The New York Mets are a truly sad, pitiful franchise. Players like rookie phenom Pete Alonso, who took down wunderkind Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in the 2019 MLB Home Run Derby, offer glimpses of hope. But then the coach and a player threaten a beat reporter and the general manager throws a chair in a meeting and we’re reminded once again that the Mets stink worse than their city’s subway.
Only twice in nearly 60 seasons have the Mets finished on top of the baseball world, winning the World Series in 1969 and 1986. The Yankees, who play down the road in the Bronx, have won eight in that span. Even the lowly Miami Marlins have two rings in their 27 seasons.
But once in a blue moon, the Mets surprise us like they did in 1986. If the 1969 Miracle Mets were the “Amazin’ Mets,” then the ’86 Mets were the “Blazin’ Mets” and it was a miracle that these cocaine-filled, pill-popping boozeheads even managed to find their way onto the field, let alone win the whole freakin’ World Series.
You’ve heard the stories by now, or you at least know the names of those World Series champions. Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry are the literal poster children — they were 21 and 24 years old — for the team’s off-the-field antics. They also served as a cautionary tale to the age-old premise of stardom and everything bad and good that comes along with it.
The entire story of the 1986 New York Mets will be told in an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary called “Once Upon a Time in Queens” on September 14 and September 15 as part of a two-night event.
The 1986 New York Mets
It wasn’t just Doc and Darryl that indulged in powdered and liquid temptations. It might as well have been the whole team. Heck, Strawberry’s introduction to cocaine came immediately after he was promoted to the bigs, and Doc wasn’t behind it.
“There’s a couple of lines in the bathroom for you, kid”, Strawberry recalled from 1983 in a story with the Daily News. “This is the big leagues. This is what you do in the big leagues. Go ahead. It’s good for you.”
We don’t know who urged Strawberry that day, but we do know plenty of other players were consuming alcohol and drugs. In Jeff Pearlman’s tell-all book, “The Bad Guys Won,” he describes the 1986 Mets as an “X-rated clubhouse of booze hounds, skirt chasers, and bar fighters. They played hard and partied even harder.”
1986 Mets Roster
You can start with Keith Hernandez, who the team traded for in 1983. New York sent little in return to a St. Louis Cardinals team fed up with his cocaine-usage rumors. The 1979 MVP first baseman finished fourth in MVP voting in 1986 as a staple in the Mets lineup.
Then there was the “Scum Bunch” consisting of Doug Sisk, Danny Heep and Jesse Orosco. Their shared passion wasn’t playing video games, spitting seeds or whatever it is ballplayers do. As Pearlman wrote, it was “alcohol consumption” and their mission was “to corrupt as many Mets as possible.”
Said pitcher Bob Ojeda: “We were a bunch of vile f—ers.”
No better story exemplifies that than the Mets’ plane ride home following their National League Championship Series win over the Houston Astros.
What started out as a normal celebratory party thousands of feet in the air turned into an all-out grade school food fight. Why? Because they were a bunch of vile you-know-whats.
“For the first hour the all-out partying was little more than drinking and yelling. But then, the United crew committed the ultimate mid-celebration error: They served cake,” Pearlman wrote. “Ruffino [a team batboy] remembers sitting in his seat and biting into his piece when– Whoooosh! Splat!”
“It was all over the carpet. Brown icing on the ceiling. Soon it was a free-for-all. Bottles of champagne rolled down the aisle. Peas were smooshed up and used as shampoo. ‘Tore up that plane like Bébé’s Kids,’ says Kevin Mitchell. ‘I couldn’t believe the things I saw going on.'”
Of course, drugs made their way onto the flight. Players inhaled blow in the bathrooms. They harassed flight attendants. They walked off the plane incurring $7,500 worth of damages.
The Plane Ride
Earlier that regular season, five Mets hit the town for a night at a bar named Cooter’s, where athletes drank free and apparently piss off local bar patrons. They stayed well into the early morning, and the night ended in police tackling infielder Tim Teufel and throwing Ron Darling through a glass sign. This was stuff usually seen in movies, yet here were a bunch of professional baseball players acting like hooligans.
