Terry Pendleton says that during his playing days, he was called many unpleasant things while standing in the on-deck circle at opposing teams’ stadiums.
But on this particular Friday night at Shea Stadium 30 years ago Sept. 11, the switch-hitting Pendleton was subjected to not only a loud verbal dousing from one young Mets fan sitting in the front row, but he was also the target of an unexpected projectile, one that the fan had aimed squarely at the Cardinals third baseman’s No. 9 jersey.
“There are these kids back there just screaming and yelling — stuff I never heard about me before. Well, there were some things I had heard about me, but I don’t know that any of them were true,” says Pendleton with a chuckle. “One of the kids balled up — I don’t know what he had, a program or whatever — threw it and hit me in the back with it. And all I heard was, ‘And tomorrow we’re gonna kick your butt again and be in first place.’”
Over 51,000 Mets fans packed Shea, and the Flushing faithful wanted blood with the hated Cardinals in town and with a chance for the Mets to knock St. Louis out of first place during that weekend series.
Everything was working beautifully for the Mets that Friday night, and with a win they would edge within a half game of first in the National League East Division. Up 4-1 in the top of the ninth, Mets closer Roger McDowell was on the mound when Pendleton was on deck. Willie McGee was at the plate, and Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith was on second base after drawing a leadoff walk and then advancing on a Tommy Herr groundout.
After Dan Driessen whiffed for the second out of the ninth, the defending World Series champions were an out away from winning the first game of a pivotal September series. The home crowd was in a fever. These were the Mets, however, and any fan of this tortured franchise knows that it is never that easy. Ever.
McGee singled to center off McDowell, and drove in Smith to bring the Cardinals within two runs of tying the game.
“You put that stuff aside and go do what you need to do,” says Pendleton, referring to the fans’ vitriol and the unidentified flying object. “I just knew Roger McDowell was sinker-slider. I just tried to move up a little bit in the batter’s box and tried to catch a sinker before it sunk and I was fortunate enough to get a pitch I could hit a long way.”
Pendleton had only 12 home runs for the Cardinals during the 1987 season, but none was bigger than the two-run blast off a McDowell 0-1 sinker on Sept. 11, 1987. The Pendleton homer to center that Mookie Wilson watched sail over the wall only tied the game, but an inning later, the Cardinals plated two more runs off reliever Jesse Orosco and stunned the cocky Mets with a 6-4 win. Thirty years later, players from both sides say that game was the centerpiece for sending both teams in opposite directions the remainder of the regular-season stretch. For the Cardinals, it was a launching pad for a playoff run that culminated with a World Series berth against the Twins.
And for the Mets? A year after their wild World Series victory over the Red Sox, the ’87 season was filled with adversity from the start — from Dwight (Doc) Gooden entering drug rehab during spring training, to the ’87 club battling numerous injuries throughout the season (much like the 2017 Mets). But manager Davey Johnson’s players were still in the thick of the playoff hunt in September, and a three-game set against the Cardinals at home would go a long way toward deciding if they could back up their brash demeanor.
Turns out, Pendleton’s home run ruined any chance of the Mets defending their title, sending the team then-GM Frank Cashen once said “was put together to win for a couple more years” spiraling into a tailspin.
“Took the air out of us, dude,” said a blunt Lenny Dykstra, the Mets outfielder nicknamed Nails. “Every time we thought we could get going that season, something like that would happen. Things went straight south from there.”
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The trash-talking and one-upmanship mentality that existed between the Mets and Cardinals during the 1980s could be summed up with the nickname that Ron Darling says St. Louis fans were only too happy to shout when the Mets visited Busch Stadium.
“I think ‘pond scum’ was a phrase that they used for us. Only in St. Louis would getting on the other team include a phrase ‘pond scum,’ instead of something more meaningful,” says Darling.
But the former Mets right-hander, now an SNY analyst, says that deep down, players from both teams respected each other, even if there was open hostility on the field. The Cardinals made it to the World Series three times in the 80s — winning a title in 1982 and losing both in 1985 (Royals) and 1987 (Twins) — while the Mets advanced to the Fall Classic just once.
