Finishing with a Flourish (Or, When Not to Make an Error)

On October 25, 1986, the Boston Red Sox played the New York Mets in the old Shea Stadium in New York for Game 6 of the World Series.  The Red Sox, without a championship since 1918, and trying to overcome years of “almost-but-not-quite” futility, along with the legendary “Curse of the Bambino” (referring to their trading away of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees after the 1919 season), were on the brink of winning it all.  They were up, 3 games to 2, in the series.  An upset was in the making.  The Red Sox were a good team in 1986, but the Mets had just completed their best regular season in franchise history, winning 108 games.  But that didn’t matter now.  If they lost either of the next two games, they would finish in second place, and the Boston Red Sox would be world champions for 1986.

I remember Game 6 of that Series very well.  It was a crisp, autumnal Saturday night, and I had already finished my homework for the weekend.  I didn’t want anything to get in the way of the big game.  Fourteen years old and a freshman in high school that fall of 1986, I was a die-hard Mets fan.  I watched most of their games, from spring training on, and knew the team inside out.  That night, I wanted to watch the game alone, out in the family room of the home I grew up in, the home where, to this day, my parents still live.  I popped some popcorn, extra butter, of course, and settled in.  Shea Stadium was rocking–the atmosphere was electric.

Adding to the madhouse of the stadium that night, a parachutist swooped down into the field of play in the top of the first inning.

parachute

 

When security escorted him off the field, he led the crowd in a chant of “Let’s go, Mets, let’s go, Mets!”  Watching on television, I could feel the energy streaming through the set, as if by magic.

parachute2

 

The Red Sox forged a 2–0 lead in the early innings, and for a while, that looked like all the runs they would need.  Twenty-four-year-old fireballer Roger Clemens was on the mound, the best pitcher in the league in 1986.  Through four innings, the Mets could not generate a single base hit off him.

But in the fifth inning, they scratched and clawed, tying the game at 2 apiece.  In the 7th, the Sox took a 3–2 lead, but the Mets tied the game at 3 an inning later.  Ultimately, the game would go into extra innings.

In the top of the 10th, it looked as if the Red Sox would finally get over the hump and win their first World Series since World War I.  They scored two runs, taking a 5–3 lead into the bottom half of the inning.  The Mets needed to score two runs to tie, three to win, or else their season would be over.

Their first two batters failed to deliver.  Two quick outs, and nobody on base.  The Red Sox were now one out, one out, away from the championship.  In the Sox dugout, players yelled out to the field, taunting the Mets and their fans.  The champagne was ready in the clubhouse, the celebration about to begin, sixty-eight long years of frustration about to be overcome and victory realized.

But then a funny thing happened.  Gary Carter, the Mets catcher, singled to left field.  Then pinch-hitter Kevin Mitchell singled to center.  And then Ray Knight, the third baseman, singled to center, too, driving in Carter.  Suddenly, it was 5–4, with runners on first and third.  The Sox still needed just that last out, but now it was getting tight, the tension filtering throughout Shea Stadium like a living, breathing, tentacled thing.  The taunting ceased.  The champagne remained uncorked backstage.

Red Sox manager John McNamara changed pitchers, hoping that would douse the fire.  And Mookie Wilson, a Shea Stadium fan favorite, stepped up to the plate.

mookie

 

Vin Scully, the masterful play-by-play announcer, rightfully described that tenth inning for the ages as “delirious.”  But the craziness had, remarkably, only just begun.

Wilson fell behind in the count, and the Red Sox were one strike away from the championship.  But Mookie battled, fouling off several tough pitches.  Finally, pitcher Bob Stanley delivered a wild pitch that got past the catcher, allowing the tying run from third base to score.  Now it was 5–5.  But the Mets weren’t finished.

Three pitches later, Wilson hit a ground ball to first base.  Watching the game, in Rochester, three hundred and fifty miles to the west of Shea Stadium that night, I was sure the inning was about to end, and it would be 5–5 to start the 11th.  That’s not how it happened.

The ball took a tricky hop and skipped underneath Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner’s glove.

bucknererror

 

Ray Knight, who had delivered the clutch single just a few minutes ago, scored on the play, and the Mets, miraculously, had come through.  From two runs down, two outs and nobody on base in the bottom of the 10th inning, they had found a way to win.

metswin

 

They would come back to win Game 7 as well, taking the series.  Sox fans would need to wait another eighteen years for The Curse of the Bambino to finally end.

But even as a Mets fan that Saturday night, twenty-seven Octobers ago, I felt bad for Bill Buckner.

buckneraftermath

 

Then thirty-six years old, Buckner had enjoyed a long and distinguished career.  And he was a key player for the 1986 Red Sox, driving in more than 100 runs that year.  But almost overnight, he became Public Enemy Number One in Boston.  Unfairly singled out as the scapegoat for the Series loss, he even received death threats from disgruntled fans.  When the 1987 season opened, he was booed mercilessly by the home crowd.  The Red Sox released him halfway through the  season.

**************

No piece of writing is perfect.  The greatest short stories and essays and novels all have mistakes in them, somewhere–a paragraph here that perhaps could have been sharper, more emotionally engaging, a scene there that doesn’t quite hold up to the brilliance that surrounds it.  There is no such thing as literary perfection.  But if the story as a whole captivates us; if the writing, in its entirety, enthralls us; if the overall excellence of the piece fills us with a kind of wonder, then we are quick to overlook any small errors or less-than-inspired sentences that seep through every now and again.  After all, what’s the big deal if the writer fails to wow us on page 107, if he or she takes our breath away for the remainder of the story?

But if an otherwise great story ends poorly?  If you enjoy the first 350 pages, but then, as you read the last chapter, you shake your head and feel an urge to toss the book straight into the hearth fire?

badending

 

This will leave its mark.  It may even negate the richness and excellence of the first 99% of the story.  While readers can easily overlook a mediocre chapter 6, we are not so ready, or able, to forgive an ending that shatters the very foundation the author has spent so many pages to construct.  Or, to put it another way, if Bill Buckner had made his error on a nondescript Monday night in late May, in front of a half-empty stadium somewhere in the Midwest, nobody would have remembered for long.   But allow the winning run to score in extra innings of the World Series, ruining your team’s chance to win its first championship in seventy years?  That will be remembered . . .

Before I even began writing The Eye-Dancers, I had an ending in mind.  But as I delved in deeper, finishing chapter after chapter, the nature of the ending shifted, taking on different colors, different nuances.  I worried about it.  I stressed over it.  I rewrote the Epilogue, or portions of it, truly, dozens of times.  I had spent so much effort, so much time, writing the novel as a whole.  I didn’t want to toss it all away in the end.  I hope I didn’t.

theend

 

*****************

As a footnote, it should be pointed out that when Bill Buckner was re-signed by the Red Sox in 1990, he received a standing ovation from the Boston fans upon his return.  And in 2008, after the Sox had since twice won that elusive World Series title, he threw out the first pitch for the home opener at Boston’s Fenway Park.

buckerfirstpitch

 

He received a four-minute standing ovation from the sellout crowd.

buckerovation

 

So, when it was all said and done, Bill Buckner’s Red Sox story had a pretty good ending, after all.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

%d bloggers like this: