Where is America’s most livable city? Forget cost-of-living, quality of education, transportation and economic opportunity. The most livable city is the one with the best sports. For each year of the modern era, starting in 1976, The Sports Notebook has selected one city or part of the country where it was particularly good to be a fan. Below is the recap of how that year unfolded…
Where was the best place to be a sports fan in 1986? There’s a strong argument to be made for Boston. The Celtics won the NBA title, the Red Sox made the World Series and the Patriots won the AFC East. But the Notebook’s historical tour already covered Boston’s shortcomings back in 1978 and there’s plenty of opportunity to chronicle future successes in the 00’s. We could also look at New York, where the Mets won the World Series and the Giants won the Super Bowl. This gets us closer, but I still have a problem—the typical fan divide in the Big Apple is Yankees/Giants on one side and Mets/Jets on the other. This historical tour isn’t going to be the province of two-team cities that get there just on sheer volume. I’d rather focus in a specific fan segment, so the choice is still New York in 1986, but with a twist. Sure, we’ll give a respectful tip of the cap to Bill Parcells, Lawrence Taylor, Phil Simms and the champion Giants. But our focus is going to be on the Mets and New York’s second football team. The Jets had a crazy up-and-down year that ended with their second straight playoff appearance and advancement to the divisional playoffs. 1986 belongs to the “Underdog New York Fans”, who pull for the “second teams” in NYC.
The Mets felt like 1986 had to be their year. They finished second in the NL East the previous two years to the Cubs and Cardinals respectively (prior to the 1994 realignment both leagues were split into two divisions with the current Central teams divided out East and West). The ’85 race had been both exhilarating and disappointing, as they won 98 games, saw 20-year old Dwight Gooden completely dominate hitters on his way to 24 wins and a Cy Young Award and the continued emergence of another young star in rightfielder Darryl Strawberry. A perennial All-Star in Keith Hernandez was at first, and Ray Knight was a steady veteran presence at third. Future Hall of Famer Gary Carter handled the catching duties and feisty sparkplug Lenny Dykstra patrolled centerfield. Behind Gooden was another quality starter in Ron Darling. Prior to the ’86 season the Mets swung a deal for another starter, dealing reliever Calvin Schiraldi to Boston for lefthander Bob Ojeda. They were two pieces of an eight-player swap that would prove to be more than a little ironic by season’s end. At the season’s beginning, the 1986 New York Mets were everyone’s pick to win not only the division, but the franchise’s first NL pennant since 1973 and its first World Series title since 1969.
Johnson’s team was ready to go when the bell rang and won 20 of their first 24 games, taking the lead in the NL East immediately. The lead ranged between three and five games for much of May, but later in the month the Mets began to pull away. New York’s lead was ten games or higher from June 30 forward and they ended up with 108 wins and a 20-game margin on second-place Philadelphia. Both the win total and margin in the division race matched the Cincinnati Reds “Big Red Machine” of 1975.
The complete dominance of the Mets—along with the fact that the other three baseball divisions were put away with relative ease, as the Astros would be the opponent in the National League Championship Series, with the Red Sox and Angels moving forward in the AL—made it easy for the Underdog New York Fan to focus on football during September. The Jets made the playoffs in 1985 as a wild-card team, finishing second in a close three-team race that involved the Dolphins and Patriots. As had been their curse though, since 1968 and Joe Namath’s famous Super Bowl III guarantee, the Jets managed to be the odd team out. They lost to New England at home in the wild-card game. Both the Fish and the Pats met for the AFC title and New England won. The people of Jets/Mets Nation in New York were as hungry for a Super Bowl and some respect as they were for a World Series run. The quarterback was Ken O’Brien, a surprise pick in the quarterback-rich class of 1983 (that included Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and John Elway) and he had quality receivers in Wesley Walker and Al Toon (whose son Nick is today a good receiver at the University of Wisconsin, where his father played college ball). Mickey Shuler presented a good target at tight end, and the running game was in steady hands with Freeman McNeil and Johnny Hector. The defense had most of what had been known as the “New York Sack Exchange” up front with nose tackle Joe Klecko, tackle Marty Lyons and end Mark Gastineau.
It was September 7 when the NFL season kicked off and the Jets won a 28-24 decision in Buffalo. The following Thursday was cause for deflation. Playing at home against New England, it looked like nothing had changed from last season. New York only rushed for 70 yards, O’Brien couldn’t get the ball downfield and was intercepted twice, in a 20-6 final. From that point forward though, the Jets took off. The following week O’Brien and Marino hooked up in an incredible passer’s duel in the Meadowlands. Both threw for over 400 yards. The game went back and forth and ultimately into overtime at 45-45. The Jets held a 132-50 yardage edge on the ground and in the end O’Brien found Walker on a 43-yard touchdown play to win it in the extra period. Two more wins followed, and as the Mets were getting set to commence the playoffs, the Jets were rolling at 4-1.
