Mid-1980s playoff baseball had no equalby Paul Francis Sullivan
January 11, 2011
Seriously, when did we ever see a run of iconic postseason moments like we had in the mid-1980s?
Now I tend to overrate the 1980s because that was the decade where I matured as a baseball fan, and my Hall of Fame picks have a definite pro-1980s slant. But I do not think I am seeing things through rose-colored Ray Bans.
I am defining “An Iconic Post Season Moment” as a highlight that can be easily defined with a name or a few words. “The Carlton Fisk Homer.” “The Bobby Thomson Homer.” “Bucky Bleeping Dent.” “Reggie in 1977.” “Don Larsen’s perfect game.” “Willie Mays’ Catch.” “The Bloody Sock.”
OK, technically the Bobby Thomson homer and Bucky Bleeping Dent weren’t postseason games, but you get the idea.
It is an easy-to-define moment in baseball history that many casual fans know about, and a bunch were piled up between 1985 and 1988. And not only those moments, but also a slew of heart-stopping postseason games that were often overshadowed by the more iconic games played right before or afterwards.
Ozzie Smith… Go crazy folks!
Game Five, 1985 NLCS – October 14, 1985 – Cardinals 3, Dodgers 2
The Cardinals and Dodgers were tied 2-2 in games and on the scoreboard. Fernando Valenzuela was throwing a gem while the Cardinals bullpen kept the Dodgers off of the board. Tom Niedenfuer faced
Ozzie Smith, who had never hit a left-handed home run in his career. He picked the perfect time for his first one. As Jack Buck so accurately described it, the Cardinals fans and Ozzie went crazy. The defensive wizard had his unlikely offensive highlight.
Don Denkinger’s call
Game Six, World Series – October 26, 1985 – Royals 2, Cardinals 1
It is too bad that it isn’t called the Brian Harper game after his clutch RBI hit in the 8th inning to give the Cardinals a 1-0 lead. Or the Danny Cox game, after his seven-shutout-inning performance. It isn’t even the Dane Iorg game. Remember he stroked a two-run walk-off hit with his team on the verge of elimination. Alas, the game’s legacy will be Denkinger’s jaw-droppingly-awful call on Jorge Orta’s ground out. His last name will always be a shorthand for instant replay proponents.
Game Five, 1986 ALCS – October 12, 1986 – Red Sox 7, Angels 6 in 11 innings
You might remember Dave Henderson homering off of Donnie Moore with the Angels one strike from a trip to the World Series. And you also probably know about Moore’s tragic ending. But do you remember that Mike Witt was pitching a gem for 8 2/3 innings before he was removed for Gary Lucas? Do you remember the Angels took the lead because Dave Henderson dropped a ball over the fence for a go-ahead homer? Or that the Angels tied the game after Henderson’s homer and had the pennant-winning run on third base with fewer than two outs, and seldom-used mop-up man Steve Crawford got the Red Sox out of the jam? Did you remember Gary Pettis hit a fly ball that was a foot shy of being a pennant-winning homer? Or Henderson drove in the winning run in the 11th? As Al Michaels said during the 9th inning, “We’re looking at one for the ages here.”
The Mets and Astros 16-inning marathon
Game Six, 1986 NLCS – October 15, 1986 – Mets 7, Astros 6 in 16 innings
Between the Mets overcoming a three-run hole in the 9th inning and taking the lead in the 14th… and Billy Hatcher hitting a game-tying homer in the bottom of the 14th… and the Mets scoring three in the 16th and the Astros scoring two before Jesse Orosco struck out Kevin Bass with the tying and winning runs on… the Mets seemed too exhausted at the end to celebrate their pennant. On my short list for wildest and most exciting game I have ever watched.
The Buckner error
Game Six, 1986 World Series– October 25, 1986 – Mets 6, Red Sox 5 in 10 innings
I hate referring to Bill Buckner by name in reviewing this game. The error was so overrated. When I went to bed that night crying (and I did) I was thinking about the wild pitch Bob Stanley uncorked. (Or should it have been a passed ball on Rich Gedman’s ledger?) The game was already tied when Buckner made the error. Buckner’s miscue was just the last mistake in a series of disastrous moves by manager John McNamara. But, sadly, the image of the ball going through Buckner’s legs symbolized the Red Sox… until Dave Roberts stole second base.
