One Play, Two First Basemen and the Elusive Third Out

Even in hindsight the story is hard to fathom. The New York Mets came to bat in the bottom of the 10th inning, at home, trailing the Boston Red Sox 5-3 in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. They were three outs away from losing the Series. Hold on, this isn’t the story you’re thinking it is.

Wally Backman led off the inning slicing a line drive into the glove of Dave Henderson. One out. Keith Hernandez then hit a hard line drive to centerfield for the second out. The Mets were, as Len Dykstra would later tell Peter Golenbeck in Amazin’, “one out away from wasting the whole f—ing season.”

As Hernandez circled back to the dugout, the Mets first baseman — always intense, always encouraging his teammates to keep their heads in the game — never stopped. He went down the steps, into the dugout, down a second set of steps into the tunnel underneath Shea Stadium and straight to the team’s locker room. Game over, he thought. Depressed, disgusted, disappointed, Hernandez later confessed he just couldn’t bare to see the Boston’s celebration unfold on his field, in front of  his fans.

 

“I went into Davey’s [Johnson’s] office and took a beer out of his fridge,” he told then Washington Post reporter (and Mets fan) John Feinstein and author of One on One: Behind the Scenes with the Greats in the Game.

Hernandez said he was dehydrated and downed a Budweiser in seconds. He proceeded to crack open a second beer, paying little attention to the television nearby. Hernandez sat down in his manager’s office, lit a cigarette and drank another beer.

His counterpart, Bill Buckner, was standing off the line at first base, anticipating what the spray of the champagne would feel like; seeing a beaming smile on Mrs. Yawkey’s face, and witnessing the bedlam that would ensue in Boston’s clubhouse. The entire Sox dugout was like a mass of small children ready to rush the tree and begin tearing open presents on Christmas morning.Buckner was 36 years old; his body was 75. The decade leading up to this moment were successful, yet painful, for Buckner. His body took a beating. Through the years Buckner tried acupuncture, herbs (DMSO) and holy water — yes, holy water (1978, Chicago, look it up). In 1986, he was given nine cortisone shots as he literally limped through the season.

Boston Globe reporter and Baseball Hall fo Famer Peter Gammons wrote, “it wasn’t unusual to see him before games with ice taped to his ankle, Achilles tendon, lower back, elbow and shoulder … he often looked as if he were running in galoshes.”

Now, Buckner stood alone, limping around first base, pushing dirt in his signature black high top spikes that supported his fragile ankle, hoping for one more out.

The two first baseman — Hernandez and Buckner — couldn’t have been further apart in mind, body or spirit.

Underground, Hernandez watched the monitor as teammates Gary Carter and Kevin Mitchell delivered back-to-back singles.

“I opened a third one,” said Hernandez.

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Ray Knight is reduced to a single strike separating Boston and their first World Series title since 1918, before lifting a single to centerfield, scoring Carter and advancing Mitchell to third base. Hernandez never moved an inch, his eyes locked on the television while he anxiously pulled on his cigarette, beer in hand.

Meanwhile, Buckner and the Red Sox stiffened. The crowd roared, stomping their feet, literally rocking Shea Stadium and leaving Hernandez wondering whether the ballpark would hold up under the circumstances. Sox manager called on relief pitcher Bob Stanley to finish the job.

As Stanley warmed up in the cold late October night in New York, Buckner could only stand by, watching each smoky breathe he took vaporize into the breeze. Back in the Mets clubhouse, Hernandez nervously chain-smoked from his manager’s chair.

Like Calvin Schiraldi did earlier, Stanley reduced Mookie Wilson to a single strike. Twice Boston pitcher’s were one strike away from finishing the Mets. Stanley fired a 2-2 wild pitch, scoring the tying run.

Shea Stadium went ballistic.

“I’m still not thinking that clearly, so I finish the third one,” Hernandez told Feinstein. “That’s when it hit me: the score’s tied and I just drank three beers. I’m buzzed. I was sitting there frozen, trying to figure out how I’d go out and play first base when Mookie hit the ball.”

After Wilson’s ground ball skipped through Buckner’s legs, for a moment he stood with an expression of disbelief near first base, then slowly limped back to the Boston clubhouse.

“How lucky did I just get?” Hernandez asked Feinstein. “Thank God Buckner booted that ball.”

Buckner — not so lucky.

Time has not healed, as it so often does. History skips, like an old 45 record, replaying the moment over and over. And Hernandez and Buckner? The space between them is now eternal.

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5 Subway Series We’ll Never Forget

The New York Mets and New York Yankees celebrate the 21st season of the Subway Series, beginning Friday at Citi Field in Queens.

