Breitbart Sports Interview: Howard Johnson Reflects on 1986 Mets
When Jordany Valdespin clubbed a walk-off grand slam to beat the Dodgers in dramatic fashion last week at Citi Field in New York, an old feeling came over the crowd of Mets fans. A feeling that anything was possible. That mindset for Mets fans is rare these days, but there was a time when fantastic finishes were expected and baseball miracles were commonplace.
In 1986, the recaps were usually very happy. Hearing Bob Murphy's closing call of "and the Mets win the ball game" became a virtual daily occurrence for fans of the Amazins. New York was buzzing about baseball and the city's attention was squarely on Queens, not the Bronx.
It may be hard for younger fans to imagine but from the mid-80s into the early 90s, the Big Apple was a Mets town. The Yankees were going through a rare dry spell, failing to qualify for the postseason for over a decade. Meantime, a bunch of rough and tumble National Leaguers were winning hearts, fans, and lots of games.
The 1986 Mets were brash, confident, and very good. The club won 108 games and captured the NL East crown for the first time since 1973. Veterans like Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez were joined by an incredible crop of young talent led by Darryl Strawberry and a stellar pitching staff anchored by Dwight Gooden. The team didn't just win--they won in extraordinary ways again and again.
Wild comebacks and unlikely bounces became the hallmark of the Mets that year, not only throughout the regular season but in the playoffs as well. An epic NLCS culminated with a 16-inning marathon Game 6 in which New York outlasted the Houston Astros to win the pennant. In the World Series, the Mets faced Boston, a team that used a little magic of their own to get by the Angels in the ALCS, but the Mets prevailed in seven games. The series included everything from a Billy Joel national anthem to an unexpected parachutist to that ground ball that went trickling by Bill Buckner.
They survived the pressure and heat like a crucible, and in the end the Mets were world champions. Almost three decades later the team is still remembered and revered. Loved by some and hated by others. But not forgotten. So why did this team have such a penchant for winning in incredible ways?
Howard Johnson believes it was the perfect baseball concoction.
"We had the two ingredients you need to be successful," Johnson told Breitbart Sports. "Talent, number one and and a willingness to compete and not quit. When you have that combination you're going to be tough to beat. The thing about our team was that we had a lot of depth. You didn't just have your starters, you had guys on the bench, including myself, that would go on to have some pretty good seasons down the road. Guys like Kevin Mitchell, myself, Tim Teufel, you got some guys on that team that could do some things. It was just a really good mixture of players."
Johnson, the man Mets backers affectionately call HoJo, backed up Ray Knight at third base in 1986. He delivered some big hits off the bench and took advantage of some starts at third base when Knight rested. Manager Davey Johnson even inserted HoJo at shortstop from time to time just to get his powerful bat in the lineup. One of the most memorable HoJo blasts in 1986 came off of Cardinals closer Todd Worrell. The home run at Busch Stadium propelled the Mets to one of many comeback victories, and HoJo would go on to hit several more round trippers off of Worrell during his career.
"I don't know why I did so well against him, but I think about that now and then," Johnson said. "He had good stuff. He throws so hard. He has a good breaking ball, splitter, and yet for some reason you just find that in baseball. Worrell was just one of those guys that I always seemed to find the barrel against him and keep the ball fair. I can't explain it. It's one of those things in baseball that'll always be intriguing."
Intriguing like the Mets in 1986. Along with all the on field success, the team also made plenty of headlines off the field. Mets players were everywhere. They were on TV, radio, and magazine covers. They made a music video. From time to time they were even in trouble with the law. The team socked big hits and socked some opponents, literally. They were involved in multiple bench clearing brawls during that championship season. The Mets wore blue and orange caps, but to teams and fans in other cities they were the man in the black hat.
"If you play in New York City there is a certain amount of hatred towards the team anyway because it's from New York," said Johnson. "Some guys run away from that, but we kind of embraced it and New York became a great place to play because of that. At the time, the Yankees were down. It was kind of a void there and the Mets were up and coming.
"All of the guys in the locker room just learned how to use New York and the edge you gain from playing there to our advantage. Teams in our division that we battled against like St. Louis, Philadelphia, the Chicago Cubs, hated to come in to New York and play us because they knew if we hit a home run there was going to be a curtain call or some crazy stuff going on. We used it to our advantage. That's how we were able to do it. We battled hard and we used New York to our advantage."
The Mets never met a celebration they didn't like. Like many in the 80s, they worked hard and partied even harder. Somehow though, the off-field antics were used to fuel the Mets fire.
"It was a little bit different," Johnson told Breitbart Sports. "It's hard to explain how stuff even started because guys never really went out of their way to try and do that. Nowadays you get players doing things to get themselves in trouble and it's never really portrayed the same way. For some reason we always came out smelling like a rose. I couldn't figure it out, it never worked out that way intentionally. Guys never tried to be somebody else for the camera or stuff like that, guys were just being themselves and playing their role. Our goal was to play hard together on and off the field."
