There were some baseball nights at old Shea Stadium in Flushing, Queens, and I was there for a lot of them. The craziest and most memorable of all came in October of 1986, when the Mets were down to their last out against the Red Sox in Game 6 of the World Series, in the bottom of the 10th. But then came three straight hits and a ball hit by Mookie Wilson that rolled through Bill Buckner’s legs, and the Mets went on to win only the second Series they’ve ever won in Game 7.
But two years later, in the middle of a crazy National League Championship Series between the Mets and the Dodgers, there was another memorable baseball night at old Shea. Only this time the Mets ended up on the wrong side of it. The game began on a Sunday night, the Mets trying to go ahead three games to one and the Dodgers trying to square things (after having lost 10 of 11 games to the Mets during the regular season), and it ended on Monday morning.
What happened in between? A lot.
Like, a whole lot.
When the Mets won 108 regular-season games in 1986, baseball fans, and not just in New York, thought it was the beginning of a dynasty. Then all of their starting pitchers got hurt at some point in 1987, after Dwight Gooden started the season in rehab. They missed out on the playoffs. But now they were back against the Dodgers, certain they were at least on their way back to the World Series, most likely to play the Oakland A’s. The Mets had won 100 games, the A’s had won 104, and they seemed to be on a collision course.
• Oral history of 1988 NLCS
Then everything changed for the Mets, and in that series, in Game 4.
It didn’t seem that way going to the top of the 9th. Gooden was back to pitching the way he had as a kid that night, not having given up a hit to the Dodgers since the 4th, and cruising. Then, out of nowhere, came a walk to John Shelby leading off the Dodger 9th with the Mets ahead 4-2 and three outs away from putting the Dodgers on the brink of elimination. By the way? Shelby had made 545 plate appearances in the regular season. He had walked just 44 times.
Mike Scioscia, the Dodger catcher, who had hit three home runs during the regular season, then hit one out to right field, and Shea was suddenly as quiet as it had been before everything in the bottom of the 10th two years before. It was more unlikely that Scioscia would hit a home run there than Shelby walking right before him.
“I could hear my spikes in the dirt as I went around the bases,” Scioscia would tell me later.
The Mets and the Dodgers played on. Finally Kirk Gibson, who would hit a much more famous home run to end Game 1 of the ’88 World Series, one of the most famous of them all, hit one out to make it 5-4, Dodgers, in the top of the 12th.
At this point, Orel Hershiser, who’d started Game 3 on Saturday and was on his way to being one of the great starting pitching stars any postseason had ever seen, headed down to the Dodger bullpen, on his own. When he got there, coach Mark Cresse called Lasorda and whispered, “Tommy, Bulldog [Hershiser’s nickname] is out here. What should I do?”
“Warm him the [heck] up,” Lasorda said.
The Mets proceeded to load the bases with one out. When Dodgers reliever Jesse Orosco, one of the Mets’ bullpen stars out of October of 1986, fell behind Darryl Strawberry, Tommy Lasorda called time and went sprinting to the mound.
Well, maybe not sprinting. But Tommy got out there pretty fast. When he got to the mound, he turned Orosco slightly, trying to make it difficult for TV cameras to get a closeup on Tommy’s face. Then he lit into the reliever with a profanity-laced presentation (kind of Tommy’s thing), ending by telling Orosco that if he walked Strawberry he’d never throw another pitch for the Dodgers.
Somehow, Orosco got Strawberry to pop out.
Afterward, Lasorda would be asked exactly what he’d said to Orosco. Tommy smiled and said, “I just offered him some words of encouragement and let him know we were all behind him.”
Another reporter would mention to Tommy that it looked as if he had said, “What the heck are you doing?”
“Lady,” Tommy said, “you sure can’t read lips.”
The Dodgers still needed one more out in Game 4. Tim Belcher, who would start Game 5 for the Dodgers about 12 hours later, had already gone back to the Dodgers hotel in Manhattan. But here came Hershiser, running in from the bullpen to face Kevin McReynolds. Hershiser got him to pop out. Gibson would hit a three-run homer the next day against Sid Fernandez, the Dodgers would win Game 5 and Hershiser would get a complete game victory in Game 7. Gibson would hit his epic Game 1 homer off Dennis Eckersley in the Series, which the Dodgers would win in five.
Much later, I would ask Tommy Lasorda about bringing Hershiser into the game with the bases loaded, knowing he was out of pitchers.
“What would have happened if the Mets had tied it and Orel had to keep pitching?” I asked.
“I had a backup plan,” he said.
“WHAT backup plan?” I said.
Tommy laughed and said, “My brothers were at the game. I was gonna have one of them shoot out a couple of lights.”