A title lost, not forgotten

Published October 22, 2006 1:14 am
Utah native Bruce Hurst says he, not Bill Buckner, should take the blame for Boston not winning the Series
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The 1986 World Series x 20 years later

Twenty years later, after the countless airings of the baseball going between Bill Buckner's legs, the debates about strategy and the talk of a curse, the Utahn involved in one of the most remarkable World Series ever played is trying to revise history.

Bruce Hurst wants some of the blame.

He could be bitter about the sequence of events that cost him the Series MVP award, when his Boston Red Sox teammates could not hold two late-game leads in Game 6 against the New York Mets. Instead, Hurst remembers how he could have wiped Calvin Schiraldi's collapse, Bob Stanley's wild pitch and Buckner's error from everyone's memories by winning Game 7 two days later.

"I had a three-run lead in the sixth inning, and I lost it," Hurst said. "Nobody's really been critical of that."

That's because it's a stretch, pinning much if any of the Red Sox's defeat on Hurst, a St. George product who pitched brilliantly in two Series victories and worked five shutout innings in Game 7 before allowing the Mets to tie the game. This is his bigger message: Buckner has been vilified enough.

The replay of Buckner's error

has been shown over and over, reinforcing two common misconceptions regarding the '86 Series. In reality, it was the last play of Game 6, not the entire Series. And only because the Mets produced two runs on three singles and Stanley's wild pitch to tie the game, all with two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning, were they able to win on Buckner's misplay.

Yet that's "the image that's just engraved in your mind," said Brigham Young coach Vance Law, a major league infielder of that era.

So it was that another former BYU Cougar, Rick Aguilera, suddenly went from being the losing pitcher to the winning pitcher of Game 6, following the error by a player who launched his pro career as an Ogden Dodger.

Buckner "has just literally fallen on the sword for our team," Hurst said, "and it's not fair."

Literally? Not quite. And it might console Hurst, Law and other defenders of Buckner to know he is profiting handsomely from the error by appearing at autograph shows and co-signing photos of the play with Mookie Wilson, who hit the infamous dribbler that kept on dribbling.

"I thought, well, you know what, I've taken a lot of heat over this, so I might as well get something out of it," Buckner said in an ESPN interview this month.

It's just another twist and turn in the story of a Series that still evokes strong feelings from Red Sox fans, emotions comforted by the team's 2004 championship. Until then, any mention of "Game 6" - an event referenced in books, documentaries, a "Seinfeld" episode and a movie with that title - caused shudders throughout New England.

Southern Utah, too. And for followers of Hurst, the Sox's recent title was of little consequence, because St. George's native son was not involved.

Woulda been MVP

In October '86, "Everybody was a fan of Bruce Hurst," said Kent Garrett, who's credited with teaching the left-hander how to pitch as a youth. "People were just going crazy."

If Boston had won and Hurst had received the MVP award, it would have been an amazing story - still is, really - of how a pitcher who grew up in St. George (then a small town with one high school), became a first-round draft choice of the Red Sox out of Dixie High in 1976, almost quit twice while in the minor leagues, entered the '86 season with a career losing record and became the most dominant pitcher in a World Series that featured Roger Clemens and Dwight Gooden.

"It was a great time," Hurst said recently from his home in suburban Phoenix. "Obviously, it would have been great to win. For all intents and purposes, it feels like we did win."

That's what 20 years of perspective can do for you. At the time, nobody associated with the Red Sox was feeling that way.

Hurst's memories of the '86 Series are vivid and detailed. His story really begins in September, a month when he posted a 5-0 record and 1.37 ERA, finding a groove after missing seven weeks during the summer with a groin injury.

Hurst pitched well against the California Angels in the American League Championship Series. Yet he was ticketed to be the loser of a potential series-ending Game 5, until the Red Sox rallied from three runs behind in the ninth inning and went on to claim the next two games.

That sent them into the World Series against the heavily favored Mets. "That Mets team, that was an unbelievable ballclub," said Law, who played for Montreal in the same division that season. "Their pitching staff was just amazing. You used to go into a game against them just hoping to go 1-for-4."

Yet Hurst was the best pitcher in the Series. The way the rotation fell, he was Boston's Game 1 starter at New York. He remembers riding the bus to Shea Stadium and having a teammate ask if he was scared. "Don't get me wrong," he replied, "I'm nervous, but I'm not scared."

