Frankly, MLB Network’s special 25th Anniversary commemoration of the 1986 World Series which premiered last night, could have been 7 long highlight “packages” with only my friend Bob Costas merely introducing them, and I would’ve enjoyed it.
But something unexpected happened. The players who joined Costas and Tom Verducci were Mookie Wilson of the Mets, and Bruce Hurst and Calvin Schiraldi of the Red Sox. Wilson has long been a source of reflective information on the dramatic series between the Mets and Red Sox.
Hurst proved himself erudite and frank – just as he was as a player, who was never an “easy” interview but always an insightful one. Several times he responded – reluctantly but bluntly – to particularly outlandish and unsupported comments about his teammates from 1986 Red Sox manager John McNamara, who seems to have settled in to an emeritus stage devoted to blaming the players for his erratic managing, especially during Game 6.
Costas, Wilson, Hurst, and Verducci were fine. But Schiraldi was a revelation.
He, of course, was the star-crossed Boston closer, former college teammate of Roger Clemens, and an ex-Met prospect all too familiar to his old teammates, who had struggled in the ’86 A.L. Championship Series and managed to help give back a World Series win though he retired the first two men, and had two strikes on the third, in the bottom of the final inning. It is nearly almost literally true that the last time Schiraldi was heard from publicly, he was staggering off the field at Shea Stadium, a 24-year old with his future behind him. He had seemed, at best, far from confident, and, at worst, shattered. Schiraldi would be exiled to the Cubs in 1988 and would be out of the majors in 1991.
For the first hour or so of the program Schiraldi, his once-boyish face now covered in a graying beard, wearing a strange sweatshirt and clashing with the impeccably dressed Hurst, seemed terse to the point of embarrassment. There was a kind of cringe factor growing as the game-by-game recollection of the Series moved inevitably towards his nightmare in Game 6.
But this time, Calvin Schiraldi starred.
He revealed that before Dave Henderson’s homer gave the Red Sox the lead in the top of the 10th Inning, he had been told that he had pitched to his last batter, that somebody else would throw the bottom of the presumably still-tied frame. He didn’t say it until provoked, but anybody who has ever played sports, or covered them closely, or just experienced a high-adrenaline environment, suddenly understood what happened. Having thrown two innings in the tensest environment possible, Schiraldi had been told to gear down, that he was “done.”
This is, of course, the moment during the horror film where you the viewer think the carnage is over and you’ve survived – the “placing the flowers on Carrie’s grave” moment, just before her hand shoots out of the ground to claim you. Physiologists will tell you it is not a purely psychological phenomenon. The energy and the adrenaline abate. And when it turns out Carrie is reaching out – or the manager says “Calvin, now we’ve got a two-run lead, go back out there and wrap this up” – when you reach for that energy, it’s not there – and you are on your own, and on your own against Carrie.
The show’s insight could’ve ended there with Schiraldi giving an explanation (but not an excuse) for what happened during the last 0.2 of the 2.2 innings he pitched that night. But then came something transcendent. He was asked how he felt now about the game and the series and he, presumably unknowingly, defined the true value of sports.
Schiraldi said he was obviously unhappy at the outcome of the game and the series, but he would not change the experience if it meant changing who that night made him become. That’s when Schiraldi revealed the meaning of his unusual sweatshirt. For more than a decade he’s been the baseball coach – and a teacher – at St Michael’s Catholic Academy in Austin. And the things he learned in the majors, particularly in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, have formed the core of his value and coaching systems.
He’s used that inning to teach kids about sports – and life.
You have to hear him say it, to truly appreciate it. The MLB retrospective on the ’86 Series runs again tomorrow and Sunday afternoons at 1 PM ET. Find a way to watch, because 25 years later, Schiraldi has had an impact that merely getting the last out could never have afforded him.
Was that the greatest World Series game ever played?
For games in which a team, having put itself on the precipice of elimination because of managerial and/or strategic incompetence, then stumbles all over itself in all the fundamentals for eight innings, and still manages to prevail? Yes – Game Six, Rangers-Cardinals, was the greatest World Series Game of all-time. I’ve never seen a team overcome itself like that.
But the Cardinals’ disastrous defense (and other failures) probably disqualifies it from the top five all-time Series Games, simply because it eliminates the excellence requisite to knock somebody else off the list. Mike Napoli’s pickoff of Matt Holliday was epic, and the homers of Josh Hamilton and David Freese were titanic and memorable. But history will probably judge the rest of the game’s turning points (Freese’s error, Holliday’s error, Holliday’s end of the pickoff, Darren Oliver pitching in that situation, the Rangers’ stranded runners, Nelson Cruz’s handling of the game-tying triple, the failures of both teams’ closers) pretty harshly.
