In the wake of all the fuss and folderol inspired by their epic 2011 pratfall, the 25th anniversary of the zaniest moment in their entire history floated by aimlessly and largely unnoticed. Such is life with these Red Sox. Monitoring their assorted escapades and travesties is an exhausting task. Stuff slips through the cracks, sometimes.
Still, a proper observance of the follies of 1986 is obliged, however belatedly. As such epics go, 1986 makes 2011 seem minor-league. It was the Mother of the art-form, and the origin of the mindless fury that has fired their following ever since, with not even a couple of championships appeasing it. You should recall the circumstances well, even if you weren’t among those haunted by them for most of the next quarter century.
The ’86 Red Sox were solid with a lineup anchored by eventual Hall-of-Famers Jim Rice and Wade Boggs and a trio close to that distinction in Dwight Evans, Don Baylor, and Bill Buckner. But their pitching was their hallmark, as rarely has been the case with this franchise. In Roger Clemens and Bruce Hurst they had baseball’s premier one-two punch and both were kids of seemingly unlimited promise. In charge of it all was John McNamara, a respected, old-school, baseball lifer who never seemed comfortable in the cauldron of Boston Baseball. The manager was their weak link.
But until Game Six of the World Series at Shea Stadium against the Mets there was little hint of that. The lads could be excused for believing they’d become anointed and thereby dispensed from the mean, bitter, sometimes mysterious caprices that had famously plagued the franchise for (at that point) 68 years. Game Five of the American League Championship Series in Anaheim against the Angels had everything to do with that.
My recollection of the moment remains crystal-clear. It was a beautiful day in Lotus-land; balmy with not a cloud in the sky. A bunch of us from the motley Red Sox media delegation were watching from the left-field stands and we had a clear view of the Angels’ dugout where Gene Mauch, their Napoleonic manager, and Reggie Jackson, their aging resident icon, were already exulting as the ninth inning unfolded.
And why not? Leading the Series three games to one, they had a 5-2 lead with one out and Mike Witt still firing bullets and the crowd of 64,000 in a sea of orange roaring on every pitch. No matter your stake in the thing, you had to smile at these people, who had never won anything, and especially feel good for Mauch, a prince of a fellow who’d never been as close to glory in a quarter century of earnest strivings. And then it all fell apart.
It has been largely forgotten that it was Baylor who struck the key blow, golfing a two-run homer on an almost unhittable pitch to make it 5-4. Whereupon the panic-stricken Mauch called upon Gary Lucas to deal with Richie Gedman. Lucas rewarded him by nicking Gedman with a fastball on the forearm, bringing up David ‘Hendu’ Henderson. To which Mauch rightly responded by summoning his favorite – albeit lately shaky – reliever, Donnie Moore. The rest, as they say, is History.
Hendu’s mighty homer landed only a few yards from us. Unforgettable is the memory of him literally dancing around the bases, the world’s happiest fella, as a crushing silence fell on the sea of orange. It wasn’t over. It has also been largely forgotten that they hammered on one another three more innings .It was a great game -- much like rollicking Game Six of this year’s World Series. But the result was never in doubt. In an awful post-script years later, Moore killed himself. But the fanciful notion that still persists holding that his demise was inextricably linked to that game has always seemed improper to me. The poor man had many issues.
Two weeks later, on a foggy Saturday night in gloomy Queens, they were at the brink of the glory devilishly denied them since 1918. On the wings of Hendu’s blast they’d won six of eight, casually sweeping aside the accursed Angels then seizing a 3-2 lead over the Mets, thanks mainly to Hurst’s brilliance and timely hitting from Hendu, Evans, and little Marty Barrett. Game Six was taut throughout, tied at three after nine, when in the 10th the chosen one, Henderson, struck again. His homer and a subsequent run-scoring single by the plucky Barrett handed Calvin Schiraldi a two-run lead to protect and, though seeming a tad wild-eyed, Schiraldi effortlessly retired the first two Mets, bringing up Gary Carter.
What followed in a timeless and frenzied blur is the stuff of baseball’s best myth. In Boston, it’s forever remembered as the most inglorious of Red Sox failures, ultimate proof that for eight and a half decades this team was truly cursed. In the rest of the rational world, it’s forever remembered as maybe the most dauntless and valiant comeback in sports history. I lean to the latter thesis.
For sure, the Red Sox blundered that inning, but it was more the Mets’ heroism that prevailed in the end. It became the yardstick for all miraculous moments in baseball, so when the Cardinals impossibly over-hauled the Rangers in this year’s Game Six, the comparison was instantly invoked by all. But it doesn’t wash in my book. What the Mets did to the Red Sox in ’86, was greater, even more stunning.
The press box behind home plate at Shea was high with a narrow corridor connecting to an elevator that carried the ink-stained wretches to the clubhouses in the bowels of the dark and damp old place and on this night there was a herd of Fourth-Estaters in an utter frenzy to be in the Red Sox quarters when the champagne began spraying on the dispellers of the fabled curse. As I recall, it was Peter Gammons – self-appointed leader of the pack – who declared after the first out, ‘Let’s go!’ And the stampede to the elevator was on. But Leigh Montville and I were standing in the back of the press box and it was Monty who sagely suggested, “Let’s just see what happens.” So we stayed there, near-alone, to see the drama unravel.
Carter singled hard to left. Kevin Mitchell singled harder to center. Though wobbling, Schiraldi was allowed to face Ray Knight, who ,with two strikes, somehow muscled a pitch that almost hit him into center, scoring Carter. McNamara, looking dazed, called on Steamer Stanley to face Mookie Wilson as Schiraldi departed, looking stoned. The crowd of 55,000, all standing, could be heard in New Jersey.
Wilson’s grueling at-bat was one for the ages. Steamer was a strike away when Mookie fouled off a couple. Then came that inning’s single most important pitch. Though well inside – Wilson leapt to avoid getting hit – it was eminently catchable. But it eluded a weary Richie Gedman, who’d caught every inning of the post-season, rolling to the screen as a gleeful Mitchell raced home with Knight advancing to second. It was tied. The place was shaking. The Red Sox, every last one of them, were doomed.
What is mainly only remembered, of course, is what happened next as Wilson, on the 10th pitch of his immortal at-bat, tapped a soft, skimmering roller that as if by magic dribbled through the scrawny wickets of the desperate Buckner. In the end, the Sox were ordained to lose and poor Buckner was no more guilty than the rest of them. He was just destiny’s fall guy. But he’s had to live with it the rest of his life.
It was an eerie evening. An hour later, I ran into Mike Torrez wandering the passageway between the clubhouses and he bellowed at me, “I’m off the hook….I’m off the hook.” He was referring, obviously, to his own huge role in Red Sox historical infamy as the luckless fellow who served the meatball Bucky Dent smacked into the screen in 1978, while asserting that he was no longer the ultimate goat. And he was right, sort of.
Red Sox follies do connect over the ages. None surpassed the epic in the lovely Autumn of ’86.