On Thursday, the captain of the New York Yankees played his final game in front of his home fans. He ended the game in memorable fashion, by delivering a walk-off hit in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Twenty-five years ago today, the New York Mets were bidding adieu to their co-captains, who were playing their final game at Shea Stadium as members of the team. The ending to that game was also memorable, but it had nothing to do with the soon-to-be-departed team leaders.
Keith Hernandez (named Mets captain in 1987) and Gary Carter (named Mets co-captain in 1988) were the heart and soul of the 1986 World Champions. Acquired by general manager Frank Cashen in 1983, Hernandez was the first piece that helped turn the team around from pretenders to contenders. A year and a half later, Carter became the most important piece added by Cashen.
Together, Hernandez and Carter helped a team that had qualified for the postseason just twice in its first 24 seasons win two division titles in three years. But by the end of the 1980s, both players were no longer productive and it had become clear that Cashen was not going to bring them back to the team in 1990. Cashen had already traded away several fan-favorites in 1989, including Wally Backman, Mookie Wilson, Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell, hoping that the future of the team would be molded by younger players like Gregg Jefferies.
Cashen’s breakup of the championship team led to disarray in the clubhouse and the club’s first season with fewer than 90 victories since 1983. Although the ’89 team had stayed in the hunt for the division crown for most of the season, by September 27, the Mets had been eliminated in the playoff race. With nothing left to play for going into the final home game of the season, the Shea Stadium finale became all about Hernandez and Carter’s last hurrah at the ballpark they helped electrify for many years.
Neither player was in the starting lineup, as Dave Magadan and Mackey Sasser were starting at first base and catcher, respectively. But both co-captains did make it into the game in the later innings, as Hernandez appeared as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning and Carter replaced Sasser behind the plate in the ninth. Although just 18,666 fans attended the game, the roars for Hernandez and Carter were loud enough to drown out the airplanes flying into LaGuardia Airport. But those vocal fans remained on their feet for a different reason once the game ended, and it had nothing to do with an extended ovation for their departing co-captains.
After Gregg Jefferies grounded out to end the game, a 5-3 loss to the Phillies, the Mets’ second baseman made a beeline toward his former teammate, Roger McDowell, who had earned the save in Philadelphia’s victory. What happened next was not exactly the tribute Mets fans were expecting for Hernandez and Carter.
Four years before Nolan Ryan made atomic noogies the cool thing to do when he pounded away on Robin Ventura’s skull, McDowell sent the bratty Jefferies to his room with a few well-placed knuckles to the left side of his noggin. The incident stemmed from a game earlier in the series, as recalled by manager Davey Johnson.
“It went back to Monday night,” said Johnson. “Roger screamed something at Gregg after he broke Gregg’s bat. Obviously there’s bad blood between them.”
Breaking one’s bat does not usually set off a bench-clearing brawl a few nights later, leaving some to doubt Johnson’s reason for the melee. However, Phillies manager Nick Leyva had what was perhaps the real reason for the unique sendoff to Carter and Hernandez.
“There were 30 guys on our side rooting for Roger and 20 guys on their side rooting for Roger.”
Gregg Jefferies was never liked in the Mets clubhouse and his subpar performance on the field did not endear the supposed wunderkind to Mets fans. But he did make headlines on a night that should have been remembered for the final appearances of two of his beloved teammates.
A few days ago, the Yankee captain ended his final game in his home park by walking off a hero in victory. Twenty-five years ago today, the Mets’ co-captains ended their last game at Shea by separating teammates and opponents at the bottom of a pile of testosterone (McDowell) and puberty (Jefferies).
For the 1980s Mets, I suppose it was the only way the decade could end.