For contrast, in chronological order here are five Series Games that I think exceed last night’s thriller in terms of overall grading.
1912 Game Eight: That’s right, Game Eight (there had been, in those pre-lights days at Fenway Park, a tie). The pitching matchup was merely Christy Mathewson (373 career wins) versus Hugh Bedient (rookie 20-game winner) followed in relief by Smoky Joe Wood (who won merely 37 games that year, three in the Series). Mathewson shut out the Red Sox into the seventh, and the game was still tied 1-1 in the tenth when Fred Merkle singled home Red Murray and then went to second an error. But the Giants stranded the insurance run, and in the Bottom of the 10th, as darkness descended on Fenway (the first year it was open) there unfolded the damnedest Series inning anybody would see until 1986. Pinch-hitter Clyde Engle lofted the easiest flyball imaginable to centerfielder Fred Snodgrass – who dropped it. Hall of Famer Harry Hooper immediately lofted the hardest flyball imaginable to Snodgrass, who made an almost unbelievable running catch to keep the tying run from scoring and the winning run from getting at least to second or third. Mathewson, who had in the previous 339 innings walked just 38 men, then walked the obscure Steve Yerkes. But Matty bore down to get the immortal Tris Speaker to pop up in foul territory between the plate and first, and he seemed to have gotten out of the jam. Like the fly Holliday muffed last night, the thing was in the air forever, and was clearly the play of the inward rushing first baseman Merkle. Inexplicably, Mathewson called Merkle off, shouting “Chief, Chief!” at his lumbering catcher Chief Myers. The ball dropped untouched. Witnesses said Speaker told Mathewson “that’s going to cost you the Series, Matty” and then promptly singled to bring home the tying run and put the winner at third, whence Larry Gardner ransomed it with a sacrifice fly.
1960 Game Seven: The magnificence of this game is better appreciated now that we’ve found the game film. And yes, the madness of Casey Stengel is evident: he had eventual losing pitcher Ralph Terry warming up almost continuously throughout the contest. But consider this: the Hal Smith three-run homer for Pittsburgh would’ve been one of baseball’s immortal moments, until it was trumped in the top of the 9th by the Yankee rally featuring Mickey Mantle’s seeming series-saving dive back into first base ahead of Rocky Nelson’s tag, until it was trumped in the bottom of the 9th by Mazeroski’s homer. There were 19 runs scored, 24 hits made, the lead was lost, the game re-tied, and the Series decided in a matter of the last three consecutive half-innings, and there was neither an error nor a strikeout in the entire contest.
1975 Game Six: Fisk’s homer has taken on a life of its own thanks to the famous Fenway Scoreboard Rat who caused the cameraman in there to keep his instrument trained on Fisk as he hopped down the line with his incomparable attempt to influence the flight of the ball. But consider: each team had overcome a three-run deficit just to get the game into extras, there was an impossible pinch-hit three-run homer by ex-Red Bernie Carbo against his old team, the extraordinary George Foster play to cut down Denny Doyle at the plate with the winning run in the bottom of the 9th, and Sparky Anderson managed to use eight of his nine pitchers and still nearly win the damn thing – and have enough left to still win the Series.
1986 Game Six: This is well-chronicled, so, briefly: this exceeds last night’s game because while the Cardinals twice survived two-out, last-strike scenarios in separate innings to tie the Rangers in the 9th and 10th, the Met season-saving rally began with two outs and two strikes on Gary Carter in the bottom of the 10th. The Cards had the runs already aboard in each of their rallies. The Red Sox were one wide strike zone away from none of that ever happening.
1991 Game Seven: I’ll have to admit I didn’t think this belonged on the list, but as pitching has changed to the time when finishing 11 starts in a season provides the nickname “Complete Game James” Shields, what Jack Morris did that night in the 1-0 thriller makes this a Top 5 game.
There are many other nominees — the Kirk Gibson home run game in ’88, the A’s epic rally on the Cubs in ’29, Grover Cleveland Alexander’s hungover relief job in 1926, plus all the individual achievement games like Larsen’s perfecto and the Mickey Owen dropped third strike contest — and upon reflection I might be able to make a case to knock last night’s off the Top 10. But I’m comfortable saying it will probably remain. We tend to overrate what’s just happened (a kind of temporal myopia) but then again perspective often enhances an event’s stature rather than diminishing it. Let’s just appreciate the game for what it was: heart-stopping back-and-forth World Series baseball.