The 1988 baseball season is remembered for an incredible home run in the first game of the World Series, one that capped a season-long run that seemed straight off the Hollywood set. But there was a whole lot of context that set the stage for that October moment, including the following…
*The Los Angeles Dodgers had been on uncharacteristic downward spiral for two years with no sign of pulling out of it. The acquisition of Kirk Gibson and a historic pitching run by Orel Hershiser enabled the Dodgers to not only win a surprising NL West title, but do it with even more surprising ease. If those results were surprising, what happened in October—consecutive upsets of the New York Mets and Oakland A’s—were simply breathtaking.
*Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire have had their reputations tarnished because of admitted PED use, but in the summer of 1988 they were simply “The Bash Brothers” and they led a great Oakland team that overran the rest of the American League.
*The Mets were still loaded with the talent that seemed to promise a dynasty when they won it all in 1986. New York blew away the NL East and looked primed for a showdown with Oakland until they ran into the Dodgers.
*The Boston Red Sox were the weakest of the four postseason teams, but that meant their regular season path to win the AL East was the most interesting. The only division race that stayed compelling all year, the Red Sox used two big midseason changes—one on the pitching staff and the other in the dugout—to trigger some summer magic.
*The Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds didn’t advance to the playoffs, but each had seasons of historical note. Sparky Anderson, a Hall of Fame manager who led both teams during his career, had his last real contender with Detroit. This was also the realistic swan song for Reds’ manager Pete Rose– by the following summer the gambling problems that would lead to his banishment from the sport had engulfed him and the organization.
And we haven’t even gotten to October…
*The Mets-Dodgers NLCS had so many plot turns that it clearly came straight out of Hollywood
*The A’s kept beating the Red Sox back at the key moments in every game of the ALCS.
*And nothing could match what was in store for the opener of the World Series, as Los Angeles set an improbable tone for an improbable upset that capped an improbable year.
The nine articles below–one on each of the six teams mentioned and three others on each postseason series–tell the story of the 1988 MLB season through the eyes of its best teams.
The bulk of the 1980s were good times for the New York Mets. They produced good, contending teams each year from 1984-88, won two NL East titles and the World Series in 1986. But if there’s any regret, it’s that these outstanding teams never produced a dynastic run. The 1988 New York Mets epitomized both sides of the equation, the excellence and the regret.
New York had a great offensive team in 1988. Rightfielder Darryl Strawberry had an on-base percentage of .366, hit 39 home runs and finished with 101 RBI. Strawberry deserved the MVP award that ended up in the hands of Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Kirk Gibson.
Strawberry was the key to a lineup that led the National League in runs scored, and also finished first in OBP and slugging percentage. Leftfielder Kevin McReynolds hit 27 home runs and had 99 RBI. Howard Johnson at third base hit 24 home runs. Wally Backman, the scrappy second baseman, posted an OBP of .388 and the equally scrappy centerfielder Lenny Dykstra stole 30 bases. First baseman Keith Hernandez didn’t have a vintage year, but still had a tolerable OBP of .333.
Manager Davey Johnson had depth, with Mookie Wilson and Dave Magadan each posting solid offensive numbers. Gary Carter, the 34-year old catcher, was past his prime at the plate, but still an adroit handler of pitchers.
There was plenty of good pitching for Carter to handle, and it started with the young arms of Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling and David Cone. Gooden, 23-years-old and already seeming like a grizzled veteran, with the 1985 NL Cy Young Award under his belt, won 18 games with a 3.19 ERA. Darling was a 17-game winner at a 3.25 ERA.
And Cone, age 25, had the best year of them all, going 20-3 with a dazzling 2.22 ERA. Only a historic year from the Dodgers ace Orel Hershiser kept Cone from the Cy Young Award. The Mets rotation was rounded out by Bob Ojeda (2.88 ERA) and Sid Fernandez (3.03 ERA), would have been aces on a lot of staffs.
Johnson’s bullpen wasn’t deep, but it was competent at the end of games. Randy Myers saved 26 games with a 1.72 ERA, and Roger McDowell saved 16 more with a 2.63 ERA. Johnson also got good work out of veteran Terry Leach, who finished with a 2.54 ERA.
The Mets wasted little time getting out of the gate strong. They took five of six April meetings with the St. Louis Cardinals, who had won the NL pennant in 1987. New York was 32-15 and held a 7 ½ game lead over the Cards on Memorial Day. But the surprising Pittsburgh Pirates were staying right with the mighty Mets and New York’s lead on Pittsburgh was only 3 ½ games. ‘
New York and Pittsburgh played six times in June, and the Mets won four of those games, pushing their lead over the Pirates as high as 7 ½. The last week before the All-Star break didn’t go very well though, with five losses in six games and Pittsburgh climbed back to within 3 ½ by the break. In the meantime, St. Louis had completely fallen apart and the race was already narrowed to the Mets and Pirates.
The Mets went 7-6 coming out of the break and the lead dwindled to two games, as the Pirates came to Shea Stadium in New York for a four-game weekend series that would end July. New York’s pitching came through.
Ojeda took the ball on Friday night and threw a complete-game three-hitter. A scoreless tie in the eighth inning was broken up when light-hitting shortstop Kevin Elster—batting with two outs and Ojeda on-deck—hit a home run to win it 1-0. On Saturday, Johnson homered and drew three walks, while Fernandez took his turn throwing a shutout, going seven strong innings and Myers closed a 3-0 win.
Strawberry hit a two-run blast in the first inning on Sunday and staked Darling to an early lead. Darling actually gave up a run in this game, but still threw a complete-game six-hitter and made the Strawberry home run stand up in a 2-1 win. Gooden was hit hard in Monday’s finale, a 7-2 loss, but New York had pushed their lead back out to four games.
There were a pair of series between the Mets and Pirates still on deck for September, but New York made sure they didn’t matter. From August 22 to Labor Day, the Mets won nine of eleven, including a 5-0 record against the NL West-leading Dodgers. By the time of the next New York-Pittsburgh meeting, the margin in the NL East was nine games.
The race was all but over, and the Mets put the exclamation point on it with a 22-6 run to close the season, getting to 100 wins and finishing fifteen games ahead of the Pirates.
New York was a solid favorite to win the NLCS against Los Angeles, and the baseball world anticipated a meeting between a pair of 100-win teams, the Mets and Oakland Athletics, in the World Series. When the Mets stole a win in Game 1 against Hershiser, beating the bullpen after the ace left, it looked like that would pan out. But New York lost a crusher of their own in Game 4, the series went the full seven games and New York lost.
There’s no denying just how good the 1988 New York Mets were, and their accomplishment over a 162-game season. There’s also no denying just how disappointing this postseason loss was. In that, both good and bad, the ’88 Mets are a fitting cover page for this organization’s run in the 1980s.