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Soiling the Spirit of ’86

eye on the news

Soiling the Spirit of ’86

One Met accuses a teammate from a fabled championship team of racist behavior—more than 30 years ago. April 11, 2019
The Social Order

Every new baseball season competes against the past. This year, the 1986 World Series champion New York Mets grabbed headlines from the team’s nascent 2019 edition when Ron Darling, a 58-year-old, Yale-educated former starting pitcher from that team accused his teammate Lenny Dykstra, a fiery, tobacco-chomping centerfielder with an extensive record of antisocial behavior, of hurling racist language at Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd, the black Red Sox pitcher, prior to the crucial Game Three of the Fall Classic, which the Mets entered trailing, two games to none. According to Darling, Dykstra’s taunts affected Boyd’s performance and influenced the outcome of the game, which the Mets won, turning the direction of the Series. (They went on to win in seven games.)

The names involved are imperishable to those familiar with the 1986 World Series, which stands as a Mount Rushmore for Mets fans and remains a source of shame in Boston. Darling—once featured in a New Yorker essay by Roger Angell after throwing 11 no-hit innings for Yale against St. John’s in 1981—was a mainstay of the ’86 team’s stellar pitching rotation and has since become an award-winning baseball broadcaster with a reputation as a thoughtful analyst and an honest but fair critic. Dykstra, who usually hit in the leadoff slot, played the game in a manner reminiscent of Pete Rose, all hustle and fire—but his post-baseball life has been dominated by criminal complaints since his 1998 retirement.

Darling makes his claims in a new memoir, his third, 108 Stitches: Loose Threads, Ripping Yarns, and the Darndest Characters from My Time in the Game. He says that Dykstra, prior to the game’s opening pitch, yelled “every imaginable and unimaginable insult and expletive in [Boyd’s] direction—foul, racist, hateful, hurtful stuff . . . the worst collection of taunts and insults I’d ever heard—worse, I’m betting, than anything Jackie Robinson might have heard, his first couple times around the league.” In Darling’s telling, Boyd “looked rattled” enough to mar his performance, beginning with the game’s first batter—Dykstra, who homered off him. Darling does not quote the words that Dykstra allegedly used, leaving that to readers’ imagination. Dykstra has now sued Darling and his publisher for libel.

Darling claims to have texts from other Mets players backing up his recollection of Dykstra’s outburst, though he hasn’t named them, and no other witnesses have identified themselves publicly. By contrast, several prominent black teammates—Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, and Kevin Mitchell—have taken Dykstra’s side and insisted that the incident never happened. Another teammate, Wally Backman, who was in the Mets’ on-deck circle at the time the comments were allegedly made, also denies that Dykstra directed any racist abuse at Boyd. Boyd himself says that, while he believes Darling’s narrative, he doesn’t recall hearing any racist insults from Dykstra. Boyd has now gained new notoriety as the victim in an incident he doesn’t remember.

Whom should Met fans believe? On personal credibility, the contest looks like a mismatch. Darling is not known for unsourced, controversial claims or personal attacks on players, past or present. Dykstra, of course, has a long record of untrustworthy behavior. He is named in the 2007 Mitchell Report on steroid use in baseball. He has been charged with grand theft auto, providing false financial statements, and making terroristic threats. He built a financial empire that collapsed in a bankrupt heap of unpaid bills and bounced checks, and at one point wound up living in his car. Yet several of Dykstra’s Mets teammates have publicly supported his denial of these accusations, and Darling, pledged to public silence now by his attorneys, seems caught off balance by the vehement response.

Darling must have known that his anecdote would trouble his ex-teammates—in particular, his colleague in the Mets’ television-broadcast booth, Keith Hernandez. Put in an unenviable position, Hernandez seemed to thread the needle by telling the New York Post that he heard Dykstra “barking” something but couldn’t make out the words. Hernandez can’t be enjoying his involvement in what is now a legal matter, and Mets broadcasts have been noticeably subdued since the brouhaha erupted.

Darling obligingly implicates himself as an “accomplice of a kind” in tolerating Dykstra’s racist harangue and enjoying the “gifts that fell Lenny’s way as a result,” though by doing so he implicates his teammates as passive accomplices as well. But we have to wonder why, decades later, and in the middle of a successful broadcasting career, Ron Darling went out of his way to spread a story that, at best, would sully the cherished reputation of a great team. Is social virtue so prized now that it’s worth stepping on your teammate’s name to receive it? At the very least, future reunions of the 1986 Mets will never be free of the rift created by Darling’s 2019 tell-all. More than 30 years after the Mets raised their last championship flag, Darling has tainted a treasured memory for his teammates and legions of fans.

Photo by T.G. Higgins/Getty Images

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