts have been marginalized to the point of near-erasure.* The figures of that era — including the ones who were credibly accused and some convicted of horrifying acts, as well as the ones who watched those acts occur while saying and doing nothing — are still called on for interviews many times a year. They’re still brought out on old-timers day. Many of them have very high-profile media jobs and have been considered for coaching or executive positions.
*In this I do not include the well-chronicled substance abuse of some of the players of those teams, which were a function of addiction. That can and has happened to anyone. I’m referring exclusively to their history of criminal and violent acts. It’s worth noting that when the remembrances of those Mets teams come up and the writer wants to, in the name of balance, allude to their dark side, they almost always go to the drug use first, often leaving out the violence or assaults.
Above all else, stories of those Mets team continue to be told, appearing in the baseball media rotation with a frequency unmatched by anything save maybe syndicated “Seinfeld” re-runs. And, as I noted at the begging of this piece, those stories are almost always told with the glow of nostalgia. With an implicit or sometimes explicit disclaimer of “boys will be boys” or, perhaps, “make no mistake, they were no angels, but . . .” They’re given almost the same treatment we might give something harmless like a video of Hal McRae barreling over a shortstop at second base or a photo of Dave Parker smoking a cigarette. A “badass” thing of the past, recounted in a time when the people who are doing the recounting tend to lament the lack of “badasses” in the game. It’s not always a compliment. It’s not always straight glorification, but it leans hard in that direction due to context and intent.
We probably need less nostalgia in general, because nostalgia is a phenomenon of diminishing and distorting returns. But we need to absolutely cease our nostalgia for the 1980s Mets. A toxic group of players, many of whom were criminals, whether they were charged or uncharged. A group of players who do not deserve and should not get the glorification they have received for so long.