There may be no ballplayer more revered around Citi Field these days than one who never even played in it—Keith Hernandez. The former clutch-hitting, Gold Glove-winning Mets first baseman has, since 2006, been a laconic and delightfully candid color guy on SNY, the cable channel that broadcasts the team's games. Hernandez is given to chastising and congratulating ballplayers based on how well they execute fundamental plays, and when he’s especially exasperated by some player’s inanity, he might blurt out something like, “Oh, give me a whiskey!”
Hernandez is a Mets icon. His mustache has its own page on Baseball-Reference.com (seriously), and when he and the broadcast team do the pregame show in a setup outside Citi Field—as they have been doing during these playoffs—fans gather and scream “We love you Keith!” They love him for the big hits he used to get and for his dry wit in the booth, but mainly, they love Keith because he was the spiritual leader and flat-out MVP of the Mets team that won it all in 1986.
Even if you’re too young to remember watching that ’86 team—as are many among the Hernandez devotees—chances are you know all about it. Of the 53 Mets editions to date, none is more present in the current imagination, aura and even the day-to-day than those champs. And for the first time in the 30 years since then, the Mets have a team—this wonderful, surprising, pitching-rich, chocked-full-of-characters 2015 team—that has a chance to nudge 1986 into the background and become the new standard bearers in Queens.
The 1986 team has so endured not only because it is the most proximal Mets champion (though that surely carries heavy weight) but also because of how that team did what it did. Those Mets won 108 regular-season games, a feat unsurpassed by any National League team in the past 100 years, and matched only by Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine in 1975. After starting the season 20–4, New York won the NL East by 21 1/2 games.
Those Mets followed that dominance with a kind of magic that befit the traditions of the first two pennant-winners in franchise history, the 1969 World Series champion Miracle Mets and the '73 Ya Gotta Believe! team that went from last place in late August to Game 7 of the World Series in October. The 1986 squad beat the Astros in the NLCS by winning Game 3 on a walk-off home run, Game 5 on a 12th-inning single and Game 6 in 16 innings after trailing 3-0 going into the top of the ninth. In the World Series they lost the first two games at home, won twice in Boston to get the series back to Shea Stadium, then rose up from down 5–3 with two outs and no one on in the 10th inning to win Game 6 and avoid elimination. Then they overcame a 3–0, sixth inning deficit to win Game 7. It’s the kind of season that looks pretty sharp on your resume.
All that helps explain why 1986 alums still dot the Mets' landscape. Next to Hernandez in the booth is Ron Darling, the No. 2 starter in '86 and now one of the game’s savviest analysts. Darling and Hernandez often reminisce about Davey and Doc and Mookie and Straw and The Kid—their dynamic castmates from that title-winning season—and are also often asked to compare this current version of the Mets to that one. “Not only do they have wonderful pitching, as we did,” Darling told the New York Post a couple of weeks ago. “but we added Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter, and they’ve added Yoenis Cespedes and Michael Conforto. It reminds me of that. It’s all starting to come together. It’s not only the pitching, but people who can produce runs, catch the ball.”
Until this season, Bob Ojeda, another starting pitcher from 1986, spent six years as a staple on the Mets’ pre- and postgame shows, and outfielder Mookie Wilson was for years a coach with New York, most recently in 2011. Tim Teufel, a second baseman on the ’86 team, is currently the Mets' third base coach, a position he mans wearing No. 18, which Darryl Strawberry wore so conspicuously as the long, lean cleanup hitter nearly three decades ago.
Wally Backman, the other half of the 1986 platoon at second base with Teufel, manages the Mets' Triple A club in Las Vegas, and he is regarded as a potential heir to Terry Collins to take over the big club. That is the same Backman of whom Strawberry said back in their day, “I’ll bust him in the face, that little redneck.” They were teammates and world champions then.
These current Mets don’t have the swashbuckling, hell-raising arrogance of the 1986 forebears, whose championship run included a bar fight in Houston that landed four of them in jail, Darling and Teufel included. What the 2015 team does have is a similarly colorful cast—Yo and Murph, The Dark Knight, Thor, the deGrominator, Wilmer Flores and his tears. And as this World Series begins, the 2015 team has a chance do what the good Mets teams of 1999 (a stirring but failed comeback against the Braves in the NLCS), 2000 (undone in the Subway Series against the Yankees by Timo Perez’s showboating and Roger Clemens’s steroidal rage) and '06 (Adam Wainwright’s curveball and Carlos Beltran’s catatonic state doomed them in Game 7 of the NLCS) could not do: Ascend to the level of ’86.
“They have that potential,” Hernandez has said comparing this year’s team to that one. “They just have to do it.”