GREAT SCOTT! WHAT AN NLCS!
Houston held homefield advantage for the NLCS, due to an East-West rotating system. The Astros had the Cy Young Award winner in Mike Scott, whose split-fingered fastball was a devastating out pitch. A solid veteran lefty in Bob Knepper was the #2 man and won 17 games, with Nolan Ryan next in line. Houston’s lineup wasn’t overwhelming, at least by championship standards, but they had a good power hitting first baseman in Glenn Davis and they won games with their bullpen. Closer Dave Smith had 33 saves, Charlie Kerfeld won 11 games and they got reliable work from Aurelio Lopez and Larry Andersen, all at a team when bullpen reliance wasn’t nearly at the level it is today.
Game 1 saw the past two Cy Young winners square off with Scott and Gooden in the old Astrodome and the game was worthy of the stakes. A Davis home run gave Houston a 1-0 lead and Scott made it stand up. Not until the ninth, when Strawberry singled and stole second did the Mets have a real chance to tie, but Scott put away second baseman Wally Backman and Hernandez to end it. Johnson turned to Ojeda to tie up the series for Thursday’s Game 2. The Mets bats stayed silent three more innings, before consecutive singles from Hernandez and Backman were followed by a Carter double and a Strawberry sac fly. Houston had a couple chances to score early, but couldn’t cash in. New York added a third run in the fifth inning and had two men on base when Hernandez tripled to break the game open and knock Ryan out of the game. It ended 5-1 and headed back to New York for the weekend.
Saturday afternoon’s Game 3 was an early start at 12:20 PM ET. Knepper and Darling were on the mound and the game would prove to be an utter classic. Houston got out to the early lead, with left fielder Billy Hatcher singling and stealing second to start the game and scoring on a base hit by outfielder Denny Walling. Consecutive wild pitches and a base hit from veteran outfielder Jose Cruz staked Knepper to a 2-0 lead. Two more runs came in the top of the second, when shortstop Craig Reynolds walked and second baseman Bill Doran homered. Knepper was rolling and it wasn’t until the sixth that the Mets broke through. Kevin Mitchell and Keith Hernandez started the inning with singles, and then Reynolds booted a grounder by Carter to load up the bases. Just as quickly, Strawberry cleared them with a grand slam and we were tied. Defensive miscues played a role in the top of the seventh, when an error by Knight and a walk to Doran enabled Houston to manufacture a run. Houston held the lead to the ninth and turned it over to Smith. Backman bunted his way on and then Dykstra stunned Houston with a walkoff home run that gave the Mets a 6-5 win.
Sunday October 12 dawned bright, as our Underdog New York Fans got set to watch the Jets-Patriots rematch in Foxboro during the afternoon followed by Game 4 in prime-time. The Jets did not disappoint, even with backup quarterback Pat Ryan in for the oft-injured O’Brien. A pair of short TD runs by Hector opened up a 14-0 lead in the first quarter and it was 24-0 by half. The Pats came rallying back with 17 third-quarter points, but another short run by Hector finally put away what would be a 31-24 win. In the evening, Scott got the ball for the Astros and called an end to the Day of Good Feeling in the Big Apple. He was handed two early runs on a home run by catcher Alan Ashby and it was all he needed. Not until the bottom of the 8th did the Mets get their first run in two games against the Cy Young winner and with the series tied two apiece, the specter of facing Scott in a Game 7 at the Astrodome was positively terrifying to anyone associated with the Mets. These next two games would have an elimination-type feel to them for Johnson’s club.
Rain on Monday pushed Game 5 back a day and eliminated the planned travel day. Tuesday’s game was a late afternoon start at 3:45 PM ET, and Gooden again locked up in a pitcher’s duel, this time with Ryan. Both teams scored in the fifth, the Mets on a Strawberry home run, but the pitchers regained control after that. Ryan completed nine innings. Gooden completed ten. After eleven we still didn’t have a winner, and by this point everyone who’d left work in the middle of the game was back at home able to watch. Kerfeld was pitching for Houston, with lefthander Jesse Orosco, one of the better relievers in the league and possessor of a nasty breaking ball, was on for the Mets. In the twelfth, Backman reached on an infield hit. He then appeared to be picked off, but a Davis error moved him to second where Carter was ultimately able to drive him in with the game-winner. The series would go back to Houston. Either the Mets would clinch on Wednesday’s Game 6 or Scott would clinch in Game 7. It really did seem that simple at that time and seems no less so in retrospect.
