Twenty-four years have passed, and here we are again.
For the first time since 1986, a team from New York and a team from Texas are playing for the right to reach the World Series.
For the first time since 1986, the team from New York is the overwhelming favorite. The team with more pizzazz, more talent, more stars, more media attention, more oomph.
For the first time since 1986, the fate of the team from Texas will depend on a single giant killer.
Not that the Texas Rangers are lacking skill. Just as the 1986 Houston Astros boasted Kevin Bass and Glenn Davis in the middle of their lineup, the Rangers are blessed with the presence of Josh Hamilton and Vladimir Guerrero. Just as the Houston Astros had a steady veteran catcher in AlanAshby, the Rangers present Bengie Molina. Just as the Houston Astros were piloted by the wise Hal Lanier, the Rangers are managed by the wise Ron Washington.
And yet, just as none of that mattered in 1986, none of that matters today.
If the Houston Astros were to upset the New York Mets, they needed Mike Scott -- the1986 NL Cy Young Award winner -- to be dominant.
If the Texas Rangers are to upset the New York Yankees, they need Cliff Lee -- the2008 AL Cy Young Award winner -- to be dominant, too.
For those too young to remember, the Mets entered the 1986 NLCS as prohibitive World Series favorites. They had won 108 games during the regular season and offered up a pitching rotation (Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Bobby Ojeda, Sid Fernandez, Rick Aguilera) as spectacular as many had ever seen. With a lineup featuring Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter and Darryl Strawberry, few though the Astros possessed a realistic shot.
Scott, however, evened everything up. "He was in our heads from the moment that series started," says Wally Backman, the Mets second baseman. "If you don't think one pitcher can intimidate an entire team, just go back to that series. We were intimidated."
Scott boasted a mid-90s heater, as well as a passable curve. Yet the pitch that took him from mediocre (5-11, 4.68 ERA in 1984) to otherworldly (18-10, 2.22 ERA in 1986) was a split-fingered fastball that danced and hopped through the strike zone with zany, unpredictable vigor. At the time, the Mets were 100-percent convinced that Scott was scuffing the baseball (and they were almost certainly right. When, in 2003, I asked Scott whether he doctored the ball, he replied, "That'll be in my book. I promise." When I asked when he would be writing the book, he replied, "I'm not.").
During the opening game of the series, which Houston won 1-0 behind Scott's complete-game five hitter, New York's players collected fouled-off baseballs thrown by Scott. They could be seen pointing at the large circular scuff marks repeatedly found. "There's no doubt he was scuffing," says Backman. "I mean, no doubt at all. Zero percent chance he was innocent."
It mattered not. As the Mets whined and moaned, Scott mastered them again, throwing another nine-inning beauty in Game 4. Had the Mets not defeated the Astros in a 16-inning classic in Game 6 to clinch the series, they would have gone against Scott again in Game 7.
"And," says Backman, "we would have lost."
This is not to suggest Cliff Lee is Mike Scott. He's a lefty (Scott was a right-hander), he doesn't throw quite as hard, nobody has proven that he marks up baseballs. But when it comes to playoff dominance, who has ever been better? In seven postseason starts, Lee is 6-0 with a 1.44 ERA. He wiped out the Rays in the ALDS, just as he wiped out the Yankees in the 2009 World Series.
"I don't know if it's the same way it was in '86, but Cliff Lee is pretty g--damned good," says Backman, who managed the Brooklyn Cyclones this past season. "He's the real deal. And even if the Rangers aren't right there with the Yankees, it only takes one guy to change everything."