Kirk Gibson’s home run
Game One, 1988 World Series – October 15, 1988 – Dodgers 5, Athletics 4
The funny thing about Game One of the 1988 World Series was it was already an entertaining game with many memorable moments before Kirk Gibson hobbled to the plate. There were exchanged bean balls in the first inning. Mickey Hatcher homered in the first (matching his entire regular-season output) and his sprint around the bases was nothing short of hilarious. Then Jose Canseco hit a grand slam, the first of his season, that ricocheted off the center field camera. It was good, fun baseball. But then came the Kirk Gibson home run that was so surreal that I nearly cry every time I see it.
And those are just the massive highlights. Each postseason (including 1987) had games that normally would be considered the brilliant October highlight. They were simply outshone by those epic moments.
Don't believe me? Well take a look at these games, series, performances and series-clinching heroics that may not have been as legendary as Buckner and Gibson, yet had our hairs standing on end when they happened...
The entire heart-stopping 1985 ALCS
OK, maybe the first game was boring. But the rest of the series between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Kansas City Royals was an underrated classic. Game Two saw Pat Sheridan hit a game-tying homer in the 9th for Kansas City, which took the lead in the 10th, only to give up two in the bottom of the 10th to blow it. Game Three saw the Royals survive a five-run inning by the Blue Jays. Toronto scored three in the 9th to win Game Four. Danny Jackson saved the Royals season in Game Five. The Blue Jays had the pennant-winning run at the plate in Game Six but couldn’t win, and the Royals pulled off the win in Game Seven. Bet you didn’t remember how good that series was!
Jack Clark’s homer
Game Six, 1985 NLCS – October 16, 1985 – Cardinals 7, Dodgers 5
Mike Marshall was going to be the hero for the Dodgers. He hit a solo shot in the bottom of the 8th inning to give LA the lead and set up a seventh game. But Tom Neidenfuer, who had already thrown 1 2/3 innings, let two runners on. With first base open and two outs, Tom Lasorda let Niedenfuer pitch to Jack Clark. He crushed the first pitch he saw into the left field stands for a go ahead and eventual pennant-winning homer. Niedenfuer’s career was never the same.
Terry Pendleton crushes the Royals
Game Two, 1985 World Series – October 20, 1985 – Cardinals 4, Royals 2
Charlie Liebrandt was throwing a two-hit shutout into the 9th inning and keeping the Cardinals on their heels. With two outs and the bases loaded, Terry Pendleton smacked a double down the line that cleared the bases and gave the Cardinals the lead for good. St. Louis took control of the series… or so it seemed.
The spectre of Mike Scott
Game One, 1986 NLCS – October 8, 1986 – Astros 1, Mets 0
Game Four, 1986 NLCS – October 12, 1986 – Astros 3, Mets 1
Mike Scott squared off against Doc Goodenin the opening game of the NLCS. Glenn Davis’ solo homer was all the offense in the game. Alan Ashby and Dickie Thon homered in Game Four. And that was all he needed to make it clear the Mets weren’t going to beat Scott, making the 16-inning Game Six more desperate for New York. They had to win or face Scott in Game Seven.
Lenny Dykstra’s walk-off shot
Game Three 1986 NLCS – October 11, 1986 – Mets 6, Astros 5
A classic back-and-forth game where the Astros took a 4-0 lead and Darryl Strawberry tied the game with a three-run shot in the 6th. The Astros were up 5-4 in the bottom of the 9th when Lenny Dykstra launched a go-ahead, walk-off homer that sent Shea into hysterics. If the Astros won that game, they’d be handing the ball to Scott in Game Four to give them a 3-1 lead.
Calvin Schraldi hits Brian Downing
Game Four, 1986 ALCS – October 11, 1986 - Angels 4, Red Sox 3 in 11 innings.
If the Red Sox lost the ALCS (and they were one strike from doing just that), the moment that would have been etched in Boston lore would have been in the 9th inning of Game Four. With Roger Clemens dealing and the Sox with a three-run lead in the 9th, the Rocket tired and Calvin Schraldi came in. Jim Rice misplayed a Gary Pettis flyball to make it a one-run game. The Angels loaded the bases with two outs. On an 0-2 count, Schraldi hit Brian Downing with a slow, looping curve. The game was tied, the Angels won in 11 and took a 3-1 lead. It looked all over… until Henderson came to the plate fewer than 12 hours later.
