Baseball’s craziest game?

Baseball has produced some crazy games. Thank goodness for this. Crazy games are fun games. Not every contest is going to be a nail-biter in the ninth, or have a player striving to achieve some milestone like a no-hitter or the cycle. The crazy stuff gives us another way for baseball to be entertaining, which we should remember is the whole point.

The 27th anniversary of one of my favorite crazy games passed two days ago. It happened on July 22, 1986, between the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Mets. This Mets team had a certain penchant for playing crazy games. The previous year, they had a 19-inning marathon in Atlanta against the Braves, a Fourth of July game that ended at 4 a.m. on the fifth. Our Chris Jaffe has memorably declared it to have been the ultimate fan experience, the greatest game ever.

I won’t challenge Jaffe’s position too vigorously, but I will stake out some territory for my game. Davey Johnson, manager of the Mets for both contests, said of the 1986 bout: “This is the strangest game I’ve been involved in. Even stranger than Atlanta.” He remembered the lunacy of the previous season, and said this game beat it.

What did this game have that was so bonkers? All will be revealed in good time, but I can offer a few teasers. It had one of the most serious brawls baseball has seen in the last half-century, one that spelled the beginning of the end of the career of a well-known player … who wasn’t even in it! It had two ejections in two separate incidents even before the brawl. It boasted protests lodged by both managers. And most notably, it had a lineup manipulation so astonishing, it got several paragraphs of analysis in The Book. The authors concluded that, yeah, it wasn’t a bad idea.

Chris Jaffe did cover this game once, in one of his many THT Live anniversary posts. (I begin to wonder if there is any game he has not touched on there.) It’s good reading for a sketch of events, especially regarding that lineup manipulation I mentioned, but by necessity it did not try to be a full accounting. This will at least try.

How we got here

The New York Mets were convinced that this was their year. They’d played far above their heads to compete strongly for the NL East title in 1984, and in 1985 were in contention until the next to last day of the season. In 1986, they did not expect just to win, but to dominate, and they wanted everyone to know it.

Entering a three-game set in Cincinnati in late July, they were doing precisely that. They stood at 60-28, 11.5 games ahead of Montreal for the division lead. In doing so, they had antagonized just about every team in the National League. They had already gone through three bench-clearing brawls that season. Twice it started after a Met hit a home run, the pitcher plunked the following batter on the hip, and that batter charged the mound. The third time, it was the Mets’ first-base coach Bill Robinson who argued with, then fought, a pitcher he suspected of scuffing the ball.

No, it wasn’t Mike Scott. That would come later.

The Mets were genuinely hated. Cincinnati Reds right fielder Dave Parker thought so little of Mets arrogance that, whenever he passed a television showing their highlights, his standard response was to shout “**** the Mets!” Many of Parker’s veteran teammates shared that contempt.

Not that this made Cincinnati a better ball team. Entering the Mets series, they stood at 44-46, five games behind the Astros and Giants in the NL West. Still, that was an improvement. They had started the season 6-19, but since then had gone 38-27, the best record in the division during that stretch—and they began that string with a victory over the Mets.

Those veterans turned out to be one of the Reds’ problems. Three holdovers from the Big Red Machine of a decade past—Tony Perez, Dave Concepcion and player-manager Pete Rose—were playing half-time for the club. To be blunt, they were playing like they were a decade past their prime, which they were.

Still, the Reds had strengths. Parker could still bash, Buddy Bell was a good veteran presence at the hot corner, and a young Eric Davis, in his first full-time season, was establishing himself as the best player on the team. In a division nobody yet seemed to want to win, the Reds had a real chance, if they could maintain their momentum.

That didn’t seem promising the first day of the series. The Mets won 4-2, shrugging off the three-game losing streak they carried into Cincinnati. The win went to starter Rick Aguilera, who shrugged off something a little heftier. Less than 72 hours before, he and three other Mets had spent the night in jail after an incident in and near a Houston bar. What one thinks of the rights and wrongs of that incident probably depends on what one thinks of A) the ’86 Mets and B) Texas.

