The Red Sox of today are a completely different franchise than the team our fathers suffered with back in 1986. This was a franchise that had experienced nothing but heartbreak and failure since the end of World War I. The few glimmers of hope that Baby Boomer Sox fans entertained had all ended in tragic gut punches, usually in dramatic fashion at the end of a seventh game.
1986 was supposed to be different. Game 5 of the 1986 American League Championship Series truly looked like a watershed moment for Red Sox fans … the historic spot in time when the pendulum reached its apex and finally began swinging in the direction of success.
Right up until the Curse of the Bambino was broken, this game was probably in the top three of greatest Red Sox games ever played. Even now, after the generation of legendary battles and the laundry list of accomplishments this franchise has accumulated in the 37 years since then, this game still has to rank in the top ten.
We all know how the 1986 season ended, but do me a favor while you read this column. Try to put yourself in the headspace of a fan that is not already aware that this season will end in the most epic disaster of the entire horrific history of the pre-2004 Boston Red Sox.
You can’t tell the story of Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS without understanding what happened at the end of Game 4.
With Boston down two games to one, Roger Clemens shut down the California Angels for eight innings and the Red Sox led 3-0 entering the bottom of the ninth. After Clemens surrendered a solo home run and a pair of singles, he was lifted for Calvin Schiraldi, a 24-year-old reliever in the midst of a breakout season (1.41 ERA, 55 Ks, 15 BBs in 51 innings) who was a key cog in this run to the playoffs.
Schiraldi entered the game with two on and one out in the bottom of the ninth. Then, he folded. A double, intentional walk, and hit batsmen later, the game was tied. Schiraldi persevered and fought into the 11th inning, but a Bobby Grich walk-off single ultimately put the Red Sox down three games to one, a hole that had only been surmounted six times in MLB playoff history.
The Red Sox bullpen was on fumes going into Game 5. Schiraldi had pitched in Games 3 and 4, Sammy Stewart had hurt his knee during batting practice the previous day, Al Nipper had been atrocious at the end of the season, Bob Stanley truly sucked, and Steve Crawford was only on the roster because future Hall-of-Famer Tom Seaver was hurt. Manager John McNamara implied before the game that they were in dire need of a lengthy outing from starting pitcher Bruce Hurst, and that the team would have to be in a very tough spot before he’d consider using Schiraldi for the third consecutive day.
McNamara also pointed out the uncharacteristic lack of power and timely hitting from the Boston bats during the ALCS. As was always the case during these days, the Red Sox were built around a smattering of good pitching and a wealth of righthanded power. When their bats went cold, the wins stopped coming. Hence, the 3-1 series deficit.
The California Angels were in the catbird’s seat, poised to take home the first pennant in their 25-year history. Reggie Jackson, a five-time World Series champion in his penultimate season at age 40, spoke candidly before the series about how the Angels had blown all of their recent opportunities to make it to the promised land. “We’ve never been able to close,” he explained. “We need to prove to people … that we can close the deal.”
With All-Star ace Mike Witt (18-10, 2.84 ERA, 269 innings pitched) on the mound at Anaheim Stadium, the stage was set for the Angels to finally make it over the hump.
Witt hit a bump in the road early on, giving up a leadoff single to Jim Rice in the top of the second. I wish I got to see Jim Ed play in his prime. He was one of the most feared hitters in the league from 1975 – 1986, and he served as the Red Sox interim franchise player between Carl Yastrzemski’s retirement in ’83 and the Rocket’s ascension in the mid-80s. Unfortunately, the vast majority of my memories of Rice come from the NESN studio, where he reigns supreme as the undisputed worst analyst in the history of sports.
While we’re discussing broadcasters, I have to point out ABC’s exceptional commentary duo for this contest.
I only know Al Michaels as a football play-by-play guy, but holy smokes, this dude loves baseball. Once this game got into the late innings, he sounded like a kid in a freaking candy store, just happy for the privilege to have a great seat to this instant classic while being paid an obscene amount of money to be there.
As for color commentary, Hall-of-Famer Jim Palmer would have been perfectly justified in taking the Jim Rice/Joe Morgan path of zero game prep beyond donning a nice suit. Palmer was great though, offering deep insight from the pitching and hitting perspective with a dry, professorial delivery that you usually get from the Stat Mastersons of the world rather than decorated legends like him.
