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Thursday, October 25, 2001

Getting deep sixed


By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

You can drive yourself crazy just thinking about it.

Bill Buckner
Don't blame Bill Buckner for the Game 6 debacle. The Red Sox had let that game slip away long before Buckner's infamous error.
Fifteen pitches. Fifteen. Any of them could have brought the Boston Red Sox their first championship in 68 years. Four different Mets came to the plate with two outs. The Red Sox came within one strike of winning three different times. The Mets scraped together a three-run rally on two line-drive singles, a bloop single, a wild pitch and an error. Ray Knight crossed the plate with the winning run, so overwhelmed that he was running full-speed with his hands behind his head. Everything unfolded in just 12 minutes. And nothing would ever be the same.

For many Sox fans, Game 6 changed the way we looked at sports -- the pain was too intense, too impossible, too dramatic, too overwhelming -- and that feeling of devastation seemed much more consuming than the flip side (being on the winning side). The sacrifices were too great. Before '86, we feared the worst. After '86, we expected the worst. There's a difference. And yet That Game links together every Red Sox fan; it's the one thing we collectively share that nobody else can comprehend. I'm telling you, you couldn't possibly understand it. We're linked together by That Game, all of us. Inexorably. And every Red Sox fan reading this knows what I mean.

Maybe you watched it with your grandparents on their farm in Vermont. You were 23 years old, visiting with your fiance, and you brought him down for the weekend to show him how beautful New England looks during the fall. Little did you know you would really see New England fall.

Maybe you watched it in Charlestown with your two oldest friends, Jimmy and Fitzy. The three of you had been supporting the Sox since before World War II, so you headed down to Sully's Pub to toss down some brews and watch your beloved baseball team finally capture a World Series title. Little did you know Sully's would stay open into the wee hours.

Maybe you were 5 years old. You'll never forget that night, not only because your parents allowed you to stay awake past midnight, but because you still remember the expression on your father's face when you yelped, "We're going to win!" with two outs in the tenth inning. And Dad winced in pain, and he shook his head, and he told you, "This is the Red Sox. Nothing ever comes easy." And you learned. The hard way.

Over the years, I've heard hundreds of stories like those. Every Red Sox fan remembers their whereabouts during That Game; it was the "O.J.'s White Bronco Chase" of sporting events. I watched That Game at a friend's house in Connecticut, one of those classic, impromptu "Somebody's Parents Are Away For the Weekend!" high school parties where everyone ends up crowding around the television. That afternoon, I had agonized over being Mr. Social (attending the party) or Mr. Sox Fan (staying home for the game), eventually deciding that I wanted to be enjoying a party-type atmosphere when the Red Sox captured their first World Series championship of my lifetime.

(I probably should have stayed home.)

(I wish I had stayed home.)

(I was only 17.)

I went to the party.

***** ***** *****

It never dawned on me that the Sox would lose. We were leading three games to two. Clemens was pitching Game 6, for God's sake. And Dave Henderson's dramatic, series-saving home run against the Angels (Game 5, ALCS) had clearly reversed the franchise's deadly karma and turned us into a proverbial Team of Destiny. We were running on all cylinders. We couldn't lose.

Roger Clemens
With Roger Clemens on the mound for Game 6, Boston fans were feeling confident. Of course, that was before the Great Blister Debate.
Raising the stakes, that '86 team was my team. Everybody has one baseball team that meant a little too much, a season where you lived and died with every pitch, every mood swing, every losing streak, every foible, every mistake, every triumph, everything. Usually that team arrives in your teens, when sporting events carry too much weight in general. When you grow older, your priorities fall in line and you realize that sports doesn't warrant that level of devotion, especially when many athletes could care less about their fans. In Boston, we learned this lesson the hard way, when Clemens departed for Canada in '96 and didn't even take two minutes in his "I'm coming to Toronto!" press conference to thank us for 13 years, the bastard. Enough of these slights pile up over the years and you find yourself not caring as much.

Back in '86, I cared. Even 15 years later, I can rattle off everything that happened from April-to-September off the top of my head. Clemens whiffed 20 Mariners on April 29. Boggs was hitting over .400 in late-May before he wrenched his back putting on cowboys boots (or so the story goes -- wink, wink). Baylor delivered a three-run double at Yankee Stadium in June, and the cameras showed him pumping his fist towards the bench ... and there were all the Red Sox players, standing on the top of the dugout and pumping their fists back (and this was the "25 players, 25 cabs" Red Sox???).

