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.

Cashen’s Open Letter to Fans

While researching another story, I stumbled on to this “open letter” former Mets general manager Frank Cashen wrote for the New York Times. It is fascinating, to say the least, because:

a. Cashen took the initiative to include Mets fans on what the organization would do to build a winning team and how they would execute their plan
b. The letter reveals the nuances of the now defunct reentry draft
c. How free agency operated in the pre-Boras days, when “A List” free agents were bid on openly by potential suitors

Cashen made referred to the Free Agent Reentry Draft draft a “raffle of human skills,” a prescient reference. The draft’s purpose was to prevent one team from signing a great number of free agents, and to put a limit on a player’s bargaining leverage. The reentry draft rules teams also meant:

  • Had to select which free agents they wished to bid on
  • Teams could select a limited number of players
  • A limited number of teams could select a single free agent
  • Free agent players were limited to signing a contract with one of the teams they selected by (if a player was selected by three teams or fewer, he was deemed to be available to all teams)

Imagine if these ground rules were still in place in 2011? No chance. In fact, the reentry draft system was eliminated a year later, following the 1981 baseball strike. It was replaced by the free agent compensation draft. In no way am I suggesting the reentry draft be reinstated, but I do find the dynamic of the original free agent bidding system intriguing when you match the rules with current circumstances.

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But, hypothetically, imagine knowing in advance which teams were bidding? The discussion would place pressure on the Mets ownership to reveal when and what they offered individual free agents. Imagine Sandy Alderson, or better yet, Fred and/or Jeff Wilpon crafting an op-ed on the “State of the Mets?”

Instead of making kneejerk trades, Cashen spent most of his first season as Mets GM assessing, watching, taking notes. In fact, it was the middle of the summer before he made a minor deal to acquire outfielder Claudell Washington. In hindsight Cashen’s biggest move of the summer came when he drafted a tall, skinny, left-handed power hitter from Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles by the name of Darryl Eugene Strawberry.

The Mets were silent through the first few years of the reentry draft, while their crosstown rival Yankees were buying and stockpiling talent (Catfish HunterDon Gullett and Tommy John), none louder than Reggie Jackson, who eventually led the Yankees to a World Series title in 1977.

From the day he was announced as the new Mets GM Cashen was asked the question: “Would the Mets be active in the 1981 reentry draft?” Every reporter knew who and what was at stake.

Forever Young

Don’t, OK? Save your breath – and Anthony Young’s time. Just get to the question. That’s right, the question; the inevitable query about losing. He won’t mind answering because, well, the reply is always the same. I pitched well during the stretch. It just happened. I don’t feel like I deserve it. I will be known for this forever. It was destiny. He accepts his place in history, yet, he reveals nothing about his true feelings.

What irks Young is the mind-numbing process; the back-and-forth, like some silly parlor game, between reporter and former athlete. The Q&A lingers. The questions turn to small talk. How do like coaching? What do you teach young baseball players? He takes a deep breath and exhales his frustration. Minutia, he thinks. Young’s mind is screaming: Ask the question!

Anthony Young has been living in baseball infamy. Two decades ago today he began a historic losing streak that lasted 465 days, across 81 appearances and two seasons; piling up 27 consecutive losing decisions. The long slog finally came to a halt on July 28, 1993.

How can you tell when something bad is about to happen? There was nothing more than circumstantial evidence looking back at the aftermath of the New York Mets 5-3 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on May 6, 1992. Young pitched six innings, allowing five earned runs and six hits (including two home runs) in his first loss of the season. But it was OK. He won his first two starts of the season. The Mets were 16-12.

“Take away two pitches (gopher balls) and it’s a different game,” Young told the media after the loss. “Those were about the only pitches I didn’t get where I wanted.”

A couple bad pitches led to a few bad games, a disappointing season, a long slump, a full-feature horror flick. The record has grown like an extra appendage to Young. As the losses piled up, he held on to his confidence.

“I’m a good pitcher,” he said. “I believe in myself. The Mets believe in me, too.”

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Young entered the 1992 off-season with a sense of hope. But he had a four-month break – to think. Spring Training was a struggle. The media pressed him on the streak. After a relief appearance (2 IP, 4 R, 3 H) in a 7-3 loss against the Houston Astros, Young began to crack. Suddenly, the idea of breaking Cliff Curtis’ 23-game losing streak became a reality. There was enough negative momentum to not even Tony Robbins could save Young’s fragile state of mind.

As Young approached the record the stories turned downright laughable. No. 18 came on a walk-off hit to Mike Lansing of the Montreal Expos. Young, angered by his performance, attempted to kick a roll of toilet paper but missed, kicking a nearby porcelain toilet and nearly fracturing a toe.

Murphy’s Law seemed took over in June, adding fuel to the fire. Young appeared to be on the brink of snapping the streak in Chicago. He pitched six shutout innings against the Cubs; then Mike Draper and Mike Maddux surrendered eight runs in the final two innings. He got a no-decision.

No. 22 was eventful. At Three Rivers Stadium, Young sneezed and snorted his way through seven innings in a 5-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was later reported that prior to the game groundskeepers in Pittsburgh spread a drying substance on the mound to soak up rain. Young took the mound and suffered an allergic reaction to the substance. Apparently the old saying is true: When it rains … oh, nevermind.