Ryan Express and Doctor K duel at Shea
Game Five, 1986 NLCS – October 14, 1986 – Mets 2, Astros 1 in 12
Nolan Ryan threw a nine-inning, 12-strikeout, two-hit, one-walk masterpiece. It wasn’t enough. Dwight Gooden let in one run over 10 innings. Wasn’t enough. Finally, the Mets won after a botched pickoff play in the 12th set up Gary Carter’s winning hit. Another game the Astros lamented in those 16 Game Six innings.
The ball rolls through Tim Teufel’s legs
Game One, 1986 World Series – October 18, 1986 – Red Sox 1, Mets 0
It was clear from the start that the 1986 World Series was going to be defined by a ball through an infielder’s legs. Early on, it looked like Mets second baseman Tim Teufel was going to wear the goat horns. With Bruce Hurst and Ron Darling locking horns in a scoreless game, Rich Gedman rolled one through Tim Teufel’s wickets for the only run of the game. The Sox were in control early in the Series and only made the ending more cruel.
The Red Sox blow another lead in a World Series clincher
Game Seven, 1986 World Series – October 27, 1986 – Mets 8, Red Sox 5
One of the reasons I call the Buckner error so overrated was there was another game to play. And a rain delay allowed Bruce Hurst to pitch. And guess what? The Red Sox had the lead in that one as well! Back-to-back homers by Evans and Gedman sparked a 3-0 lead. Hurst took the three-run lead into the 6th when the Mets tied it. With a totally rested bullpen, McNamara inexplicably brought in Schraldi to pitch the 7th, and Schraldi surrendered a solo shot to Ray Knight. It was a one-run game going into the bottom of the 8th, but Strawberry’s homer put the World Series away for good.
Tigers sweep to clinch the East
Final Regular Season Game – October 4, 1987 – Tigers 1, Blue Jays 0
OK, it wasn’t a postseason moment, but it did clinch the division on the last day of the year. The Tigers were down 2½ games with six to play. And going into the last weekend of the season with Toronto, the Tigers would be eliminated with two losses. Instead, they won the first two games by one run each. On the final day of the year, both Jimmy Key and Frank Tanana threw complete games. The lone difference was Larry Herndon’s solo shot in the second inning.
No Jack Clark? No problem!
Game Three, 1987 NLCS – October 9, 1987 – Cardinals 6, Giants 5
The Cardinals' MVP and former Giant star Jack Clark was reduced to a pinch hitter in the NLCS. His replacements, Jim Lindeman and Dan Driessen, came through big time in Game Three. Down 4-0 in the 6th, Lindeman hit a home run to put the Cardinals on the board. Driessen hit a game-tying single in the 7th, and Lindeman drove in a key insurance run as St. Louis came all the way back for the win.
Game Four, 1987 NLCS – October 10, 1987 – Giants 4, Cardinals 2
With the Cardinals up 2-1 and Danny Cox dealing, the Giants were in trouble. But in the fifth inning, Jeffrey Leonard, The Hack Man, hit his fourth homer in as many games to give San Francisco the lead for good.
Candy Maldonado loses it in the lights
Game Six, 1987 NLCS – October 13, 1987 – Cardinals 1, Giants 0
The Giants were a game away from the pennant and Dave Dravecky was doing his best, throwing a solid six innings. But Candy Maldonado misplayed a Tony Pena fly ball into a triple. Pena would score later on a sacrifice fly for the only run of the game.
Frankie "Sweet Music" wins it.
Game Seven, 1987 World Series – October 25, 1987 – Twins 4, Cardinals 2
A strange World Series had appropriately a Twilight Zone of a clincher. Frank Viola looked lousy, and rookie Joe Magrane looked great. Then suddenly Viola became unhittable and three of the worst calls you will ever see cost both team runs. Eventually the Twins took the lead and won one of the least likely championships in baseball history.
Hershiser lets up a run and the Mets win
Game One, 1988 NLCS – October 4, 1988 – Mets 3, Dodgers 2
Orel Hershiser took his 59-1/3 scoreless inning streak into the postseason and didn’t look like he was going to miss a beat. He cruised into the 9th inning of Game One of the NLCS with a two-run lead and tossing a six-hit shutout. But Darryl Strawberry got a one-out RBI double. Tommy Lasorda lifted Hershiser for Jay Howell and the Mets pounced. They scored two more times on Gary Carter’s two-out, two-strike, two-run double to take the lead for good. If the Dodgers couldn’t win with Hershiser on the mound, what chance did they have?