Houston came out hitting against Ojeda with four hits and a walk ringing up three runs and Knepper was completely in control through eight innings. Fortunately for New York, Ojeda did as well and the 3-0 score held into the ninth. Dykstra led it off with a triple and Mookie Wilson drove him in with a single. A Hernandez double cut the lead to a run and put the tying run in scoring position. Smith came on for Knepper, but just as was the case in Game 3, the closer couldn’t close. Smith walked both Carter and Strawberry, putting Hernandez into position to score on a sac fly by Knight. The pitchers would become Roger McDowell for the Mets and Larry Andersen for the Astros and the game went to the 14th. This was another afternoon start that schookids and workers everywhere would get to see plenty of as the game stretched on and on. Backman drove in a run in the top of the 14th, but the Mets missed a couple chances to drive in some insurance, and Hatcher made them pay with a home run to lead off the bottom of the inning. The game rolled on, and it was now Orosco and Lopez on the mound.
In the 16th inning, all hell broke loose both ways. Strawberry doubled and Knight drove him in, taking second on the throw home. Then consecutive wild pitches made it 6-4. Backman who walked and moved up on the second of those wild pitches came in on a Dykstra single. The Mets needed all those runs, because Houston put runners on first and second with one out. Hatcher singled in one run. After a second out, Davis singled in another. Finally Orosco struck out Kevin Bass and New York was on its way to the World Series.
OCTOBER DRAMA DOESN’T STOP
After Wednesday’s celebration it was time to come home and start the World Series on Saturday, October 18. The Red Sox had won an epic LCS of their own, rallying from a 3-1 series deficit to beat the Angels after being one strike from elimination in Game 5. Boston’s leadoff hitter and third baseman Wade Boggs was the best pure contact hitter in the game. Roger Clemens won 24 games and produced a season worthy of both the MVP and the Cy Young, something a starting pitcher wouldn’t repeat until Justin Verlander did it in 2011. Jim Rice, a future Hall of Famer was in his 13th season as a reliable power hitter and Dwight Evans had both a solid bat and a gun for an arm in right field. Boston had momentum and they kept it going right into the Series. Lefthander Bruce Hurst, who posted a 2.99 ERA in the tough confines of Fenway Park against DH-filled lineups, shut down the Mets, who only threatened once. Darling was no less impressive for New York, but a seventh-inning error by second baseman Tim Teufel (in against Hurst because of his righthanded bat) allowed in the game’s only run.
The Jets were playing on Monday night this week, so the Jets/Mets Fans had no NFL to distract them on Sunday, and a distraction is what they needed. Because Gooden was awful in his anticipated battle with Clemens, the two great young power arms in the game. He gave up three runs in the second, as Boston’s three B’s—Boggs, Marty Barrett and Bill Buckner, who hit 1-2-3 in the order, delivered successive this to drive in the runs. Dave Henderson, the hero of the ALCS, homered in the fourth and the Rice-Evans duo combined for a two-run homer that left the score 6-2 after five. The Mets chipped away and were able to get Clemens out in the fifth after scoring a run and having two men on base. But Steve Crawford killed the threat, the Red Sox unleashed a barrage in the seventh of five straight singles that built the lead to 8-3 and it ended 9-3. There was only one time in history a team had lost the first two games of the World Series at home and still gone on to win. Fortunately the Mets, that team was the Kansas City Royals, who had done it just one year earlier.
Football did finally provide a respite on Monday, as the Jets shut down Elway and the Broncos—a team that would end up winning the AFC West and earning the #2 seed in the AFC playoffs—building a 22-0 lead at half and winning 22-10. If there was a concern in the Meadowlands it had to be the Jets’ tendency to build up big leads and then rely on just hanging on. It would prove to be ominously prescient for the entire season. For now though, there was no reason or doubt in this neck of the woods. Gang Green would win its next four and take a 10-1 record into Miami for Monday Night Football in November.
Davey Johnson’s Mets had their backs to the wall in Fenway Park and they played like it. Dykstra led off Game 3 with a home run off Boston’s talented, but volatile righthander, Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd. Immediately following, Backman and Hernandez singled, Carter doubled and after two were out, role player Danny Heep drilled a two-run single. It was 4-0 before the Sox could get up to hit. Boyd got settled in and the Red Sox got a run back off Ojeda in the third, but the game stabilized at 4-1 into the seventh. Carter drove in two with a single to finally open it up and the final was 7-1. One night later the strange phenomena of road-team dominance continued. Darling pitched well, while the Mets got to Boston’s #4 starter Al Nipper on the second time through the lineup. In the top of the fourth, Backman got on with a single and Carter homered. Strawberry doubled and Knight drove him in. . Again, the Sox kept the game close, helped by Evans throwing out Carter at the plate in the sixth, but Mets pitching kept the home team at bay until the offense’ s second wind came late. Carter homered again in the eighth and the lead eventually reached 6-0, ending at 6-2.