With Rice on first, catcher Rich Gedman drilled a laser beam into the right field bleachers to give the Red Sox an early 2-0 lead. Turns out that Gedman was a beast at the Big A in ’86, hitting three homers there in six regular season games despite homering only twice in Fenway Park all season long. Gedman was a solid defensive catcher who I never liked as a kid, mostly because he looked like a big goof. I found a new appreciation for him this week as I watched this battle in its entirety for the very first time.
Angels catcher Bob Boone responded in the bottom of the third with his own dinger, a solo shot down the left field line to cut Boston’s lead to 2-1. Both catchers were offensive forces in this game, combining to go 7-7 with two home runs, three RBI, and three runs scored.
This crowd adored Reggie Jackson. They exploded when he lined a two-out single to center in the bottom of the fourth, and they weren’t even bothered when Hurst immediately picked him off to end the inning. This postseason run was a farewell tour of sorts for the Straw that Stirs the Drink. He was forced into retirement only a year later following an international incident between himself and Queen Elizabeth.
Tony Armas, a former powerhouse who led MLB with 43 HRs and 123 RBI in ’84, banged his injured leg in the second inning when he crashed into the center field wall in pursuit of a Doug DeCinces double. The effects of the hit worsened as the game went on, and he was replaced by midseason addition Dave Henderson in the fifth. More on that later.
Witt rolled after the Gedman homer, retiring 10 of the next 11 hitters he faced until the sixth, where he made two risky, yet fantastic throws to force runners out at second base and squelch a potential rally. First baseman Bobby Grich rewarded Witt’s efforts in the bottom of the sixth when he hit a deep drive to the center field wall. Henderson made what looked like a great play when he leapt and snared the ball before it could hit the top of the fence. He slammed into the wall as he came down though, and the impact popped the ball out of his glove and over the wall to turn a would-be RBI double into a two-run homer. Henderson punched the air in fury, the crowd rollicked, and the Angels had their first lead of the game, 3-2.
This is the point where Al Michaels began sounding legitimately giddy, postulating that when this game was over, the Grich homer “maybe one of the more memorable plays of the eighties.”
You can’t help but appreciate the irony of that statement when you consider what would happen a few innings later.
The game started to get out of hand, naturally, when Bob Stanley entered the game in relief of Hurst. Al immediately noted that Stanley had incurred the wrath of Red Sox fans this season due to his poor play, which continued through the seventh inning of Game 5. In Stanley’s defense, nobody hit the ball hard in the inning. But after an infield hit, a bunt, a walk, a senile grounder deflected into no-man’s land for a double, and a sacrifice fly, the Angels had extended their lead to 5-2.
It was still 5-2 entering the ninth inning, when Al explained that “security is at the ready.” Policemen and guards lingered in each dugout, ready to take the field after the third out to keep California fans from storming the field once the Angels secured their first ever World Series berth.
A veteran first baseman with bad knees named Bill Buckner opened the ninth with a single up the middle. Dave Stapleton, who had been used as a late-inning defensive replacement for Buckner throughout much of the second half of the season (not a bad idea, if you ask me), immediately came in to run for him. Witt, still looking sharp in the ninth, struck out Rice looking with a fastball that painted the outside corner. It may have been his best pitch of the night.
The next hitter was Don Baylor, a good slugger whose claim to fame was that he somehow managed to get himself hit by 35 pitches in 1986! Baylor lunged at a 3-2 breaking ball out of the strike zone and muscled it over the wall in left-center, an impressive display of power that cut the Angels lead to 5-4.
Dwight Evans then popped out to third for the second out, spurring the crowd to their feet and the security detail out of the dugouts to line each side of the field.
The lefthanded Gedman was already 3-3 on the day. When he came to the plate, Angels manager Gene Mauck brought in lefthanded reliever Gary Lucas to replace Mike Witt. The crowd booed the move, a reaction that felt justified after Lucas plunked Gedman on the arm with his first pitch. Just like that, the tying run was on base, Lucas was out of the game, and Angels closer Donnie Moore was summoned to face Dave Henderson with two outs in the ninth.
Moore was an 11-year veteran who racked up 21 saves and a 2.92 ERA in 1986, but he battled shoulder issues and had received a staggering three cortisone shots during the season. Moore fired four hard fastballs to Henderson, two for strikes and two into the dirt. His fifth pitch was a forkball that Henderson barely fouled off down the third base line. When he went back to the fastball on the next pitch, Henderson fouled it back to the screen.
Late on the fastball and ahead of the forkball, Henderson seemed caught in-between. Moore had the significant advantage regardless of which pitch he threw, and the 1986 Red Sox were down to their last strike. The crowd remained on its feet, clamoring for its first trip to the Fall Classic.
