Good To The Very Last Out

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November 3, 1986

Good To The Very Last Out

by Ron Fimrite


There were two outs in the ninth inning Monday night, and the Mets were ahead for good, 8-5, in the seventh game of the 1986 World Series. The Shea Stadium fans, frenetic but orderly for a change, were on their feet crying for the final blow, and the mounted police were preparing a charge from the bullpen to barricade the field. Boston's Marty Barrett, who had tied a Series record in the second inning when he got his 13th hit, was standing at the plate in swirling mists, a ghost of Series past for all those Red Sox fans who have dutifully borne more than their share of suffering. And then Xsomeone tossed a red smoke bomb onto the grass in left centerfield. What cruel symbolism. There went a season of hope, an incredible escape from defeat in the playoffs and a World Series of such promise (two straight wins at the start) and maybe the last chance for New England fans to believe that it's possible for their team not to bomb in the big ones. There it all went, up in a puff of red smoke. When Shea functionaries finally defused the bomb, the determined Barrett resumed his stance at the plate — and struck out.

Actually, the season had gone up in smoke for the Sox two nights earlier in Game 6 when they came within one strike of their first world championship in 68 years. Even in this final game, they were breezing along with a 3-0 lead entering the bottom of the sixth, but as students of Red Sox history recall, they also led 3-0 in the seventh game of their last Series, in 1975 against the Reds.

It was in this Series' sixth inning that Boston's tiring starter, Bruce Hurst, manfully trying to win his third game of the Series, finally pooped out. Hurst had pitched 17 innings entering the seventh game and had allowed only two earned runs. He had held the Mets, swinging viciously, to one hit and no runs for the first five innings, but he was trying to pitch on only three days' rest, and after 74 pitches, his arm simply gave out.

Hurst was starting in place of Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd, the pitcher manager John McNamara had originally ticketed for the Series finale on Sunday. But Sunday was a day of rain, and McNamara decided to go on Monday with his proven winner. The manager informed a distraught Boyd that he would be the first one out of the bullpen should Hurst encounter trouble, but McNamara, as it turned out, would break his promise. Boyd was inconsolable both before and after the game. "I wanted the call," said the Can, sobbing in front of his locker after the loss, "but I didn't get the call." Hurst did, and he carried that 3-0 lead into the sixth, the result of a three-run, second-inning outburst against the Mets' starter, Ron Darling, who, like Hurst, was making his third Series start. But in the sixth, consecutive hits by pinch-hitter Lee Mazzilli and Mookie Wilson and a walk to Tim Teufel loaded the bases. Then Keith Hernandez hit a ball "up in my lips" to center to score two, and Gary Carter looped another ball to right that Dwight Evans almost caught. That tied the score, although Hernandez was thrown out on a rarely seen 9-6 fielder's choice.

The Mets' strategy throughout the Series had been to somehow get past Boston's effective starters and to get to the bullpen that lacked depth and, especially, lefthanders. "I wouldn't have said this during the Series," Mets second baseman Wally Backman said after the big win, "but we knew that if we got to the bullpen, it would be no contest."

Hurst was gone after his sorrowful sixth, replaced by Calvin Schiraldi, a sadfaced righthander who had suffered the wrath of the Bosox gods two nights earlier. Schiraldi got to 2 and 1 on Ray Knight, leading off the seventh, then threw him a fastball that Knight lined into the drapery beyond the leftfield fence for the tie-breaking run. Knight, who had three hits in the game and was named the Most Valuable Player of the Series, bounced around the bases in obvious recognition that the game was now going New York's way. That's what Frank Sinatra's voice on the deafening loudspeaker system also seemed to be saying — "I want to be a part of it" — as Knight made his gleeful journey. "I proved I'm not Ray Lopez," he said later, in reference to his more celebrated wife, golfer Nancy Lopez. "I've told Davey [manager Johnson] that I'm a winner."

