By Jeff Pearlman, published on March 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
The 1986 New York Mets are one of the most legendary teams in Major League Baseball history.
The 1986 New York Mets are one of the most legendary teams in Major League Baseball history. Heck, they won 108 of their 162 games, easily securing a place in the playoffs, and boasted five All-Stars plus a lineup powered by one big-name slugger after another. When they clinched the World Series with a now-legendary victory over the Boston Red Sox in the seventh and final game, many sportswriters couldn't resist relaying to their readers the cliched yet satisfying tale of a team destined to triumph: a team of winners.
If only it were so simple.
By most indicators, the Mets were, in fact, a team destined to fail. Their manager, former All-Star second baseman Davey Johnson, was a mediocre strategist who drank excessively and imposed minimal discipline. Their two brightest young stars, pitcher Dwight Gooden and right fielder Darryl Strawberry, were beginning to experiment with cocaine. Catcher Gary Carter was an annoying egomaniac who drove his teammates crazy; rookie Kevin Mitchell was a reformed San Diego gang-banger with a bullet lodged in his back and an alarmingly violent temper; third baseman Ray Knight was a 33-year-old has-been and his backup, Howard Johnson, had been dismissed by his former team, the Detroit Tigers, as a man who would crumble in the clutch. As for experience under pressure, they had next to none. A grand total of two Mets had played in a prior World Series.
"We had a lot of demons and issues to overcome," recalls Ed Hearn, the team's backup catcher. "But there was one thing we had that turned us into winners: one man who wouldn't let us lose, no matter what obstacles we faced.
"Thank God," says Hearn, "for Mex."
In Keith "Mex" Hernandez, the Mets had a leader who absolutely refused to bow down. A veteran first baseman who had won the 1982 World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals, Hernandez was the guy who paced the dugout while screaming at rival pitchers; it was Hernandez who advised Met relief pitchers about why the outside fastball would work better than the inside slider, and who set the ever-important (yet oft-absent) positive tone. Though Hernandez was a skilled player who would go on to win a National League-record 11 Gold Gloves, he was hardly the most talented man on the Mets' roster. Yet, as Hearn puts it, he possessed "that special something."
"Just something about Mex oozed confidence," says Hearn. "It was contagious. It made you need to win." Hence, when the Mets seized the championship from the Red Sox against all odds (New York was twice one strike away from losing), nobody within the clubhouse was especially surprised. "Hell," Hernandez said at the time, "we always expect to win. Always." And they did.
The story of the '86 Mets teaches a fundamental lesson: In the world of collegiate and professional team sports, where so much emphasis is placed on talent, talent, talent, and talent (and, uh, talent), the thin line between victory and defeat is one composed not of muscle but mentality. According to myriad athletes and sports psychiatrists, there are—in the most literal of senses—definitive winners and losers who single-handedly alter the playing field by dramatically influencing the approach and attitude of their teammates. On one side are athletes who raise those around them to a higher level. On the other side are the athletes who don't.
"One of the most important things a leader does is promote the idea of task cohesion," says Patrick Devine, a professor of psychology at Kennesaw State University and former sports psychiatrist for the Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers. "He's the guy who can rally a team to work for a common goal instead of individual goals. You see some teams with big stars who make it all about them—how many points can I score? How many home runs did I hit?" But on the basketball court, for example, "The true team player—the true winner—gets as much pleasure from distributing the ball to a teammate as he does dunking the ball." Involving teammates raises their confidence, includes them in the fun, and motivates them to succeed—improving everyone's performance. "The loser measures success in points. The winner measures success in wins," Devine says.
We usually recognize winners when we see them—the Michael Jordans, the Wayne Gretzkys, the Derek Jeters, the Mia Hamms, the Terry Bradshaws. They are the ones who seem to overcome all obstacles and carry their teams on their backs time after time. Yet would Jeter, the New York Yankees' luminous shortstop, be such a winner were he playing for, say, the Tampa Bay Rays or the Kansas City Royals? Would Bradshaw have quarterbacked, say, the talent-deprived Atlanta Falcons to four Super Bowl crowns the way he did the talent-loaded Pittsburgh Steelers in the mid- to late 1970s?
