Revisiting the 1986 Mets — “The Bad Guys Won” Review

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After clinching the National League pennant in an epic Game 6 in Houston, the victorious 1986 Mets engaged in an even more epic celebration on the plane ride back to New York.  Beer, champagne, and cake all turned into projectiles resulting in over $50,000 in damage to the charter aircraft rented by team’s owner.

An embarrassed Mets management turned to the one man tasked with taming this rowdy and disrespectful crew: manager Davey Johnson.

With the team assembled the next morning, Johnson imposed his unique form of discipline. With the damage bill in his hand, he began to address his ballclub. “Do you know what I think?” he said.  “I think in the next four games you’ll probably put enough money in these guys pockets to cover this.  So fuck this bullshit!” He then dramatically tore the bill in half, soliciting raucous cheers from the players.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the leader of the 2013 Washington Nationals.

In 2004, Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Pearlman revisited the Mets 1986 Championship season in The Bad Guys Won: A Season of Brawling, Boozing, Bimbo Chasing, and Championship Baseball with Straw, Doc, Mookie, Nails, the Kid, and the Rest of the 1986 Mets, the Rowdiest Team Ever to Put on a New York Uniform—and Maybe the Best.

Pearlman’s book details a dizzying cast of characters: Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Lenny Dykstra, Keith Hernandez, Ray Knight, Mookie Wilson, Gary Carter, and, of course, Davey Johnson.

Johnson somehow guided this eclectic crew through an unpredictable and turbulent season to a division and World Series Championship, albeit with the help of baseball’s biggest miracle—a two-out rally in the ninth inning of Game Six, capped by Bill Buckner infamously letting a ground ball between his legs.

Almost 10 years later, it’s a fascinating read.  The 1986 Mets have startling similarities to the 2013 Nationals: a budding dynasty with championship expectations, a talented young roster, a hitting phenom expected to transcend the sport (Strawberry), and a young unhittable pitcher (Gooden).  Finally, a man named Davey Johnson at the helm.

(Dave Schoenfield does a full breakdown of the 1986 Mets versus the 2013 Nationals here)

The material on Davey Johnson in the book is priceless, especially one event that took place in 1970 when Johnson was playing on the Baltimore Orioles with Jim Palmer.  One game when Palmer was struggling, Davey paid a visit to the mound leading to this exhange:

Davey: Jim, have you ever heard of the unfavorable chance deviation?

Palmer: (staring in silence)

Davey: Well, Jim you’re in an unfavorable chance deviation, and what I recommend is that you aim this ball right down the heart of the plate instead of trying to hit the corner, because then you will hit the corner, and it’s as simple as that.

Palmer: Davey, shut the fuck up.

The Mets began the 1986 season as the near-unanimous pick to win the World Series returning a team that won 98 games the previous season (the 2012 Nats also won 98 games).  Davey Johnson encouraged the speculation, betting that confidence and bravado would complement rather than obstruct his team. The 1986 Mets even recorded a Super Bowl Shuffle-like rap song called “Let’s Get Metsmerized” which was panned by the team, fans, and critics (one of the more comical parts of Pearlman’s book).  Johnson told his team before the season, “We’re not just going to win, we’re going to dominate.  We’re going to blow the rest of the rest of the division away.  I have no doubt about that.  And neither should you.”

Twenty-seven years, later, Davey seems to be following the same playbook, telling reporters at the Winter Meetings last December that this season was World Series or bust.  Just this week, he told 106.7 The Fan’s Sports Junkies that he’s ending this season “in a parade.”

But 1986 was the end of a Mets dynasty, not the beginning. The Mets missed the playoffs the following season.  After losing in the National League Championship Series in 1988, the franchise didn’t taste the postseason again  for another decade.  It is worth noting however, that from 1987 through 1990, the year Davey Johnson left the team, the Mets won 92, 100, 87, and 91 games.  In today’s expanded playoff system, that’s likely 4 consecutive playoff appearances.

But in any event, the Mets never repeated their success of 1986, where they won 108 games.  Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry’s careers were tragically derailed by drugs.

We are still six months away from a verdict on the 2013 Nats and this group of players.  If Pearlman’s book demonstrates anything, it’s the fleeting nature of success.  The window of contention is always smaller than you think.  Will the 2013 Nationals walk through this one?

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9 thoughts on “Revisiting the 1986 Mets — “The Bad Guys Won” Review”

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