It would be Hurst and Gooden for Game 5, and this time it was the home team that drew first blood. Henderson tripled in the second inning and scored on a sac fly. In the bottom of the third, a Mets’ error and a walk set up an RBI single for Evans. New York threatened in the fifth but couldn’t score, while in the bottom of the inning, Rice tripled, veteran designated hitter Don Baylor drove him in. Two more hits. Gooden was chased and lefthander Sid Fernandez, the #4 starter during the season was summoned. Henderson drilled a double and it was 4-0. Hurst coasted through seven before Teufel homered in the seventh and then with two outs in the ninth, things got interesting. Wilson doubled and shortstop Rafael Santana singled him in. With the tying run at the base, Dykstra struck out. Although the Mets had shown they would fight to the very last out, something that would bear them in good stead two nights later.
Saturday, October 25, 1986 produced a game whose principal highlight has been replayed countless times, mostly for the purposes of perpetuating Red Sox agony. It bears noting that it also culminated a rally which is an essential part of Mets history and a game that joined Game 6 of the NLCS on the short list of the best ever. Boston got two early runs, with Boggs in the middle of both and Clemens cruised through four. In the fifth, Strawberry walked and stole second and Knight’s single picked him up. A Wilson single to right was mishandled by Evans and allowed Knight to take third. It would create a free run for the Mets when Heep hit into a double play, but Knight came in through the back door to tie it 2-2. The Red Sox took the lead in the seventh, aided by an error from Knight that enabled a run to score on a groundball out. But what the Mets defense giveth, they also taketh away, as Rice was thrown out at the plate to end the inning. Down to their last six outs, New York tied it in the eighth. In the top of the 10th, Henderson homered, and with two outs a Boggs double and Barrett single seemed to provide insurance. With two outs and none on, this Series was all but over. Then three straight singles from Carter, Mitchell and Knight, followed by a wild pitch tied the game and put Knight on second base. Finally came the historic ground ball by Wilson, hit at Bill Buckner, who saw it skip through his legs and Knight scored the winning run.
Contrary to myth, that game didn’t end the World Series and the Red Sox didn’t roll over. New York fell behind 3-0, with Evans and catcher Rich Gedman each homering in the second inning. If the Mets’ 108 wins were reminiscent of the Big Red Machine, then New York could take heart that Cincinnati faced Boston in the World Series, went to a Game 7 and fell behind 3-0 before winning. Hurst was on the mound for the Sox, the beneficiary of rain on Sunday that gave him three days’ rest (similar to how a day of rain enabled Chris Carpenter to pitch Game 7 for St. Louis in 2011) and the Mets couldn’t touch him until the sixth. Consecutive singles and a walk loaded them up with one out. Hernandez drove in two with a single and Carter picked up the tying run with a sac fly. One inning later, Calvin Schiraldi was on the mound. The former Met had been the one who missed the chance to close Game 6 and now had the opportunity to redeem himself. Instead, Knight homered. Dykstra singled and moved up on a wild pitch. Santana drove him in. Two more walks loaded the bases and Hernandez added a run with a sac fly. Darling, who had started for the Mets had kept it close enough for the cavalry to come to the rescue and now it was the Mets, up 6-3, who were six outs away.
New York’s bullpen didn’t handle prosperity well, as Buckner and Rice both singled and Evans cleared the bases with a double. Orosco came on and made sure the tying run died on second. In the bottom of the eighth, Strawberry homered, Orosco helped his own cause with an RBI single and finally, at long last, the Mets had survived 8-5. It had been a road that was extraordinarily easy in the regular season and extraordinarily difficult in October. But they were champions. And it was time to see if the Underdog New York Fans could double dip with the Jets.
