Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Saturday, November 03, 2012

The 1986 Boston Red Sox: One Strike Away

Bob Stanley's wild pitch nearly hit Mookie Wilson and blew the Red Sox lead in Game 6.

I still have vivid memories of the 1986 World Series between the Red Sox and Mets and, like most Red Sox fans, was stricken with years of angst by the outcome. I was watching Game 6 live, in disbelief, as that ball infamously rolled between Bill Buckner's legs.

Until the Red Sox finally won the World Series in 2004, I was never able to re-watch and re-live Buckner's gaffe. It was too painful to view again. Once was more than enough. I'd avert my eyes, change the channel, or walk out of the room, if necessary. But the 2004 victory served as a sort of psychic balm that healed all wounds of Red Sox past.

So, I recently went back and re-examined that notorious Game 6 and was reminded that the Red Sox epic loss was due to a series of cumulative mistakes, not just Buckner's legendary error.

The evidence is abundantly clear: Buckner was by no means the only Boston player at fault for the team's historic meltdown. His mistake is just the most famous and, ultimately, the only one that seems to be remembered after all these years. But that is a rather selective memory.

Another thing that's often forgotten is that Buckner's error, and the Red Sox momentous implosion that October evening, didn't decide the World Series. It was only Game 6, not Game 7. The Sox still had another chance, two nights later, to become Champions. But they couldn't overcome the Mets that night either.

The fabled ball hit to Buckner down the first base side took two hops and then simply rolled beneath his glove. It wasn't a bad hop or a difficult play. It was a rather routine ground ball. Buckner simply made a devastating miscue.

Twelve days before the World Series began, Buckner seemed to have a premonition of what was to come. In a televised interview, Buckner said, "The dreams are that you're gonna have a great series and win. And the nightmares are that you're gonna let the winning run score on a ground ball through your legs."

Honestly. He actually said that to a reporter on camera and the video still exists.

The Red Sox held a 5-3 lead over the Mets in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 6, and a 3-2 Series lead. Sox closer Calvin Schiraldi recorded two quick outs (fly balls to Wally Backman and Keith Hernandez), leaving Boston just one out away from its first World Series title since 1918.

In the intervening years, the Sox had lost three heartbreaking seven-game World Series' — to the Cardinals in 1946 and 1967, and to the Red in 1975.

Schiraldi was in his third inning of work that fateful evening, something to which he was entirely unaccustomed.

Buckner was also left in the game in lieu of his usual late-inning defensive replacement, Dave Stapleton. Buckner was stricken by gimpy ankles that limited his mobility. In fact, Buckner was the first major league player to wear Nike high-top baseball cleats during games in order to relieve the stress on his ankles.

But, given Buckner's many invaluable contributions throughout that season, Sox manager John McNamara wanted the veteran to be on the field for the final out. It seemed a fitting and well-earned tribute at the time.

By the second out of the ninth inning, Bob Costas and the NBC camera crew were already set up in the visitors' clubhouse at Shea Stadium. The entire Red Sox clubhouse had been covered with plastic in preparation for the champagne and beer-soaked celebration that would shortly ensue.

The Championship trophy was even rolled into the Sox clubhouse.

But fate would quickly intervene.

With two outs and the bases empty, Gary Carter punched a single into left field. At that moment, the left field score board briefly flashed, "Congratulations to the 1986 World Champion Boston Red Sox."

But that message proved to be quite presumptuous.

The next hitter, backup infielder Kevin Mitchell, lined a pinch-hit single into center. Now there were two men on base, one in scoring position. That brought third baseman Ray Knight to the plate for the Mets.

Schiraldi got two strikes on Knight, leaving the Red Sox one strike away from the cherished World Series Championship that Boston had long been dreaming of. But on the third pitch of the at-bat, Knight swatted the Mets' third consecutive single of the inning, driving in Carter from second and advancing Mitchell to third. The tying run was now just 60-feet away for the Mets.

With the Red Sox clinging to a scant one-run lead, McNamarra made a call to the bullpen. The Sox skipper chose to replace his faltering closer with veteran Bob Stanley, the man Schiraldi had supplanted in that role late in the season.

Meanwhile, the champagne was being readied inside the Red Sox clubhouse. All of MLB's celebratory preparations were well underway.

Mookie Wilson strode to the plate for the Mets with the tying run on third and the winning run on first. Stanley was able to get two strikes on Wilson and once again the Sox were just one strike away from victory. Wilson fouled off a series of pitches, working the count to 2-2. On the seventh pitch of the at-bat, Stanley uncorked a wild pitch that nearly hit Wilson, allowing Mitchell to score the tying run and advancing Knight to second.

League officials quickly removed the champagne and the Championship trophy from the Red Sox clubhouse, while all the plastic was pulled down from the walls and surrounding lockers. Costas stayed behind with just a skeleton crew from NBC.

Somehow, Stanley's blunder is often forgotten. But it was Stanley that blew the Sox precious lead. Until that moment, the Sox were ahead. Even if Boston were to record another out that inning, it would only assure them of getting into the 11th inning and nothing more. The game could no longer be won in the 10th... by the Sox.

Wilson stepped back into the batter's box and worked the count full. On the tenth pitch of the at-bat, he hit a slow ground ball along the first base side. Buckner scrambled to his left and into position to make what appeared to be a routine, inning-ending play. But it was not to be.

