Wednesday, January 26th, 2005
11:59 pm - Scapegoat  
I spent October 25th, 1986, in the basement of the First Ward Hose Company in Morristown, NJ, the volunteer fire company of which my brother was captain at the time. We were there for his bachelor party. It was a pretty low key party, basically just a bunch of guys playing cards, shooting pool, and swigging beer, all with the TV over in the corner tuned to the sixth game of the '86 Series between the Mets and Red Sox.

I didn't pay close attention to the game that night, at least not until the late innings, so tonight's NESN rerun of the game was really the first time I'd seen it in it's entirety. Well, except for the Mets' at bats that NESN chose not to broadcast. So much is made of the error at the end of the game, that it's kind of surprising to discover that most of the runs in the game were also the results of errors.

One thing that's interesting about this game (and the earlier games in the series) is watching some of the players, and realizing how fleeting glory is. Bill Buckner is, of course, a prime example of the phenomenon, a good player who is forever linked to a bad outcome, but so is Bob Ojeda, who started the game for the Mets. That game was probably the pinnacle of his career. Although he had several good seasons after '86, he was also involved in two bizarre accidents. After missing most of 1987 because of elbow surgery, he came back strong in 1988 until he managed to cut off the tip of the middle finger of his pitching hand while trimming hedges at his home. If that wasn't freakish enough, the surgeons deliberately reattached the finger tip at an angle, designed so as to help him throw a better curve ball. And it worked, at least for a couple of years. Then, on an off-day during Spring Training of 1993, Ojeda, Tim Crews, and Steve Olin (all then with the Indians), were involved in a terrible accident. The three managed to drive the motor boat they were using into a dock on the lake where they were fishing. It was twilight, and they never saw it coming. Ojeda, sitting lower in the boat, was scalped, but survived. Crews and Olin weren't as lucky. Both were killed. Ojeda tried to come back after he recovered from his injuries, but he wasn't the same pitcher. He retired the following April.

Another thing I didn't notice that night in '86 was that NBC lost the announcers audio feed for most of the top of the seventh inning. All the rest of the sound was there, especially the crowd noise, but there was no commentary at all until the very end of the inning. It was weird and neat at the same time, like being at the ball game.

And then there was the tenth inning. The Mets should've won the game in the ninth, but rather than play for the one run that would win the game, Davey Johnson decided to go for a big inning. He had men on first and second, no outs, and he only needed one run, yet he had Howard Johnson swing for the fences rather than try to bunt them over. It made absolutely no sense. It was like Casey at the Bat when HoJo struck out. Then Dave Henderson hit a rocket in the top of the tenth to put the Sox up, and Wade Boggs scored an insurance run. As Vin Scully said, "It's so quiet in New York, you can almost hear Boston."

Down in the fire house basement in New Jersey, a lone Red Sox fan was taunting everyone else at the bachelor party, and the rest of us who were rooting for the Mets just had to sit there, drink our beer, and take the abuse. Wally Backman flied out to Jim Rice, then Keith Hernandez lined out to Henderson, and the Mets were down to their final out. It looked like a foregone conclusion. I remember that Scully announced that Bruce Hurst had been voted series MVP, although I didn't see that tonight. Hernandez has said that he left the dugout in disgust after his at bat, went into the clubhouse, cracked open a beer, lit a cigarette, and sat down in front of the TV in the manager's office expecting to watch the final out. In other words, even the captain of the opposing team had conceded the Series to the Sox.

But Gary Carter got a hit, and so did Kevin Mitchell, and so did Ray Knight, scoring Carter. The lone Red Sox rooter in the basement started taking on the look of a deer in the headlights. Bob Stanley came in to pitch to Mookie Wilson. Lost in everything else that happened is that Mookie had one hell of an at bat, fouling off six pitches before finally hitting his little roller to Billy Buck. In the middle of it was Stanley's wild pitch (which really should have been a passed ball charged to Rich Gedman), which allowed Mitchell to score, tying the game.
"Little roller up along first... Behind the bag... It gets through Buckner! Here comes Knight, and the Mets win it!"
In an instant, the guy who had been the Sox' '86 equivalent to Curt Schilling, their inpirational leader, became the biggest goat in Sox history. John McNamara became the second biggest goat for not bringing in Dave Stapleton as a defensive replacement for the hobbling Buckner, as he had in so many previous games. I've often wondered about that, and in the post game NESN commentary Lou Gorman sort of confirmed a suspicion I've long held. McNamara left Buckner in the game so that the guy who got him there could be on the field when the Sox won. I can't fault him for that. I've even done it a couple of times myself as a coach. It was a nice gesture on Johnny Mac's part. Unfortunately, it blew up in his face. The thing is, it didn't lose the series. The Sox still had another shot to win, just as the Reds did after they lost a heartbreaking game six in 1975.
Current Mood: sleepy
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Veejaneveejane on January 27th, 2005 - 08:47 am
I was clicking around for a while last night and saw and early-innings at-bat of Buckner's. He hit a crap ground ball and was out at first, and as he jogged back toward the dugout, I was like, THIS guy is not on the disabled list?? He looked terrible, knees bent, ankles wobbly, and shoulders hunched like it hurt him just to take a step.