So came the game of July 22. Davey Johnson sent Bob Ojeda to the hill, while Pete Rose gave Scott Terry a rare start. Rose also gave Eric Davis the night off, along with himself. Those decisions would not last until the final out, and would combine to help produce the crisis point of this memorable game.

Long game’s journey into Knight

The early innings were a slow buildup toward what was to come, but had interesting moments. Darryl Strawberry led off the top of the second with a walk, and stole second off Terry and catcher Bo Diaz. His next lead was perhaps a bit too long. Danny Heep lined out to second baseman Ron Oester, and his throw to shortstop Wade Rowdon doubled off Strawberry. As Ray Knight and Rafael Santana both singled after Heep’s twin-kill, this was an obvious lost opportunity for the Mets, one that wound up extending the game and making its most memorable incidents possible.

The only notable action in the bottom of the second was Tony Perez’s two-out single up the middle. Still, it marked a nice round milestone for the Big Dog, his 2,700th career hit. There would be only 32 more after that: Perez had entered the game with a dire .214/.313/.250 batting line—this for a first baseman! Despite a hot September raising his numbers, he called it a career at season’s end and joined the Reds’ coaching staff.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Cincinnati opened the scoring in the third. With two outs and Terry on second, Dave Parker did more than cuss the Mets, launching a two-run home run. But take note of those two runs Parker was responsible for plating: there would be a sequel.

The Mets made their reply in the fifth. Santana led off with a walk, but was forced on Ojeda’s failed sacrifice attempt. With the pitcher now at first, Lenny Dykstra hammered a triple to the gap in right, closing the margin to 2-1. Basepath aggression burned the Metropolitans again, however. Dykstra went for home on Wally Backman’s grounder to second, and Diaz took Oester’s throw to put him out. Not only did they miss their chance to tie the contest, but Buddy Bell smacked a homer in the bottom of the frame to make the margin two runs again.

One can understand a bit of frustration for the New Yorkers at this point, and it soon flared. Facing Reds reliever Rob Murphy to open the sixth, Strawberry took what home plate umpire Gerry Davis called strike three. Strawberry argued the call, and Davis ejected him. The Mets cobbled together a rally on a walk and an error, so Davey Johnson sent in George Foster to bat for Ojeda. The slumping Foster had been losing playing time to Heep and Kevin Mitchell lately, and his fly out to end the sixth didn’t help his cause. It would get much worse later.

Johnson put Mitchell in right to replace the banished Strawberry. Mitchell was a rookie, producing nicely, and popular with teammates despite a short fuse. He played six positions for the Mets that year, including 24 appearances at shortstop, though corner outfield was perhaps his natural spot. Johnson liked and used versatility in his players, and that’s enough foreshadowing for the moment.

Rick Anderson replaced Ojeda on the mound, pitching the sixth and part of the seventh. Randy Myers relieved Anderson with one down and pinch-hitter Kurt Stillwell on first. Max Venable grounded a ball to short that went for a single, but Stillwell went past the bag, and Santana’s toss to Backman caught him for the second out. Once again, misadventure on the basepaths turned costly, for the Reds this time.

New York could not take advantage of those efforts. With lefty Murphy still on the mound in the seventh, Johnson took out Backman for his platoon mate Tim Teufel. (Backman was a switch-hitter, but was never much good batting righty.) Teufel got a base on balls, but a double play erased him. Heep managed a two-out single the next inning, but Ray Knight couldn’t pick him up, and the Mets were nearly out of time.

The score held at 3-1 going into the bottom of the eighth. When Parker drew a leadoff walk, Davey Johnson made a double-switch. New reliever Doug Sisk took the sixth spot in the batting order, replacing left fielder Heep. Replacing Myers in the nine-hole to play left was Mookie Wilson. Sisk got three quick outs, leaving Parker on first.

In hopes of sparking a comeback, manager Johnson was rapidly firing off all his bullets, and he had fewer then than teams do today. Theoretically, roster size in the major leagues was 25 players, where it had been since 1920. However, the owners had decided to limit rosters to 24 for that season, to put a drag on rapidly escalating payrolls. This limit below the limit lasted through 1989, but a preseason players’ strike in 1990 got it negotiated away. Look at recent Collective Bargaining Agreements, and you will see that they require teams to carry 25 players.

