Shea embraces '69, '86 Mets

Shea embraces '69, '86 Mets

NEW YORK -- Insulted as it seldom had been in its first 20 seasons, Shea Stadium rose to its feet and loudly voiced its discontent. It booed the Mets; well, sort of. Not because they had performed poorly but because they had won, because they handily had beaten their opponent. Shea was deeply offended, even wounded, by the victory. How could such a thing happen?

It was the summer of 1984, and the Mets were winning with some regularity for the first time in years. Davey Johnson and Dwight Gooden had come to Queens that spring; Keith Hernandez and Darryl Strawberry had come the previous season and initiated the long-promised -- and long-awaited -- renaissance. Four years had passed since the Mets' marketers had launched a campaign announcing the presence of something magical at the ballpark. And by the summer of '84, the magic was back. After seven moribund years, Shea again was proud, popular and pulsating.

But it hardly was prepared for what it would witness one July afternoon on its own scoreboard -- a computer-generated showdown between the current team and the beloved Mets team of 15 summers earlier. The club's promotions department foolishly had challenged the team's past and -- this was a greater miscalculation -- it had allowed a computer to determine if the 1984 team would prevail against the '69 Mets. A team that had yet to assure itself of a .500 season was presented as superior to one that had made miracles and staged, arguably, the greatest World Series upset ever.

It was nothing short of blasphemy, and the ballpark rejected the virtual slap in the face. The very idea! Gooden, Strawberry, Hernandez, et al were dismissed and temporarily disdained. Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman, Cleon Jones and Donn Clendenon, Tommie Agee and Ron Swoboda had prevailed again. They were hailed again. Gil's Guys could not be displaced by such a band of upstarts, no matter what uniform they wore. The images of the wondrous summer of '69 hadn't sufficiently faded.

Two years later, they hadn't either. But the '86 team was in the midst of a season for the ages. By September, a World Series championship was assumed. The '86 team had captured the imagination of the market, displacing the Yankees in the process. And the roars for the third installment of Johnson's Mets drowned out echoes from the miracle season. Shea had another Seaver -- Gooden. And the new Mets had an offense, too. They were just as likely to go 10-0 as the '69 team had been to go 1-0. The '69 Mets, for all they accomplished, weren't nearly so balanced, talented or deep as the '86 team. Howard Johnson, had he played in 1969, might have been the team's best all-around offensive player. He couldn't get 250 at-bats with the '86 team.

None of Hodges' reserves did what Kevin Mitchell would do in '86. And the '86 team had the genius of Hernandez, the stunning skills of Strawberry and the impact of Gary Carter, not to mention a rotation opponents dreaded.

Had the '86 and '69 Mets teams opposed each other, who knows? "They had all that pitching," Hernandez said in the summer of '86. "But we have pitching too. Can you imagine Doc up against Seaver? How would they hit Sid? And Koosman was nasty! They had Nolie [Nolan Ryan]. We have Ronnie. And we have Bobby O."

Hernandez cast no vote.

Farewell Shea Stadium

Nor did Buddy Harrelson, the shortstop of '69 and the third base coach in '86. He couldn't choose. The '69 team was defensively sound and strong up the middle. Harrelson often was accused of being in three places at once. And Jerry Grote was the best defensive catcher in the game. But Hernandez's glove and savvy made the entire '86 infield fearless and better. Both teams had strikeout pitching.

As an Oriole, manager Johnson had made the final out in the '69 Series. He dared to think his Mets team would perform at a higher level against the '69 team than his O's had in the '69 World Series. "But if they [the '69 Mets] got those breaks again ..." he said, not finishing the thought with words. Clearly, he still felt the sting. "They were a dominating pitching team. We have more balance."

Johnson's point is illustrated by these numbers:

• The '69 Mets pitched 17 shutouts in their final 62 regular season games and allowed one run in 10 others.

• Five National League teams outscored their opponents in 1986. The composite run differential was 206 runs. The Mets outscored their opponents by 205. They scored the most and, by a margin of nine, allowed the second fewest.

Each team was compelling. The '86 team was an extraordinary collection of personalities -- partiers, Ivy Leaguers and family men, dirtbags and kids from dirt-poor backgrounds, jocks and crossword-puzzle junkies, born-agains and womanizers, practical jokers and thug-wannabes. As a group, they were, as advertised, quite arrogant. Johnson predicted in Spring Training they wouldn't merely win the division, they would dominate. They were the popular choice to win the playoffs and World Series, but at the same time, quite unpopular.

The '69 team was tamer, seemingly more serious. A future doctor was in their midst. Some of them were weekend warriors with the National Guard. And they were such a young team. Gil Hodges was a no-nonsense manager. He didn't predict dominance, but he told his players in Spring Training they had more going for them than they knew. By the end of their season, the '69 Mets might have been feared. But they were respected and hardly hated.

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Thank goodness no computer has pit the two teams against each other. Shea couldn't have handled the ambivalence. Father against son. Uncle against nephew.

The need to know which team would prevail has diminished. Shea embraces both teams now. The '69 team can not be displaced as the first Mets World Series champion. And no Mets team, before or after, has dominated the league as the '86 team did.

The '69 Mets, direct descendants of a team that finished in ninth place, appealed to the underdog gene in all of us. They weren't supposed to win the division, much less the World Series. Through 1968, players who wore "Mets" on their chests were, by definition, losers. Any success was welcome and appreciated.

The demands on the '86 Mets were far greater. Their success not only fed the city's desire to be dominant -- choose the adjective --- the best, biggest, baddest, most dominating, most arrogant; whatever -- it also fueled expectations. Anything less than ultimate success would have been unacceptable.

Mookie Wilson said as much two summers ago when he and his former teammates gathered at Shea to salute their season in the sun. "If we hadn't won ... If we hadn't ... well ... we wouldn't be here tonight," he said.

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.