The New York Mets clinched their first postseason berth since 1973 with a win over the Chicago Cubs on September 17, 1986. As the players—19 games up on the second-place Philadelphia Phillies with 17 to play—celebrated around Shea Stadium’s mound, jubilant fans poured out of the stands to celebrate with their heroes. During the festivities, the fans ravaged the field, pulling out chunks of grass as souvenirs. With home games scheduled the next six days, the grounds crew had a monumental task to make the field playable.1
After his team wrapped up the division, Mets manager Dave Johnson decided to rest some regulars. For the final game of the Cubs series, the next night, a 5-0 Mets win, center fielder Stan Jefferson, catcher John Gibbons, first baseman Dave Magadan, and shortstop Kevin Elster, all late season call-ups from the Triple-A Tidewater Tides, were in the starting lineup.
The Phillies then arrived in Flushing for a three-game weekend series, and Johnson continued to deploy newcomers alongside Mets regulars. For the second game of the series, on September 20, he inserted the 23-year-old Jefferson in center field in place of Lenny Dykstra and the 24-year-old Gibbons behind the plate, as regular catcher Gary Carter moved to first base.
Jefferson grew up in the Bronx and went to Bethune-Cookman College in Florida. The Mets selected him in the first round of the June 1983 amateur draft, and he had climbed steadily through their minor-league system, now getting the call to the majors after batting .290 with 25 steals at Triple A.
Gibbons, New York’s first-round pick from a Texas high school in 1980, was back in the big leagues after an uneven start to his career. He won the starting catcher job in spring training 1984, but was beset with injuries. When finally healthy, Gibbons was sent to Triple A. He played all of 1985 for Tidewater after the Mets obtained Carter in a trade, and stayed there though August 1986, when he was recalled after Carter injured his thumb.
The Phillies were shuffling their lineup too, with an eye toward 1987. Regular leadoff hitter Gary Redus was batting sixth for the first time all season. Center fielder Milt Thompson was moved to the top of the order, with second baseman Juan Samuel batting second. Felske’s explanation: “First of all, I want to see a little of Milt leading off. And secondly … we’ve tried Sammy [Samuel] there [batting sixth] for a while and now I want to try Redus there for a while.”3
Coming off an All-Star 1985 season, Mets starting pitcher Ron Darling was having another successful year. He entered the game with a 2.90 ERA and a 13-5 record, including two wins in three starts against Philadelphia.
The Phillies countered with 22-year-old rookie Bruce Ruffin, who had an 8-4 record since his promotion from the Double-A Reading Phillies on June 26. Ruffin, Philadelphia’s second round selection in the June 1985 draft from the University of Texas, was pitching with only two days’ rest, following his worst outing of the year, a 59-pitch, 3⅓-inning losing effort against the St. Louis Cardinals. He had won both of his starts against the Mets, most recently outshining Dwight Gooden in a 6-3 Phillies win at Veterans Stadium on September 12.
After Darling quickly retired the Phillies in the first, Mookie Wilson led off the bottom of the inning with a single to right. Wilson stole second and Jefferson followed with a walk. With Kevin Mitchell batting, catcher Ronn Reynolds, a former Met, fired to first and picked off Jefferson.
Mitchell followed with a single to center, scoring Wilson with the game’s first run. One out later, Ray Knight hit a gapper to right-center. Shortstop Steve Jeltz took the relay from Thompson and threw home trying to nab Mitchell at the plate. Mitchell was safe, and the throw skipped off catcher Reynolds’ glove into the Mets dugout. Knight was waved home, Jeltz was charged with the error, and the unearned run gave the Mets a 3-0 lead.
Ruffin settled down to blank the Mets over the next four innings but was removed after the fifth as a precaution. In a postgame analysis, Reynolds assessed his pitcher’s performance. “He threw some good pitches in the first inning but every time he threw a bad one, they hit it. But he didn’t seem affected by the two days’ rest,” Reynolds said.4
Darling cruised through the first five innings, allowing four hits and a walk. But the Phillies broke through in the sixth, scoring three runs. Von Hayes led off with a long home run, his 16th of the season. The 28-year-old Hayes, acquired from the Cleveland Indians for five players during the 1982 winter meetings, was having an exceptional season. The home run raised his batting average to .316, and he finished the season batting .305 and leading the league with 107 runs scored and 46 doubles.