Five days later Young tied the record thanks to four Mets errors that led to three unearned runs. He left after six innings and New York’s defense tightened up, causing former Mets pitcher Jeff Innis to comment: “Did you see the plays we made after he left?” he said. “When he goes out there, the whole team feels it. It’s intense.” Young left the Mets clubhouse that night wearing a tee-shirt that read: LIVE AND LEARN.

The tee portrayed a carefree, event hopeful, attitude on the outside, but inside, Young was terrified. “I’ve had four different managers in the three seasons I’ve been around,” he told the media. “Start? Bullpen? “Right now, I’m confused.”

By late June the Mets were buried in last place, 30 games under .500. They had lost four straight and Young was scheduled to start against the St. Louis Cardinals. The night before the game Young went to dinner with Gregg Jeffries, a former teammate. Let’s just get this over with. One way or another, he thought, break the record or break the streak. Less than 24 hours later, it was over. Young gave the 36,911 morbid Mets fans what they had come to see: a loss, and a piece of history. It was one for the record books. He owned the record: 24 consecutive losing decisions. Young was officially branded “a loser.”

The media presence was overwhelming. The Mets moved the post-game press conference to Dallas Green’s office because of the media overflow. As they circled the perimeter and doorway, one member of a camera crew poked a hole in the ceiling, causing plaster to reign down on the media. Young shook his head in disbelief saying, “Everything is over with now. I broke the record; I’m in the record books. Now that I have the record, I hope you all can leave me alone.”

Not so fast Young man. It would be another month (and three more losses) before it was over.


Finally, on July 28, 1993, Eddie Murray drove in the winning run at Shea Stadium, giving the Mets a 5-4 victory over the Florida Marlins, ending Anthony Young’s infamous 27-game losing streak. Dallas Green popped the cork on a bottle of champagne. A fan sent roses. The Mets, and Young, celebrated.

“It wasn’t a monkey,” Young told reporters. “It was a zoo … the zoo had been lifted off of my back and we had just won the World Series.”

Two decades later and Young still has the shrapnel stored in his attic in the same box he kept them in at his locker at Shea; letters, cards and notes of encouragement and a videotape from his 1993 appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. In two-and-one-half seasons with the Mets he recorded five wins and 35 losses. Young was shipped off to the Chicago Cubs just days before Opening Day 1994.

“It was initially disappointing because I wanted to have a great season in New York,” he said years later. “Sure enough, Chicago hosted the Mets at Wrigley Field for Opening Day and Karl Rhodes connected on three homers off [Dwight] Gooden.”

It wasn’t all that bad. During one stretch, Young pitched 23.2 straight scoreless innings and over the one year and two-month stretch, he recorded 15 saves. There were moments – but not many.

Benny and the Mets

Talk about being unprepared? Benny Ayala stepped off a plane at LaGuardia airport just hours before first pitch and raced across the street to Shea Stadium. While his teammates finished batting practice, Ayala found his locker and, for the first time in his life, put on a Major League Baseball uniform.

“I was nervous,” said Ayala, during a phone interview from Puerto Rico. “I had to rush in late in the afternoon. I didn’t have time for food before the game. I just got there and put on my uniform.”

Then, Ayala looked at the lineup card and swallowed some butterflies. That’s as close as he’d get to dinner until after the game. Mets manager Yogi Berra had already penciled Ayala in the No. 6 spot, between Wayne Garrett and Ron Hodges.

One day earlier he was playing for the Tidewater Tides in Norfolk, Virginia, now the 23-year old rookie was starting his first major league game for the New York Mets in place of Cleon Jones, who injured his knee a day earlier.

The only familiar faces in the Mets locker room that day were Mets pitcher Ray Sadecki and Berra. “He (Berra) came to see me play in Puerto Rico,” remembered Ayala. “We talked and I later signed with the Mets.”

Scouts labeled the Yauco, Puerto Rico native a potential “superstar.” On defense, Ayala’s throwing arm was drawing “comparisons to (Roberto) Clemente.”

Without batting practice, Ayala stepped to the plate in the bottom of the second inning on an empty stomach, in a half-empty stadium, in a new uniform, against an unfamiliar pitcher, gripping an unfamiliar bat.

“I used Joe Nolan’s bat,” said Ayala. “I didn’t have no bats.”

Nolan had a short stint with the Mets in 1972. He was long gone by the time Ayala arrived in August 1974, but a handful his bats were still laying around the clubhouse. His uniform number “48” was still on the handle of the bat.

Veteran Astros catcher Milt May had no idea who Ayala was, what to call or how to position Lee May, Larry Milbourne, Roger Metzger or Doug Rader in the infield. For Ayala it was awkward and uncomfortable, like walking into a party and not recognizing a single face in the crowd.

Tom Griffin was on the mound for the Houston. As he mounted a two-strike count, Griffin figured the rookie couldn’t – and wouldn’t – catch up with a major league fastball. Wrong.

