The MOFO Sports Interview: Jeff Pearlman
by: Joe McDonald | Publisher and Editor-in-Chief | Tuesday, April 13, 2004
If you think back to 1986 many things have changed. There were no cell phones and the internet was in its infancy. No one heard of DVD players and you could actually make a phone call to your bank and a person would answer. Baseball has changed as well. There was no mention of steroids and competitive imbalance. Players made a nice living but only the super stars made millions. It was a time of Ed Koch, “Top Gun“, high New York crime rates, Cold War politics, decent interest in the bank, big hair rock stars, “Miami Vice,” pastel colored clothes and the New York Mets.
It has been 18 years since the Mets were World Series champions. They were the stars of this town; with names like Gooden, Strawberry, Carter, Hernandez, McDowell Mookie and Dykstra on the tip on even the casual fan’s tongue. They were brash, cocky cool and in vogue. You were proud to be a Met fan back then.
Now you can relive your memories. Jeff Pearlman has completed The Bad Guys Won, which is a new book about the Mets ‘86 season. The former Sports Illustrated writer - now with Newsday - spent two and a half years on this project and the book is to be finally released on April 27th. MOFO Sports is very fortunate to sit down with Pearlman and hear his thoughts on his book, the ‘86 Mets and baseball in general.
MOFO Sports: This is not the first book on the ‘86 Mets, what makes your book different from others that were published?
Jeff Pearlman: I think I have read by now every book about the ‘86 Mets doing this research. They fall into categories. There were a bunch of books right after the season. Nails, Gary Carter’s book. Hernandez came out after the ‘85 season and Davey Johnson‘s came out right before the ‘86 season. Tim McCarver had a book. Whenever a New York team wins, it seems like they all have books. They were what they were. They were quick and turned around in three months to have a book out as soon as possible. They were ghost written. Marty Noble in Nails, I am sure tried his best to capture Lenny Dykstra’s voice, but it wasn’t like Dykstra wrote a book. It was a couple of interviews with Lenny. I am sure it was the same with Gary Carter. They were what they were - quick turnarounds of the season, kind of pretty versions of the seasons.
Then Bob Klapisch did a book about (Dwight) Gooden and (Darryl) Strawberry. That book was not about specifically ‘86. That was about those guys rises and falls. Then you had the (Peter) Golenbock book, which was about every and in that book he took from everyone else's book. He did very little research and interviews in that book almost all of it were excerpts of Dykstra’s biography, Carter’s biography and that was the history of the Mets too. Then there was another book about Game 6 of the NLCS, The Greatest Game Ever Played. That was a heck of a book actually, but that just dealt with that game and kind of talked about the characters, but it was general.
The thing is there was never a book about the season. Someone who researched the season, the players and the team. Not just someone who said, “Let’s capitalize on this right after the season.” and not someone who took an isolated game, but someone who did the whole thing. This book is the first of it’s kind of the ’86 Mets as far as a nostalgic look at this awesome team and this incredibly freakish, bizarre, unique, cool, stunning talented cast of characters. I don’t think there is another book like that,
MS: What players did you interview and what sources did you use when writing this book?
JP: I interviewed almost everyone on the roster. I got 29 of 33 players. I spoke with every coach except Vern Hoscheit, who is not in great shape. I think he had a stroke a few years ago, so I didn’t interview him. I spoke with over 200 people for the book - a lot of opponents, a lot Red Sox, lots of Astros, lots of Cardinals, the bat boys, the clubhouse guys, everyone in the front office I could find - Cashen, McIlvaine and Harazin. I really tried to dig into this one. So it’s not five guys and my memories. It’s the most research I ever had done on a project.
MS: How long did it take you to write this book?
JP: If you take everything into consideration - the research and the writing - it was a two and a half-year project. Hands down it was the most difficult and grueling project I ever did in my career.
MS: Is this book endorsed by the Mets Organization?