Davey had just 24, and he had used plenty of them. He was on his third reliever, and he had only two left in his bullpen—though they were his aces, righty Roger McDowell and lefty Jesse Orosco. His four other starters were untouchable save in an absolute crisis, though he’d find a way around that. His three reserve outfielders, Mitchell, Foster and Wilson, had already gone in. Teufel had replaced Backman, leaving just Howard Johnson as a utility infielder. He and backup catcher Ed Hearn were the only bats on the bench.

So naturally Howard Johnson went up to start the top of the ninth, replacing light-hitting shortstop Rafael Santana. (Santana’s single and walk on the day had lifted his numbers to .174/.245/.195. He’d crack the Mendoza line a month later.) It was this at-bat by HoJo that would start moving the game out of the ranks of the ordinary and into the twilight zone of the joyously bizarre.

Johnson got caught by a called strike three, but the ball doinked off catcher Bo Diaz. HoJo started running for first, and in doing so kicked the ball away from Diaz. Pitcher Ron Robinson came in to collect the ball and threw it to first. Johnson was running wide, Robinson’s throw hit him in the back, and he was safe.

Cincinnati coach Billy DeMars immediately started arguing that Johnson should be out for intentionally kicking the ball. His dispute was so forceful he never had time to raise the basepath matter: Gerry Davis thumbed him out of the game. In his 23 years as a major league player and coach, it was the only time DeMars was ever ejected. The play stood, HoJo improbably reaching base on a strikeout looking. The only thing wilder would have been a strikeout going 2-1-3, which almost, and maybe should have, happened.

DeMars could have saved his tirade. Mookie Wilson promptly grounded into a 4-3 double play, erasing the disputed baserunner. The Reds were one out away from winning a chippy but mostly normal game.

The Mets did not make it easy. Len Dykstra got a walk, and Tim Teufel walloped a double to center field. Dykstra, an all-out player to put it mildly, did the smart and conservative thing and held at third. His run was meaningless; the tying run was Teufel at second.

Rose made his own double-switch to bring in closer John Franco, who just a week before had gone to his first of four All-Star Games. The position player he lifted was Diaz, his luckless catcher. The move was peculiar in that Rose was pulling his cleanup batter—but less so in that Diaz, after his 0-for-4 night, sported a .256/.317/.337 batting line. That a player with those numbers was batting fourth for Cincinnati suggests why the Reds had been struggling. (To be fair, Eric Davis was the usual cleanup man.)

Franco would face fellow lefty Keith Hernandez, who was having another fine offensive year but who never had been a big power threat. If Mex hit a fly ball, odds were it was staying in. That’s just what he did, lofting one shy of the warning track in right field. Dave Parker, who so wanted to bring the Mets’ arrogance tumbling to the ground, watched the fly that was going to win the game drop into his glove.

And pop right back out, tumbling to the ground.

Dykstra scored; Teufel scored; Hernandez reached second on Parker’s error. The game was tied, and the Mets were a hit away from pulling into the lead. Franco could only glare at his right fielder, grumbling under his breath. That, and get the final out, inducing a Gary Carter fly to right that Parker caught this time.

Cincinnati could still win with a run in its half of the ninth. Oester got a one-out single, and went to second on a grounder by new catcher Sal Butera. Sisk intentionally walked Venable to get the righty-righty match-up against Buddy Bell. He popped up to Knight, standing on the bag at third, producing the rare fly-out/force-out. Thus came extra innings.

The main event

After Mitchell struck out, Sisk was due up in the Mets’ order. Davey Johnson needed a pinch-hitter, but all he had on the bench was Hearn, the backup catcher. Rather than spend his last chip, Johnson decided to send up a pitcher to bat for his pitcher. Specifically, Rick Aguilera, who having thrown eight innings yesterday wasn’t going to be pitching again even if the game went 30 innings. Aguilera would finish 1986 with a .478 OPS, the best of Davey’s starters, to add a slight veneer of reason to the move.