“It’s a long way from Seattle,” Al quipped in reference to the lowly Mariners, who had traded Henderson and shortstop Spike Owen to the Red Sox two months prior in exchange for Rey Quinones.
Henderson called timeout to stifle the crowd and gather himself. Gedman took his lead from first as Moore gripped the ball behind his leg from the stretch. Henderson reset his feet in the box.
Moore went back to the forkball on the seventh pitch. It floated thigh-high over the outside corner.
Henderson didn’t miss it.
Left fielder Brian Downing drifted back for an eternity as the historic drive traveled into Major League Baseball lore. It finally settled three rows back into the bleachers to give the Red Sox a 6-5 lead and the Angels fanbase a collective aneurysm. With one swing, the center fielder who replaced Tony Armas due to injury was no longer Dave Henderson.
He was Hendu.
Al had now achieved nirvana.
“That’s second only to Fisk in the minds of everybody in New England.”
“Anaheim Stadium was a strike away from turning into Fantasyland! And now the Red Sox lead 6-5!”
“Oh, these game in Anaheim!”
Now in terms of historical significance, the Henderson home run is really the sole everlasting image from this game. It’s an iconic moment for a legendary franchise, so that’s understandable. But every Red Sox fan should really watch this game in its entirety so they can understand everything I just learned this week. Because as enormous as the Henderson homer is in the eyes of Red Sox fans, this game managed to reach an even higher gear after that happened.
For example, did you have any idea that California actually tied the game in the bottom of the ninth?!
It’s true. Bob Boone notched his third hit of the game, Gary Pettis bunted him over to second base, and lefty Rob Wilfong drove him in with a single to right off lefty specialist Joe Sambito. That paved the way for Steve Crawford, the mop-up guy who was only on the postseason roster because Tom Seaver got hurt, to take over in the bottom of the ninth of a tied-up elimination game with a man on first and only one out. To make matters worse, the first batter he faced lined a single to right to put the winning run on third.
McNamara then elected to intentionally walk the dangerous Brian Downing to load the bases. While this move set up a potential inning-ending double play, it also left Crawford no wiggle room since a walk or wild pitch would end the game.
Bearing down against the middle of the Angels order, Crawford got Doug DeCinces to fly out to shallow right, not deep enough for Wilfong to score. The next batter was Grich, who had hit the homer off Hendu’s glove in the sixth. On a 2-2 pitch, Grich hit a soft liner that looked at first to be headed up the middle. But Crawford reached his lanky arm out and squeezed the ball to end the threat and send this puppy to extra innings.
Moore remained in the game despite the cascade of boos from Angels fans that followed the Henderson home run. The boos intensified when he walked Wade Boggs to lead off the tenth inning, then transformed into cheers when Marty Barrett’s bunt attempt was fielded by Grich, who fired to second in time to retire Boggs. It was Barrett’s second blown bunt attempt of the game, quite the departure from the Mr. Clutch role he had assumed throughout this playoff run. Dave Stapleton reignited the boos for Moore (who Mauck inexplicably left in the game) when he lined a single to right that brought the potential go-ahead run to third, but Moore soldiered on and induced a 6-4-3 double play from Rice to kill the rally.
Crawford stayed in the game for the tenth and quickly retired Reggie and Devon White. “If you’re just tuning in … too bad,” Al giggled.
After Jerry Narron drew a two-out walk, light-hitting lefty Gary Pettis shocked the entire stadium by hammering a 3-2 pitch to deep left. With Narron running on the pitch, Rice dashed onto the warning track and lunged backwards at top speed to make the catch as he crashed into the wall, saving the game as the potential winning run sprinted toward third base.
Al: “Film at 11, and the highlights will last till 1:30!”
Don Baylor did his thing to leadoff the 11th, leaning his forearm into a Moore fastball to reach first base. Mauck sat idly by as Moore continued to struggle and a crew of California relievers lingered uselessly in the bullpen. The crowd grew angrier after Dwight Evans singled, then ratcheted up to merciless when third baseman Doug DeCinces was unprepared to field Rich Gedman’s bunt. The bunt single gave Geddy his fourth hit of the ballgame and loaded the bases with nobody out.
Henderson stepped into the box and played the hero yet again, driving a sacrifice fly to center that plated Baylor to put Boston back out in front, 7-6.