After two hops, the ball rolled right underneath Buckner's glove as Knight was rounding third. Seeing the stunning error that had just unfolded, Knight raced home, grasping his helmet to his head with both hands, in total disbelief.

The ebullient Knight scored the game-winning run and the Mets astonishingly seized victory from the jaws of defeat.

Vin Scully's call of the play would become iconic to sports fans.

"So the winning run is at second base, with two outs, three and two to Mookie Wilson. (A) little roller up along first... behind the bag! It gets through Buckner! Here comes Knight, and the Mets win it!"

Scully then remained silent for more than three minutes, letting the pictures and the crowd noise tell the story.

Meanwhile, the NBC camera crew scrambled to break down their equipment and pull all of the TV and audio cables out of the Red Sox clubhouse as quickly as possible.

Four times in that final inning, the Mets were down to their last strike. Yet, the Red Sox couldn't close the deal.

Somehow, Buckner came to singularly symbolize the Red Sox epic failure. Stanley escaped relatively free and unscathed from the dark annals of Red Sox history, as well as from the ire of a legion of Red Sox of fans.

No one seems to remember that it was Stanley's wild pitch that cost the Red Sox their lead. And no one seems to remember that Schiraldi gave up three consecutive two-out singles — allowing a run and putting the tying run on third — rather than closing out the game.

Only Buckner's blunder is remembered after all these years.

Red Sox right fielder Dwight Evans says that after the game, none of the Red Sox players blamed Buckner for the loss or thought it was his fault.

But the fans and the media saw things differently. They needed a scapegoat and a whipping boy. Buckner became both.

The next night's scheduled contest, Game 7, was rained out, leaving Red Sox fans to stew and grow ever more despondent. Losing seemed to be the Red Sox destiny and the team's perpetual bad luck was playing itself out once again on national television. What felt like drama to baseball fans around the nation felt like a kick in the gut to Sox fans.

The Sox would stake out a 3-0 lead through six innings in Game 7, only to lose in heartbreaking fashion by a score of 8-5. Once again, Knight was the Mets' hero, hitting the tie-breaking home run in the seventh.

Knight batted .391 with five RBIs and was awarded the World Series MVP for his efforts. He also won the Baseball Writers Association of America's Babe Ruth Award for the best performance in the World Series.

Mets fans were over the moon with joy, reveling in the team's first World Series title since 1969.

Boston fans, on the other hand, were in mourning. The Red Sox were so close to that elusive Championship — one strike away on four separate occasions — and yet went down in defeat in seven games once again, just as they had in '46, '67 and '75. It had become a loathsome trend of customary despair.

By that time, pleas of "Wait until next year" had grown oh so trite. The Sox did indeed appear cursed. And Buckner seemed to epitomize that supposed hex.

What's often forgotten is how great a baseball player Buckner was throughout his long career and how significant his contributions were to the Red Sox from 1984 to 1987.

When Buckner finally ended his career, he had won a batting title (1980) and had more hits (2,715) than legends Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. He also batted at least .300 in seven seasons.

Yet, all that's remembered is that damn ground ball in Game 6.

The Red Sox acquired Buckner from the Cubs for Dennis Eckersley and Mike Brumley on May 25, 1984. The Red Sox were 19–25, and in sixth place in the American League East at the time of the trade. However, after obtaining Buckner the Sox improved to 67–51 the rest of the way and finished the season in fourth. Buckner invigorated a lackluster Sox squad with some offensive firepower and the will to win.

Buckner appeared in all 162 games for the Red Sox in 1985, batting .299 with 16 home runs and a career high 110 RBIs in the number two spot in Boston's line-up. Buckner was a prototypical contact hitter, and struck out just 36 times in 718 plate appearances to lead the league in that category.

Buckner also led the league in most at-bats per strikeout in '86 and was second in '87. Additionally, Buckner drove in over 100 runs in both '85 and '86.

But after the '86 World Series, Buckner was heckled and booed by his own home fans and even began receiving death threats.

Given all that, it's rather amazing that the Sox had Buckner back in '87 and that he was even willing to return. However, their association didn't last long; the Red Sox released Buckner on July 23, despite the fact that he was batting .273 with two home runs and 42 RBI through 95 games.

Buckner went on to play for the Angels and the Royals from '87 through '89. However, he eventually returned to Boston as a free agent in 1990 for 22 games. Buckner received a standing ovation from the crowd during player introductions at the home opener on April 9. However, the reunion was short-lived; the veteran retired on June 5 after batting just .186 with one home run and three RBI.

Most remarkable of all, perhaps, was that Buckner and his family lived in Boston until 1993, at which point they finally moved away for good. Buckner's wife couldn't stand the heckling and jeering directed toward her husband whenever they were out in public.

Ultimately, after a fantastic 21-year career, Buckner deserves to be remembered for a lot more than a single error. But sadly, just one play stands out in his illustrious career.

A wonderful healing moment finally occurred for Buckner when he returned to Fenway Park to throw out the first pitch to former teammate Dwight Evans at the home opener on April 8, 2008. The game was a celebratory event, with the Red Sox unfurling their 2007 World Series Championship banner.

Buckner received a four-minute standing ovation from the sell-out crowd. It was a beautiful experience for everyone. Buckner was visibly moved and genuinely appreciative of the reception he received. At long last, it seemed that he was finally forgiven by Red Sox fans.

Such an occasion was well-deserved and long overdue. Bill Buckner should be remembered for a lot more than just one error.

Bob Stanley, on the other hand... well that's another story.