“I would have to say, you had to go to a darker place to face the Cardinals,” says Darling. “You had to be on your toes. I mean, who’s nicer than Willie McGee? You had to find a way not to like Willie McGee. They were so good, they’d piss you off. When people piss you off, you get angry. I’m sure they felt the same way about us, in a different way. We were just pretty full of ourselves. I’m sure that didn’t go well with most teams, but especially a team we were competing against the most.”
John Tudor, the former Cardinals southpaw who started that Sept. 11 game for St. Louis opposite Ron Darling, says that while he wouldn’t use the term “animosity” to describe the cold war between the two clubs then, the players definitely weren’t prone to sending Hallmark cards to each other during the holidays.
“How about we use the phrase, ‘There was no love lost’? I don’t think even the Mets would deny the fact that they were a loud, kind of boisterous, ‘look-what-we’re-doing’ type of team. We weren’t like that. That’s not the way we were built or the way we operated,” says Tudor. “Any time you can beat a team like that, you’re happy about it.
“Definitely a big home run for us. I guess we kind of carried the momentum forward from there. For us, it was definitely big. Who knows what happens if we lose that game, you know?”
Pendleton, who’s been a Braves coach since 2002, says he is still friendly with several players from those 80s Mets teams, including McDowell, Gooden and slugger Darryl Strawberry. But when it was game time then, Pendleton says, it was all business.
“We knew when we got on the field, we had to do battle. We went after it. If Darryl had to slide into third to keep me from throwing to first, he’d try to put me in the dugout,” says Pendleton.
The Cardinals didn’t have a ton of power hitters, but Darling says it didn’t matter because “they could literally bully you off the field with their speed, with their defense, with their professionalism.” In addition to Hall of Famer Smith, Whitey Herzog’s roster included speedster Vince Coleman, who had 109 stolen bases in ’87. Smith had 43 swipes that season.
“It was the most unique team I had ever played against, because from the second you got on the mound, they just wanted to bully you with their speed, which in today’s game, makes no sense to anybody,” says Darling.
Gooden says it was, “like a track meet when we played the Cardinals,” and that once Coleman got on base against you, forget about it.
“Vince was one of the fastest guys in the majors. He always joked with me, ‘Don’t even bother trying to pick me off,’” says Gooden.
But Coleman did manage to get picked off in that Sept. 11, 1987 game, and it came courtesy of Darling. That the Mets right-hander was successful in nabbing Coleman at second base was all the more impressive since moments earlier, Darling had dislocated his right thumb while diving to field Coleman’s bunt with one out in the top of the sixth.
Strawberry and Mookie Wilson had already homered off Tudor earlier in the game, and Keith Hernandez had doubled in a run too, to give Darling a 4-1 lead when he took the mound in the sixth. The Mets starter even had a no-hitter going at that point, since the Cardinals had scored their only run around a pair of second-inning walks and an RBI groundout.
But Coleman successfully bunted in the sixth — take that CC Sabathia — and the no-no was history. More worrisome was Darling’s health, however. He had already been hit on the wrist with a Smith liner earlier in the game. After injuring his thumb on the Coleman bunt, Darling remained in the game and prevented further damage by picking off Coleman for the second out. He then got Herr on a groundout to end the inning and the Mets still ahead by three runs.
“My thumb, it was hanging, just dangling off my hand. So I pulled a Mordecai ‘Three Finger’ Brown, and just held the ball with three fingers, lobbed it up there, hoping to get some outs,” says Darling. “After I was taken out of the game, Steve Garland, our trainer, looked at it and said, ‘You really have an issue here.’ And I was like, ‘I do know that.’”
Randy Myers replaced Darling and pitched a scoreless seventh after Darling had issued a leadoff walk to Driessen. McDowell was then summoned by manager Davey Johnson in the eighth to record a six-out save. McDowell worked through a scoreless eighth and, after the Smith walk, retired the next two batters in the ninth before McGee singled and Pendleton came to the plate. Batting left-handed, Pendleton belted a sinker into the night that put the Mets on a path to misery.