So Johnson saved his backup catcher—and his own bacon, but we’re getting to that.

Aguilera made his manager look like a genius by working a walk. Knight punched a single into short center, and then a wild pitch by Franco moved the runners to second and third. Howard Johnson fanned for the second out, and now it was Franco’s turn to force the platoon advantage, walking Mookie to get to Dykstra. It worked, Nails going down on strikes to end the Mets 10th.

In came Jesse Orosco. We know him as a lefty specialist, perhaps the original lefty specialist, but in 1986 he was a co-closer, option 1-A behind Roger McDowell. One could suspect that Davey Johnson was committing the modern manager’s sin of withholding his true closer for a “save situation.” Actually, Orosco was scheduled to see two lefties in the inning, plus whoever batted for Franco.

That turned out to be Pete Rose. After Parker struck out, Pete put himself into the game, and singled. It was Rose’s 4,247th career hit, and the last pinch-hit he would ever have. He would go hitless in 12 of his next 15 games, though a 5-for-5 would help him collect nine hits in those other three. After four straight hitless games against San Diego, concluding on Aug. 17, Rose would bench himself, and never play another game.

Tonight, though, he had gotten the job done. Now it was someone else’s job to run the bases. Rose cancelled the other off-day on his team, and put in Eric Davis as his pinch-runner. Davis was his last position player, and was likely to stay in the game, taking over center field from Eddie Milner.

If anyone on the Reds could resist the general hatred of the Mets, it was Eric: Darryl Strawberry was a childhood friend. But Darryl was long since out of the game, and it wouldn’t be Darryl that Eric would be meeting up with soon.

With the aforementioned Milner at the plate, Davis took off for second, and swiped it. It was his 46th steal of the season, on the way to 80 with only 11 times caught. He didn’t wait long to try for number 47. As Milner was going down swinging, Davis was bolting for third. Carter’s good throw only made it close, as Davis came in safe, bumping third baseman Knight with his shoulder as he popped up from his slide.

A second later, Knight leaned forward as Davis’ left elbow came around, and they bumped again. Davis came off the bag for an instant and, fearing Knight might push him off and tag him out, put his hands against Knight and shoved back. “What’s your problem?” Knight demanded. Davis answered “You pushed me,” then added an intensifier that does not survive in accounts of the dust-up. Third base umpire Eric Gregg tried to intervene, putting his arms around Davis. This just made Knight’s next move easier.

“He looked me right in the eyes, and I felt threatened,” Knight would recall later. Having once been a fan favorite during the six seasons he played in Cincinnati, then a target for Riverfront fans’ boos when he played with the Astros and Mets, it’s unsurprising he was not in a peaceful frame of mind. He was also not someone it paid to make feel threatened: he had been a Golden Gloves boxer in his youth.

“I had a real short fuse back then,” Knight would say, “and I unloaded on him.” His right cross caught Davis flush, spinning his head, and starting the Mets’ fourth big brawl of the season. (It also brought an admiring Mike Tyson to Shea Stadium later that season to meet Knight. That was a lot cooler in 1986 than it is today.)

Within seconds, players by the dozen were converging on third base. Milner plowed into Orosco trying to reach Knight. Davis wanted his own piece after being spun away by Gregg, but Carter grabbed him from behind and hauled him down. He eventually got free and charged again, but another umpire wrapped him up. The scrum around third accreted players trying to get to the few combatants in the center. The fighters eventually went down to the turf, umpires got in, and tensions had a chance to cool.

A chance that Mitchell took away. Barreling out of right field, he horse-collared the first Red he met and started swinging wildly. Other Reds converged, brushing off Hernandez’s attempt to help his teammate, and hauled Mitchell down. Pitcher John Denny got on top and started pummeling, his black-belt karate skills briefly forgone in favor of raw punching.