The Mets got two more runs in the inning off Schiraldi and Joe Sambito, a seldom-used lefty, and seemed to be winging. But the Sox were far from finished. In the eighth, they closed the gap to 6-5 on singles by Bill Buckner, the limping first baseman, and Jim Rice and a long double in the gap to right center by Evans, who had started the evening's scoring in the second with a leadoff homer completely over the leftfield pavilion. But in the eighth, McNamara, still passing over Oil Can, reached deeper into his bullpen and brought in Al Nipper, nominally a starter. Nipper threw two strikes to Darryl Strawberry, leading off the inning, and then another pitch, which hammered over the fence in rightfield. Strawberry did a very slow turn around the bases to show up the Red Sox, and if these two teams meet again in the near future in the Series, or if baseball institutes interleague play anytime soon, the Mets' star can expect to hit the dirt.

Streamers were sailing from the stands now onto the field as the crowd readied itself for the big celebration. The Mets' last run was almost an insult, as Jesse Orosco, the ace lefthander of the New York bullpen, faked a bunt and bounced a single through the infield to score Knight from second. McNamara replaced Nipper with Steve Crawford, his sixth pitcher of the night. But the damage, the final damage, had been done.

The Mets were right. The secret was getting to the bullpen. In the last two games in New York, McNamara's relievers gave up 10 hits and 9 runs in 4 2/3 innings. For the whole Series, the sorry numbers were 13 runs in 15 1/3 innings. Pitching depth had won the Series. The Mets went with only three starters — Darling, Gooden and Ojeda — in the Series, but they got good bullpen mileage out of regular starters Sid Fernandez and Rick Aguilera, who joined the star relievers, Orosco and Roger McDowell. Orosco retired 16 of the 18 batters he faced, earning two saves without giving up a run. Fernandez, who relieved a tiring Darling in the fourth inning of the final game, shut down the Sox in the middle innings. "He was the unsung hero of the game," said Hernandez. Fernandez had wanted a start, but Johnson, reluctant to use lefthanders in Fenway Park, kept him in the pen, with salubrious results. Fernandez was disappointed that he didn't start, but in the glow of victory he could say, "Hell, we won. Just to pitch in a World Series means a lot. After all, it may never happen again."

Orosco was the mop-up man in this one, and he threw nothing but breaking balls, setting down the Sox in the ninth as he retired his 11th, 12th and 13th straight batters in the Series. "I had a good slider," he said, "and if you have a good pitch, you should stay with it." Orosco was also pitching with a mild case of strep throat, but he did manage a victory yelp when Barrett went down swinging for the final out. Orosco's teammates buried him in an avalanche of bodies.

The Mets had cause to be jubilant. Although they were overwhelming favorites to win the Series, they did it the hard way, losing the first two at home, just as last year's champion Kansas City Royals had. And though the Mets were undisputed winners, they were never exactly America's team. Their aggressive play, general cockiness and habit of high-fiving and showboating before their home fans — who expect it of New York teams — made them decidedly unpopular around the league, as four bench-clearing brawls during the season would seem to attest. But so what? They won. They were what they had been saying all along — the best team in baseball. And when the mayor of their city walked into their roaring clubhouse after the final out, the gangling Strawberry did a very Metsian thing. He kissed hizzoner, Ed Koch, on the top of his bald head.

"No one," said Carter, "can take the world championship away from us now, regardless of envy, hatred or jealousy."

