by Joe Dittmar
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BUCKNER'S UNFORTUNATE ERROR
New York Mets 6, Boston Red Sox 5
Saturday, October 25, 1986, Shea Stadium
Baseball history is littered with crucial defensive misplays and mistakes in judgment. Some, like Ruth’s caught-stealing to end the 1926 World Series, have brought an abrupt conclusion to a team’s season, leaving no chance for redemption. Others, not quite as grave, have gained in perceived importance with the passing of time. The Merkle Boner, an innocent action that was often overlooked in its time, has since been elevated to the level of damnable offense for having cost the Giants the pennant in 1908. But few consider that the Giants had several weeks remaining in their season to offset the gaffe. Game Six of the 1986 Fall Classic provided the annals with another such lapse that, while serious, perhaps unfairly stigmatized a player with the onus of a lost season.
Looking for their first championship in 68 campaigns, the Boston Red Sox were now on the verge, leading the New York Mets three series games to two. A victory this night would ignite Beantown and liberate the frustrated souls of players who had previously guided the Sox to three seventh-game World Series losses and 11 second-place American League finishes.
Boston hopes initially were aroused when the Sox scored a run in each of first two frames. Dwight Evans doubled home a run in the first, and Marty Barrett singled home another in the second. Behind the 24-4 Clemens, who allowed no hits through the first four innings, it appeared the 68-year drought might end.
In the fifth the Mets finally dented the hitting and the scoring columns. Darryl Strawberry led off with a single, stole second and scored on Ray Knight’s single. Another single, an error and a double play allowed Knight to tally an unearned run, making it 2-2.
With a 3-2 lead, Boston nearly broke it open in the eighth as they loaded the bases with two outs. But Jesse Orosco extinguished the fire by retiring Bill Buckner on a fly ball to center. During the futile rally Clemens was lifted for a pinch-hitter. The ace right-hander had developed a blister on the middle finger of his pitching hand and felt it had compromised his effectiveness. It was about this time that a Boston clubhouse man asked to borrow the Mets’ champagne because the visitors had left theirs home. Twenty cases were sent to the Sox’ dressing room.
Needing just six outs for their long awaited championship, ace reliever Calvin Schiraldi assumed the Boston pitching duties. The right-hander, thanks to two misplayed bunts, quickly got into trouble by allowing the Mets to load the bases with only one out. With the frantic crowd roaring, Gary Carter hit a sacrifice fly to tie the game at three, but Schiraldi escaped any further damage.
The Mets blew a golden opportunity to win it in the bottom of the ninth. A walk and an error put their first two men aboard, but Schiraldi disposed of pinch-hitter Howard Johnson, Lee Mazzilli, and Lenny Dykstra to send it into extra innings.
When Dave Henderson led off the Boston 10th with a home run, it looked as if the Sox finally had their championship. And when Barrett followed Wade Boggs’s double with an RBI single, a celebration seemed certain.
In the bottom of the tenth Schiraldi retired the first two batters, and the message board in left briefly flashed: “Congratulations, Red Sox.” With a 2-1 count on Carter, Boston was only two strikes away from World Series’ rings. But Carter singled, as did rookie pinch-hitter Kevin Mitchell. Schiraldi then got two strikes on Knight, needing just one more to end it, but the veteran third baseman atoned for his earlier error by singling and making it 5-4. With runners at the corners, Bob Stanley replaced Schiraldi. Wilson fouled off several pitches before Stanley uncorked a wild pitch that enabled Mitchell to score the tying run and moved Knight to second. After fouling off several more offerings, Wilson grounded a ball toward first, tight to the line. The behobbled Buckner managed to square himself in front of the slow grounder, but the ball slipped under his glove and trickled into right field. Knight raced home as the Mets erupted from their dugout. A miraculous comeback had transpired, and Boston’s haunted past had risen spectre-like once again.
From The 100 Greatest Baseball Games of the 20th Century Ranked by Joseph J. Dittmar.
Copyright © 2000 by Joseph J. Dittmar. Reprinted with permission.