When Carter peeled Denny away from the pile, Denny turned on him and administered a pinch to the shoulder that can only be described as an amateur Vulcan Nerve Grip. Carter did not drop unconscious, but neither was Carter swinging back, and the stalemate eventually broke up. The Cincinnati Enquirer, though, would gleefully declare that Denny “pummeled” Carter, a verdict echoed by The Sporting News, along with every Met who wanted to razz The Kid.


The brawl eventually ran out of steam, and the damage was toted up. Knight and Mitchell were ejected for the Mets, Davis and pitcher Mario Soto for the Reds. Rose, out of bench players, sent another pitcher, Tom Browning, in to run for the ousted Davis.

Davey Johnson had a far bigger problem. He’d lost his third baseman and right fielder, and all he had on his bench was a spare catcher. The situation was so dire, Johnson protested the game over an alleged disparity in ejections. “I had two regulars kicked out, and one of the two Reds [Soto] wasn’t even in the game.” It was a million-to-one shot, but a free one, so he took it.

That didn’t relieve him from having to piece together a defense. One move was putting Hearn in as catcher, and moving Gary Carter over to third base. This was not wholly unprecedented, as Carter had played third base for the Montreal Expos. In 1975. For one inning. But it was one inning more than anyone else Davey could plug in there, and Carter had shown a touch of versatility playing first base and the corner outfield. It could work, maybe.

As for right field, he had nobody but pitchers to put there. So he put one there, sending Orosco off the mound into right. His new pitcher was Roger McDowell, a right-hander suited to face three righties and a switch-hitter in the next four batters. This emptied the bullpen, leaving just three starting pitchers (Dwight Gooden, Sid Fernandez and tomorrow’s expected starter Ron Darling) as the emergency reserve. At least, that’s what everyone assumed, Pete Rose included.

McDowell got the last out in the 10th. The Mets were still alive, but they needed runs fast, before their jury-rigged defense fell apart. Hernandez gave some promise of a rally with a one-out double against new Reds reliever Carl Willis. However, another intentional walk, this time to Carter, yielded good results, a double-play ball by Hearn (batting in Mitchell’s, and Strawberry’s, former spot).

The Reds started their portion of the 11th with Perez’s second single of the night. Then they started testing Carter at his new position. Ron Oester’s sacrifice bunt went to third, and Carter got the out as Perez took second. Next, Sal Butera grounded to Carter, who made the play again. The Reds were still threatening with two outs, and lefty Venable was coming up to face McDowell.

That’s when Davey Johnson pulled the surprise. McDowell left the hill and went to right field, and Jesse Orosco came back on to pitch.

A look into the Cincinnati dugout might have given you a glimpse of Pete Rose thumbing through the official rulebook, looking for a way to stop this. It wasn’t there: the move was perfectly legal. Since 1949, a pitcher has gone into the field, then returned to pitch again, more than 20 times. The spectacle of two pitchers trading places this way was unique, a case of Johnson making a virtue of necessity.

Orosco made his eight warm-up tosses—and Rose pounced. You get eight warm-up throws only when you’re entering the game, he argued to Gerry Davis, and Orosco was already in the game. Getting no satisfaction, he protested the game on those grounds, meaning that both teams were now playing the game under protest.

A glimpse into the Cincinnati dugout after that might have given you a glimpse of Rose throwing away the rulebook in frustration.

How crucial Orosco’s extra throws might have been, we can never say. He did strike out Venable to end the 11th and keep the madness going.

Now came the downside of Johnson’s stratagem. Orosco was due to lead off the top of the 12th, followed by McDowell. McDowell was actually a good batter over his career, at a 61 OPS+, but two pitchers in a row is still an easy way to kill an inning. They both grounded out, Howard Johnson flied out, and the Reds came back up.

Buddy Bell led off with a ground ball to Carter at third that went for a single. Attacking the weak point had finally paid. This brought up Parker, and Davey Johnson made his latest move, switching right fielder McDowell with left fielder Mookie Wilson to get the real fielder in position for the lefty pull hitter. Parker did go to right, but on the ground and past Teufel for another single. First and second, no outs, and the Reds had a golden opportunity.