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Roger McDowell was the clowning, hot-footing prankster of those 80s Mets, but he’s had a lengthy second act as one the game’s best pitching coaches. Now with the Orioles, he stewarded the Braves’ staff for a decade, and did it alongside hitting coach Terry Pendleton.
He wouldn’t respond to numerous requests for an interview for this story, and Pendleton says that during the 10 years he and McDowell were coaches on the Braves (2006-2016), McDowell never wanted to discuss the ’87 homer, especially with the media.
“For me, it was years and years, and really not a subject that I wanted to talk about because Roger McDowell was the pitching coach for so long here,” says Pendleton. “I know it’s not something that he wants to bring up. I’ve just been as professional as I could with it. It’s something that happened in our past — for me it was good, for him it wasn’t.”
Other pitchers who have given up career-crushing home runs — think Dennis Eckersley to Kirk Gibson or Mitch Williams to Joe Carter — have had to live with those nightmares. But Eckersley and Gibson have become close friends and have made amends since Gibson took Eck deep in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.
Even Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson became good friends after Thomson hit the Shot Heard ’Round the World to lift the Giants over the Dodgers in 1951, the two making several public appearances, turning over a portion of whatever income the reunion generated to charity.
Other pitchers like McDowell, however, have a harder time putting those blemishes to rest. Pendleton says that the two men had a very positive and cordial relationship during the 10 years they were together as Braves coaches.
“There was one interesting story — (Braves pitcher) Julio Teheran was struggling last year (2016) against Bryce Harper,” says Pendleton, referring to the Nationals star. “Bryce Harper wears Teheran out (Harper is lifetime 17-for-37 (.459) with seven homers against the Braves righty).
“Roger sat down with Julio — and I didn’t know this until after the fact — and wrote down some stats and handed them to Julio. Julio looks at the stats and Roger says, ‘Yeah, I’m handing you these stats because this is a guy who wore my butt out.’ He didn’t put any name on it, nothing. Julio was going, ‘Wow. He did wear you out.’ Roger said, ‘I’m giving you this, because you have to try to find a different way to get a guy out. I’m showing you this because I’ve had this struggle, too.’ After the conversation was over, Roger told him, ‘By the way, this is our bench coach now.’ Julio says, ‘TP?’ And Roger goes, ‘Yes, TP did this to me.’ It’s something we lived through. If I’d been on the other end of it, I wouldn’t want it being thrown in my face all the time either,” says Pendleton.
“Roger in his silence and Terry in his words really shows you how serious it was. (McDowell) can’t talk about it 30 years later,” says Darling.
After the deflating 6-4 loss, Gooden took the mound the next day for the Mets and promptly got walloped for six runs in two innings, as the Cardinals cruised to an 8-1 victory. The Mets won the series finale — only 21,285 fans showed up at Shea that Sunday, perhaps a sign Mets fans had conceded already — but by then St. Louis had already set its course for a World Series run, while the Mets limped off into the offseason, despite finishing with a 92-70 record. Back then, there were no wild-card teams, or division series. It was the two top teams from each of the two divisions in each league deciding who would win the pennant and get to the World Series.
After missing the playoffs in ’85 and winning a title in ’86, the Mets were out of the ’87 postseason and then would lose in heart-wrenching fashion a year after that, when they bowed to the Dodgers in the 1988 NLCS. Mike Scioscia hit a famous homer off Gooden in that championship series, a dagger that was very much in the vein of Pendleton’s ’87 shot.
“The whole thing about ’87, we were just fighting all year. We started the year with (general manager) Frank Cashen coming into Huggins-Stengel Field in St. Petersburg (Fla.) and telling us Dwight Gooden was going into rehabilitation. It was like we were fighting uphill all year. It culminated with we had fought so hard that we put ourselves in a good position on this second week of September,” says Darling. “We had worked our tails off for six months to get to this place where we could make magic out of molasses.
“And that’s why it hurt so much.”