Gooden and Strawberry received the bulk of the negative attention. Maybe race had something to do with it. Maybe their sheer talent and ability does — they went on to make up two-fifths of the Mets’ all-time Wins Above Replacement leaders.
But it’s unfair to peg it all on Doc and Dwight. In 1995, Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci documented the amount of arrests the 1986 Mets were involved in:
“Between 1986 and 1991, the 22 Met players who appeared in the 1986 World Series, eight were arrested following incidents of alcohol-related and/or battery related crimes (Strawberry, Gooden, Ron Darling, Rick Aguilera, [Lenny] Dykstra, Kevin Mitchell, Ojeda and Tim Teufel) and the ninth was disciplined by baseball for cocaine use (Keith Hernandez).”
Cocaine wasn’t the only drug players were abusing. Like clockwork, they’d take amphetamine pills, or “greenies”, before each game. That was standard in Major League Baseball. Hernandez estimated that 40 percent of big leaguers were popping the pills at the time.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Not everyone was a wild child. Guys like Gary Carter and Mookie Wilson would read Bibles on the same plane their teammates were snorting snow on.
“One article said Keith was the Prince of Darkness and I was the Prince of Light,” Carter told the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 1995.
Somehow, though, this team full of brawlers, boozers and drug users found itself playing in the Fall Classic against the Boston Red Sox that would become known as the Bill Buckner World Series.
The Legendary Playoff Run
The Mets entered the playoffs by far the best team in baseball. Led by manager Davey Johnson and his staff (Bill Robinson, Bud Harrelson, Mel Stottlemyre, Greg Pavlick and Vern Hoscheit), the Amazin’s went 108-54 and won the NL East by more than 20 games. No other team even reached 100 wins.
They were loaded. Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter called the pitches. Speedy outfielders like Strawberry, Lenny Dykstra and Mookie Wilson ran down everything. Around the diamond you had Hernandez at first, a .320 hitter in Wally Backman at second, Rafael Santana at shortstop and two-time All-Star Ray Knight at third. New York led the league in runs, RBIs and average that year.
A dynamite rotation included 1985 Cy Young winner Gooden — who also became the youngest pitcher to start an All-Star game that year, Darling, Ojeda, Sid Fernandez and Rick Aguilera. All starting pitchers except for Aguilera were 15-game winners that season and maintained ERAs of less than 3.60. Both Gooden and Fernandez totaled 200 strikeouts. They were all a big reason for the Mets’ league-leading 3.11 team ERA.
Closers Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco came out of the bullpen, plus relievers Doug Sisk, Rick Anderson (who spent most of his career in the minor leagues prior to 1986) and Randy Niemann. Lesser used pitchers included Bruce Berenyi, Randy Myers, John Mitchell, Terry Leach and Ed Lynch (traded during the season).
Off the bench were the likes of Howard Johnson, who hit 36 homers the next season, and Kevin Mitchell, who won the 1989 NL MVP with the Giants. Other reserves included backup catchers Ed Hearn and Barry Lyons, rookie infielder Kevin Elster, 1979 all-star Lee Mazzilli (who came up with the Mets and spent time with Texas, Pittsburgh and the Yankees before returning in 1986), George Foster (1977 NL MVP with Cincinnati and was claimed off waivers by the White Sox midseason but still received a World Series ring), Dave Magadan (who went on to have a solid 16-year career) and Tim Corcoran (notched just seven at-bats that season and didn’t receive a ring).
After trouncing the Astros in the NLCS, the Mets faced a Red Sox team consisting of multiple Hall-of-Famers like Tom Seaver, Jim Rice and Wade Boggs.
The Sox got off to a 2-0 lead in the series after Bruce Hurst and Roger Clemens beat Darling and Gooden. New York stormed back to tie the series at 2-2 but fell in game five to give Boston a 3-2 lead.