They also had pitcher Willis up, and nobody to bat for him except other pitchers. Fortunately for the Reds, it was a natural bunting situation. Unfortunately for the Reds, the Mets knew this, including Hernandez, one of the best fielding first baseman the game has known.

Willis got his bunt down on the left side of the infield. Carter never went for it. Instead, Hernandez swooped down, fielded the ball on the third-base side, and threw to Carter for the force. Carter then threw a strike across the diamond to Teufel covering first, in time to double up Willis. It was your typical 3-5-4 double play—at least as typical as anything else in this game.

Cincinnati still had a man on second for Milner. He hit a fly to left-center, where McDowell had been moved a few batters before. Botch this, and the Reds would win. McDowell closed ground, put up his glove—and Dykstra cut across to snag the ball. Johnson had instructed Dykstra to field any ball he could reach to the side of the pitcher-outfielder. “That was my closest call to making a catch in the outfield,” McDowell said much later, regretting he hadn’t had the chance.

His partner would. The Mets threatened again in the visitors’ 13th, but thanks to yet another intentional walk, Willis held them off. With righties coming up in the home half, McDowell went back to the mound (no word on how many warmup tosses he took), and Orosco went to right field, hopefully away from the action. But the ball you’re hoping to avoid will find you. With one down, Tony Perez, looking for his third hit, sent a liner into right field. Dykstra had no chance: it was Orosco or nothing.

And it was Orosco. “I squeezed it so hard, the stuffing could have come out,” Orosco said of the play. But he made it, and McDowell closed out a 1-2-3 inning. Thankfully, with a grounder, and not to third either.

Hearn opened the 14th for the Mets with a double, bringing Orosco up. Following Aguilera’s example in the 10th, he walked, and the wilting Willis gave way to Ted Power. McDowell was unable to advance the runners, striking out. Howard Johnson came to the plate, and in a game chock-full of bizarreness, what he did seemed just ordinary. He homered to right field, putting the Mets up 6-3.

From there the game, its insanity quotient exhausted, ended without another peep. The last five batters, two Mets and three Reds, made out. No balls went to Carter or Orosco. McDowell even stayed on the mound to face lefty Venable, Davey Johnson not fooling around and keeping his primary closer in to shut the door. After an even five hours, the game was over.

In two separate stints apiece, Orosco had done two innings of work and McDowell three. Orosco gave up three hits to McDowell’s one, but got all three strikeouts between the two closers. McDowell claimed the win—but together, they claimed a piece of baseball history.

The aftermath

The Mets should have been celebrating in their clubhouse, laughing over the lunacy of the game just completed. Instead, many were brooding, or burning, over the fight. Not about who slugged whom, but over who hadn’t been there. Because both benches hadn’t quite emptied: George Foster had stayed in the dugout the whole time.

In the culture of the baseball clubhouse, there are few transgressions more galling. When there’s a fight, everyone participates. Even if you just pair off with an opposing player and hang onto each other without any move made in anger—which is very common in most brawls—you’re expected to be there. You’re expected to have your teammates’ backs.

Foster justified his inaction on the grounds of his being a Christian and a role model for kids, along with not wanting to get hurt. He had been notable as a publicly Christian athlete for years, so that was not pure convenient excuse-making. It cut little ice in the clubhouse, though, where he had never really fit in over five years as a highly-paid, underperforming free agent signing. Expressing worry over getting hurt did not help, either.

It wasn’t only the players who were upset. Davey Johnson deplored his immobility so much, it helped him pull the trigger on a lineup move. He told reporters right after the game that Heep and Mitchell would now make up the left-field platoon, leaving Foster on the bench. He got around to telling Foster this the next afternoon.

Foster, now a team pariah, stewed. Then the Mets signed former Met and current free agent Lee Mazzilli to a minor-league contract, stashing him in Triple-A, and Foster fumed. He sensed Mazzilli was being prepared to take his place—an irony, as the Mets traded away fan-favorite Maz once Foster’s signing in 1982 made him redundant.

