“The one sure thing about baseball is – you never know.” Yogi Berra? No. Casey Stengel? No. Try, Joaquin Andujar, former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher.
As baseball analysts perform their post-season predictions in dogmatic fashion, history tells us uncertainty is the one certainty in the rear of almost every October baseball series.
The post-season has a rich history of uncommon plays, players, performances and pennant winners. From Buckner to Brosius there were boots, boos and blasts, to memories of Schilling, Larsen and Branca respectively winding up in pain, perfection and persecution. The Cinderella Florida Marlins, the Amazin’ Mets and the unstoppable Big Red Machine are commonplace in October.
At any given moment over the next four weeks, a baseball fan will be heartbroken by a modern day Carlton Fisk, Joe Carter or Kirk Gibson or be shutout by the next Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson or Whitey Ford. Then, sometimes, we get blindsided by an unexpected bomb from Bernie Carbo, Bucky Dent or Dave Henderson.
It’s these moments that grown men live for, the chance to hit a game-winning home run in the World Series. As a boy, it’s the first thought of every summer morning and the last thought, as his eyes close and his head hits the cool pillow on a crisp, October night.
To that end, for each unlikely heroic play or performance, there is misery waiting on the other end, the eternal lump in the pit of your stomach of coming up short. One out, one strike, one pitch, one moment in time that you can never get back, it plays over and over and over in your mind. One long, continuous loop: Gene Mauch, Mike Torrez, Bobby Cox, Donnie Moore, Mitch Williams, Bill Buckner, are you experienced?
The heart of a Met fan skips a beat at the mention of Game 6, 1986 World Series, Buckner, Mookie. The daydream turns dark, the mood deepens when someone makes a reference to Orel Hershiser. “Don’t go there,” spit one Met fan on a sports talk show.
Hershiser represents the dark side of the Mets post-season. Even today, the sight of his milky white, string bean frame, bending, arcing and darting the ball toward catcher Mike Scioscia in highlight films is enough to send a Met fan into a downward spiral.
It was the Dodgers’ Hershiser who sealed the Mets fate in October 1988. The Mets saw Hershiser four times in the span of eight days: eight-plus innings in Game One, six innings in Game Three, a save in Game Four and, then, the final nail in the Mets coffin, a complete game, 6-0 shutout in Game Seven, ending the Mets hopes of a second World Championship in three years.
But, by all accounts, the series didn’t turn out the way “experts” had forecasted. The Mets were the clear favorite. The Dodgers had won the NL West title with a 94-67 record. The Mets had the best record in the league (100-60), winning the NL East crown by 15 games over the Pittsburgh Pirates. But, during the regular season, the Mets readily beat the Dodgers, winning 10 of 11 games.
Ironically the series opened on October 4, 1988, a Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium. In Game One the Mets, in typical post-season fashion, rallied from a 2-0 deficit, scoring three runs in the 9th, capped off when Gary Carter blooped a two-strike pitch in front of a diving John Shelby. Strawberry scored as the ball bounced in front of Shelby. McReynolds went head-first into catcher Mike Scioscia, knocking the ball loose to score the winning run for the Mets.
The series took on new drama in the early morning hours of October 5. The New York Daily Newslead story was written by Mets pitcher David Cone (also the Game Two starter).
Justice. Yes, there has to be justice in this universe. Ever heard the saying: Better to be lucky than good? Trash it, because Hershiser was lucky, Doc was good. Look what happened to luck in the ninth inning last night. It’s called justice–catching up to luck and pummeling it into the ground. We knew about Orel’s 59 zeroes, but none of us thought he was invincible. Shoot, Doc pitched a much better game. Trouble is, Orel was lucky for eight innings.
Cone’s diary, printed for all the world to see, sparked Hershiser and the Dodgers.
Game Two was late to start and early to end. The game was held up due to the 1988 Vice-Presidential debate between Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle. It didn’t matter. The game was over by the second inning, when the Dodgers opened up a can of whoop ass on Cone, scoring four runs in the inning. The Dodgers 6-3 win, was even at one game a piece, the series shifted to New York.
On a rainy, cold Saturday in New York, Game 3 pitted Orel Hershiser on three-days rest against Ron Darling. With Dodgers clinging to a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the eighth, the game took a wild turn.
Dodgers closer Jay Howell was pitching to Kevin McReynolds to lead-off the inning. With a full count, Mets Manager Davey Johnson called time, asking home plate umpire Harry Wendelstedt to inspect Howell’s glove for an illegal substance. Howell was found to have pine tar on his glove, and he was immediately ejected from the game (he would later be suspended for the remainder of the series). The Mets went on to score five runs and win the game 8-4 and the series lead, 2-1.
The Mets blew a 4-2 lead in the ninth inning. After a lead-off walk to Dodger outfielder John Shelby, Mets ace Doc Gooden surrendered a two-strike count, two-run home run to Mike Scioscia to tie the game. Kirk Gibson gave the Dodgers the lead and, eventually, the game with a two-run home run off Roger McDowell in the 12th inning. Hershiser, who started the day before, struck out McReynolds with the bases-loaded to save the game.The Dodger tied the series.
The Dodgers cruised in Game Five, winning 7-4 to take a 3-2 series lead going back to Los Angeles. David Cone let his pitching do the talking in Game Six. Cone scattered 5 hits and allow 1 run in a 5-1 Mets win, forcing a decisive Game 7.
Before the game, Mets manager Davey Johnson remarked that the excessive use of Hershiser might undo the Dodgers. Hershiser had pitched eight-plus innings in game one, six in game three, and earned a save in game four. Hershiser served the cocky Mets team a big slice of humble pie, pitching a complete game 6-0 shutout to win to clinch the National League title.
Today, the cast of characters are different, but that’s irrelevant. Whether it’s a veteran like Madison Bumgarner or the fresh-faced Noah Syndergaard, a new book, a new history will be written in baseball. The post-season turns good players into legends, teaches the everyday hero humility and lifts the no-name utility infielder from obscurity to celebrity status, even if for a day. It’s a lesson learned: expect the unexpected.