They started winning those wacky games that teams start winning when it's their year -- like a goofy game when the Angels third baseman dropped the game-ending pop-up with two outs in the ninth (keeping the Sox alive for a rally), or a game in Cleveland that was called after five innings because the fog rolled in from Lake Erie (prompting Oil Can Boyd's unforgettable quote, "That's what you get for building a ballpark right near the ocean"). When those wacky games start piling up, you start saying to yourself, "Hmmmmmm." And since the New England area was coming off a six-month span in which both the Patriots and Celtics played for championships (with the Celts winning their 16th title), we naturally assumed that our good fortune would continue with a World Series appearance. Our collective confidence had never been higher.

As an added bonus, this was a unique collection of players, loaded with gifted stars in their primes (Clemens, Boggs, Jim Rice, the wildly underrated Bruce Hurst), likable veterans (Dewey Evans, Bill Buckner, Don Baylor, Tom Seaver, Dave Henderson) and one world-class goofball (the Can, who disappeared for a few days in June and earned himself a Sports Illustrated cover). We even had the token "Reliever Who Drives Everyone Crazy" (veteran Bob Stanley, the star-crossed closer who ended up losing his job to a fireballing rookie named Calvin Schiraldi) and "The Manager Who Drives Everyone Crazy" (John McNamara, who graduated with honors from Professor Don Zimmer's class for "Resting Your Players As Little As Possible"). All in all, it was a memorable group, one of those once-in-a-generation teams that emerged during a watershed year for Boston sports. Right team, right place, right time.

Dave Henderson
Dave Henderson's dramatic homer in Game 5 of the ALCS had Red Sox fans believing that karma was on their side.
And I was 17.

Come playoff time, every pitch mattered. I remember watching the Angels-Sox series and wanting to punch my fist through the TV, because Angels catcher Bob Boone kept pulling errant pitches into the strike zone and stealing calls from the clueless home-plate umpires. Now, I wouldn't care. Back then, it infuriated me to the point of near-hyperventilation. And I spent three weeks feeling that way, 14 playoff games in all, always on the edge. When Dave Henderson struck his famous, series-saving home run in Game 5 of the ALCS, I actually blacked out for the only time in my life. I was watching the game at my Aunt Jen's house; apparently, I leapt from the sofa and sprinted around the first floor of her house before finally bursting through the kitchen door and running outside. All I remember is standing outside in the middle of the street, jumping up and down and wondering to myself, "How did I get out here?" True story.

Hey, I know I've changed over the years -- I matured, I softened, all that jazz -- but still, maybe that was the last innocent Red Sox season for me. I wasn't jaded, I wasn't cynical, and I wasn't fearing the worst. Every Sox fan remembers the moment when they lost their cherry; for me, it happened two weeks after Hendu's homer, when they collapsed at Shea Stadium.

I never saw it coming.

***** ***** *****

Maybe that's why I jinxed the '86 World Series. Blame Buckner, blame Schiraldi, blame Stanley, blame Gedman ... you could make a case for all of them, but you'd be wrong. Blame me. I'm the kid who watched That Game at a friend's house and decided to call his mother after the Sox had taken a 5-3 lead, asking her to tape the last half of the 10th because, and I quote, "I want to have it on tape when we win the World Series."

Watch "Battle Lines" on ESPN Classic
"Battle Lines: The 1986 World Series" will air Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN Classic.

It never entered my mind that we would blow it. Call me naive, call me a fool ... I never imagined that the wheels would come off. Maybe the success of those Bird Era Celtics teams spoiled me ... I don't know. All I know is that the Red Sox were about to win the World Series and I wanted it on tape. And lemme tell you something, I got it on tape all right. Right between the eyes. You only lose your cherry once.

I can still see everything happening as it happened:

  • Hendu homers in the top of the 10th to give us the lead. Pandemonium.

    (There are few sure things in life, but this is one of them: Had the Red Sox prevailed in Game 6, Dave Henderson would have become a New England legend. L-E-G-E-N-D. This would have extended far beyond a mere statue in Faneuil Hall; I'm talking "Paul Revere" proportions here. No joke. Maybe the most underrated subplot in this whole thing. And yet I digress.)

  • Boggs doubles home Dewey for an insurance run. Now you could smell it. It was going to happen.

    (Here's where I made my infamous phone call to Mom. As a surreal subplot, Mom accidentally stuck in my tape of Game 5 of the ALCS and taped over the entire ninth inning of that game, including Hendu's homer. You couldn't make something like that up. The lesson here, as always: Never let your mother, your wife, your sister or your girlfriend near the VCR under any circumstances.)

  • Schiraldi quickly mows down Backman and Hernandez.

    (We later found out that Hernandez departed for the Mets clubhouse, where he took off his uniform, poured himself a drink and lit a cigarette. Nice leadership there. No, I'm not bitter or anything.)

