One Pitch Away

by Mike Sowell

New York: Macmillan Books, 1995

We reviewed a portion of this book last year (the Buckner portion); these are some further discoveries.

Dave Henderson's home run off Donnie Moore: we don't have Moore's version, because he committed suicide several years ago. Sowell did interview his widow, Tonya, who wishes that people had been kinder to her husband.

To recapitulate, Mike Witt started the top of the ninth with a 5-2 lead, three outs from the World Series. Bill Buckner got a hit, and Don Baylor belted a home run to make it 5-4 ("I could not believe that ball went out of the ballpark when Baylor hit it."). Witt retired Evans for the second out, but Rich Gedman was coming up, and he had been hitting Witt hard all day ("I still can't figure that out. He hit fastballs that day, I believe. The first time up I threw a pitch that almost hit him in the belt. He hit a homer off it.") So Gene Mauch brought lefty Gary Lucas in to face Gedman. Lucas hit Geddy with his first pitch, so Mauch brought in his closer Donnie Moore to pitch to Dave Henderson.

Mike Witt was sitting in the clubhouse with ice on his arm, watching the game on TV. He says that when Moore got two strikes on Hendu, someone in the clubhouse yelled, "Don't throw him a split finger!" But that was what Moore threw. Witt says it was a good pitch, "That was Moore's out pitch... It just had to be an out."

Doug DeCinces, playing third base for the Angels, saw it differently. "Donnie Moore had a cortisone injection the night before. He wasn't supposed to pitch. He was NOT supposed to pitch." Henderson had just missed a fastball, so Boone thought there was no way he could come back with a fastball again. He called for a forkball. "Donnie just kind of hung a nothing forkball," says DeCinces, "BP speed, right down the middle of the plate. No movement, no anything."

Henderson says he felt no pressure. Everyone expected him to strike out against a star closer. Hendu was only a defensive replacement, put in the game because Tony Armas had been hurt. He swung and missed at the first pitch, then fouled off several pitches. Finally Moore came with the split finger. Hendu says he hadn't been playing very much, so "there was no way I was ready to hit off anybody. It was just a big guy swinging hard and happening to hit the ball out of the ballpark."

He says that homer, though it saved the Red Sox, wasn't the biggest home run he ever hit, that it was just lucky. But Game 6 of the World Series, 10th inning, was a different story. "...through the Series, the Mets knew I was swinging the bat well and they were pitching to my weaknesses and pitching me like a real hitter. And right before that at-bat in the tenth inning, [Mets pitching coach] Mel Stottlemyre -- I started out with him in A ball and he knows everything about me, up and down -- he went out and talked to the pitcher. And I still hit a home run. So, that's probably the biggest home run I've ever hit."

That Hendu homer would have been remembered as the Series-winner, of course, if things had turned out differently. There's an interview with Calvin Schiraldi, who probably went through more emotional trauma than anyone that October. Calvin always wanted to be a starter, and here he was, a raw rookie thrown into the closer's role, trying to win a world championship.

Calvin and Kevin Mitchell had been minor league teammates, and he says, "I used to talk to Kevin all the time... When we were at Tidewater, I told him I'd throw him sliders every time, until he proved he could hit it. That's what guys were getting him out on in Triple A. Yeah, he couldn't hit that pitch. You could tell him it was coming and he still couldn't hit it.

"I guess he figured out I was going to throw it and he waited on it. He definitely learned how to hit it." Mitchell hit the slider to center field for a base hit. Then Ray Knight got the third hit off Calvin -- a blooper -- and he was gone.

Bob Stanley says it really doesn't matter if the inside pitch to Mookie was a wild pitch or a passed ball. "You can blame me, you can blame Geddy, it really doesn't matter." It was Stanley's wife who blamed Gedman, but he says he and Rich have talked about it "There was a little hard feeling. We got it ironed out." No, Stanley says, that pitch wasn't a spitter.

And yes, he would have beat Wilson to the bag if the ground ball had been fielded cleanly.

Is this what I'm going to be remembered for? Is this what I've killed myself for all these years? Is a whole season ruined because of a bad hop?


A fitting author for the subject? Mike Sowell is a writer who specializes in baseball's macabre side. His previous books were about Ray Chapman (killed by a pitch), and Ed Delahanty (fell off a bridge and drowned). So now we get Bill Buckner (let a dinky grounder go through his legs). By the way, there's already a book on 1986 called One Strike Away -- a quickie by Dan Shaughnessy. We were able to sample Chapter 3 of One Pitch Away on the Macmillan Web site.

