Pepsi in the Stands, Coke on the Field
In 1964, the mildly annoying (yet strangely endearing) Mr. Met earned a “Rookie of the Year” honor as Major League Baseball’s first live-action mascot. Reason enough for a swelled head. Hypnotically happy, Mr. Met—he of the tilted cap and permanent grin—has always had a swelled head. To a man, so did the miraculous 1986 New York Mets.
Well, maybe not to a man. Fan favorite Mookie Wilson, described as “Shea’s favorite son” and “one of the best guys in baseball,” and Ray Knight, a man “unmatched in character” according to Gary Carter, manage to escape Jeff Pearlman’s The Bad Guys Won with their modest reputations intact. Carter, despite being labeled as a geek and a phony, finishes a close third in the good guy department. The rest of the team come off as a bunch of spoiled, drunken, obnoxious jerks.
Pearlman’s roundup of the ‘86 season feels like a dusted-off high school yearbook, packed with distant memories of old friends. The Mets were the cool kids, the jocks, the guys you wanted to hang with. Turns out they were also the coke addicts, the jailbirds, and the boors who trashed airplanes. (One of them may’ve even decapitated a cat!) Yet all the while, through the madness and mayhem and brawls and squabbles (and Roger McDowell’s endless hot-foots), they did what general manager Frank Cashen assembled them to do—win games. With the incredible Game 6 of the World Series, which began with a descent to the infield by a Met-crazed parachutist and ended with the most famous grounder in the history of baseball, they even managed to win games they’d already lost.
Yearbook browsing, though fun and filled with laughs, inevitably causes sadness. Lost youth, wasted opportunities, and so on. The Bad Guys Won is less a celebration of a season of destiny and more a gossipy, behind-the-scenes exposure of shortcomings, immaturity, and human frailty. For a sports fan, any recounting of the details of ‘86 are worth reading, and Pearlman’s evenhanded coverage is certainly just that—equal parts sensational and poignant. Was Darryl Strawberry “selfish and vicious,” or a good guy possessed of “a warm heart?” Was Davey Johnson a managerial genius, or a lucky guy with the right team at the right time? To his credit, Pearlman simply relays his sources’ stories and lets you decide for yourself.
In a gracious move, an entire chapter is dedicated to Bill Buckner, the most cosmically-screwed ballplayer of all time. Does anyone remember the Mets losing Game 1 of the Series 1-0 as a direct result of an easy grounder rolling through the legs of second baseman Tim Teufel? Yet everyone remembers the Red Sox’ Buckner, hobbling over, reaching, creaking, lifting, freezing, glancing behind, freezing once more, and feeling what can only be described as… unimaginable. If the bad guys won, then maybe the good guys lost, and that’s certainly true in Buckner’s case.
Delicious pleasures in Pearlman’s work come in the form of long-forgotten details. The ups and downs of the dog days of summer, the nail-biting National League Championship Series against the Houston Astros, the names and descriptions of various players from the mid-eighties. You’ll find an array of dormant images rejuvenated in your mind’s eye. Doc Gooden’s smooth-as-silk delivery. Len Dykstra pounding walls and rounding bases. Keith Hernandez jabbing at Jesse Orosco, willing the closer to finish off the enemy.
At times, Pearlman’s metaphors (“antics that made Porky’s look like a documentary on convent life”) give the book the vibe of a sports nerd’s diary. Also, his clear Met bias dampens his claim that the ‘86 squad was perhaps the best of any baseball team to wear a New York uniform. True, Met fans hate Yankee fans and vice versa, but to yawn at recent Yankee dominance, to call them “nothing more” than “a skilled yet boring cast of characters,” is to compromise objectivity, and to come across as… well… a sports nerd writing in a diary.
Whether or not the ‘86 Mets were the league’s legitimate “bad guys” is debatable. Perhaps the absolute truth in many of Pearlman’s accounts is debatable. What’s not debatable is the ‘86 Mets being part of something extraordinary. There will never be another Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. It was riveting theater—wonderful for baseball—and as Jeff Pearlman knows (with apologies to the great city of Boston), it will always be wonderful—amazin’—to remember.