Answer: Well, yes.
"When you have that one person—that one individual who doesn't care about anything but winning—it's an amazingly powerful tool," says Dawn Staley, Temple University's women's basketball coach and a three-time Olympic gold medalist. "To have one person who's a winner, who can manage personalities, who bleeds for the team—I'll go to battle with him or her any day of the week and take my chances." Staley pauses. "Sadly," she says, "those players are hard to find."
A difference-making athlete has several rare attributes—including an imposing dose of talent, says Aimee Kimball, the director of mental training at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Sports Training. When Joe Namath quarterbacked the New York Jets to a shocking 16-7 triumph over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, he was a loud, cocky, swaggering gunslinger who looked oncoming pass-rushers in the eye and rarely flinched. Namath had one of the league's strongest arms, coupled with an ability to take a beating and get back up. Hence, when he told the media, "We're gonna win the game. I guarantee it," the words raised the confidence of his teammates to an all-time high. Had they been spoken by little-used receiver Bill Rademacher, who would have cared?
Talent alone, however, is not enough. "Great players can have great impacts, but great players with great attitudes have really great impacts," says Malik Rose, a current New York Knicks forward who won two NBA titles with the San Antonio Spurs. "When a star comes along and spreads his intensity and desire to the other players, it's huge." When the Spurs captured those titles in 1999 and 2003, the team was led by a pair of players, David Robinson and Tim Duncan, with Hall of Fame skills, Hall of Fame work ethics, and Hall of Fame attitudes. They led by example—hustling after every loose ball and playing each game as if it were vital to existence. "That's why we won," Rose says. "Everyone followed those guys."
With the lowly Knicks, however, Rose has failed even to reach the playoffs. To informed observers, the reason is obvious: Whereas San Antonio had Robinson and Duncan, New York was, until recently, led by Stephon Marbury, a player with an uncanny ability to disappoint. Marbury has been traded three times in his career, and the aftermath is always the same: The team he leaves gets better; the team he joins suffers. "It's the simple case of Steph wanting to be a star more than he wants to win," says Russ Bengtson, a contributing editor for Slam Magazine. "He wants that big contract, that shoe deal. When that's what drives you, as opposed to being a part of a team and winning a championship, you're doomed to fail. Steph's a star, but hardly a leader."
Along with talent, there are several attributes that all winning teams (and winning players) possess, according to Kimball and other sports psychologists.
Work Ethic: "If you have a player who is constantly working to improve, it's the number one sign of a winner who'll make winning contagious," Kimball says. "The focus isn't 100 percent on outcome, but on getting better and making the people around you better. If players see their star working his tail off, they'll feel compelled to do the same."
In 1990, the Stanford University women's basketball team—a modestly talented group that had won a mere 4 games, while losing 28, just 4 seasons earlier—won its first national championship behind Jennifer Azzi, an All-American point guard who refused to skip a practice or play soft even against lesser opponents. "Our whole mentality was based on working as hard as we could and as smart as we could," says Azzi, who now works as a motivational speaker.
"At Stanford the mental preceded the physical. We wanted it, we prepared for it, we did it." If Azzi sensed a teammate wasn't giving 100-percent effort, she would pull the person aside and quietly set her straight.
"Jen was our best player and our hardest worker," says Angela Taylor, a Stanford reserve. "Letting her down was worse than letting yourself down."
Humility: In a profession overstuffed with tattoo-covered, sneaker-endorsing, trash-talking, Humvee-driving athletes convinced they are God's gift to humanity, those who rise above are often—if not always—well aware they will not always rise above. "Humility leads to an understanding that I'm not always the best, and that another person on any given day can win," says Wade Rowatt, a social psychologist at Baylor University. "If you look at the best athletes, most display this sort of respect for opponents."
