There was (almost) crying in baseball

Many people remember exactly what they were doing during the Mets' Game 6 comeback in 1986. I remember what I wasn't going to do.

Something a little bit different today, a little more personal. I spent the past two nights watching “Once Upon a Time in Queens,” the four-part documentary the latest installment in ESPN’s 30-for-30 series.

The 1986 Mets were one of my first favorite teams, which is unusual considering I lived on the opposite side of the country in a Southern Oregon town that was even further from New York in a cultural sense than it was in a geographic one. I’ll explain how that came to be and why people are very wrong when they say you should never meet your heroes.

I rememberexactly what I was doing during Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

More importantly, I know what I wasn’t going to do: cry.

I was a huge Mets fan. Well, as huge a Mets fan as you can be if you’re 11 years old, living in Klamath Falls, Ore., and have cheered for the Mets since 1985, which is when they acquired my favorite player. But as the Mets entered the bottom of the 10th inning trailing Boston 5-3, I made the past-due decision that I was too old for tears of disappointment over a sports result. Besides, I was at the house of Aaron Johnson, who was in my sixth-grade class at Sacred Heart, and I couldn’t be sniffling as company. It was a Saturday. There had been some sort of fall festival event at our school and I was spending the night at the Johnsons. Aaron’s Dad, Lewis, was the first man I knew who always had a toothpick in his mouth. His mother, Bonnie, insisted that you eat food as it was served to you even if it was a sandwich and you hated freaking pickles like I did. Seriously. She caught me picking the pickles off my sandwich at a golf course and got mad.

So while I wasn’t quite resigned to the Mets losing, I was steeling myself for it as my favorite player, catcher Gary Carter, came up to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the 10th. Instead, Carter’s single began the rally you almost certainly already know about.

It turns out that my memory wasn’t as good as I thought. I remembered Carter’s single coming with two strikes. Nope. It was a 2-1 pitch. Also, I thought it was a ground ball through the left side of the infield. Actually, it was a line drive that landed in front of left-fielder, Jim Rice. Two more singles followed that. Then a passed ball, and by the time Mookie Wilson hit the groundball that rolled between Bill Buckner’s legs, allowing Ray Knight to gallop home with the winning run, the Mets had faced 16 pitches in which an out -- any out -- would have ended the game and the series. The win remains one of the most remarkable and exhilarating I’ve ever experienced as a fan. My Mom called over to the Johnsons house to make sure I knew what happened and then hear my reaction.

I’ve been thinking a lot about not just that moment, but that team this week while watching Nick Davis’s four-part documentary “Once Upon a Time in Queens.” Turns out, this team is as enthralling to me now as it was back then, but for entirely different reasons. Now, it is amazing to hear just how cocky, how crazy, how occasionally criminal that team actually was. In 1986, I was a sixth-grader who saw sports in terms of virtue and morality. The good guys worked hard and signed autographs for everyone. Like Carter. He was the subject of a Sports Illustrated cover story that I read in 1983. I wrote him a letter, my Mom mailed it to Montreal where Carter played for the Expos and he sent back a signed picture. After that, my devotion to him became one of my single most defining traits as a kid. Two posters of him hung in my room. I had his signature model catcher’s mitt. I collected every card of his I could find. I received his 1975 Topps rookie card in my Easter basket.

In 1985, Carter was traded to New York where he joined a team pushing toward the top of the league. He was an outlier. The goody-two-shoes on a squad whose clubhouse whose ethics seemed to resemble that of a pirate ship. They were hard charging, hard living and disreputable and they didn’t feel the need to apologize for any of this. Carter was the guy who made his teammates roll their eyes. Or worse. “One of the most disliked players in the league,” says Keith Hernandez, his teammate, in the documentary. This was not a surprise to me. I knew players considered him to be a bit of a gloryhound. “Camera Carter” who was always available and concerned about his appearances. The documentary showed his advertisement for Ivory soap, which seemed only appropriate. “Ivory’s clean is an honest clean,” he said. I met Carter in 2001 in Seattle when he appeared at a FanFest event at the All-Star Game. He couldn’t have been nicer to me, and I got chills when he put his oven mitt of a hand on my shoulder. When he spoke to the fans, he also came pretty close to complaining about not being in the Hall of Fame, but he didn’t need to be perfect. He was an icon of my childhood.

Some people will say that Davis’s documentary shows all the warts of that ’86 Mets team. To me, it humanized that team. The ‘86 Mets were like the swaggering Seattle Seahawks of 2013, and it’s fun to see a team that plays as big as it talks. Not only that, but the flaws made the players seem more human. I mean, three pitchers off that team spent a night in jail during the season after fighting with off-duty cops in a Houston bar named Cooter’s. Seriously. One of those guys was Ron Darling, the Yale-educated man dubbed Mr. Perfect. The Mets got in four on-field fights during that 1986 season. One of them was started by first-base coach Bill Robinson, as God-fearing a man as there was on that team.

There’s a saying that you should never meet your heroes. This is profoundly mistaken. It’s great to meet your heroes, to find out they’re flawed and beautifully human. It’s certainly the part of this documentary that I loved most. Lenny Dykstra is not just a creep but a criminal. An actual scam artist who is an absolutely insufferable jerk in his present incarnation, but hearing him slur out his ridiculous and profane declarations about his memories of that specific Mets team. At the end, he complained that of all the people on that team Carter was one who did everything right, which is why it made no sense he died in 2012 at the age of 57.

I wasn’t disappointed in Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, whose substance-abuse issues derailed their lives and dampened their careers, I felt disappointed for them, which is a huge difference. It was intensely difficult for two players so talented, so young and so vulnerable as Black men at that time in that sport and in that city.

I’ve grown up in the 35 years since the Mets won that World Series. I’ve moved to the city where the game was played, a place that might as well have been on the moon for how far it was from my hometown in Oregon’s more feral half. I still haven’t cried over that game, but I came closer while watching this documentary than I did that Saturday night in my friend’s living room.

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