Bittersweet memories of a title

By Anthony DiComo
Updated: February 11, 2011

NEW YORK — If all the confetti had landed following the Mets’ World Series victory over the Red Sox in 1986, Mookie Wilson did not yet know it. He had not yet finished celebrating, in fact, when a Major League Baseball representative called the Mets asking for help. Race riots had broken out on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus, spurred in part by tensions between New Yorkers — Mets fans — and native New Englanders pulling for the Sox.

“We had just won the World Series,” Wilson said. “Going up to be peacemaker was not in my plans. I had planned to be celebrating for the next week or two.”

Nonetheless, not two days after Gary Carter squeezed the final out of the Series, Wilson and Mets PR director Jay Horwitz boarded a plane bound for Amherst.

There, Wilson met up with Marty Barrett, an infielder for the Red Sox.

There, he and Barrett preached tolerance to the student body, the importance of turning a blind eye to race. And there, Wilson — one of six black players on the 1986 Mets — learned a lesson of his own.

“I took a lot away from it,” he said during a telephone interview last week. “Let’s face it: Baseball’s always been in the forefront of any type of race relations, going right back to Jackie Robinson.”

“You don’t really think about these things until later, but I took a lot from that. As athletes, we have more of a responsibility than just to play ball — that I learned very quickly.”

Now the Mets’ first-base coach, Wilson is also the club’s only black coach.

And that is no condemnation of the club, which has embraced Latino and Asian players in recent years and which remains one of the league’s most diverse organizations. Instead, it is a reflection of what Wilson considers a conscious migration of blacks away from baseball and toward other sports.

In the middle of Black History Month, he laments this. But he also understands it and, in a way, even sympathizes with it.

“It’s pretty obvious that there’s been a decline of African-Americans in Major League Baseball — that’s no secret,” he said. “There’s no one reason, and I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault.”

“It’s just the way our country has evolved, the way sports have evolved, that there are other interests now. I think those are more appealing to African-Americans in the community.”

Those interests — basketball and football, mainly — are certainly not evils in Wilson’s eyes.

Although he laments the declining numbers of blacks in baseball and has done his part to try to draw black children back to the game, he understands the appeal of other sports — the appeal of becoming the next LeBron James or Kobe Bryant or Adrian Peterson.

“Is there anything that needs to be fixed? That’s the first question,” Wilson said. “If players are going in other directions by choice, there’s not a whole lot you can do other than give them another choice.”

Major League Baseball acknowledges this issue, and actively works to promote the game in urban areas through such programs as the Urban Youth Academy.

The program has two academies — in Compton, Calif., and in Houston — and is working toward building more in communities that otherwise would not provide the opportunity for kids to play baseball.

In matters of baseball and race, Wilson has already done his part.

During his own career, he played the role of World Series hero, earning admission to the Mets’ Hall of Fame and later vaulting his way to the organization’s big league coaching staff.

Years ago, he introduced his nephew, former Major League outfielder Preston Wilson, to the game. And he has worked with other young black players as well, preaching both the lures of baseball and the skills to succeed in it.

Wilson also did his part on that October day in 1986, cutting short his own celebrations to quell ill will among the student body in Amherst.

Then, he spoke with Barrett, a man who only days earlier had struck out to end one of the most memorable World Series of all time.

“They saw that we could get along, so they should get along also,” Wilson said. “That’s what it was all about.”