The man known as the “little general” stood on the steps of the California Angels’ dugout last week, his arms folded across his chest. For the past 24 years Gene Mauch— his nickname derives from both his diminutive stature and his tactical approach to the game—has been considered the best manager in baseball never to win a pennant. With his Angels leading the Boston Red Sox three games to one in the best-of-seven American League Championship series, and ahead 5-4 with two out in the ninth inning of game five, Mauch needed just one strike against Boston’s Dave Henderson to win his first pennant. Angel slugger Reggie Jackson, the man known as “Mr. October” for his postseason hitting heroics in the 1970s and early 1980s, quietly walked toward Mauch, anxious to be the first to congratulate the 60-year-old manager. Said Jackson: “I just wanted to say, ‘Hey Skipper, you’ve finally done it.’ But in the year of baseball’s most dramatic playoffs ever, Jackson never got the opportunity.
As Mauch and Jackson watched from the dugout, Angel reliever Donnie Moore threw an off-speed pitch to
Henderson, who swung. Had the substitute centre fielder missed, Mauch and the Angels would have won their first-ever pennant—and a berth in the World Series. Instead, Henderson drove the ball 386 feet over the left field fence for a two-run homer. The Sox went on to win the game, as well as games six and seven at home—and the American League title. In the process, they extended Mauch’s dubious record of managerial seasons without a pennant to 25. Said Marty Barrett, Boston second baseman and the series’ most valuable player: “It was the greatest comeback ever.”
Meanwhile, the contestants in the National League series were locked in a record-breaking struggle of their own. Minutes before the Red Sox took the field to complete their stunning comeback, the Houston Astros and the New York Mets finished the longest postseason game in baseball history— a 16-inning, four-hour-and-42-minute marathon. When it finally ended, the visiting Mets had won the game 7-6, the series four games to two, and the National League pennant. Said Mets’ first baseman Keith Hernandez: “This was the greatest playoff of all time.”
Indeed, the 1986 playoffs left fans, players and commentators groping for superlatives, ABC TV’S AÍ Michaels summed it up before the 11th inning of American League game five in Anaheim, Calif. Said Michaels: “If you tuned in late—too bad.” The owners of the 26 major-league baseball teams could not have scripted a more dramatic conclusion to a regular season. Before the 1986 playoffs, no team in the history of postseason play—641 games—had entered the ninth inning with a three-run lead and lost the game. This year, in just 13 games, that happened three times, twice in the American League series and once in the National. Six of the playoff games were decided by one run, four in extra innings. Said New York third baseman Ray Knight: “I’ve never been involved in anything so emotional, been under such pressure, or had such a great physical strain.”
The excitement of the Boston and New York victories was matched by the poignancy of California’s—and Mauch’s—defeat. Not only were the Angels just one strike away from a pennant in the top of the ninth inning in game five, but in the bottom of that inning, with the bases loaded and only one out, they needed only a hit or a long fly ball to win the pennant. They got neither. Mauch has known similar disappointments in the past. His Philadelphia Phillies blew a 61/2-game lead, with 12 games left, to lose the 1964 National League pennant. And his Angels needed just one more win in the
1982 playoffs, but lost three straight games and the American League pennant to the Milwaukee Brewers. Last week, before losing game six, Mauch said: “I want this team to win a championship more than I want to eat when I’m hungry.” After the seventh game, a visibly shaken Mauch said: “I hurt like hell for the players. I hurt like hell for [Angels owner] Gene Autry. We laid our hearts out there and they got stepped on.”
The Angels are hardly the first team to have their hearts broken in postseason play. The Toronto Blue Jays lost to the Kansas City Royals last season after leading the playoff series
3-1. And the Royals then recovered from the same deficit to take the World Series from the St. Louis Cardinals. In 83-years of league championship and World Series play, teams have led three games to one 36 times. Only six times, including the Angels this season, has the leading team faltered—three times in the past two years. Said Sox designated hitter Don Baylor: “That’s all we talked about. Kansas City did it, and so could we.” While Mauch remained haunted by the ghost of failures past, the Red Sox at least exorcised some of their old demons. The Sox last won the World Series in 1918. Three times since then, 1946, 1967 and 1975, they lost in the seventh game of the championships. Both the 1974 and 1978 teams collapsed and finished out of the playoffs after building substantial leads in the
regular season. But this year the Red Sox led the American League East division from mid-May. Said Boston manager John McNamara: “If that stuff about the past hasn’t been dispelled now, it could go on for eternity.” But when the Series moves to Boston-after two opening games in New York—the past will be inescapable. The Mets’ Shea Stadium, built in 1964, is symmetrical and characterless, a suburban outpost parked amid the roar of jetliners taking off and landing at nearby LaGuardia airport. By contrast, Boston’s Fenway Park is a time warp, little changed from the days when Babe Ruth pitched for the Sox.
Fenway’s nooks and crannies, and its 37-foot-tall “Green Monster” left-field wall, were created in 1912. The last refurbishing took place more than 50 years ago. While a worldwide television audience of millions will tune in, only 33,583 people will watch at Fenway, the smallest park in major-league baseball. But fans will see, at close range, a home team familiar with Fenway’s quirks, and a visiting team capable of exploiting them.
For 75 years the Green Monster has bedevilled visiting left fielders and enticed right-handed hitters. Fly balls that would be routine catches in every other stadium often ricochet wildly off the wall for hits. Not since Boston Hall-of-Famer Ted Williams mastered the wall’s idiosyncrasies in the 1940s and 1950s has a left fielder played it as well as 33-year-old Red Sox veteran
Jim Rice. This week, when Mets’ rookie Kevin Mitchell, or his alternate, Mookie Wilson, ventures into Fenway’s left field, their wall experience will be based on a single exhibition game. And when New York’s right-handed batters, particularly catcher Gary Carter and third baseman Knight, step to the plate, the temptation to try to loft the ball over the wall will be almost irresistible. Boston’s power-hitting outfielders Rice, Dwight Evans and Tony Armas have already mastered their off-the-wall swings. And the American League batting champion, left-handedhitting third baseman Wade Boggs, has made an art of slashing the ball at
Whatever role Fenway plays, the Series will rest largely in the hands of the pitchers. With 108 wins, the Mets were baseball’s best team over the regular season, largely because of their pitching. In fact, Las Vegas bookmakers are so impressed with the Mets’ starting pitchers—Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez and Bob Ojeda—that New York is listed as a 12-to-5 favorite to win the Series. A Mets fan must wager $24 to collect $10 if his heroes win, making New York the biggest betting favorite since 1950, when the New York Yankees were 3-to-l picks over Philadelphia. The odds makers prefer the Mets’ starters to Boston’s rotation of Bruce Hurst, Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd, Roger
Clemens and AÍ Nipper. Boston’s ace, Clemens, who led the majors with 24 wins this season, pitched three times in the playoffs, losing once and winning once, and was not scheduled to pitch until game three of the Series.
By then the Series will have shifted to Boston—and the Green Monster will become a factor. So too, perhaps, will Hall-of-Famer Yogi Berra’s famous line, “It ain’t over ’till it’s over.” After the Red Sox came back to beat Mauch’s Angels last week, Boston manager McNamara said: “Yogi’s quote gets better and better.” And as the two best teams in baseball began the 83rd edition of the fall classic, fans hoped that the season’s final chapter would be as dramatic as its postseason preface.
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