JP: No it’s totally unaffiliated and to be totally honest, I would be very surprised if they did. There is a lot of positives in the book and a certain amount of negatives. It is by no means an ode to the Mets or flowery greatest teams ever book. It’s a real honest to goodness hard-nosed look at these guys. I just don’t think the way Major League Baseball is now, where it is very sanitized, if they would have endorsed it.
MS: Any interesting stories you want to share from your research?
JP: Oh, come on - tons. The thing about this book is the nuggets of information and the cool stories. There are a lot of fascinating stories that I never knew. A few things that popped in my head that are interesting.
When the Mets and Red Sox were playing in the series, Ed Hearn, the backup catcher‘s girlfriend was Calvin Schiraldi’s sister. He was dating Rhonda Schiraldi. Hearn told me when the Mets flew back from Boston for Game 6 and 7 to New York, every player could have one player on the flight and the woman he had on the flight was Rhonda Schiraldi. That’s a small thing but it’s kind of cool.
Game three of the World Series, Oil Can Boyd was about to pitch for the Red Sox and Boyd was a real loose cannon that year. Very cocky would always spout off ect... ect.... Before the game Tom Paciorek, an ex-Met who was doing some sort of commentary work for the series, was speaking to Hernandez and Wally Backman and he told them what do to get to Oil Can - the guy has total rabbit ears and he hears everything everyone says about him. So the Mets lined up their towels at the top of the dugout and if you look at the tape they are all lined up there. They started yelling “Bleep Can, you piece of bleep, you got nothing” and the whole game just mocked him chanting “Bleep Can, Bleep Can” the whole game. He got lit up. So there is an ode to Tom Paciorek.
There are a lot of things but I can’t give away everything in the book. Kevin Elster was 22 years old that year and was inserted into the World Series. His glove broke, so he had to use Ray Knight’s glove. And the nick-names these guys used. These guys were cruel. Teufel was “Richard- Head.” Barry Lyons was “Mattress- Head” because he was going bald. They called Danny Heep, “Arnold” because he was really built. Darryl Strawberry was “Pulled Muscle Face” because he was so lean he could pull a muscle in his face at any time. Kevin Mitchell having his hat lit on fire and worrying about his Jeri-Curl catching flame. They used to beat on Mitchell all the time. One time in Chicago they got Mitchell drunk and took him to a statue and made him paint the testicles of the horse Met blue and orange.
MS: There were rumors back in ’86 that Doc Gooden have cocaine problems, but none of it was documented. Is any of this true?
JP: Well with Gooden , I think the odds come out pretty clear that he was using. There is a lot of research in the book that build up to that. Teammates thought he was. His demeanor that season was completely different from the year before. He got into a fight with a rental agent. He mislead the team about an injury in Spring Training. He got sued by someone for a traffic accident. George Forster after the season said in the Post that you could just tell something was wrong with him. There is no smoking gun, but if you read between the lines you can make a pretty good case.
MS: Bill James argued that the '86 Mets were the best team of all time based on their record and the time that they played, which was 10 years after expansion. Do you agree with that statement?
JP: I generally don't agree with Bill James' take on the game, because he measures statistics without accounting for the randomness and individuality that makes athletes so random. That said, I think the Mets are certainly among a handful of candidates for best all-time team. But not having seen the '27 or '61 Yankees or the Big Red Machine, it'd be hard for me to say 100% yes
MS: Do you think the Met organization has been unfair with Gooden and Strawberry in recent years?
JP: That’s a good question. Dwight Gooden’s number still hasn’t been retired. I think Gooden’s number has to be retired by the Mets. He’s the second best pitcher in their history. I guess you can argue Jerry Koosman, but I think Gooden was the second best pitcher to pitch for the Mets. He did some great things for that team. Cashen pretty much blames those two guys for the Mets not becoming a Dynasty and there is some merit to that argument. You build around your young guys and they were going to build around Gooden and Strawberry. They let the team down. However, it’s been 18 years since ’86, they should bring those guys back to Shea and certainly they should retire Gooden’s number.
MS: Do you think the team was distracted by Mike Scott in 1986?