The Sox? Well, they came close again, just as they did in '75 and '67 and '46, but they haven't won one of these things since Babe Ruth was their best pitcher, and the frustration of such a sorry history is beginning to sink in. "I don't believe in luck," said a meloncholy Evans. "I don't believe in history, either, but maybe I'm starting to." And so what got off to a good start for destiny's stepchildren had a sorry ending. But there were some memorable moments along the way. On Saturday, after a run of desultory yawners, the Series got the game it deserved, an improbable melodrama, wild and ragged, desperate and fierce, heartbreaking and heart-lifting. Somehow, in all the confusion and excitement, the Mets won 6-5 in 10 innings and tied the Series. This was hardly World Series play at its most efficient. There were five errors (and no more only because the official scorers were uncommonly charitable) and the two managers, bent on outsmarting each other, actually outsmarted themselves. But this game must be considered one of the most thrilling in Series history, one that combined equal parts of the famous Game 6 at Fenway in 1975 with its Carlton Fisk homer and Game 4 of 1971 when that Hugh Casey spitter and a Dodger win got away from catcher Mickey Owen in the ninth. Until Saturday, Owen had been rated the World Series' top goat.Also, now there is a new kid on the block. The tone for this one may have been set in the very top of the first when a parachutist in canary yellow, carrying a placard that said LET'S GO METS, dropped from the skies above Shea onto the infield with Bill Buckner at bat. Before the night was over, Buckner must have felt as if the sky itself had fallen in on him.

Roger Clemens started the game for Boston against Bob Ojeda, the Game 3 winner, Ojeda was pitching with only three days' rest while Clemens had had five, and during this, his wonder season, Clemens had been unbeaten in the eight starts he had had with five or more days' rest. After winning the first two Series games, John McNamara had decided, undeterred by the loss of Game 3, to throw a fourth starter, Nipper, to the wolves in the fourth game so that Hurst, Clemens and, if necessary, Boyd could finish up strong and well-rested. There had been so much talk in this Series about the theraputic values of rest that one half-expected the participants to be wheeled, lap robes in place, to their positions by white-jacketed attendants.

Though neither he nor Ojeda finished, Clemens did indeed come on strong at the start. His fastball reached 95 miles an hour or better 27 times in the first two innings, when he struck out four. The trouble was, he was throwing too many pitches. By the sixth he had thrown more than 100, and a blister was developing on the middle finger of his pitching hand. He had reached 137 pitches after seven, so McNamara took him out in favor of Schiraldi, the Sox' ace "closer" since arriving in midseason from Pawtucket. Schiraldi immediately got into trouble, throwing a bunt away when he had a sure out at second base and finally giving up the tying run on a sacrifice fly by Carter, who swung with the count 3 and 0. And that was that until the 10th, an inning the likes of which the Series may never see again.

Dave Henderson led it off for Boston by clubbing an 0-and-1 fastball over the leftfield fence off Rick Aguilera. There's your story right there. It was Henderson after all, who got the Red Sox into the Series in the first place, rescuing them with a saving homer in the fifth game of the league playoffs, when they were all but dead, and then winning it for them with a sacrifice fly in the 11th. Henderson had started the season with Seattle and was not traded to Boston until August, when Mariner manager Dick Williams decided he was dispensable. He had hit only one homer for the Red Sox throughout the rest of the season, but the would-be Series winner on Saturday was his third of the postseason, as well as his ninth RBI. Presumably, Boston fans were even at that moment erecting his monument in Kenmore Square. Henderson was moved to lyricism by his own accomplishments. "I thought it was the closing chapter of a fairy tale," he said. Just for good measure, the Sox got another run on a double by Wade Boggs and a single by Barrett. Normally fatalistic Red Sox fans began to smile.

Schiraldi quickly got two outs in the bottom of the 10th, the second on a long line drive to center by Hernandez that Henderson — who else? — caught up with after a heroic run. Hernandez flung his batting helmet onto the turf in disgust and repaired to the clubhouse for a contemplative smoke and to plan what was left of his ruined evening — "I was going to go out and get drunk and stay up all night." Two outs now, two runs up. The Red Sox were on their feet in the dugout. Boyd was doing an amusing dance. Their first World Series championship since 1918 was there for the taking. No more talk of Johnny Pesky holding the ball, of Joe Morgan hitting that blooper, of Bucky Dent lofting that damn homer into the screen. Now there was only Henderson and champagne. But hold on. . . .