My understanding of Red Sox history is that somewhere in all the blame there lies a dislike of Clemens, for coming out of the game early (what, 5th inning?). I suspect this is retro-blame, and if he hadn't (a) gone eventually to the Yankees, and (b) opened his yap too often, nobody would remember or care that he'd been the starting pitcher that night.

It's weird how momentum works. The Reds lose a white-knuckle game in 1975, and the next day win it. The Sox lose another white-knuckle game in 1986, and are so demoralized they lose the next day. Game 7 of this ALCS, it felt like the Yankees had somehow conceded the game before it started.
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DXMachinadxmachina on January 27th, 2005 - 10:55 am
Buckner actually had a pretty entertaining game until he made the error. On one play, he leapt up onto the rolled up tarp by the side of the field trying to chase down a pop foul in the stands. Scully said it reminded him of Gene Kelly's curb dance in Singing in the Rain. Buckner also tried to pull off a hidden ball play on Backman, catching a pickoff throw, and then starting to run towards the dugout as though the ball had gotten by him. Backman didn't bite. And in the top of the tenth, he was hit by a pitch. All in all, an eventful evening for Mr. Buckner.

Clemens came out of the game after seven innings. The controversy stems from whose decision it was. Clemens had a blister starting to develop on his finger. McNamara maintained the Clemens asked out. Clemens maintained that he could've continued, despite the blister, but it was McNamara's decision. Gorman talked about it a bit on one of the breaks, and thought it was most likely just a miscommunication between the two. Even so, at that point the Fenway Faithful were looking for scapegoats, so they added Clemens to the list, although he was way down at the bottom. McNamara took most of the heat at the time for replacing his star starter with a rookie closer. The manager is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't (see also Grady Little). It's only as the years passed, after Roger had other bizarre things happen in playoff games (especially one memorable melt down in Oakland), and after he left Boston, that the fans really started scapegoating him.

I was almost going to say that in '75, it was a matter of the Reds being the much more seasoned team that the Sox, and so were better able to recover. That may be, but in '86, it was the Sox who were the veteran team. The Mets had Carter, Hernandez, and a bunch of kids. Still, the way the Sox lost the game was much more emotionally devastating than what happened to the Reds. Fisk merely broke the tie. The 86' Sox blew a two run lead with two outs and nobody on in the final inning, and really can only blame themselves for giving up the tying and winning runs.
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Hecubothecubot on January 27th, 2005 - 11:31 am
I watched that game from beginning to end - also at a party, evenly split between Mets and Red Sox partisans.

It was a given among Sox fans that Clemens was less reliable in the clutch than Bruce Hurst. He had that reputation from the beginning - and history has borne that out. Just that Clemens put intense pressure on himself in the big games, such that he sometimes completely lost his shit.

In the game itself, I always felt that the tying run given up by the Stanley/Gedman missed ball was much more important than the roller that went through Buckner's legs. By that time it all had a sick inevitability, but the tying run was when the tide turned. Last tidbit, Kevin Mitchell had also given up and gone down to change in the locker room when he got called up to pinch hit. He was half naked so he grabbed his pants and ran up and took a swing at the first pitch. He didn't have his jock or cup on - totally commando.
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DXMachinadxmachina on January 27th, 2005 - 11:37 am
I totally agree about the missed ball. It also allowed Knight to get into scoring position.
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Veejaneveejane on January 28th, 2005 - 10:45 am
It was a given among Sox fans that Clemens was less reliable in the clutch than Bruce Hurst.

I will say, if ever you are looking for the face of heartbreak, take a gander at Hurst in the dugout in the late innings of game 7. He did his damnedest, and had to sit there and watch it all fall apart.
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