Mets Time Machine: 1986

For this long-time Mets follower, it's hard to believe that so many years have come and gone since the Mets were the best team on the planet and gave us the season to end all seasons - 1986. Just say the words "nineteen-eighty-six" to any Mets fan, and the effect is as immediate as it is predictable.

The words "best", "greatest", and "most exciting" will tumble out as that year's team is described. To these accolades I would add "once-in-a-lifetime", because it is highly unlikely any of us will see a Mets team so good ever again.

The 1986 Mets can effectively be divided into two halves - regular season and postseason. I will dwell on the postseason '86 Mets in future articles, since there were unquestionably more incredible moments and unforgettable games in October that year than occurred from April through September.

The Mets in the '86 regular season were a juggernaut. Let's start with their record: 108-54. To appreciate this is to understand that this mark represents a .667 winning percentage. Or, to put it another way, the Mets won exactly 2 out of every 3 games they played. The conventional wisdom has always been that every team will win at least 1/3 of their games and lose at least 1/3. What each team does with the other third of its games is what separates the winners from the also-rans. In 1986, the Mets took that additional third of games and put them in their pocket. The Mets were equal opportunity dominators. They not only won at home (a 55-26 record); they were just as comfortable on the road (an incredible 53-28). In recent years, only the 1998 Yankees and 1997 Indians had better overall records than the '86 Mets, and before that you had to go back to the '69 Orioles to find a better team, and we know what happened to them.

A study of individual performances from the '86 Mets squad is bound to provoke the question: How did they win so many games with such mediocre stats? To answer that is to understand that the balance between pitching and offense was very much different in 1986 than it is today. That year, the Mets led the league with a .263 team batting average. By contrast, the 1999 Mets batted .279 and didn't even lead the National League. In '86, three Mets pitchers were among the top 5 in ERA, all under 3 runs per game. Today, aside from Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and Greg Maddux, you would be hard pressed to find a team whose ace has an ERA under 3.5 and whose staff average is under 4. Darryl Strawberry led the '86 Mets in homers with 27. That was tied for 5th in the league. Today, that would be closer to 15th. Gary Carter was third in the NL in RBIs with 105. RBI machines like Manny Ramirez today can reach that total by the All-Star break.

The name of the game for these Mets was consistency. Very much like the '98 Yankees, this team had no one superstar who carried them, no one who led the league in a major category. But they had a solid roster of players who collectively had above-average years. The pitching staff of Ojeda, Gooden, Fernandez, and Darling featured no 20-game winners on this championship team. Yet their win totals were 18, 17, 16, and 15, respectively. Offensively, these Mets featured a potent lineup, with Hernandez, Carter, Strawberry, and Ray Knight anchoring the 3-6 spots, and table setters Lenny Dykstra and Wally Backman having terrific seasons (.295 and .320 averages) at the top of the order. This combination led the league in runs scored that year. The Mets bench was formidable as well, with Mookie Wilson, Kevin Mitchell, Howard Johnson, and Tim Teufel giving no rest to the opposition when called upon by manager Davey Johnson.

Finally, the 1986 Mets had that one extra elusive ingredient found in dominating teams - good fortune. Not only were these Mets healthy all year, but they saw their prime opponents, the Cardinals and Cubs, fall to the wayside early in '86 with key injuries and sub-par seasons from their stars. Both clubs finished below .500 after beating out the Mets in the N.L East pennant races of 1984 and '85. In what was supposed to be a key 4-game series in St. Louis in April of '86, the Mets swept the 4 games and left the Birds for dead. So far in front were the Mets with so much of the season still to play, that the only interest many fans had in August and September was to keep track of the Mets Magic Number as it inexorably counted down. I was privileged to be at Shea Stadium on the night of September 17 as Dwight Gooden pitched a complete game 4-2 victory over the Cubs, finally clinching the N.L. East and setting the stage for the most exciting postseason ever seen in New York.

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