Carter, the would-be final out, hit a single to left on a 2-and-1 count. No big deal. Then Kevin Mitchell, a righthanded hitter who had to be fetched from the clubhouse because he thought his season was over, came in to hit for Aguilera, who was batting in Strawberry's fifth spot, the result of a soon-to-be-controversial batting-order double switch that had been arranged by Davey Johnson. Aguilera was watching in misery from the bench. He would soonbe, he thought, the losing pitcher of the final game of the 1986 World Series.

"My heart was breaking," he said. But Mitchell fought off an inside fastball and looped it to center for another hit. Red Sox coach Bill Fischer trotted out to the mound to still Schiraldi's nerves. Hey, kid, only one out to go. Schiraldi quickly got two strikes on Knight. Then Knight singled to center and Carter, arms flailing, crossed the plate. Five to four. Mitchell made it all the way to third on the play. That was it for Schiraldi. McNamara replaced him

with Bob Stanley.

This has not been a banner season for the 31-year-old Stanley, once the million-dollar ace of the Bosox bullpen. Some lackluster performances, coupled with his high salary, made him seem overpaid and overrated to the Fenway cynics.

His every move was booed. One day last summer when he was driving to the ballpark, a car pulled up alongside, and the driver stuck his head out the window to berate him. Stanley's assailant became so exercised by the mere sight of the despised pitcher that in the next block, still distracted, he crashed his car into the rear end of another. Stanley is untroubled by such abuse. "That's O.K.," he said of his unpopularity. "When I'm on the mound in the World Series, they'll cheer me."

And so there he was, on the mound in the World Series only one out away from the anticipated cheers. "It's the dream of every major league pitcher to beon the mound for the world champions, to be there for the final out," he said.

Mookie Wilson was the hitter standing between him and the dream, and Wilson, by his own admission, is inclined to "swing at balls over my head and in the dirt." This time, though, he was determined to have a memorable at bat.

Stanley went 0 and 1 on him, then 1 and 1, then 2 and 1, then 2 and 2. Wilson fouled off two breaking balls. Stanley decided to go inside with a fastball that would run away from Wilson toward the plate. Mets third base coach Bud Harrellson, meanwhile, had advised Mitchell, the rookie running at third, to be alert for wild pitches. Mitchell nodded nervously. Stanley threw his fastball. But it didn't sail away from the hitter; it stayed inside, heading for Wilson's ribs. If it were to hit him the bases would be loaded, but, said Wilson, "As intelligent as I am, my instincts took over, my instinct for self-preservation. I didn't want to get hit." He flung himself aside with a mighty jump, momentarily blocking catcher Rich Gedman's sight of the ball. Mitchell also had trouble following the ball. He hesitated before making his break, unaware of Harrellson's shouts for him to go, go, go! At last he did go. "I didn't know if I'd make it. Four steps from the plate I was going to dive. Then I saw I didn't have to." The ball had bounced away from a cursing Gedman all the way to the backstop for a wild pitch. Score tied. Knight now on second.

The count now was 3 and 2 on Wilson. He fouled off the next pitch. He could see that Buckner at first was playing him deep, perhaps 30 feet behind the bag.With his speed, he knew he had a chance to beat out a ball hit down the line. Buckner knew that, too, and when Wilson hit the next pitch directly at him, the first baseman decided against going to his knees to make the catch, knowing that a throw from that position might not have enough on it. The ball was not hit all that solidly. "It bounced and bounced and then it didn't bounce," said Buckner. "It just skipped." It skipped under his glove and between his aching legs as Knight hopped crazily home with the winning run. The Mets were still alive in the World Series.

"I can't remember the last time I missed a ground ball," said Buckner. "I'll remember that one." So, he must know, will a lot of people.

The suddenness of the Red Sox' demise in Game 6, and their proximity to the Promised Land, might best be illustrated by what happened to NBC broadcaster Bob Costas and his crew in the bottom of the 10th. Costas was perched in the corner of the visiting dugout nearest to the runway leading to the clubhouse. It was past midnight, of course, because with the television-induced late starts, this had become the Witching Hour Series. Costas had taken up his position in anticipation of the historic Red Sox victory. The rest of his crew was already inside the clubhouse, busily setting up the interview platform, positioning the cameras and aiming the lighting. They were ready for the big moment.