Yes they were cocky and yes, they were talented, but perhaps their best attribute was their belief in themselves and each other. In Game 6 of the World Series, down three games to two, the Mets trailed the Red Sox by two runs in the tenth inning with two outs and nobody on base. Pretty precarious. But if people thought they were dead, Johnson wasn't one of them.
"You know what honestly , I didn't," he said. "I just remember being in the dugout there and Carter kept going up and down the bench saying it wasn't going to be the last out of the World Series. I think there was a piece of that competitiveness in all of us, and when he was saying that and all the stuff we had gone through with Houston and that series, and just the year that we'd had, there's no way that we were going to lose this thing.
"Soon enough, Gary gets a hit and you start thinking 'Ok this is going to happen' and then you get another hit, and another hit, and then a wild pitch. Things just happened so fast it was like a blur, but we just never had the feeling that it was going to be over. It was frustrating, yeah, but deep down you felt like something was going to happen, and sure enough it did."
That's an understatement. When Mookie Wilson's ground ball found an opening through Boston's banged-up first baseman and Knight scored to win the game, HoJo was on deck. He jumped into the pile of celebratory teammates as the Shea Stadium crowd erupted.
Speaking of big Shea, the team used the old stadium to their advantage as well. People criticized the Mets home for being designed for football. They called it a dump. But for these 1986 rabble rousers it was their dump.
"It was all those things, but it was home," said Johnson. "It had its unique features, the airplanes going by, and it was a big, big ball park. When we got crowds in there it was ridiculous. When there's 50,000 people there they would get pretty loud, it was a lot of fun, and it was a great venue. A lot of people miss Shea now. Citi Field is beautiful, but Shea had its own charm and the history with the Jets, and Joe Namath, and the Beatles. There's just a lot of history there at Shea. It was good to win there. I think everybody remembers back in '73 with Tug McGraw coming off the field pounding his thigh, and the guy with the sign 'You Gotta Believe,' there was a lot of good history there with the Mets."
The 1986 Mets loved to laugh and fool around.
The pranks were plentiful and relentless. No one was off limits. Roger McDowell was the class clown on a team filled with jokers. His hot foots were legendary. McDowell would wrap gum around matches, stick the matches to an unsuspecting Met's foot and light it. McDowell and his pal HoJo even made a tutorial video on how to make the best hot foot.
"I've thought about getting together with him in the winter time and redoing that whole scene because so many people remember that," Johnson said. "It's another part of the Met history. The way we used to do it. How we used to build those things. It was really awesome and I would love to do that again. I think that could be coming up here real soon, maybe we'll do it in another year or two. Maybe we'll figure it out and try and get together and try and recreate the scene almost exactly as we did it back then and disclose some of our secrets and how we got it."
Those secrets apparently include mirrors.
While there's no disputing the 1986 Mets were no choir boys, don't let their legendary love of the night life fool you. This team is filled with cerebral, well read men. Hernandez called President Richard Nixon his friend. Ron Darling is a Yalie. Many, like Johnson are Christians. Many, like Johnson have been married for decades, and many like Johnson are still involved with the great game of baseball.
And today, Howard Johnson is toiling in the Mariners organization serving as the hitting coach for the Tacoma Rainiers. Davey Johnson is looking to grab another championship ring as he manages the Washington Nationals, the team Knight broadcasts for. Hernandez, Darling, and Bobby Ojeda are broadcasters covering the Mets. Wally Backman manages the Las Vegas 51s, the Mets AAA team and Tim Teuful coaches third base for the big club. McDowell, Rick Anderson, Rafael Santana, and Randy Niemann are also working for Major League clubs. Bud Harrelson is the owner of the Independent Long Island Ducks. Wherever these former teammates are there is a closeness that remains.
"I see these guys a lot," Johnson said. "It's a lot of fun because when we get together we just kind of pick up where we left off. It's kind of one big party, it's great."
Where the 1986 Mets club ranks when it comes to the greatest teams of all-time is up for debate. Howard Johnson feels they were one of the best.
"We've got to be up there," he said. "I mean people remember us. You can argue statistics, but you're not going to find teams that had the bench that we had. Guys that went on to have pretty good careers and posted some pretty good numbers. I think people remember a team, like they remember the 1985 Bears. When you remember those teams like that I think that that is the final arbiter.
Numbers ... you can argue and you can say whatever you want about who is the greatest, but when you remember a team I think that is thing that goes with you. How many times do you forget who won last year, or the year before? People don't forget the '86 Mets. Love the team, or hate the team, you respected the team and you couldn't deny that they were something special."
He added, "That was the coolest thing. I wear my ring all the time and it's like a special club. I coach guys now that don't even remember that team. They don't even know that I was a player, which is kind of weird. They don't even realize that it was just a different time and it was a really cool time to be a part of New York City."
Don't worry HoJo, plenty of us remember. We remember it all very fondly.