Chapter 3 of One Pitch Away opens with Bill Buckner trying on the specially-made hightop shoes that would enable him to stay in the lineup.

Buckner's bad wheels, the constant pain, the long ice-pack sessions, the unhealthy levels of medication, were already well known to Red Sox fans and media. His left ankle was in terrible shape, and he'd blown out his right Achilles tendon in the final playoff game against California. Red Sox manager John McNamara assumed that Buckner would not be available for at least the first two World Series games in New York. Since the DH would not be allowed there, Mac planned to use Don Baylor, a defensive stranger at first base, in place of Buckner.

Putting a healthy Baylor at first would keep his bat in the lineup and give Buckner time to mend.

But Buckner wanted no part of that. He wanted to play. He demanded to play.

I'm ready, he told McNamara on Saturday.

So, McNamara did what any manager would do: put Buckner at first base. If he said he could play, he could play. McNamara wrote his name in the lineup, batting third and playing first base.

McNamara did what any manager would do? That statement isn't supported by Sowell, at least in this chapter. Using Baylor, with Stapleton for defense, was still a plausible option. (For the record, Buckner batted .188 in the Series, Baylor .182, and Stapleton .000.) As later events would seem to show, McNamara wasn't following any managerial "book" here, but acting out of pride and sentiment and friendship.

Sports people like to idealize athletes who "play with pain", and most professionals you see are playing with at least minor injuries. But there is a line which Bill Buckner may have crossed. When does "playing with pain" become a selfish act? Isn't it possible for a veteran player to know he's hurting the team, but to insist on staying in the lineup anyway?

Sometimes this book seems written for the Young Adult section of the library (you know, the room where you found those neat biographies of Roy Campanella and Henry Aaron). Sowell describes Buckner with gee-whiz admiration, in the following full paragraphs:

Not bad for a guy playing on one leg.

Billy Buck had courage. You had to admire a man like that.

That was Bill Buckner. Just call him Mister Dependable.

Sowell tries set up Buckner's Blunder as a freak occurrence: "He had handled forty-five chances in five games against the Mets and hadn't made a single error." But to put things in perspective, Steve Garvey had once gone through a whole season without a single error. Good first basemen don't make errors. Sowell talks about Buckner's fielding records, but his records were for assists. Or, as his detractors used to put it, for making the pitcher cover first base.

The Red Sox knew Buckner was no gem in the field. The following Game 1 dialogue from Sowell's book is not new; it was recounted in a Boston newspaper not long after the World Series:

Bill Buckner limped into the dugout to await his turn at bat for the Red Sox. He was having trouble covering ground at first base. He went over to talk to manager John McNamara and second baseman Marty Barrett about it.

"Well, what do you think?" he asked. "Should I stay in or should Stape come in?"

Nearby was Dave Stapleton, the backup first baseman. He had been Buckner's late-inning defensive replacement in all four wins over California in the American League playoffs. Stapleton, a former second baseman and shortstop, was healthy and could cover more ground than Buckner.

For Barrett, the answer was simple.

"Well, we're up, and Stapes can make the plays you can't make."

Barrett turns out to be prophetic, as Stapleton pounces on a bunt and nails a runner at second, helping preserve the 1-0 win. "Bill Buckner wouldn't have been able to make that play. Dave Stapleton did," notes Sowell. Again in Game 5, he writes:

It was 4-1 in the ninth when Dave Stapleton went out to play first base. Stapleton had a perfect record in postseason play: This was the seventh time he had taken over for Buckner in the late innings. So far, the Red Sox had won every game he had played.

This is putting it backwards, of course. Stapleton played every game the Red Sox won. He only came in when the team was ahead. Otherwise Buckner would be kept in for his offense, so they could catch up. But with a lead, Stapleton gave the Sox a small edge in the percentages. His job was to help prevent disaster, and no disasters had happened on his shift.

So -- we've established that Buckner couldn't cover ground, and that Stapleton could. We've established that the Red Sox knew this, and that their normal strategy was to replace Buckner in the late innings when the team was ahead. The question then becomes, Why didn't the Red Sox replace Buckner in the late innings of Game 6?