Barry Bonds is a case in point. Known as much for his arrogance as his otherworldly talents, the controversial slugger routinely dismissed opponents (and teammates) as unworthy of his presence. In a 22-year big league career he hit a record 762 home runs—yet his team never captured a World Series title. "Barry was a cancer," says Brian Johnson, a longtime major league catcher and Bonds' teammate on the San Francisco Giants in 1997 and '98. "If you have a guy who sees himself as better than everyone else and feels as if he deserves special treatment, he'll never inspire greatness. Just the opposite."
Indeed, when the Giants finally reached the World Series in 2002, many believed their most valuable player was not Bonds but second baseman Jeff Kent, who hit an impressive 37 home runs that year and, more importantly, possessed a gritty, take-no-prisoners approach that rubbed off on teammates. Kent never—absolutely never—underestimated an opponent. "Jeff was quiet," says Johnson, "but he had the respect of the clubhouse."
A Love of Pressure: Though he had devoted his life to reaching baseball's highest level, one former National League catcher (who requests anonymity) makes a staggering confession. "When the ball was popped up, I didn't want it coming my way," he says. "Let the first baseman take it, let the shortstop take it, let the pitcher take it—just not me.
"That," he says, "was the big difference between someone like myself and someone like a Brett Favre or Derek Jeter or Kobe Bryant. Those guys want the ball in crunch time."
In the history of American sports, few athletes have wanted the ball in crunch time as badly as football's Terry Bradshaw, a two-time Super Bowl MVP who raised his game to new heights when the spotlight was at its brightest. Though Bradshaw's regular-season career totals are merely good (including a nearly one-to-one ratio of touchdown passes to interceptions by the other team), he was a different player come the postseason.
In four Super Bowls, Bradshaw passed for nine touchdowns and only four interceptions, doubling his ratio of winning throws. His otherworldly feats remain YouTube staples. "I think a lot of guys didn't relish the big moments," says Bradshaw. "Well, I did. I saw how much fun it was playing in front of that many people, so instead of becoming nervous I got really, really excited. My level of concentration went sky-high. That's when I truly excelled."
Like Bradshaw, athletes ranging from baseball's Jeter and Kent to basketball's Azzi have stated unambiguous preferences for the largest stages. This preference is rare.
Self-motivation: For many teams and athletes, dominance can lead to complacency. As a result, true winners motivate from within. Sometimes this means convincing oneself, and one's team, that tough times are imminent.
"The underdog card is huge—absolutely huge," says Staley, who inherited a Temple basketball program at the bottom of the Big East Conference and has turned it into a perennial contender. "I use it all the time with my players. I'll tell them, 'Nobody believes in us except us. The other team thinks they're gonna kill us. The press gives us no attention. So let's go out there and take it to 'em!'
"It works," she says, "like a charm."
As Staley notes, the lives of athletes are often based upon overcoming obstacles: Break this record. Beat an undefeated team. Hit this guy's slider. So when no obstacle exists, the elite athlete creates his own. He convinces himself he's overlooked. He finds a moderately disparaging quote from an opponent and posts it on a bulletin board. "Success is directly related to motivation," says Hearn, the '86 Mets backup catcher. "When someone believes it's him against the world, it doubles his resolve—even if it's not true."
Selflessness: This trait is "the most important of them all," says Leonard Zaichkowsky, a professor of sports psychology at Boston University. "Athletes who can't dial back their egos for the good of the team are only going to hurt things in the long run."
Indeed, from basketball's Marbury to baseball's Bonds, the athletic landscape is littered with jocks unable or unwilling to forgo impressive personal statistics and SportsCenter highlights in the name of victory. "It's a real problem in this day and age," says Rose, the Knicks forward.
With that observation, Rose drifts back to 1999, when his Spurs won their first NBA championship. For more than a decade the team's best player had been Robinson, a 10-time All-Star and former league MVP. Yet as Duncan, San Antonio's first-round draft pick in '97, gradually developed into a dominant presence, Robinson had given up much of his scoring duty to focus on rebounding, blocking shots, and leadership. "David took a step back so our team could take a step forward," says Rose. "There are a ton of guys who wouldn't have done such a thing. But David did." Rose pauses. "Why?" he asks rhetorically. "Because David Robinson was more than just a great player. He was a winner."