On Aug. 5, before a game at Wrigley Field, Foster predicted his imminent departure, and gave reasons. “I’m not saying it’s a racial thing,” he said, before saying it was a racial thing. (Mazzilli, one must note, was indeed white.)

This went over exactly as well as you would expect. Teammates, especially his black ones, found themselves treading on dynamite with any reaction they gave to the press, including “No comment.” Davey Johnson confronted him outside the team’s hotel, demanding to know whether Foster thought he was a racist. Two days later, the front office ate nearly $2 million in salary and buyouts, and released Foster (to be replaced by, yes, Mazzilli). He would sign with the White Sox, bat poorly in 15 games, and never play again. It was an ugly, sad ending to a sterling career, and a painful postscript to the game.

Rose would withdraw his protest of the game, letting the result stand. If he was hoping for a clean slate in the next game, it didn’t work out. New York won a 3-2 decision on an eighth-inning home run by its newly-minted platoon left fielder, Mitchell. McDowell, “fresh” off the previous night’s labors, pitched a perfect ninth for the save.

Cincinnati would get some momentum back after the Mets sweep, finishing the year 86-76. This coincided with a hotter streak by the Houston Astros, led by Mike Scott on his way to the Cy Young Award. Houston would go 10-4 in Scott’s starts after July 22, and finish the season an even 10 games ahead of second-place Cincinnati.

The Reds were unbowed, though, at least where the Mets were concerned. arker maintained his bravado, saying “I’ve seen better teams than the Mets. I’ve played on better teams than the Mets. I hope we meet them in the playoffs. They can be had.”

The playoff meeting, still possible when Parker spoke, never came off. The Mets, dominant as they were with a 108-54 regular-season record, twice did come memorably close to being had in the postseason. They ground out a 16-inning win to close out Houston in Game Six of the NLCS, avoiding a Game Seven against their bugbear Scott. Then they came within one strike of losing the World Series to the Boston Red Sox in Game Six, before climbing back to win on a mind-boggling series of plays.

And yet neither of those games was as blissfully crazy as that midseason game on July 22. It didn’t have the October pedigree that earns any game instant magnification for going beyond moderately interesting. It was more an intimate dinner than a public feast, but it had enough savor to satisfy most jaded palates.

And if nobody has ever copied Davey Johnson’s grand improvisation with his dual closers, that can be forgiven. Johnson himself never would have done it, until he had no other choice.

References & Resources
Retrosheet, including “Pitchers with Two Appearances in One Game”, research paper by Jim Weigand
Baseball Library
The Ultimate Mets Database
The New York Times
The Sporting News
The Bad Guys Won!, Jeff Pearlman
The Baseball Codes, Jason Turbow and Michael Duca
Baseball Dynasties, Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein
The Book, Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, & Andrew Dolphin
“Keith”, Pete Hamill, reprinted in The Greatest Baseball Stories Ever Told, Jeff Silverman, ed.
The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract has edited video of the Cincinnati broadcast’s coverage of the Knight-Davis fight here, which helped clear up some contradictory accounts. I still can’t tell who Kevin Mitchell was wrassling with, though.

A writer for The Hardball Times, Shane has been writing about baseball and science fiction since 1997. His stories have been translated into French, Russian and Japanese, and he was nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award.
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Dave Cornutt
9 years ago

Whitey Herzog used to do that trick with the two closers, with the mid-‘80s Cardinals.  He usually used lefty Ken Dayley and righty Jeff Lahti.

9 years ago

I guess you had to be there.

These types of games, unfortunately, don’t happen anymore.  Players and managers don’t care, there’s too much guaranteed money to worry about trying on the field.

9 years ago

What a great write-up. Thanks so much!

Indy Neidell
9 years ago

That was great!  As an Astros fan I remember a great deal about 1986, and still feel very much like Parker did about those Mets.

Hey, I do a weekly baseball youtube channel called Sunday Baseball, and this story would make a heck of an episode one day.  If I do make such an episode I will give a shout out to you for inspiration (and I don’t know if you’ve seen our show, but the channel page is if you feel so inclined.)

Very nice piece.