Ayala crushed Griffin’s two-strike fastball, depositing it into the second deck down the left field line at Shea Stadium. The crowd of 20,934 erupted as Ayala rounded the bases without fanfare.

“I hit so many home runs in Puerto Rico and the minor leagues, it was no big thing to me,” he said.

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Ayala became the first in New York Met history to homer in his first major league at-bat, the first Puerto Rican born major league player to home run in his first at-bat and the first National League player since Cuno Barragan in 1961. Since then three other Mets have accomplished the feat: Mike Fitzgerald (1983), Kaz Matsui (2004) and Mike Jacobs (2005).

Ayala said when he returned to the Mets dugout, there were handshakes, smiles and wisecracks waiting for him.

“They said I was going to go for the Hank Aaron record,” he remembered.

The next night, Ayala’s parents had arrived from Puerto Rico. He was back in the Mets starting lineup, going 2-for-4 with a walk and a run scored in a 3-2 loss. But Ayala would have a more memorable games against the Pirates and, ironically, a more memorable home run.

As a member of the Baltimore Orioles, Ayala crushed a two-run home run off Pirate left-hander John Candelaria in Game 3 of the 1979 World Series, helping give the O’s a 2-1 series lead, a series they would eventually lose.

In 1983, Ayala delivered a pinch-hit game-tying single off Steve Carlton in the seventh inning of Game 3 of World Series. Ayala would later score the go ahead run, and eventual game-winning run. The Orioles won the Series in five games and Ayala has a ring to prove it.

Those may be wonderful memories, but he never kept the bats as a keepsake, like he did when he hit homered in his first major league at-bat. It’s not in a glass trophy case or a safe deposit box, no, the bat sits idle in his home in Puerto Rico, a reminder of the day No. 18, hit No.1 using No. 48.


Dickie Thon described it this way: “It was like a boom … a dead sound. Like a thud.”

Today, the boxscore reads HBP (hit by pitch) but, for Thon, it was more than that. The Astros All-Star shortstop had been hit by a pitch major league pitches four times prior to April 8, 1984. No. 5 — a fastball by New York Mets pitcher Mike Torrez — fractured Thon’s orbital bone around his left eye, changing his life and career.

A fuzzy 30 year old video shows Thon frozen at the plate as the baseball exploded off his left ear flap and grazing his temple before striking his eye. Harvey said Torrez’ fastball started out waist high, then suddenly took a sharp right. Thon crumbled. The Dome went quiet as Thon slowly rocked back-and-forth, his right arm covering his face. Home plate umpire Doug Harvey leaned over and saw that Thon was still conscious. Jose Cruz, who was in the Astros’ on-deck circle, Torrez and Astros manager, Bob Lillis circled around him.

”The first thing I thought of is that I want to make it, I want to live and see my family again,” said Thon.

Nothing was the same after that moment.

Thon spent the next week in the hospital and underwent surgery to have a small piece of bone realigned.

Torrez called Thon the next day to apologize.

“I don’t blame Mike Torrez,” he told the New York Times. “I blame myself. I think, ‘Why did I let this happen?’ I just stood there.”

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In the weeks and months following his surgery, Thon said he remembers waking up each morning and he’d lie still and look around the bedroom. He would try to focus on an object — the alarm clock, a light bulb, a photograph — testing his ability to see clearly. He struggled.

Thon’s eyesight went from 20/20 before the pitch to 20/150. Over time his sight improved to 20/40. Still, tracking a moving sphere traveling towards him at 90+ mph, was much more challenging.

Thon attempted to take batting practice, but the white sphere was a blur coming at him.

“I still had a blind spot in my left eye,” he said. “I had to concentrate on seeing the ball.”

As time passed and Thon healed, a new challenge arose; scar tissue was forming around the retina in his left eye, further blurring his vision and impeding his depth-perception.

”I drive home and I can’t always tell how far the traffic light is,” he told the media.

Thon and the Astros came to realize there was no chance he would return in 1984. His season was over after just five games. So, instead of playing, Thon watched in uniform from the bench.

After two fitful seasons of ups-and-downs, Thon arrived in Kissimmee, Florida in the spring of 1987 optimistic and ready for a fresh start. But he struggled early and often both in the field and at the plate, going 0-for-8 and committing three errors in the three spring starts.

Thon walked out of camp hours before a scheduled. Frustrated by his struggles he was ready to quit baseball. He was no longer the same player — the 1983 All-Star — that hit .286/20 HR/79 RBI/34 SB). The Astros brass encouraged Thon to see a doctor. He underwent more than two hours of intensive eye exams.

Team doctors cleared Thon, but his performance deteriorated and his playing time dwindled. He played in 32 games during the 1987 season, hitting .212 in 83 plate appearances.

“When I got hit, I was a .280 hitter, and I went down to .240-something,” he said. “I learned to play the best I could … I couldn’t see the ball very well after I got hit in my left eye. I had to make adjustments. It’s tough to do that in the big leagues, but I did manage to play 10 [more] years.”

Thon signed a free agent deal with the San Diego Padres in 1988. Over his last five seasons he jumped from team-to-team including stints with Philadelphia, Texas and Milwaukee before retiring after the 1993 season.

From Dynasty to Disappointment

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