Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch may not be synonymous with Mets baseball, but the larger-than-life politician certainly made his mark on the fan base in Flushing during his tenure.
Ed Koch was right where you'd expect him in the hectic moments following the Mets' Game 7 win in the 1986 World Series. The outspoken and feisty former Mayor of New York City joined the ruckus in the Mets' clubhouse, celebrating with the team. Of course he would be, given any politician's inclination to hitch their wagon to any winner.
Yet Koch, who passed away on Friday at age 88 due to congestive heart failure, had no filter for his opinions. So when he reflected on the Mets-centric festivities to a reporter in the clubhouse that magical night in 1986, everyone alive knew he spoke from the heart.
"This is the second time I have stayed for the full nine innings. But tonight made me a fan. Not an expert, but a fan."
Granted, that sentiment's a little easier to adopt when you're being showered in champagne by Lee Mazzilli. (After Mazzilli covered Koch in bubbly, the former mayor humorously quipped, "Is that California champagne?") And given that the Bronx-born leader made no secret about his lack of fan allegiance to the Mets and the Yankees, one might be tempted to dismiss his "becoming a fan" comment as nothing more than a guy who enjoyed one hell of an evening in Queens on Oct. 27, 1986.
However, Koch's three terms as Mayor of New York City coincided with the darkest hours and brightest days of the team's recent history. He took office in 1978 with the Bronx Zoo in full swing at Yankee Stadium and with the "Midnight Massacre" still fresh in the minds of Mets fans everywhere. He stayed there throughout the 1980s, as the magic came back to Shea behind a kid named Darryl Strawberry and an ace pitcher in Dwight Gooden who was so good and so beloved that he could've beaten Koch in an election for Mayor. And he was there at the end, as former Mets general manager Frank Cashen's creation became too expensive and too old to keep together.
Granted, it's not necessarily worth digging deep into Koch's attachment to Mets baseball, as most of it was associated with political opportunism. That allegedly started in year one, when newly-elected Mayor Koch reportedly served as the umpire in a charity softball game between members of the 1978 New York Mets and a collection of Penthouse pinup girls. And it certainly continued in 1986, when Koch and former New York Governor Mario Cuomo sat beside Davey Johnson in the World Series victory parade.
Koch did control one important item in the Mets' postseason picture, though: the playoff bet. As mayor, Koch took responsibility for agreeing to the ceremonial wager with the opponent's top politician in a battle for bragging rights. That came up twice in 1986, with both bets leading to much better subplots.
Against Houston, Koch took a page right out of the team's history with Banner Day for his big bet. If the Mets defeated the Astros in the 1986 National League Championship Series, Houston mayor Kathy Whitmire agreed to hang an "I Love New York" banner in the city's Tranquility Park. If the Mets lost, Koch would be required to display a "Houston Pride" banner in Central Park. But there was more at stake for the Houston mayor.
That's because Whitmire also agreed to a wager with David Letterman. If Houston won, Letterman would be required to post pictures of Whitmire and the Astros on his show, "Late Night with David Letterman," for four days. If the Mets prevailed, Whitmire had to keep a lifesize photo of Mookie Wilson in her office. The negotiating of those terms did not involve Mayor Koch, but the immediate reaction did.
"I haven't been able to see it (Wilson's picture), but at least it isn't a picture of Mayor Koch," Whitmire said about her side bet with the talk show host.
"We wouldn't be cruel," Letterman responded.
The bet with Boston did not go without controversy, either. Koch and Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn agreed that the team that lost the 1986 World Series would fly the other city's flag. Flynn honored the bet by raising a New York City flag in the end, but a "Red Sox Revenge Squad" stepped in to make a simple wager into a silly controversy.
Boston's rebel squad stole the flag two days after it went up the pole. They requested an apology from Koch and the Mets for the poor behavior by Mets security and fans. In addition, they stated that Koch would need to deliver the apology while wearing a pink bunny suit before the New York City flag would be returned.
That never came to fruition, but Flynn wound up raising a flag that wasn't the one Koch provided. The Boston mayor returned that one because Koch's flag, in addition to the city's colors, displayed the words "I love the New York Mets. Don't tread on me."
His postseason obligations were not the only ones that brought Koch out in defense of the Mets. A commercial produced by the Pirates in 1988 described the Mets as "one more thing to hate about New York." When asked to respond to Pittsburgh, Koch asked, "Where is it?" (Former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Mastoff later replied by sending Koch a map of Steel City.)
Toward the end of his tenure as mayor, Koch continued to show a fondness for the Mets and especially its mustachioed first baseman. Noticing that Keith Hernandez's days in Flushing were numbered as well, Koch invited the 11-time Gold Glove Award winner to City Hall to discuss their impending unemployment.
"I heard of the mistake that was being made, in not picking up his contract," Koch said in 1989. "So I decided to bring him in here and to discuss out future -- as two lame ducks."
Koch then tipped his cap to Hernandez's contributions to the Mets by presenting the first baseman with a Tiffany crystal apple that the former Mayor claimed was only given "to prime ministers and ballplayers."
There were these little anecdotes, little notes of Mayor Koch endearing himself to New Yorkers by embracing the best team in town. (I imagine there are some older diehard Yankees fans who curse Koch's name in the same way that some Mets fans stew over Rudolph Giuliani's unrequited love for the Bronx Bombers.) And he'd done enough to earn his way into a cameo of the 1986 "Let's Go Mets" music video.
New York City mourns the passing of a former three-time mayor who helped steer the city out of bankruptcy and into the right direction, even if his tactics rankled a lot of people along the way. And Metsopotamia mourns the loss of a person who found the joy of baseball by way of the Amazin's in 1980s, and even helped to enhance the fan base's collective memory in a small way.
Mets fans and baseball fans are better for having seen Ed Koch in the stands at Shea Stadium. And for that, we tip our cap to the former Mayor.