  • Now I'm standing. The Red Sox are about to win the World Series.

    Mets1
    After their dramatic Game 6 comeback, there was no question the Mets would win Game 7.
    (I remember feeling a weird twinge in my stomach, one of those "What happens now?" feelings. What happens when something that you've wished for your entire life actually happens? What's the proper display of emotion? I remember an empty feeling ... almost like The Chase was more fun than The Payoff. Later on, I would hate myself for this.)

  • Carter rips a line-drive single. No biggie.

  • Mitchell follows with another single. Second and first. Still two outs. I'm sitting.

    (In baseball, two to three innings can serve as a microcosm for an entire season. You probably don't remember this, but Boston's bullpen crapped the bed all season -- they were about as reliable as a used condom. And in the moment of truth, they failed. That's why New York ended up winning and Boston ended up losing. I firmly believe this. By the way, I'm drunk again.)

  • The camera shows Clemens sitting in the dugout, and dammit, he looks nervous, and then they show a closeup of Schiraldi, who suddenly has the provebial deer-in-the-headlights look going, and then they show Bob Stanley franctically getting loose in the Sox bullpen. In succession, these images feel like a punch in the stomach, followed by a kick to the groin, followed by a chair-shot over the head. Oh, God.

    (That's when we knew. Something bad was going to happen. You could feel it in the air. One of those Hall of Fame, "Pit in your stomach moments" that you don't forget. I will never forget. This was bigger than all of us.)

  • Schiraldi gets two strikes on Ray Knight before Knight fists a little bloop single -- damn him -- that practically hits second base. Base hit. Carter scores, Mitchell to third, Mets trailing by one. I am frozen. I cannot move. I am frozen. I cannot move. I am frozen. I cannot move ...

  • Now McNamara strolls out. It takes forever. Schiraldi limps off and unfortunately doesn't get struck by the bullpen car. Stanley jogs in; all he's missing is a Grim Reaper outfit. We need one more out, the Mets are trying to pull off the greatest World Series comeback of all-time, and only one man can stop them ... the Human Roller-Coaster Ride, Bob Stanley.

    (If you're a baseball fan, imagine the reliever who frightened you the most on your own team over the years. Now imagine this exact situation, only with that reliever jogging in to save the day. See what I mean? This was a sports event crossed with a horror movie. And all I could think about was that I had called my Mom to tape the ninth inning. It was my fault. This was all my fault.)

  • Mookie Wilson strides to the plate as the fans at Shea are beside themselves. The can smell it. NBC's cameras keep showing the Mets standing on the top dugout step, looking alive, looking confident, looking hungry. Then they show the Sox dugout -- players are chewing their nails and looking like they might start dry-heaving. Pure torture.

    Mets
    Marty Barrett, left, sums up the feeling of all New Englanders as Gary Carter and the Mets begin their title celebration.
  • Stanley gets two strikes on Mookie, including a foul ball chopper down the third base line (the third out) that cruelly curves foul. Pure agony.

  • Stanley tries to come inside and almost hits Mookie's feet; Mookie jumps out of the way and Geddie (who played in 230 of a possible 176 games this season) can't slide over to block the pitch in time. Wild pitch. Tie game. Utter despair.

    (One of the five or six worst moments of my life. Sad but true. Forget what happens next ... this series ended right here. No way the Sox could have bounced back. Simply impossible. Somehow Stanley, Schiraldi and Gedman escaped relatively unscathed in the historical sense; the common fan blames Buckner. True Red Sox fans know better.)

  • NBC's cameras show a smiling Carter hastily putting on his catcher's equipment in the dugout, as if this game is actually headed into the 11th inning. Not a chance. Between the delirious fans at Shea and the suffocating level of bad karma vibes emanating from New England -- and let's face it, we deserve some blame here, too, because every diehard Red Sox fan stopped believing the moment Ray Knight's single landed behind the second base bag, if not before then, and if you don't think karma matters at all, then you've obviously never played at a hot blackjack table or craps table in Vegas -- they don't make salad forks big enough to resemble the collective one that was sticking out of the Red Sox.

    (Before we get to the next paragraph: I don't have enough space to defend Billy Buck right now, but let the record show that, along with Baylor, he was the heart and soul of this team, he had 110 RBI that season, he deserved to be out there, he couldn't have beaten Mookie to the first base bag and the Mets would have won the damn game, anyway. Give him a break. Please. I will not argue about this.)

  • Mookie slaps a grounder to first base ... it rolls between Buckner's legs ... Knight scores from second. Mets 6, Red Sox 5.

    There are no words.