There was a chance to take Buckner out in the eighth inning, with the bases loaded and two out.

McNamara told Don Baylor, a right-handed hitter, to get ready to bat for Bill Buckner if Jesse Orosco, a left-hander warming up in the bullpen, was brought in to pitch for New York -- Afterward, Dave Stapleton, the defensive specialist, could take over at first base. It was all set up.

-- Baylor came back to the dugout ready to hit. He looked out to see Buckner hobbling up to the plate. McNamara had changed his mind. Baylor went back to the bench and sat down. He didn't bother to ask McNamara what had happened.

This sounds like it's coming from an interview with Baylor, who couldn't have been too happy with his treatment by McNamara. During the regular season Baylor was the clubhouse leader of the pennant winning Red Sox, their main power hitter, their 31-homer man. He is told he's going to play first base in New York, then the crippled Buckner puts himself back in the lineup. Then Baylor's going to pinch-hit in Game 6, but McNamara again changes course and stays with Buckner. Baylor must have been wondering who the hell was running the Red Sox.

A lefty-lefty matchup at a time like this? Especially with Buckner due to come out for defense anyway? Billy Buck, still in the game, swung at Orosco's first pitch and flied out to center field, ending the rally.

In the top of the tenth Buck contributed to a rally -- he got hit by a pitch. (Sowell doesn't mention it, but it might have been logical to pinch run for him.) The Sox had taken the lead, and McNamara's usual script had Stapleton coming in for the last of the tenth.

Back in the dugout, Dave Stapleton, backup first baseman, stood with his glove in hand. He waited to see if he would be summoned to play defense, as he had been in the past seven postseason victories by the Red Sox. Instead, he saw Buckner take up his position at first base. Billy Buck would be on the field for the celebration. After ten years of pain, he wasn't going to miss this moment.

Was Buckner calling the shots? We've only got one chapter (the publisher did not reply to our request for the entire book), and there isn't much in it about John McNamara's thought processes. Did McNamara, in a moment of sentiment or weakness, want Billy Buck on the field for the celebration, perhaps making the final putout? Did he believe he could defy the baseball gods? Or was he just befuddled?

Ten years is not enough. Some day, when most of the participants are long gone, some 95-year-old veteran is going to come out with the real story. And the other surviving witness is going to totally contradict him. It will go on forever.

Character is destiny. Who John McNamara was, and who Bill Buckner was, made them decide what they decided. There may have been a dozen chances to turn back, but like Captain Ahab and Mister Starbuck they pursued the white whale, and went with it down to their doom.

Once Buckner was back on the field for the bottom of the tenth, the whole tragedy was inevitable. Schiraldi and Stanley played their parts, relief pitchers bringing anxiety instead of relief. And then the ball found its way to the one man who didn't belong on the field. Sowell describes the aftermath:

Down at first base, Billy Buck stood with his hands on his hips. He looked up at the sky in disbelief. He couldn't remember the last ground ball he had missed. But he never would forget this one.

This doesn't begin to capture the feeling of thousands of Red Sox fans wandering around in stunned horror that October night. Yes, we feel bad for Buck sometimes. Even though he never felt bad for us.

The book is said to contain "the compelling -- and sometimes heartbreaking -- stories of each team's key players whose lives and careers were defined by the exciting season."

...and according to Ed Janusz

Not solely about the Red Sox. The first 90 pages are an in-depth summary of both 1986 playoffs, told, in the American League contest, from the side of the Angels.

The rest of the book's 200-plus pages consists of fourteen anecdotal interviews with various participants in that weird October: or, rather, thirteen interviews and one analysis.

The analysis is of Donnie Moore, the Angel relief pitcher who gave up the home run to Dave Henderson and committed suicide three years later. It's a grim story; Moore drank too much and physically abused his wife, and appears to have had no sense of self outside of baseball. The scenario is repeated often in professional sports, and Moore's extreme and tragic example deserves explanation. But instead, we are treated to prose such as:

"Sometimes, Donnie would get a shot in his back, go to the ballpark and then turn around and pitch that night. A couple of times Tonya didn't think he was supposed to pitch, but Donnie pitched anyway. He didn't care. All he wanted was to get out there and pitch."