Eckersley strikes out Boggs
Game One, 1988 ALCS – October 5, 1988 – Athletics 2, Red Sox 1
A tense pitchers duel between Dave Stewart and Bruce Hurst reached its climax in the bottom of the 9th. With two outs, the A’s were up by one and two former teammates and future Hall of Famers squared off. With the tying run in scoring position and the winning run on first, Dennis Eckersley had to face Wade Boggs. It was Eck who triumphed by striking out Boggs to end the game en route to his ALCS MVP.
Jay Howell’s ejection
Game Three, 1988 NLCS – October 8, 1988 – Mets 8, Dodgers 4
Rain allowed Tommy Lasorda to trot out Orel Hershiser again for Game Three. He pitched very well (one earned run in seven innings), but once again there was trouble when Jay Howell came out of the bullpen. He was caught with pine tar on his glove and was suspended for the rest of the series. The bullpen imploded, and the Mets took a 2-1 series lead, winning both games Hershiser started.
Mike Scioscia homers off Dwight Gooden
Game Four, 1988 NLCS – October 9, 1988 – Dodgers 5, Mets 4 in 12 innings
I think this is one of the wildest and most underrated games in baseball history. Twenty-four hours after losing another Hershiser-pitched game, the Dodgers blew an early lead, and the Mets were three outs away from a commanding 3-1 lead. Then Mike Scioscia, not exactly a power threat, launched a two-run, game-tying shot to right field off Dwight Gooden. The Dodgers wiggled out of extra inning jams before Kirk Gibson hit a go-ahead, two-out homer in the 12th. But with closer Jay Howell suspended, the Dodgers had to have a patchwork bullpen shut the door. When Tim Leary and Jesse Orosco allowed the Mets to rally, Hershiser came out of the pen with no day's rest and got Kevin McReynolds to pop up. The tide of the series had shifted. Without Scioscia’s homer, the Mets would cruise to the World Series.
Big Mac’s walk off shot
Game Three, 1988 World Series – October 18, 1988 – Athletics 2, Dodgers 1
The Dodgers had ideas of sweeping the heavily-favored A’s as Game Three went tied into the 9th. Jay Howell came out of the bullpen for the first time since his suspension and faced his old teammate Mark McGwire. Howell lost the battle as McGwire launched a game-ending shot into the left field bleachers, giving the A’s hope.
Hershiser and the second impossible dream
Game Seven, 1988 NLCS – October 12, 1988 – Dodgers 6, Mets 0
Game Two, 1988 World Series – October 16, 1988 – Dodgers 6, Athletics 0
Game Five, 1988 World Series – October 20, 1988 – Dodgers 5, Athletics 2
The Dodgers' bullpen blew two Hershiser’s starts, so he took matters into his own hands. He threw a five-hit shutout to eliminate the heavily favored Mets. Then a day after Kirk Gibson’s homer, he not only threw a three-hit shutout against the A’s but collected three hits himself. Then in Game Five, he clinched the World Series with his third complete game victory in eight days.
That’s more than 25 amazing postseason games in a four-year stretch without including any of the iconic games.
And I would argue this is a greater stretch than even the 1950s or the recent 2003-2004 memorable postseasons.
The 1950s almost exclusively involved New York or Brooklyn. And while 2003 and 2004 were amazing, neither World Series matched the excitement of their respective LCS. (The 2003 World Series was exciting but paled after the Aaron Boone/Steve Bartman epics.)
And look at the games listed above. Three of those years had Game Seven of the World Series. All of the years had a Game Seven of the League Championship Series.
Also, the joy was spread around. I listed exciting wins for Kansas City, St. Louis, Toronto, Houston, New York, California, Boston, Detroit, San Francisco, Minnesota, Oakland and Los Angeles in a four-year stretch.
Of course, I was 13 when this run started and 16 when it ended, so needless to say it made an impression on me. Maybe someone ten years my junior will be saying nothing was better than the mid-1990s. Maybe someone ten years my senior would read this and say, “Are you kidding me? The 1970s were the best!”
But I stand by my assessment. That era of postseason baseball was the best, stretching between two Jack Buck calls:
“Go Crazy, folks!” to “I don’t believe what I just saw!”
References and Resources