Mike Schmidt—leading the NL with 36 home runs at age 36 and sitting on 494 career homers—followed with a walk. One out later, Redus also walked. The runners moved up on Reynolds’ dribbler in front of the plate that Gibbons fielded and threw to first for the second out. Jeltz then stroked a single to left field that plated Schmidt and Redus to tie the game.
The two-error game raised Jeltz’s total to 20, of which 11 had come in the last five weeks. Jeltz took the blame for the error instead of using the poor field conditions as an excuse. “I just screwed that ball up, no question about it,” he said. “I came up on the ball when I should have stayed down.”5
The error opened the floodgates for the Mets. Gibbons followed with his second double and third hit of the game, giving New York runners on second and third. Danny Heep, pinch-hitting for Rafael Santana, looped a two-run single to left for a 5-3 Mets lead.
Darling sacrificed Heep to second and Wilson was intentionally walked to get to Jefferson. The rookie thought Johnson might pinch-hit for him, but he remained in the game. Jefferson said, “When he showed confidence in me, I said, ‘Stanley, relax, don’t let the pressure get you down. Let your hands do the work.’”6
Jefferson had hit just two home runs at Triple A and 19 in 437 minor-league games, but he swung at the first pitch and launched a homer, his first in the majors. The Mets had a five-run inning, with four of the runs unearned, and an 8-3 lead.
After the game, Felske said of the game-breaking inning. “Stevie’s error set up the inning maybe, but they sure took advantage. And the thing is we have to get past that error. All it meant at the time was a man on and one out.”7
Darling pitched a scoreless seventh before turning the game over to Roger McDowell, who pitched a clean eighth. With rookie Michael Jackson on in relief for the Phillies, Gibbons had one more at-bat in the eighth. He smoked a pitch deep to left for a home run, his first homer in the big leagues and his fourth hit of game, giving the Mets a 9-3 lead.
McDowell surrendered two runs in the ninth to make the final score closer. Pinch-hitter Chris James doubled to left and Thompson followed with a single. The runners scored on a groundout by Samuel another single by Hayes, and a grounder by Schmidt. Greg Gross grounded out to end the game.
The 9-5 Mets win was their 97th of the year. They finished with 108 wins, a franchise record as of 2022. Neither Jefferson nor Gibbons was on the postseason roster when the Mets advanced to the World Series, where they defeated the Boston Red Sox in seven games.
The Mets traded Jefferson to the San Diego Padres after the 1986 season in a deal that also sent Mitchell to the Padres and brought Kevin McReynolds to the Mets. Jefferson played in 296 major-league games over six seasons. After his retirement from baseball, he served with the New York Police Department; he was part of the NYPD’s response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
The four-hit game against the Phillies was the best of Gibbons’s career, and as it turned out, was the last game he would start in the major leagues. He played four more years, all in the minors, and retired as a player after the 1990 season. Gibbons later became a manager, leading the Toronto Blue Jays for 11 seasons and winning the American League East Division title in 2015.
This article was fact-checked by Bruce Slutsky and copy-edited by Len Levin.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org for pertinent information, including the box score and play-by-play.
1 Joseph Durso, “Finally the Mets Achieve the Inevitable Title,” New York Times, September 18, 1986: B17.
2 Peter Pascarelli, “Redus Is Tested at Sixth Spot,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 21, 1986: E9.
3 “Redus Is Tested at Sixth Spot.”
4 Peter Pascarelli, “Phillies Drop One to Mets,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 21, 1986: E1.
5 “Phillies Drop One to Mets.”
6 Helene Elliott, “Mets’ Fill-Ins Foil Phillies,” Newsday (Long Island, New York), September 21, 1986: Sports/3.
7 “Phillies Drop One to Mets.”