By any standard, this is terrible writing: bad self-help, bad Hemingway, bad Nabokov-making-fun-of-Hemingway, and bad extrapolation of the conversational style of a woman who may or may not be very articulate but who deserves a hell of a lot better representation than this. I almost threw the book away at this point, but I persevered.

Among the California team, we meet the stoic, unreflective, but honest and composed Mike Witt, along with Doug DeCinces, who has no particular love for the Angels organization. The Houston Astros (and that was an amazing series) are represented by Bob Knepper, a Christian who had trouble with the jock culture of baseball; modest Mike Scott; and our eminently likeable old friend Billy Hatcher. The Mets contingent consists of Gary "First Person Singular" Carter, Ray Knight, and Mookie Wilson.

Three of the Sox -- Bill Buckner, Dave Stapleton, and Calvin Schiraldi -- appear bitter about their experiences in baseball. Dave Henderson, in a brief, sketchy portrait, seems to have a good attitude (perhaps rather blithe for some fans) about it all, and the old punching bag Bob Stanley emerges as a thoughtful man who, more than many of us, has learned from life's experiences.

About Bill Buckner: in the last issue of the Journal, David Nevard asks, "When does 'playing with pain' become a selfish act? Isn't it possible for a veteran player to know he's hurting the team, but to insist on staying in the lineup anyway?" It's a good question. But it's not one that is particular to baseball; in my considerably less glamorous profession (management of medical records), I have encountered a number of people who have insinuated themselves into positions of "indispensability;" they don't take vacations, they get involved in areas beyond their field of expertise, they resist the free flow of information ...often to the detriment of their companies. (Of course, some of the greatest people in the world are in the healthcare industry, too.) But in life, as in baseball, people don't take themselves out of the lineup. Buckner may have wanted to be on the field when the final out was made. Or possibly he thought, to the unwitting detriment of Don Baylor and Dave Stapleton, he was indispensable. Most probably, on that absurd day he was like most of us are on any given day; he showed up for work, and expected to work until someone told him to go home. It was up to McNamara to make the right decision.

Overall, I respected John McNamara as a manager. The 1986 team was not a great team; fans may remember some of the remarkable pitchers he ran out there while trying to get around the losses of Hurst and Boyd. And losing Seaver, with his experience and poise, may have been the silent killer. I do recall his Red Sox teams as being probably the most fundamentally sound Red Sox teams I've ever seen, and I go back to the days of Mike Higgins.

Many times I have tried to understand some of McNamara's late-season moves. It appears that at the end he was scared to death of some of the broken-down old journeymen in his bullpen, although these same journeymen helped get the Sox into October. And I wonder if, anticipating a Red Sox disaster, he was scared to death of having a first baseman with Stapleton's woeful batting average on the field. This sounds like someone who can't stand to be second-guessed, but it also sounds suspiciously like Gene Mauch. Yet, while Mauch's strengths and his eccentricities have been well documented (and are so again by Mr. Sowell), I can recall no such analysis of John McNamara as a manager (Mr. Sowell barely mentions him). The consensus is that his decision to leave Buckner on first was sentimental; but John McNamara gave no indication at any time of being a sentimental man. In short, I have no idea of how he made any of his decisions.

The author appears to have done a good job of getting these diverse personalities to at least talk about themselves. The interviews aren't necessarily deep or reflective; but I don't know if that can be blamed on Mr. Sowell. Athlete culture is not prone to introspection. Bob Stanley and Bob Knepper had to make choices. So did Donnie Moore, and, disastrously, he failed.

ONE PITCH AWAY did evoke a few memories. One of life's little mysteries: Did Clemens ask out of Game 6, or did McNamara yank him? It says here that Clemens had a broken blister and a torn fingernail, and that "...McNamara decided to pull him for a pinch hitter in the top of the eighth" I might have sent up Baylor, percentages be blowed, but there's no gain in second-guessing the decision to lift Roger, who probably was hurt and exhausted (and who wasn't really effective again until after the 1987 All-Star game).

Ultimately, this volume is different from Dan Shaughnessy's "quickie." The chapter about Donnie Moore annoyed me no end, and the writing in general, except when Mr. Sowell allows the players to take over, tended towards a breathless staccato. ONE PITCH AWAY is not a definitive history of the 1986 post-season, nor is it a definitive psychoanalysis of the important personalities involved. A Red Sox fan approaching it with appropriate expectations should enjoy it.

Book Review by Ed Janusz

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