By Rich Coutinho
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It’s hard to believe that it has been over a quarter of a century since the 1986 Mets captured an entire city with a World Championship, but I was thinking a lot about that season this week. A young college student asked me on Monday what it was like to cover that team, and so I took him through that magical night.
It began with the fear of losing the World Series, and it ended with looks of disbelief.
I was a young reporter — just a few years out of college — but I knew pretty early on that this Mets team was different. They worked hard and played hard, and sometimes the line between the two got rubbed out. But make no mistake about it — when this team took the field, they were all business, and they proved it day in and day out.
When we returned from Boston with the Mets trailing the series 3-2, we all knew that the Mets would have to win two games at home to grab a championship. Little did we know that they would do it in historic fashion.
I remember driving to Shea Stadium from my Yonkers home on Saturday afternoon, knowing that this could be the last time I’d be going there until 1987.
But in my heart I really did not believe that. The Mets had proven all year that they would do what they needed to do to win. Sometimes it was a brawl. Sometimes it was a pitching gem. Sometimes it was a come-from-behind win. But it was always something.
There was so much media covering this World Series that some of us (myself included) were put behind the left-field wall where the “picnic area” was during the regular season. We were far from the action, but with monitors located nearby we were fine.
The entire series I sat next to Carl Beene, who had covered the Red Sox for years. In many ways, Beene felt about the Red Sox the same way I felt about the Mets. We both felt fortunate to cover the team we rooted for as a kid. Beene would later go on to serve as the PA announcer at Fenway Park until he passed away recently. That series I developed a friendship with Beene that would last for years based on a one-week period we spent hanging out in 1986. As Game 6 moved on, both of us became real quiet — far less talkative than we had been in the first five games of the series.
After the Mets erased a 2-0 lead to tie the game, a key Ray Knight error gave the Red Sox the lead, which the Mets promptly took back with a run of their own.
I remember not believing my eyes when I saw Darryl Strawberry double-switched out of the game by Davey Johnson, but as the game moved to extra innings my focus shifted to the game at hand, and not criticizing managerial strategy. And when Dave Henderson homered off Rick Aguilera, you could hear a pin drop at Shea Stadium as if a giant balloon had been popped.
The Red Sox added a run, and so the Mets had three outs left in their season. Beene turned to me and said,”I never take anything for granted with the Red Sox, but it sure looks good.”
And after both Wally Backman and Keith Hernandez made outs, all I kept thinking was, “Please do not let Gary Carter make out. Anybody but him, please.”
After he lined a single to left, all I kept thinking was that this was where Strawberry would be hitting, and boy would I love to give him a chance to take Calvin Schiraldi deep.
Beene has begun packing his bags and was headed for the Red Sox’s locker room. I decided to stay in my seat. I had no idea I was about to see history. Straw’s replacement, Kevin Mitchell, lined a single to center, and suddenly the Mets fans got their wake-up call as Knight stepped to the plate. In typical Knight fashion, he fought off some tough pitches and got enough of the ball to squeeze a single to center, scoring Carter and putting runners on the corners.
John McNamara decided to pull Schiraldi and bring in Bob Stanley, which raised a few eyebrows as Mookie Wilson stepped in. To me, this at-bat took several hours, with Wilson fouling off a bunch of pitches just off the plate.
And then it happened.
A wild pitch scored Mitchell, whose journey from third base to home seemed to take far longer than it should have taken. At that moment, reporters began scurrying back to their seats because all of their game stories had to be re-written. And remember, this is pre-internet, pre-smart phone, and so that work was labor intensive.
The moment the Mets tied the game, you could almost hear a sigh of relief from the Shea crowd, but the best was yet to come.
By now, every Mets fan knows the Bill Buckner finale to Game 6, but the reality is that the Mets nearly won the game a pitch or two before that moment. After the wild pitch, Marty Barrett kept dancing towards the second-base bag trying to keep Knight close to the base, and Stanley was not really paying attention — so much so that Barrett was standing on second base while Stanley delivered a pitch to Wilson, which he fouled off. Had Wilson hit even a routine ground ball to second the game would have ended prior to Buckner’s error.
In any event, as Wilson’s ground ball twisted toward Buckner, you got the feeling that Wilson’s speed would never allow him to get to the bag, and Buckner knew that too. which to this day I believe created the error.
The postgame clubhouse scene was frenetic, as reporters did not know where to go. I went to the Mets’ clubhouse first and it was a wild scene, but the thing I remember the most about this night was how Buckner stood there and answered every question in a polite fashion. I was so impressed with that in the way he handled it.
As my night drew to a close, I finished filing my reports and took a long look at Shea Stadium, which had now emptied out. I looked out to left field and envisioned the spot Cleon Jones fell to one knee back in 1969 when the Mets won their first World Series. And I thought about how the last out would play out in Game 7, because after a game like this there was no way the Mets could lose a deciding game.
And then I sat back in my chair thinking I could go to a million baseball games and never see anything like this again. In a city where many say great moments only exist in the Bronx, this night once again proved that Shea Stadium was a magical place where dreams come true. On a Saturday night in October in 1986, nothing else mattered to New Yorkers in a city that never sleeps.
That is why when you say “Game 6” people know what you mean. Even people who do not follow baseball know what that means. To one city it extended a curse, and for the other city it once again illustrated that being a Mets fan means you are part of a special breed.
Saturday night turned into Sunday morning and I drove back to Yonkers, but as I left Shea Stadium I looked back at the horseshoe ballpark and smiled. I got a chance to be part of history, and to this day I think about it often.
The night of Game 6.
Do you remember where you were on that magical night? Share your memories and thoughts in the comments section below…