A JET CRASH
At 10-1, the Jets were on their way to the #1 seed in the AFC, although NBC analyst Paul MacGuire was a skeptic. He predicted the Jets would not win a single game the rest of the way. And the team that took the field on Monday, November 24 in Miami looked intent on proving him right. This was no reprise of the teams’ September shootout. This time the New York rush defense was awful, giving up 148 yards to Lorenzo Hampton, Marino was his usual solid self and the final was an astonishing 45-3. A meltdown ensued, with two-touchdown losses to the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49-ers—both playoff teams to be sure, but neither would advance past the second round. With the AFC East slipping away, as New England made its move, the Jets hosted Pittsburgh for a Saturday afternoon game in the penultimate week of the season. They trailed 17-14 at half and it was tied 17-17 at half. But O’Brien threw three interceptions and McNeil’s 144 rush yards couldn’t overcome that, and it couldn’t overcome a defense that was coming undone. Pittsburgh scored 28 4th quarter points and won 45-24. One week later, it got worse. A game the Jets led 21-17 at half at Cincinnati turned into a 52-21 loss. Again, three O’Brien interceptions and bad defense rendered a 100-yard game from McNeil moot. Somehow the Jets still made the playoffs, but they were again going the wild-card route and having lost five straight they were scaring no one.
REVIVAL & HEARTBREAK
Prior to 2002, the NFL had each conference split into three divisions and prior to 1990 only two wild-cards qualified. The Jets were the top wild-card for the second straight season and would host Kansas City. The Chiefs were in the playoffs for the first time since 1971, when they were still coached by Hall of Famer Hank Stram and had the core of a team that won the Super Bowl in 1969. This team wasn’t going to remind anyone of those years. Kansas City played good defense—its secondary was outstanding, with corners Kevin Ross and Alfred Lewis and free safety Deron Cherry. Defensive end Art Still got after the quarterback and linebacker Scott Radecic was a steadying force. There was no real offense to speak of, but if you were good on defense and good on special teams, as the ’85 Chiefs were, you could beat a team that seemed to have a problem with completely coming unglued…like say the 1985 Jets.
The worst fears of New York fans weren’t realized on this late December afternoon though. It didn’t start out well, with an early Chiefs TD giving them a 6-0 lead after the PAT failed. Pat Ryan was at quarterback in O’Brien’s stead and drives were led that produced a pair of McNeil touchdowns, and then Ryan connected with Toon on an 11-yard scoring pass that made it 21-6 at the half. Early in the third quarter the New York defense put it away, as Kevin McArthur picked off a pass deep in KC territory and scored. The final was 35-15 and the sigh of relief could be heard across the Big Apple.
Six days later the Jets were in Cleveland for the early game on Saturday, which meant a 1 PM ET kick in the days prior to prime-time Saturday night football in the NFL playoffs. O’Brien was a go, but he was knocked out quickly, putting the team’s fate back in the veteran Ryan’s hands. Cleveland was in the postseason for the second straight year, as Marty Schottenheimer and Bernie Kosar continued the building process that would see the Browns become one of the AFC’s top franchises in the late 1980s. On this cold day in the Dawg Pound, the Jets, by all rights, should have handed them an early exit. Instead this game would be the flip side of what Game 6 of the World Series had been—the one that leaves you scratching your head, replaying plays and feeling an emptiness that can only be healed when your team wins it all.
The teams traded touchdowns in the first quarter and field goals in the second. The Jets grabbed a 13-10 lead in the third quarter and preserved it when defensive back Russell Carter intercepted Kosar in the end zone. With less than five minutes to go, McNeil bolted in from 25 yards out and with a 20-10 lead this one looked over. Even when Mark Gastineau foolishly gave Cleveland life by roughing Kosar on a 2nd-and-24 deep in Cleveland territory, it still seemed over. When the Browns drove down the field and Kevin Mack plunged over from 1, it was anxious time, but any reasonable person would still think the Jets were going to hold on. With under a minute to go, they punted it away and Cleveland had no timeouts. The punt pinned Kosar inside his ten. It was called back by a penalty. The re-kick set up the Browns at their own 32-yard line. A pass interference penalty moved it past midfield. Then Kosar found speedy Webster Slaughter down the sideline and it set up the tying field goal at 20-20. Unbelievably, this was going to overtime.
Like the Red Sox in the World Series, the Jets didn’t roll over and die, particularly on defense. It looked like Cleveland was about to win it on a 22-yard field goal, but veteran Mark Moseley, a key part of the Washington Redskins’ powerful teams a few years earlier, missed it. The Jets offense just couldn’t get anything going. Finally Cleveland drove it down again and set up a short field goal. This time Moseley hit it and the season was over.
It was a wild year of ups and downs for Jets fans and never was that better encapsulated than in the playoff loss. Seeing the Giants go on and win the Super Bowl couldn’t have been easy for them, but the Jets gave their fans plenty to cheer for in 1986. So did the Mets. It was good to like the “other teams” in the New York City of 1986 if you saw MLB and the NFL as part of a complete package.