When Backman flied out meekly to open the 10th, Costas edged toward the tunnel. Then when Hernandez lined out, Costas headed for the clubhouse, mentally preparing himself for the champagne-soaked interviews that would follow within minutes. Inside the locker room, Costas learned that he would be flanked on the platform by Red Sox president Jean Yawkey and chief executive officer Haywood Sullivan, both of whom were waiting in the wings. Baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth would be there to present the World Series trophy to them and to read a congratulatory message from President Reagan. Costas was told that Hurst, winner of two Series games, would be given the Most Valuable Player award. The cellophane was draped over the players' cubicles to protect their belongings from the spray of champagne. Costas decided to check the NBC monitor. Hmmm, Carter was on first base. The game hadn't ended.Then Mitchell got a hit, and Knight another. The game was far from over. Dave Alworth, the commissioner's liaison man for television, dashed nervously into the busy room. If the Mets tied the game, he told Costas and crew, they would have to clear out of there, bag and baggage, in a big hurry.

Then came the wild pitch to Wilson. "I swear," said Costas, "that ball had not stopped rolling before the technicians had packed up and gotten out of there. I had never seen anyone move so fast. I stayed behind to watch the monitor. And when that ground ball rolled between Buckner's legs, they just pulled the plug on me and hustled me out of sight. We were all gone by the time the Red Sox, uttering what epithets you can imagine, got back there. It was amazing. It all happened so fast. We just disappeared." And so did victory for the Red Sox.

McNamara will, of course, have to live with his decision to keep Buckner, hobbling on two injured ankles, in the game on defense with a world championship on the line. In the past, he has replaced him defensively in similar situations with the much more mobile Dave Stapleton — usually, however, after Buckner has been lifted for a pinch runner. McNamara actually had an opportunity to pinch-run for him in the Red Sox' half of the 10th when Buckner was hit by a pitch. But he left him in. "He has good hands," his manager said, "and he was moving pretty well tonight." McNamara's decision will also be long remembered.

Not as memorable, certainly, but equally baffling was Johnny Mac's continued reluctance to employ his leading home run hitter, Don Baylor, in these Shea Stadium games. The designated hitter, Baylor's position, was allowed only in the American League park this year, but Baylor was certainly available for pinch-hitting service. And yet when the opportunities to pinch hit did arise, in Games 1, 2 and 6 at Shea, McNamara went to lefthand-hitting rookie Mike Greenwell all three times. Greenwell went 0 for 2 with a walk. Baylor played in more games, 160, than any of his teammates in the regular season, and he hit 26 of his 31 homers off righthanded pitching. Surely, he could not be expected to lose his touch in the Series. There was some speculation, for that matter, that Baylor might even play first base in Buckner's stead on Saturday against the lefthanded Ojeda. But no. The World Series for this fine player and dangerous clutch hitter had become strictly a homefield affair.

Johnson, for his part, certainly made a similarly unpopular decision when he did his switcheroo in the ninth, having Mazzilli bat in the pitcher's spot in the order and Aguilera bat fifth, in Strawberry's position. Johnson's reasoning was that Strawberry had made the last out in the eighth and his spot would not come up again soon. But it did in the 10th, and Johnson had to use the rookie Mitchell — a righthanded hitter, at that — in that critical position. Deprived of a chance to participate in the last glorious, gutwrenching rally, the biggest ever produced by a World Series team in extra innings, Strawberry was enraged. "The manager didn't show confidence in me," he said, overlooking for the moment the fact that he had not had a Series RBI and that, therefore, such a lack of confidence might have been justified. "I don't like the idea that it happened in a World Series. I was shocked. Of course, it was embarrassing. I'll never forget this. I have nothing to say to [Johnson]. . . . He can go his way and I'll go mine."