It gets through Buckner

After warming up with Mets fans hanging over the bullpen railing and shouting all kinds of insults, Hurst took the mound in the bottom of the first inning and looked around the infield. Seeing the usual lineup convinced him it was just another game.

"It was great, honestly," he said. "I felt so comfortable on the mound . . . how calm I was inside."

He pitched like it, allowing four hits in eight innings of a 1-0 victory in a duel with Ron Darling. Schiraldi pitched an uneventful ninth inning for the save.

The Red Sox won Game 2 behind Clemens, then lost the next two games. Hurst took another turn in Game 5, pitching all nine innings of a 4-2 victory over Gooden. "The whole sense of the Series had changed," he said. "I just remember being excited that I could go out and pitch."

Afterward, Red Sox legend Ted Williams called Hurst's victory the biggest in the history of Fenway Park, a compliment he still treasures.

Hurst figured he was through pitching for the season, and logically so. After a travel day, the Series was scheduled to conclude that weekend.

Game 6 changed everything, with help from nature.

Hurst wanted to give Clemens a Series-clinching opportunity, and he had succeeded. Clemens pitched well, but manager John McNamara pulled him after seven innings with a 3-2 lead because of a blister on Clemens' finger.

Schiraldi allowed the tying run in the eighth. In the top of the 10th, Dave Henderson - who had hit a game-winning homer in the ALCS with the Sox facing elimination - homered to put Boston ahead, and Marty Barrett drove in another run off Aguilera, a star of the 1983 BYU team that also included Wally Joyner, Cory Snyder and Scott Nielsen.

In his first full season with the Mets, Aguilera had won 10 games as a No. 5 starter. He worked out of the bullpen in the postseason, and stood to lose the Series-ending game when Schiraldi retired the first two Mets in the bottom of the inning.

As detailed by Dan Shaughnessy in "One Strike Away," the votes were collected and Hurst was to be announced as the MVP, following the last out. "Congratulations Boston Red Sox" even appeared accidentally on the scoreboard.

New Englanders knew to expect the worst. They had lived with the Sox's inability to win a championship since 1918, the year before Babe Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees and inspired "The Curse of the Bambino," the title of another Shaughnessy book.

As explained in both books, the inventor of a baseball board game based on statistical trends later calculated the odds against the Mets scoring three runs in that situation at 279-1. But it happened. Gary Carter, pinch hitter Keith Mitchell and Ray Knight (who had two strikes) each singled, bringing home a run. Stanley replaced Schiraldi and threw a wild pitch, allowing Mitchell to score the tying run and moving Knight to second base.

Wilson, also with two strikes, then hit the dribbler toward Buckner. "You don't know how he could possibly miss it," Law said. "There's fourth-graders that catch balls that are hit that hard. . . . I still sympathize with him. That's the only thing that people recall about Bill Buckner."

McNamara has been second-guessed for 20 years for not replacing Buckner, as he had done in the late innings of other games. Buckner had strained his Achilles' tendon in the ALCS, forcing him to wear the high-top shoes that appear so clumsy in the replays.

Yet "that particular play had nothing to do with mobility," said former BYU coach Gary Pullins, Buckner's Ogden Dodgers teammate in 1968. "He just made an error."

In a 2003 Boston Globe interview, Buckner said, "I'm pretty sure the ball hit something . . . because the ball didn't go underneath my glove."

It did go between his legs, enabling Carter to score in a 6-5 Mets victory, making Aguilera - who would become one of baseball's top relievers, recording more than 300 saves - a very fortunate winning pitcher and setting up Game 7.

No rest for weary

Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd was supposed to start for the Red Sox on Sunday afternoon. But when rain forced a postponement until Monday night, McNamara turned to Hurst, who had bedeviled the Mets. He also had pitched on three days rest in the ALCS, but this was different. Hurst had returned to New York not expecting to pitch at all.

Still, "He was ready for it," said Garrett, his youth coach and longtime friend. "He didn't have it all; he gave what he had."

With one out in the bottom of the sixth, Hurst held a 3-0 lead and was in position to win an MVP recount. But the Mets loaded the bases and tied the game on Keith Hernandez's two-run single and Carter's run-scoring fielder's choice.

Hurst worked out of further trouble and wanted to keep pitching, but McNamara pinch-hit for him in the seventh. Schiraldi then gave up three runs in the bottom of the inning and the Mets went on to win, 8-5. Knight was named the MVP.

