Last week, ESPN premiered their latest 30 for 30: “Once Upon a Time in Queens.” The four-part series focused on the New York Mets of the 1980’s, who went from a doormat to becoming one of the best teams in baseball. The primary focus was the build-up all the way to their World Series win in 1986 and the aftermath of that team. The Mets were one of those teams that could have won multiple World Series titles, but couldn’t match the success they had in 1986. So, what if some of these teams during the 1980’s won multiple titles – and why didn’t they?
(Note: I’m one of a handful of contributors alive in this time, so yes, I am old.)
NFL: Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears built something special during the 1980’s. Their defenses – particularly, Buddy Ryan’s 46 Defense – were some of the most devastating during the decade. What’s the ‘what if’ on the 1980’s Chicago Bears? Two things: health at quarterback and age. Quarterback Jim McMahon couldn’t stay healthy, and it cost them a chance at repeating in 1986. The strike-shortened 1987 season saw the Bears win another division title but lost in the divisional playoff (again) to Washington.
The Bears won the NFC Central again in 1988 and they advanced to the NFC championship game, but were trounced by San Francisco, the dynasty of the decade. By 1989, McMahon was traded, the roster was aging, and Jerry Vanisi’s draft touch didn’t pass on to Bill Tobin. The Bears have made some playoff runs since the 1980’s, but have only been back to the Super Bowl once since.
MLB: St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals won the World Series in 1982 with extraordinary pitching and defense and run production with aggressive base running. “Whiteyball” (named after manager Whitey Herzog) would be the hallmark of the team for eleven seasons. The Cardinals won two additional National League pennants in 1985 and 1987. The ‘what if’ for this team in the 1980’s: lack of offense and umpire controversy.
In 1985, the Cardinals owned a 3-1 series lead over Kansas City, but lost the last three games. They hit a collective .182 and scored 13 total runs. In Game 6, the Cardinals fell to a controversial call in the ninth inning. In 1987, the Cardinals’ couldn’t generate offense in Minnesota. The Twins outscored the Cardinals 33-12 in the Metrodome. A controversial call during a rundown in the sixth inning of Game 7 also cost the Cardinals. (Never mention the names Don Deningker or Lee Weyer in a St. Louis bar.)
NHL: Philadelphia Flyers
The Philadelphia Flyers were part of the National Hockey League’s big expansion in 1967. The Flyers won consecutive Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975 with their dominant play and clutch goaltending. They looked to win more Stanley Cups in the 1980’s, but the Flyers didn’t. The big ‘what if’ for this team in the 1980’s is actually pretty simple: they ran into dynasties.
In 1980, Bob Nystrom sunk the Flyers’ Stanley Cup chances in overtime of Game 6. That series jump started the New York Islanders’ run of four consecutive Stanley Cup wins. In 1985 and 1987, Mike Keenan’s Flyers ran into the Edmonton Oilers’ dynasty. The Flyers lost in 1985 in five games and in 1987 in seven games. The 1987 Stanley Cup is historic in that goaltender Ron Hextall became one of two Conn Smythe trophy winners as playoff MVPs on a losing team.
NBA: Boston Celtics
The Celtics? Yes, the Celtics won three titles in the 1980’s: 1981, 1984, and 1986. But it was after the 1986 season that the Celtics’ dynasty started to take a downturn. The big ‘what ifs’ for this team in the 1980’s: the death of Len Bias and an aging team.
The 1986 Celtics went 67-15 and featured five players who were later inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Then, came the NBA Draft of the that season and the Celtics – who stole this pick from the Seattle SuperSonics – selected Bias second overall. Two days later, he was dead from a drug overdose. The Celtics returned to the NBA Finals in 1987, but their decline was starting to show the following season. They were eliminated by Detroit in the Eastern Conference final in 1988 and lost in the first round of the playoffs to the same Detroit team in 1989.