Manager Johnson also made a peculiar move in the ninth when, with runners on first and second, nobody out and the score tied, he did not call for a sacrifice from pinch-hitter Howard Johnson. The man they called HoJo actually did foul off a bunt attempt on the first pitch, but swung away thereafter and struck out. The strategy of showing bunt, then hitting away, turned out to be a dismal failure. The Mets' runners were left stranded on the bases.

A decision earlier in the week by Johnson to give his team a day off after the first two Series losses was, however, gratefully applauded by one and all. The Mets were, in fact, dragging badly after their playoff squeaker over Houston, and playing under the relentless scrutiny of their perfervid fans and the press had done little for their recuperative processes. They were actually looking forward to getting out of town to play in Fenway, which they talked of fondly as the antidote to their postseason hitting malady. And so it was. They had 13 hits in Game 3, a 7-1 romp behind Ojeda, over Boyd, and they had 12 more the next night in a 6-2 win over Nipper, the sacraficial lamb. Ojeda became the first lefthander to win a World Series game against Boston in Fenway since James (Hippo) Vaughan shut out the Sox in the fifth game of the 1918 Series. He also became the first pitcher to appear in a Series against the team he had played for the previous season. Asked afterward if he had any mixed, bittersweet feelings about demolishing his old teammates, Ojeda fingered his jacket with the New York logo and replied in amazement, "See this jacket? The last thing I feel is any bittersweetness. It's competition out there. Everybody wants to

knock everybody else's socks off."

The Bosox turned out not only to be powerless against their former teammate, but they also embarrassed themselves mightily afield when in the first inning, having trapped both Hernandez and Carter off base on a ground ball, they failed to catch either of them. Lenny Dykstra had hit a home run as the game's leadoff hitter, and with the aid of the Sox' bungled rundown, the Mets emerged with a four-run inning, giving them more runs before Boston came to bat in Fenway than New York had managed in the whole first two games at Shea.

In Game 4, McNamara must have hoped that Nipper, who had missed six weeks of the season with a cut knee and had never regained past form, might become another Howard Ehmke, Connie Mack's surprise starter for the A's in the opening game of the 1929 Series. Ehmke, who had pitched only 55 innings all season, beat the Cubs 3-1 and established a Series record with 13 strikeouts. Nipper certainly had Ehmke-esque credentials. His season earned run average of 5.38 was the highest for a Series starter since Hal Gregg's 5.87 for the Dodgers in 1947. Nipper, it turned out, was no Ehmke, but he performed quite respectably. He shut down the Mets for the first three innings, then gave up three runs in the fourth. His successor, Crawford, served up a two-run homer to Dykstra, the littlest Met's second homer at Fenway in two games. Evans did get a glove on Dykstra's ball over the bullpen gate, but — shades of Henderson's quasi-catch of Bobby Grich's playoff homer — this one also got away. Darling, the winning pitcher, shut out the Sox for seven innings, running his string of earned-runless Series innings to 14. This was the fourth straight win for the visiting team, proof in Darling's view that "baseball makes no sense."

The home team finally won on Thursday, the Red Sox giving Hurst his second win, 4-2. This was the last game of the year at old Fenway, and thousands of fans stayed on afterward to revel in the wonder of it all. "Bruce . . . Bruce . . . Bruce," they chanted as the pitching hero waved to them during a postgame television interview. There was a sense of high anticipation in the air. The Sox were up, three games to two, and because their manager had been wise enough to start Nipper, they were going into the last two games with their pitchers in peak condition. For the second time, they had beaten the purported New York ace, Dwight Gooden. Surely, they could handle lesser men in the stretch. Even Buckner, who looked throughout as if he should be parking in handicapped zones instead of playing first base, was able to half-crawl home in the Fenway finale on an Evans single. Buckner may have been revitalized by an elixer sent to him by a holy woman from the La Salette Shrine in Attleboro, Mass. He examined the curious vial before the game, then, with a shrug, drained half of it. "Well, I've tried everything," he said, accurately enough.

Perhaps if he had chugged the whole thing, he would have saved the Red Sox and their faithful a great deal of grief.


 

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