Chris J.
9 years ago

“Chris Jaffe did cover this game once, in one of his many THT Live anniversary posts. (I begin to wonder if there is any game he has not touched on there.)”


I’m getting there, Shane.  I’m getting there.

Chris J.
9 years ago

“Whitey Herzog used to do that trick with the two closers, with the mid-‘80s Cardinals.  He usually used lefty Ken Dayley and righty Jeff Lahti.”

I know Herzog once put Jose DeLeon in the OF—while Jose Oquendo pitched.  I’ve recounted that game, too:

87 Cards
9 years ago

For the visuals:

Davis/Knight throwdown:

Gary Carter at 3B: 

Parker error on Hernandez’s fly ball:

Cue at 23:00

9 years ago

As a teenager in NYC living within the shadow of Shea, just loved that game on tv.  Did not like Eric Davis and all the hoopla his rookie year and was glad Knight just popped him.  Had forgotten about Carter playing third and had remembered the fight, Parker’s drop, and the switching relief pitchers.  Foster had been off to a hot start and not fighting so put him in the dog house he had to go shortly thereafter.  Never understood how he claimed race was an issue given that he was losing his starting LFer job to another african american.  This article made things clear. Thanks for the memories.

Paul G.
9 years ago

Ah, fun times.  I do wonder why more teams did not go with tandem lefty/right closers.  These days it probably wouldn’t work in the sense that pitchers are rarely used for multiple innings and closers want their Saves, but at the time it made sense to use the platoon advantage this way.  Assuming you could find two good closer type pitchers, of course.

Kevin Mitchell was a third baseman coming up through the minors and teams tried to play him there on the major league level, but, yeah, it became apparent that as a third baseman he made a good outfielder.  Well, not good.  Tolerable.  On a good day.  As to why he ended up playing so many games at short, I think you need to look no farther than the incumbent Rafael Santana.  Rafael was one of those unique talents that combined “meh” defense with a pathetic bat and still managed to hold onto a job.  When that is Plan A, trying to find an upgrade in defensively challenged sluggers like Mitchell and Howard Johnson, or youngsters like a 21-year-old Kevin Elster, definitely fall into “worth a shot” territory.  It amazes me that Santana not only managed to hold on but remained the starter in 1987.

9 years ago

Davey Johnson would put bat-first (Mitchell, later Ho JO) in at SS when “El Sid” Fernandez was pitching.  A high K – high FB pitcher, the SS would get at most 1 – 2 chances per game, so Johnson went with a good hitting “SS” in those games.

John C
9 years ago

Most of the Mets’ pitchers in the 1980s had fly-ball tendencies. Sid Fernandez was the most notable, but nearly all of them were fly-ball pitchers. This is why Davey Johnson, who understood sabermetric principles even if he never used the term, loaded his team up with poor-fielding middle infielders who could hit. Backman, Teufel, Mitchell, and HoJo on the championship teams, and before them, he played Hubie Brooks at short. And he got away with it, thanks to the high grass and big outfield at Shea, and fast outfielders.

The only reason Santana lasted as long as he did was because the team’s GM, Frank Cashen, was an old-school guy who stressed strong defense up the middle. Johnson got his way most of the time, but only because he won.

Steve C.
7 years ago

OK, this is crazy late, but one nitpick: In the ninth, Dykstra did not stop at third because he was being conservative. Teufel’s double bounced over the fence and Dykstra was sent back to third.

7 years ago

Two more late nitpicks:

1. “Orosco made his eight warm-up tosses—and Rose pounced. You get eight warm-up throws only when you’re entering the game, he argued to Gerry Davis, and Orosco was already in the game. Getting no satisfaction, he protested the game on those grounds, meaning that both teams were now playing the game under protest.”

He actually argued with Doug Harvey, the crew chief.

2. ” With righties coming up in the home half, McDowell went back to the mound (no word on how many warmup tosses he took)”

Rule 8.03 grants 8 “preparatory pitches” to a reliever under either of 2 conditions: “when a pitcher takes his position at the beginning of each inning, or when he
relieves another pitcher”. McDowell qualified under both conditions, so no protest available there.