"I'd be a liar if I said I never thought about how much different things would be if we had won," Hurst told The Tribune in 2004.

That was hours before the Red Sox completed their World Series sweep of St. Louis. So 86 years after the franchise's most recent championship, the Sox's victory helped redeem the '86 team. Hurst appreciated it.

A few weeks later, he was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame, based mostly on his World Series success and his 18-6 record in 1988. The ceremony enabled him to share the joy of the Sox's title. This past summer, he returned to Boston for a bittersweet reunion of the '86 team. Buckner did not attend. But in interviews at the time, Hurst defended his teammate's legacy, much as he once did in St. George.

While briefly coaching the baseball team at Dixie State College, Hurst brought in some of his old big-league friends to address the Rebels. Before Buckner arrived, Hurst is said to have cautioned his players, "If anyone says one thing about the play, you can just pack your bags and get out of here."

Nobody did.

Hurst also managed the Zion Pioneerzz, an independent pro team that formerly played at Bruce Hurst Field in St. George, before he moved to Arizona. He's the pitching coach for the Chinese team that's hustling to learn the game and fill the host's role in what's scheduled to be the final Olympic baseball tournament in Beijing in 2008.

Buckner lives in Boise, Idaho, where he has been highly successful in real estate, with developments including a subdivision he named Fenway Park. He co-owns four dealerships in the Bill Buckner Auto Group, making him a competitor of Larry H. Miller in the Boise area. He also helps coach the Boise High team that features shortstop Bobby Buckner.

Jeff Hultberg, the Braves' coach, credits Bill Buckner with doing a little of everything: maintaining the field, pitching batting practice, hitting ground balls and discussing batting techniques with the players.

When they chatted during a gathering of former Chicago Cubs players this past winter, Buckner told Law that almost every day, someone asks him about the '86 World Series, the frozen moment of a 22-year big-league career that included 2,715 hits.

Buckner rarely grants interviews, saying practically each time that it will be the last time he ever talks about '86. But occasionally, he has some fun with the subject, as illustrated by this story he retold to Law.

A friend of Buckner's son once asked him how he deals with the memory of the error. Earnestly, Buckner told the boy how he considered ending it all, jumping off a bridge onto railroad tracks in front of an oncoming train.

"Wouldn't you know," Buckner told the wide-eyed youngster, "the train went right between my legs."


Rick Aguilera pitching. Dave Henderson homers. Spike Owen strikes out. Calvin Schiraldi strikes out. Wade Boggs doubles to left. Marty Barrett singles to center, Boggs scores. Bill Buckner hit by pitch. Jim Rice flies out to right. Red Sox 5, Mets 3.

Bottom of the 10th: Schiraldi pitching. Wally Backman flies out to left. Keith Hernandez flies out to center. Gary Carter singles to left. Keith Mitchell (batting for Aguilera) singles to center. Knight singles to center, Carter scores, Mitchell to third. Bob Stanley replaces Schiraldi. Wild pitch, Mitchell scores, Knight to second. Wilson reaches on error by first baseman Buckner, Knight scores. Mets 6, Red Sox 5.

How it happened1

Play-by-play of the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

Top of the 10th: Rick Aguilera pitching. Dave Henderson homers. Spike Owen strikes out. Calvin Schiraldi strikes out. Wade Boggs doubles to left. Marty Barrett singles to center, Boggs scores. Bill Buckner hit by pitch. Jim Rice flies out to right. Red Sox 5, Mets 3.

Bottom of the 10th: Schiraldi pitching. Wally Backman flies out to left. Keith Hernandez flies out to center. Gary Carter singles to left. Keith Mitchell (batting for Aguilera) singles to center. Knight singles to center, Carter scores, Mitchell to third. Bob Stanley replaces Schiraldi. Wild pitch, Mitchell scores, Knight to second. Wilson reaches on error by first baseman Buckner, Knight scores. Mets 6, Red Sox 5.



Reader comments on sltrib.com are the opinions of the writer, not The Salt Lake Tribune. We will delete comments containing obscenities, personal attacks and inappropriate or offensive remarks. Flagrant or repeat violators will be banned. If you see an objectionable comment, please alert us by clicking the arrow on the upper right side of the comment and selecting "Flag comment as inappropriate". If you've recently registered with Disqus or aren't seeing your comments immediately, you may need to verify your email address. To do so, visit disqus.com/account.
See more about comments here.
comments powered by Disqus