    ***** ***** *****

    And everything changed. After the Mets won the seventh game (maybe the most ironclad lock in gambling history), the Red Sox were quickly dismantled: McNamara, Buckner, Baylor, Henderson, Schiraldi, Oil Can, Seaver, Al Nipper and Stanley were sent packing within the next 15 months.

    Buckner went from "Borderline Hall-of-Famer and Legendary Competitor" to "Hall of Fame Goat," eventually fleeing to Montana and relative anonymity (the most unfair outcome of all). Henderson became "Just another guy who hit a memorable postseason homer." Clemens' mysterious departure from Game 6 after the seventh inning ("The Great Blister Debate") fueled questions about his performance in big games for the rest of his career. Stanley, Gedman, Buckner, Schiraldi and McNamara became part of Red Sox folklore, along with Denny Galehouse, Johnny Pesky, Jim Burton, Mike Torrez and everyone else.

    You could feel New England subtly change. Have you ever seen a dog that's being trained on an electric fence? Put the collar on them and they skip happily around the backyard, right up to the point where they run past those little white flags and and ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ!!!!! After that supersonic jolt, they still skip happily around the backyard, but every time they see those white flags and feel the faint hint of a buzz on their electric collar, you can see their ears sag and their tails stuff between their legs. And that doesn't change until you remove the flags.

    That described everyone in New England after Game 6. Each year we skip happily through the season, especially when the Red Sox are winning ... but as soon as there's a hint of trouble, you can feel everyone collectively brace. Here we go again. Oh God. If Game 6 was the electric jolt, maybe every postseason appearance feels like one more sight of those white flags. And maybe none of us would admit it, but it's true.

    Of course, Game 6 begat one more dreadful subplot: the heinous You-Know-What, which I refuse to mention in this space anymore (CLICK HERE for details). Suddenly, all the bad luck from the past seven decades was neatly explained with one moronic justication: The Red Sox were cursed because they sold Babe Ruth. Whatever. That doesn't change the fact that Red Sox fans are good fans -- passionate, loyal and perceptive, almost to a fault -- and we have an uncanny knack for blindly throwing ourselves behind our team and supporting them through thick and thin. Few franchises could say the same about their fans.

    And yet ... the "electric fence" thing is there. I'll admit it. I remember attending an afternoon game at Fenway last season, a must-win September game for the Sox. They were trailing by a run in the eighth when Nomar lifted a potential home run to left field that carried and carried and ... thwack. The ball struck the very top of The Wall. Missed the screen by about two feet. And Nomar ended up at second base, but you could feel the crowd sag, because of those nagging "Uh-oh" doubts that surface at the worst possible times. It's happening again. Why can't we get a break? And when you're expecting the worst, that's usually what happens.

    Hey, I'm as guilty as anyone; Game 6 haunts me to this day. Whenever ESPN Classic runs the game, if I'm flipping channels and stumble across the last few innings, I always feel like Fred Goldman stumbling across the opening scene of "The Naked Gun" ... and yet I never change the channel. I always watch. Why? I don't know. I wish I knew. It's the sports fan's version of penance. So I watch. And it drives me crazy all over again.

    At least I know I'm not alone. For instance, three years ago, I attended a wedding for my friend Nick Aieta in Nebraska, of all places, and ended up talking outside the reception with an old college friend of mine named Dan Hausman -- a diehard Sox fan who I hadn't seen in seven years. Somehow we started talking about Game 6 ... and we were out there for about 45 minutes. I'm not making this up. We were like two Vietnam War veterans talking about the time our entire platoon was wiped out. As a strange twist, I wrote a column about that conversation on my old website and the e-mails immediately started pouring in, one after the other. The experience seemed cathartic for many of them.

    In the big scheme of things, our experiences as sports fans don't matter nearly as much as we previously believed. Sept. 11 rammed that lesson home the hard way; for weeks, I wondered if I would ever possess the same passion for writing about sports that I once had (and I find myself battling that question every day). But for everyone who believes that 9/11 "put everything into perspective" and "proved that sports doesn't matter in the big scheme of things," well, I'm telling you, sports still matter. What happened with the New York Yankees over the past two weeks proved that, irrevocably and indisputably.

    Sept. 11 might have demonstrated the fragility of life, the strength of human will, and the enormous depths of human compassion and understanding, but the 2001 Yankees demonstrated the power of sports and all its capabilities -- how it can galvanize an ailing city, lift fans to a higher place, help us appreciate true greatness, and remind us what it sounds like when a group of people are screaming and cheering and feeling happy just to be alive.

    Game 6 of the '86 World Series? That was the flip side, for Red Sox fans, anyway. And let's just leave it at that.

    Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.