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 center field for the second out. The Mets were, as Lenny Dykstra would later tell Peter Golenbock 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 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 the Washington Post reporter (and Mets fan) John Feinstein.
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 imagining 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. Then Boston Globe reporter and Baseball Hall of 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.
“I opened a third one,” said Hernandez.
Ray Knight is reduced to a single strike separating Boston and their first World Series title since 1918, before lifting a single to center field, 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. The Red 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 breath 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 reduces 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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John Feinstein’s new book, One on One: Behind the Scenes with the Greats in the Game was published by Little, Brown and Company and is available from all your favorite booksellers.