Since Dave Mlicki’s memorable first game the Mets and Yankees have played 112 regular season games. The Yankees have won 66 and the Mets have won 46 games (the Yankees also won the 2000 World Series, 4-1).

(more…)

April 11, 1962: Beginnings

On the eve of the New York Mets first game in franchise history, general manager George Weiss was asked what his goal was for the fledgling franchise.

Joel Youngblood: No Respect

Today in New York Mets History: August 4, 1982 – Former New York Met Joel Youngblood became the first player in Major League history to get a base hit for two different teams in two different cities in the same day. He started the day as a New York Met and collected a two-run single off Ferguson Jenkins in the third inning at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs. Youngblood was notified he was traded to the Montreal Expos in the fourth inning. He grabbed his bats, left the ballpark and caught a flight to Philadelphia in time for the Expos-Phillies game. He pinch-hit in the seventh inning and singled off Steve Carlton.

Joel Youngblood played for six teams over his 14-year Major League Baseball career – including two in one day. It happened 30 years ago today on August 4, 1982; Youngblood’s longest, and in an odd way, his most productive day, as a major league player.

It started as a seemingly “normal” day in the life of a professional ballplayer. Youngblood woke up on that Wednesday morning in Chicago, a member of the New York Mets. This was 1982, before Wrigley Field installed lights. So the Mets and Cubs were scheduled to start at 2:10 p.m. He was at the park taking batting practice at 9:00 a.m. When then Mets manager George Bamberger posted the lineup card, Youngblood perked up when he saw his name starting in center field.

Starting was a day-to-day proposition for Youngblood during his six-year tenure in New York. It didn’t  matter who his manager was — Joe Torre or Bamberger — Youngblood would find himself at second base one day, right field or third base another and pinch-hitter the next day. He played six different positions during his time with the Mets. He hated the role. To him, utility meant uncertainty. But, for Torre, Youngblood was “a manager’s dream.”

“Don’t tell me, ‘You’re too good to start,’” he told Torre. “I don’t want to hear it. “What do I have to do? I’ve sat on the pine before. I want to play.”

Youngblood became so proficient as a utility player he was named to the National League All-Star team in 1981. Of course, that decision was out of necessity because, as All-Star rules go, each team has to have at least one representative. While he was not a regular in the Mets 1981 lineup he was the best of an otherwise slim crop of talent.

“Everybody talks about mental preparation in this game,” Youngblood told Sports Illustrated before the 1982 season. “Well, for so long I didn’t know where I was playing, what I was playing, if I was playing. So I told Joe I didn’t want to play third. I’m not comfortable at that position. I don’t even want balls to be hit to me when I’m in the infield. Joe said, ‘O.K.’ And he said I wouldn’t get to play very much.”

And, so it was. On Opening Day 1982 Youngblood was on the bench and rookie Mookie Wilson was in right field.

Youngblood suffered from poor timing. He arrived in the smallest of three infamous “Midnight Massacre” trades on June 15, 1977 included three trades: Tom Seaver to Cincinnati for Pat ZachryDoug Flynn, Steve Henderson and Dan Norman. The second: Dave Kingman to San Diego for Bobby Valentine. The third: Mike Phillips to St. Louis for Youngblood. His exit from New York was equally as awkward.

Youngblood then started in center field in place the injured Mookie Wilson. In the third inning, he singled home two runs off Ferguson Jenkins, giving the Mets a 3-1 lead in a game they would go on to win 7-4. Meanwhile, Frank Cashen was 750 miles away in Little Falls, New York, trying to complete a trade that would send Youngblood to the Montreal Expos.

”We hoped to make the deal by game time,” Cashen told the New York Times the day after the trade. ”But there was a phone circuit problem, and we couldn’t complete it. Bamberger asked me what to do with Youngblood, and I told him to go ahead and start him, we’d take a chance on his getting hurt.”

With the Cubs batting in the bottom of the third, and Youngblood patrolling center field, Cashen called the visitors dugout at Wrigley Field. When the inning ended Bamberger cornered Youngblood and told him he’d been traded to the Expos.

He packed his bats and left Chicago. He arrived at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia as the Expos and Phillies game was starting. He was inserted in the lineup in the seventh inning against Steve Carlton and delivered a pinch-hit single in the Expos 5-4 loss. The day started at 9:00 a.m. in Chicago and ended 14 hours later, at 11:00 p.m., in Philadelphia.

“With a flight, two games, it was a really long day,” he told the New York Daily News year later.

Youngblood became only the third player in history to play in two games with two different teams on the same day, but he also became the first and only player in major league history to play in two games in two cities and collect hits for both teams. He put an exclamation point on the feat by collecting hits against two future Hall of Fame pitchers (Jenkins and Carlton).

Respect.