When I moved from Georgia to the New York City area in the spring of 1990, the Mets were good, the Yankees were bad… and the Braves? They just seemed hopeless.
As I prepared to see them play at Shea Stadium that July 20, the Braves were in the midst of their sixth consecutive awful season. Between 1985 and 1990, they had finished last in the 6-team NL West four times, fifth twice—averaging 96 losses a year during that span.
During that time, the roster was often a merry-go-round of mediocrity, or worse. An example: Rafael Ramirez was replaced by Andres Thomas, who formed a keystone combo with Ken Oberkfell. Score! Our 1978 Rookie of the Year Bob Horner was always hurt—then he bailed for Japan. Rick Mahler was your most consistent starter, although nobody ever called him a stopper. Of course, the mercurial Lonnie Smith had his moments, but (as we found) not all of them were good. And then, there was the magnificent Dale Murphy, cruelly surrounded by this sad-sack bunch.
Sadly, Atlanta Fulton County Stadium was a dead zone in those years. I’d drive in from Athens with friends, buy $5 uppers, and sit just about anywhere we wanted. Want a foul ball? Just hang out down the lines—with any degree of effort, you might get two or three.
In the late decade, however, things started to get a little interesting with the eye-opening arrivals of Ronnie Gant and David Justice, not to mention the occasional gems tossed by John Smoltz and Tom Glavine. By the time I moved north, the team was still really bad, but at least there were young players worth watching.
By 1990, the Mets were living the end of the dream that was the Darryl Strawberry Era —he’d bolt for L.A. in the offseason. Running from 1983 to 1990, the Mets would go from promise to prominence and a World Series title in ’86, followed by four tantalizing “almost seasons”—three second-place finishes behind the go-go Cards and the high-scoring Cubs (Sandberg, Grace & Dawson with a young Greg Maddux topping the rotation), plus a Game 7 loss in the 1988 NLCS to the Hershiser/Gibson-led Dodgers. Between 1984 and 1990, the Mets averaged 95 wins per season, finishing in first place only twice in those seven years.
That summer of ’90 I did a buncha temp work and that week I was working in the Empire State Building (for some lawyer, IIRC). Coincidentally, a friend who worked full-time in the building (for Leona Helmsley, no less) had an extra left-field-bleacher ticket for his company’s night at Shea Stadium. They were playing the Braves, so he asked me to go.
Back then, Shea’s left-field bleacher seats were not open to the public—only to companies that would buy all the seats, one game at a time. If a company did that, they’d get an hour or so pre-game food & drink action at a small canteen under the bleachers, right behind to the visitor’s bullpen. Free beer & hot dogs? Hell, yeah…
So I dove in and, after a couple dogs & brewskies, I see a young Steve Avery start to warm in the bullpen and—whadya know?—there’s Phil Niekro (serving in some temporary pitching-coach capacity which now escapes me), just on the other side of the fence from me, watching Avery closely.
At one point, Knucksie kind of looks around at the fans filling up the bleachers & I took that as a cue to sidle up and talk. He couldn’t have been cooler, couldn’t have been nicer, couldn’t have been more honest and forthcoming.
I told him how, in 1984, I joined a couple of friends at a Braves/Dodgers game on a Friday night & we decided we were going to drive to Baltimore right after the game to see Niekro pitch for the Yankees the very next night. We did, and we met him after the game. (The father of one of my pals had been in the Army Reserve or National Guard with Knucksie in the ’60s.)
At one point, a fan on the bleachers above us, wearing a Yankees cap, sees Niekro and yells, “Hey, Phil! You’re always a Yankee!” He smiles at the guy, then gives me a knowing look that was worth a million bucks, as if to say, “Yeah, right…”
By then, I was feeling the barley malteds a bit and ended the conversation with a very heartfelt, “Phil, are we ever going to be any good again? Is it always going to be like this?”
I guess I was getting a little maudlin, so he said, “I hear you, but when these young pitchers,” pointing to Avery, “figure it out, you’ll be surprised. They’re gonna be good. Watch.”
Now I look back and think: Imagine that, a pep talk from a future Hall of Famer. But at the moment, as thrilled as I was to be talking to one of my all-time favorite players, I could only think, “Boy, have I heard this before.”
Game starts, and right away Avery gives up three runs in the first. He didn’t help things by balking runners to second and third, then giving up a two-run single to Howard Johnson. Meanwhile, the Braves—sporting a lineup that included Jim Presley, Francisco Cabrera and Andres Thomas—were getting mowed down by sneaky-quick lefty Sid Fernandez, who racked up 10 Ks in 7.2 IP. He gave up only 4 hits, including a solo HR by Thomas that barely cleared the LF wall, right in front of me. In the Mets’ 6-1 win—they added three 8th-inning runs off Braves reliever Mark Grant—the save was recorded by none other than Alejandro Pena, someone who soon would play a big part in Braves history.
I took the 7 train back to Manhattan thinking that nothing had changed. But the not-so-apparent reality was that these were two clubs going in opposite directions. Next year would be different, very different.