Wednesday April 20, 2011

The 20 Greatest Games: 1986 NLCS, Game 6

Bob Costas: So you acknowledged the standing ovation [by tipping your cap to the crowd], but as you walk off—mixed emotions?
Bob Knepper: No, not mixed at all. I was really ticked.

Part of the joy of this series on the MLB Network is not only reexperiencing the ebb and flow of great games, missing when they are reduced to highlight reels, but this kind of back-and-forth between journalists—Costas and Tom Verducci—and players and managers who participated in the games.

There's an early discussion in this episode, for example, the fifth greatest game, Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS, about Mike Scott, the Astros pitcher who won the Cy Young Award in '86 and the NLCS MVP (for the losing side: a rarity), and how he shut out the Mets in Game 1 and allowed only 1 run in beating them in Game 4, and how he loomed in a potential Game 7, a fearful figure for the Mets. Darryl Strawberry, the other player sitting with Costas and Verducci, admits as much. He was in our heads, he says. Then the discussion winds to the topic of Scott scuffing the ball. Strawberry feels there's no doubt he did it. Knepper circles around the issue until Costas asks him point blank: Do you think he scuffed the ball? Knepper admits as much. I like the point-blankness. Costas is perfect for this kind of thing: both eminent baseball fan and true journalist.

MLB's 20 greatest games of the last 50 years

MLB's 20 Greatest Games: Great back-and-forth between athletes and journalists.

In the footage from 1986, Knepper does look ticked off as he leaves the game. He took a 3-run lead into the ninth inning but gave it all back, or most of it back, leaving with one out, the score 3-2, and a man on second. The Mets would tie it, the game would go into extras, the Mets would go ahead in the 14th, the Astros would tie it in the bottom of the 14th, the Mets would score three seemingly insurmountable runs in the top of the 16th, and the Astros, bless 'em, would come back with two, and have men on first and second and two outs with Kevin Bass at the plate and Jesse Orosco on the mound. That's why this game is number 5.

Knepper actually got a raw deal. Dykstra's triple and Hernandez's double, both to right-center field, looked like catchable balls. It looked like Billy Hatcher misplayed them. Costas even asks Knepper of the triple: Did Hatcher misjudge the ball? Knepper refuses to say so. It feels like The Code more than The Truth. It feels like you don't badmouth teammates even 25 years later. He takes it all on himself. But that was the game, and probably the series, right there. Mookie's single was a little dinker, not even a dunker, that went off the glove of a drawn-in Bill Doran at second. Bad luck. But Knepper still blames himself. He's still ticked at himself.

Bob Knepper, today

Knepper today. “Keep me in the game,” he thought in the ninth. “Put me at first base for a batter, then bring me back.”

I mean look at the line score of this game:

line score, 1986 NLCS, Game 6

I didn't watch it live. I was in college at the time, studying every night, and gave myself time for only the ALCS and Dave Henderson's heroics. But I did experience it through literature, Philip Roth's memoir, “Patrimony: A True Story,” about his father.

Herman Roth, 86 and a widower, is dying of a brain tumor. He's depressed, sure he's in the last chapter of his life. But Philip gets him interested in the Mets in 1986, and that October they have transatantic phone calls (Philip's in London) about Game 5 of the '86 NLCS. Then he phones the next night for the Game 6 synopsis.

“Well, what happened,” I said.

“It's still on. You wouldn't believe it. Thirteenth inning.”

“My God.”

“They were behind three one in the ninth but it's now the thirteenth inning and it's tied score. I'm watching it now. I didn't even eat.”

“One game's closer than the other,” I said.

“It's beautiful,” he said.

Half an hour later, he called back.

“Still playing?”

“The Mets went ahead four three just after you hung up. Strawberry--and I think Dykstra got him around. And then this guy hit a home run in the Houston bottom of the fourteenth. And now it's the top of the fifteenth. It's four four and there's some fat Mexican pitching.”

“Oh, yeah, that very attractive fellow.”

“The Mets have got this very young shortstop up, who can only strike out ... No--pop-up. He popped up. Well, that isn't a strikeout. Hey, I'm giving you this pitch by pitch in London, it's going to cost you a fortune.” ...

“Go ahead, Herm. I'm a rich man. Pitch by pitch. Who's up?”

I'll always love this game for this scene, for this bond, even if in the end the good guys lost.

Ray Knight ties the game in the top of the ninth, Game 6, 1986 NLCS

Ray Knight, looking like Derek Jeter's older brother, ties the game in the top of the ninth.

Billy Hatcher ties the game in the bottom of the 14th: Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS

Billy Hatcher ties the game in the bottom of the 14th.

Here's numbers 20 through 10 of the series.

Here's numbers 9 through (cough) 6.

Four more to go. Fisk, Buckner, Twins/Braves ... Reggie?

Posted at 07:02 AM on Wednesday April 20, 2011 in category Baseball  
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Twitter: @ErikLundegaard