Erik Sherman’s The King of Queens: Life Beyond Baseball with the ’86 Mets.
It’s ironic that I find myself strongly admiring the 1986 New York Mets after reading Erik Sherman’s The King of Queens: Life Beyond Baseball with the '86 Mets. After all, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Red Sox fan who still has somber memories of the 1986 World Series that saw my boys in red come within a strike of winning it all for the first time in sixty-eight years. For years afterward, my brother taunted me about how the Mets beat the Red Sox in ‘86 by re-enacting the infamous Bill Buckner blunder at first in Game 6. Whether it was an empty soda can, or a tennis ball, my brother Bill loved to throw it through his own legs after asking me, “Hey Zach, who am I?” And for years, my brother’s incessant teasing exacerbated my distain for names like Doc Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Gary Carter, and especially Mookie Wilson. The author of Mookie: Life, Baseball, and the '86 Mets, and my personal favorite, Out at Home: The True Story of Glenn Burke, Baseball's First Openly Gay Player, Sherman’s latest book updates his readers about the 1986 New York Mets and what its remaining players are up to nowadays, I put down the book, along with my animosity, with a new respect for a team whose members have overcome their extrinsic and intrinsic demons and regained control over their own lives. Sherman’s book skillfully taps into the psyche of each player, giving his readers a glimpse into the world of his life after each respective playing career ended. The book starts with Dwight “Doc” Gooden, who Sherman portrays as an older and modest man who broke into the Major Leagues with a fastball that netted him a Rookie of the Year Award, a Cy Young Award, and nearly 200 wins over a long career, along with the respect and admiration of millions of fans. But like so many young players, Gooden succumbed to the pressure that fame brings, and turned to drugs and alcohol as a way to face the stress. Sherman smoothly discussed Gooden’s particular troubles with drugs and alcohol, and how they disrupted what could very well have been a Hall of Fame career (I still think he has a decent shot). Despite its sensitive subject, Sherman diplomatically broaches the topic without patronizing Gooden, allowing the former pitcher to respond with grace and tranquility. Having met Doc Gooden myself, I found that I could easily identify with Sherman’s description as a man who maintains his humility as he begins a new chapter in his life as a grandfather (Yes, the former 1984 Mets Rookie of the Year who started his first game at age 19 is now a grandfather).
Insightful but not gossipy, Sherman approaches all of his subjects with this level of respect. Readers will be left with a positive impression of each player, continuing with chapters where he describes talks with Lenny Dykstra and his problems with gambling, Keith Hernandez and how his career Hall of Fame-worthy performance was punctuated by a cocaine problem, which also plagued fellow teammates Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. Sherman opens his readers to the lives of players who have faced challenges like cancer, chronic back pain, taking in children from other relatives, and trying to forget the bitter words and memories exchanged between teammates and team executives alike, words that continue to sting after thirty years.
Sherman’s narrative makes his readers feel as though they’re sitting right there with the players. As Sherman described Darryl Strawberry and his relationship with God, I could almost see the faith that Strawberry now lives by, instead of resting his laurels on his all-start status from the 1980s. As Sherman discussed Mookie Wilson’s status as the man who hit the grounder through Bill Buckner’s legs, we see someone who feels the Mets wronged him, and now wants people to recognize his writing skills as a source of inspiration for those in need.
What I loved most about Sherman’s book was his portrayal of Gary Carter, who is so far the only member of the New York Mets 1986 team to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Speaking to his wife, Sandy, Sherman paints Gary Carter as a family man who initially drew anger and resentment from his teammates when he joined the Mets because of his constant positive disposition on and off the field. Keith Hernandez particularly referenced the smile that Carter always wore that frustrated opposing players into making them feel patronized. But over time, as his teammates got to know him, they eventually came to respect the smiling catcher who often played in pain out of love for baseball. Unfortunately, Carter died of cancer in 2012, making him the only deceased member of the 1986 Mets. But even in death, Carter is fondly remembered as a team player who stood as a shining example of hard work and determination, as well as respect and humility.
In Sherman’s book, readers, especially Mets fans, have no problem getting to know, or even relating to their former idols, who we come to see as just any other person when their many layers of fame, struggle, and notoriety are peeled back.