New York Mets president Al Harazin was less than two years removed from watching a ball roll through Bill Buckner’s legs; he didn’t need to be reminded just how fragile a post-season lead is. The Mets trailed by two runs and were reduced to a skinny strike on that fateful October night at Shea Stadium in 1986. No reminiscing necessary. The celebration of that World Series title season of 1986, lingered for days, weeks, months and years after.
“It’s in the bag,” thought Harazin. “Doc (Gooden) is going to win his first post-season game.”
What? Had Harazin forgotten Buckner? Did he believe the same thing couldn’t – and wouldn’t – happen to the Mets? Not this team. Not this season. The 1988 New York Mets had won 100 games, 10 of 11 against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the regular season.
Dwight Gooden fired strike one to John Shelby, the Dodgers lead-off hitter in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the National League Championship Series at Shea Stadium. With the Mets leading 4-2, Gooden was three outs away from giving New York a 3-1 series lead.
Strike two to Shelby.
Not against Gooden, thought Harazin. He had allowed only three singles through eight innings (none after the fourth inning). If Harazin suffered even a split second of hesitation, it had faded quickly after the first two pitches to Shelby, a .239 career hitter who had struck out 128 times (fourth-most in the National League) in 494 at-bats (one strikeout per 3.85 at-bats) during the regular season.
Shelby worked the count to 2-2 and then fouled off the sixth pitch of the at-bat. The next two pitches missed outside. An eight-pitch walk to Shelby and Gooden’s pitch count had reached 125.
Still, Gooden felt strong. “They were mine and those last three outs I could feel them,” he said. “The walk I issued offered no hint of a collapse.”
Mets manager Davey Johnson sat quietly in the dugout. He pondered the situation as Mike Scioscia arrived at the plate. Despite the pitch count, Gooden was still in command. He had allowed three harmless singles through the first eight innings, none since the fourth inning. No sense in bringing Randy Myers, Johnson thought, (Tommy) Lasorda will pinch hit Rick Dempsey. Besides, he’s more of a home run threat than Scioscia and that – looking at Scioscia digging in – is the potential tying run.
Scioscia was not known for his power. He had hit three home runs during the regular season, his last one over three months ago, in June. Johnson felt confident in Gooden, but Dave Magadan didn’t.
To Johnson’s right, down the Mets bench, sat the Mets backup first baseman. Magadan pleaded internally, hoping Johnson would make a pitching change. He could see Gooden beginning to labor. The Mets had left-hander Randy Myers in the bullpen (not warming up) as Magadan whispered to himself, “Please put him in the game.”
Gooden and Carter knew the deal on Scioscia. “He (Scioscia) was notorious for taking the first pitch,” said Carter. “We always knew we could just lay it in there, he was not going to swing. All I was thinking was trying to get ahead of him.”
Unlike most dramatic moments that appear to develop in slow-motion, Scioscia ripped Gooden’s first pitch, a fastball, into the right field bullpen, tying the game 4-4. The Shea Stadium crowd sat in stunned silence. The cool of that October night, turned cold. Gooden was suddenly sweating – literally. NBC television cameras captured Johnson standing, silent, face flushed.
Scioscia’s home run is now listed as one of the 100 Greatest Home Runs of All Time, according to ESPN. It also landed on Baseball Digest’s list of most important home runs in Dodgers franchise history.
“If we make a f***ing pitching change, we win the World Series,” said Len Dykstra 20 years later. “(Mike) Scioscia hit that home run. We had a really good year that year, but it would have all been different if we make that one pitching change. Our manager lost that series for us.”
In the 12th inning with the game still tied 4-4 it was Kirk Gibson, 1-for-16 in the series, who delivered the eventual game-winning home run off Roger McDowell. ”We were on the edge of extinction,” said Gibson. ”Gooden was almost unhittable. I was long overdue.”
The Dodgers stunned the Mets at home 5-4 in extra innings and clobbered them again the next day. The Mets lost the series in seven games, but it was Game 4 that deflated Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez.
“The game that is going to stick with me, that one that I won’t be able to forget, is Game 4,” he said. “You work so hard to get this far and it all falls apart. It’s a disappointed as I’ve ever been in my career.”
Others, like former Mets pitcher Ron Darling, choose not to reconcile the loss, but forget. “I honestly have no memories of that series,” Darling said in 2006. “I honestly don’t. Like a person who has gone through a bad divorce, a death in the family, you try to forget that it ever happened. It was an awful time.”
It was the end to the dynasty that never was wrote Tom Verducci in Sports Illustrated in 1993.
“There seemed to be a downfall in ’87 after we won the Series,” former Mets second baseman Wally Backman said in 2006, at the team’s 20th anniversary reunion at Shea Stadium. “And then in ’88, we came back and went to the playoffs but lost to the Dodgers. We had more fire in ’86, but management made some changes and the team kind of got dismantled.”
“If we had won that game, we would have won that series,” said Joe McIlvaine, then the Met vice-president of baseball operations and now an executive vice-president with the team. “There’s no doubt in my mind. It was a flash point.”