Game 6 in Shea Stadium is a postseason classic that rests in Mets and MLB lore.
How the Mets Won the 1986 World Series
The Mets were down 5-3 with one out left in the 10th inning. Hernandez, who made out No. 2, exited into the clubhouse to start undressing thinking they had no shot.
Carter singled as did pinch hitter Kevin Mitchell, who, before his at-bat, was on the phone in the clubhouse making flight plans to San Diego. Knight then knocked in Carter with a single of his own, which advanced Mitchell to third. Mitchell then tied the game by scoring on a wild pitch to Wilson.
After a 10-pitch battle between Bob Stanley and Mookie Wilson, the Mets batter finally put the ball in play toward first baseman Bill Buckner, who famously missed the grounder between his legs. Knight scored and the Mets won, 6-5. All three runs scored in the inning came with two outs. The play is forever etched in baseball history.
Game 7 didn’t feature the same drama as the previous game. The Mets won, 8-5, behind a pair of Strawberry and Knight home runs and some timely hitting.
Then, the party was on.
Champagne celebrations are common, and the Mets indulged in the locker room and on the field. Afterward, players headed to clubs and bars to celebrate more.
Gooden told ESPN he didn’t even attend the championship parade the next day because he was too high. He spent the day watching his teammates celebrate on TV in a drug dealer’s apartment. Though Gooden would go on to have a couple more great seasons, he failed to live up to his Hall-of-Fame expectations because of drug-related problems.
The rowdiest of the Amazin’s might’ve been Dykstra. Although he said he didn’t use cocaine until after 1986 when he joined the Phillies, Pearlman wrote that “no (Mets) player was more out of control that year.”
“I partied like I was the lead singer of some rock ‘n’ roll band. Nobody could burn the candle at both ends like me. Like everything else I do in life, I go big or I go home! So when it came to having fun after the games on the road, nobody did it better than me, or as often.”
— Mets’ Lenny Dykstra in his autobiography, “House of Nails: A Memoir of Life on the Edge”
Dykstra was one of a handful of Mets traded away by general manager Frank Cashen at season’s end. Cashen also dealt away McDowell, Backman, Wilson and Aguilera, and Mets fans still blame him for not keeping the ’86 team together and forming a potential dynasty.
Still, the 1986 New York Mets were one of the greatest teams of all time, and they damn sure partied like it. Some of them weren’t exactly your ideal role models, but the city of New York loved them.
As Pearlman wrote: “There’s a connection that I don’t think you can have now. These were really your guys. They felt like blue collar, New York guys…They were going to drink with you and party hard with you, and then they were going to fight with you. They were very accessible and very open. And you definitely don’t have that any more.”
Where Are the 1986 Mets Now?
Some, like Gary Carter, have passed away. Many are still involved in the game of baseball. Here’s what some of the pivotal pieces of the ’86 Mets are up to now.
Darryl Strawberry: He leads a Christian outreach group called Strawberry Ministries (yes, really) that does a whole lot of good outside of St. Louis, Missouri. He spreads the good word of God and raises money for addiction and austism reach and support.
Keith Hernandez: He’s a TV broadcaster for Mets games for SportsNet New York alongside his ’86 teammate Ron Darling and Gary Cohen. He’s also an analyst or MLB on Fox.
Lenny Dykstra: Dykstra filed for bankruptcy in 2009. He’s ran into all sorts of trouble with the law and in 2019, he sued Ron Darling after Darling said in his book that Dykstra shouted racial slurs at an MLB player in 1986. The suit was dismissed.
Doc Gooden: Dwight “Doc” Gooden was arrested for cocaine possession in 2019 in New Jersey. He then was arrested for driving while intoxicated later that year. As of 2020, he was continuing his drug rehabilitation and on probation.
Wally Backman: Wally was managing the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate as recently as 2016 and had hoped for the big league’s bench coach job before an apparent falling out with president Sandy Alderson. He last coached the Independent League’s Long Island Ducks in 2019.