But the action wasn’t done yet. Now it was Boston’s turn for a punch and judy hitter to smoke one to the wall.
It was utility infielder Ed Romero who hit it. Brian Downing was playing shallow for the unthreatening Romero, and he sprinted back with no regard whatsoever for his body. He was two steps onto the warning track and still at a full sprint when he lunged forward, making the catch a fraction of an instant before plowing into the wall at 400 mph and splattering onto the ground. I don’t know what’s more amazing: that Downing held onto the ball or that he remained conscious after impact. Picture Marshawn Lynch trucking a linebacker if the linebacker was a seven-foot fence with absolutely zero give. Downing was a lunatic.
That’s four outfielders slamming into walls in one game, if you’re scoring at home.
Al: “Are we really seeing this game?!”
The inning still wasn’t over yet though. Mauck finally found it in his heart to take Moore out of the game. The righty closer exited to a serenade of vicious jeers and made way for future Angels star Chuck Finley.
Wade Boggs, the only man Finley would face, stung a 3-2 pitch to the right side of the infield. Not to be upstaged by the outfield wall bangers, second baseman Rob Wilfong dove to his left, fully extended, and barely snagged the bounding missile before standing and firing to first to retire Boggs by a step.
Al: “Oh sure, just another routine play.”
In case there hadn’t been enough drama in this game already, Calvin Schiraldi got his chance for redemption following his disastrous Game 4 blown save and loss. ABC’s footage continually cut to the stands to capture Schiraldi’s wife Deborah, hands clasped together and wracked with tension, throughout the bottom of the 11th. Luckily for the Schiraldi family, Calvin secured the save with a quick 1-2-3 inning, striking out a pair and sealing the deal with Downing’s foul out to Stapleton.
It was probably the high point of Schiraldi’s career. Unfortunately for him, it was bookended by a pair of low points; one coming the previous night, the other two weeks later in New York.
Al: “Next plane to Boston.”
The Red Sox were done screwing around once that plane landed at Logan Airport. That signature Boston offense finally joined the chat, racking up 18 runs on 24 hits in Games 6 and 7. Rice, Evans, and Buckner finally delivered in the middle of the lineup, Clemens and Oil Can Boyd stifled the Angels bats, and Marty Barrett continued on a postseason warpath that is still referenced on MLB Network graphics every October.
As horrendously as this October ended for the Red Sox, the legacy of this game, not just the Henderson home run, should be discussed a lot more frequently in Boston sports circles. Few games in history have ever matched the competitiveness and tension that this contest reached, and it should serve as an educational piece for young ballplayers that lack experience performing in high-leverage situations.
Before we close the book on this Red Sox Epic, here are a few quick ancillary notes.
- Wally Joyner, inarguably the Angels’ best hitter, did not play after Game 3 of this series due to a bacterial infection in his right leg that was believed to have been caused by an insect bite. Joyner finished second in the 1986 A.L. Rookie of the Year voting to juiced-up monster Jose Canseco, and he hit .455 in the first three games of the ALCS before the infection took him out. Who knows how this game and series would have played out had Joyner been available?
- It has been said that Donnie Moore never recovered from this game, although I would argue that his nagging shoulder issues played a far bigger factor in his decline. Sadly, his life spun out of control as his career was cut short not long after this day. He played his last big league game in late ’89, then tragically died in a domestic dispute a month later at age 35.
- Yes, there was indeed a Mike Greenwell sighting in this game. Pinch hitting in the eighth for Spike Owen, the Gator naturally lined a single to right-center. Ed Romero pinch ran for him, only to be erased moments later when Wade Boggs hit into a 6-4-3 double play. I would have loved to see Greenwell hit against Moore in the ninth rather than Romero.
- Angels fans are a forgettable bunch, but their troll game was on point here. Signs spotted in the crowd by ABC’s cameras included the following:
- “Hey Boston, this ain’t basketball”
- “ABC: Another Boston Catastrophe.”
- It’s really too bad ABC Sports got out of the baseball business in the late 80s, because I would have really enjoyed hearing Al Michaels call playoff baseball games throughout my childhood. He worked with a genuine enthusiasm for the game, and he broadcasted with a combination of intelligence, wit, and bravado that is right on par with Sean McDonough, my favorite play-by-play man of all time. He wasn’t just great at calling the action, he was phenomenal at telling the story of the game in-between plays. He perfectly summed up my feelings on Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS just before Wilfong’s diving play in the 11th.
“This game is about three hours and 50 minutes old, and you want it to go on forever.”