Re-learning the lesson of 1986

As exciting and incredible as this year’s World Series was, there was a lesson to be taken from it by anyone who was paying attention. In a nutshell, it’s that the game isn’t over until the final out is made.

In football, you can take a knee to run out the clock. In basketball, you can dribble around in the backcourt until the horn sounds. I don’t know enough about hockey to give an example of how to kill time, but I’m sure it exists. But in baseball, that final out–that final strike, even–needs to be recorded before the celebration can begin. And until that happens, the other team still has a glimmer of hope, no matter what the scoreboard says.

In this year’s World Series, the Rangers needed just one strike to win the championship on two separate occasions, and both times they came away empty. If they come back next season and complete the championship, it won’t sting quite so much. But if this was their one moment, and they begin to fall off from championship-level play in 2012 and beyond, it will be the moment that will forever live in infamy, for the Rangers and their fans.

Similar instances happened not once, but twice in the 1986 post-season, and both times involved the Boston Red Sox. The first came in the ALCS, when the California Angels (as they were known back then) were ahead of the Red Sox 3 games to 1, and were playing at home with a chance to win the pennant in front of their home fans. Baseball was still a year or two away from the ninth-inning only closer, and the results of this game may have had some role in bringing it about.

The Angels had a 5-2 lead going into the top of the ninth inning. The math for the Angels was pretty simple: get three outs, before the opponents score three runs (or more).  The starter for the Angels, Mike Witt, was sent out to the mound to finish the job.  He had thrown 106 pitches already, but a three-run lead must have seemed fairly safe to Angels’ manager Gene Mauch. This would have been Mauch’s first trip to the World Series as a manager, and the franchise’s first trip, as well. It must have on everyone’s mind in the ballpark that day.

But Witt gave up a hit to Bill Buckner, struck out Jim Rice, and then, on the 119th pitch he threw, surrendered a two-run homer to Don Baylor. Mauch left Witt in to retire the second out, and then went to his bullpen for the final out. Instead of going to his closer, Donnie Moore, Mauch turned to Gary Lucas. Lucas came in to close out the Red Sox and win the pennant, but his first pitch hit the Angels’ batter, Rich Gedman. Mauch then brought in Donnie Moore, who inherited a mess that was not of his own making. He came in to face Dave Henderson, who was 0-for-the entire series to that point.

Moore got ahead in the count 1-2, before Henderson took ball two, and then fouled off the next two pitches.  On the fourth two-strike pitch that he saw from Moore, Henderson hit a home run that gave the Red Sox a one-run lead. The Angels still had a chance, and they plated a run in their half of the ninth inning to tie the score. With the bases loaded and one out, and the pennant-winning run just 90 feet away, both Doug DeCinces and Bobby Grich failed to get the run home. If they had, chances are that nobody would remember Donnie Moore’s name. But that’s not how it played out.

Moore also pitched the tenth and 11th innings for the Angels, and in the 11th he gave up a sacrifice fly to–who else?–Dave Henderson to score what turned out to be the winning run. There were still two games left to play, but they were to be played in Fenway Park. The Red Sox beat the shell-shocked Angels in both games, and the Angels’ first pennant had slipped away from them.

In the World Series, however, the shoe was on the other foot. With Boston one strike away from winning the title in Game 6, and Ray Knight in an 0-2 hole against Calvin Schiraldi, Knight singled to keep the Mets’ rally going. The Mets would win the game in the next at-bat, when Mookie Wilson came up and….you probably know the rest.

Donnie Moore’s life spun out of control after 1986, as he was mercilessly booed by Angels fans every time he came in to pitch. He wound up taking his own life in 1989, less than three years after giving up the Henderson home run. Calvin Schiraldi was in the same circumstance as Moore was, but he didn’t meet with the same fate. He pitched another six  seasons, and is now a baseball coach in Austin, Texas.

Time will tell as to how Neftali Feliz (who needed just one more strike in the ninth inning of Game 6) and Scott Feldman (who needed one last strike in the 10th inning of Game 6) are treated by the Rangers fans. Hopefully they will continue on with their pitching careers, and contribute to the Rangers’ success in the post season in years to come. And they, as well as everybody else who was paying attention last fall, will appreciate anew the need to get that final strike to end the game.

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