JP: I have a chapter in my book about Mike Scott and he is a major factor in the book. I interviewed a bunch of the Astros and asked them if Mike Scott was scuffing. And they like “Well,...”, “I don’t know “ and didn’t want to say. And then I asked Mike Scott and he said “that will be in my book.” So I asked when he is writing a book and he said, “I’m not.” I think that’s a great answer. It was definitely in their head and it definitely psyched them out. If they lost Game 6 they would have lost Game 7.He was cheating no question about it. Gary Carter caught him in the All-Star Game that year and saw it. It effected them.
MS: Didn’t they try and get Scott tossed out in Game 4?
JP: Yeah they brought the balls to Chub Feeney and there was markings on every baseball and Feeney said, “How do we know the Mets didn’t put them on?” Which is so lame. But his hands were tied, what was he going to do disqualify the Astros from Games 1 and 4?
MS: How did you become a Mets fan?
JP: Growing up I was a pretty good Seattle Mariners fan. There was kid up the block, Dave Fleming, where I grew up in Mahopac, NY and he pitched for the Mariners. I loved Ken Griffey and when his son got drafted.
Around ‘85-’86 my neighbor down the street, Dennis Gargano, he was one of my three friends and his dad, Vinny, used to watch all the Met games. He would watch all the Met games and smoke his cigarettes. I would always be over at Dennis’ house and Mr. Gargano would always want me to watch the Mets. So I would sit down with him and the Met teams were so colorful and so dynamic. What really got me about the Mets is just being a kid and watching that team. It seemed with Hernandez at first base and how he played and Backman with his dirty uniform. Dykstra banging into walls and Mookie Wilson with his speed. Carter with his exuberance and Gooden with the high leg kick. Seeing that with the Yankees across town, who were so boring. They were very business like, dull, boring and not as good. It was very hard not to be a Met growing up in Mahopac, NY.
MS: Where were you for October 25, 1986?
JP: I was actually at Mr. Gargano’s house in Mahopac, NY. I was the only sports fan in my family, so my parents were not taking me to 8,000 Met games. They took me to the obligatory two a year. One for my birthday and one just to be nice.
MS: How did you become a sports writer?
JP: When I was in high school, I wrote for my little high school paper. I went to the University of Delaware and wrote for the college paper. I got a job out of college being the food and fashion writer for a paper in Nashville. That was my way of getting hired, I knew nothing about food or fashion. I moved over to sports and worked in Nashville for two and a half years. Then I got hired by Sports Illustrated and moved up the ladder. Started writing about baseball and here I am today.
MS: What do you think about the 2004 New York Mets?
JP: Yeah, not very good. It’s disappointing if you are a Met fan. If you ask me how many wins I think they will have, I would say about 75. Defensively improved, old pitching staff. A little puzzling about Scott Erickson. Hard to get excited.
MS: Any thoughts on the BALCO situation?
JP: To be honest, I stopped writing baseball and left Sports Illustrated. The prime reason I left, I wanted to be home more for my daughter and I was tired of the travel. I was also disillusioned by baseball. One of the things that caused my disillusionment was steroids. It sounds likes a cliche, but it is true, I got tired of covering something when I didn’t really think it was real. I would see these guys hit these home runs and it seemed like you were writing fiction. I didn’t have physical evidence to say that Barry Bonds was using steroids, but watching it and writing about it; you know it’s all not true. It was really frustrating. All this stuff coming out is a blessing. It’s sad that years from now this era will have a huge asterisk over it. That’s disappointing.
MS: Anything you want to add that we didn’t discuss about your book?
JP: If you are a Met fan, it’s a good read. It’s a tough time to be a Met fan right now and it’s a good reminder of an incredible time in the history of the Mets and an incredible time in baseball. It was a time before the game was corrupted by the greed and the steroids and the corporate mentality. I hope you get a real sense for that. The innocent joy these players brought to the game and the kind of every man camaraderie. You go to a bar and you can run into these guys and if you saw them before a game they would talk to you. Some of them had their issues, but they were cool guys and why baseball was great back then.
Joe McDonald is the owner of MOFO Sports and MOFO Sports Boston.