John McNamara, RIP: Forgiven

Boston Red Sox

John McNamara, who wouldn’t let himself live Game Six of the ’86 World Series down.

John McNamara died at 88 Tuesday. He lived a lot more quietly as a retiree in Nashville with his second wife, Ellen, than he once lived as an ill-fated Boston Red Sox manager. And, to the day he died, Johnny Mac lived with an extraterrestrial baseball burden.

“I do not want John’s professional career defined by one game,” Mrs. McNamara told Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy when texting him of her husband’s death. “He was so much more than that. A good, kind, loving man.”

Good, kind, loving men make mistakes. Not all of them do it as publicly as McNamara once did. Not all of those doing it publicly  do it managing a World Series team with a history even half as snake-bitten as McNamara’s 1986 Boston Red Sox carried into Game Six that October.

McNamara was the good, kind, loving man whose loyalty to one, contradiction of another, and inability to read a third, abetted the next-to-last greatest heartbreak in the history of a team whose surrealistically harsh legacy needed a new century to end.

Those Red Sox defied their history when, with the California Angels one strike away from going to the ’86 World Series, late-season Red Sox acquisition Dave Henderson rifled a game-tying home run in the top of the ninth, then won the game two innings later with a sacrifice fly.

The Red Sox won the rest of the set and went to the Series instead. Where they had the New York Mets—that band of mostly wild and crazy guys who made the Gas House Gang resemble monks—down to their final strike of the Series and the year. Maybe beating a franchise with their own star-crossed reputation to get to the Series in the first place was a little too presumptuous for those Red Sox?

Even before that tenth inning disaster, the Red Sox flirted with death. McNamara lifted his young, stout starting pitcher Roger Clemens with a 3-2 lead but a blister on his pitching hand. Clemens swore later the blister was no big deal. McNamara pinch hit Mike Greenwell for Clemens with one on and one out in the top of the eighth.

“My pitcher told me he couldn’t go any further,” McNamara said post-game. When that remark was repeated to Clemens, it was reported widely, the Cy Young Award winner-to-be had to be restrained from charging the manager in his office.

It tore John up that the press believed Clemens,” Mrs. McNamara texted Shaughnessy. “John would not make something like that up. When Roger told him he wanted to come out, John said, ‘You’ve got to be [expletive] me!’ That’s what happened. When the chips were down, Roger spit the bit.”*

“The decision was definitely all Mac’s,” Clemens told reporters in due course. “Yeah, my finger was bleeding and it was up to him.” That was then, this was Clemens to Shaughnessy upon McNamara’s death and Mrs. McNamara’s remarks: “Interesting. I think after Fish corrected him on the non-truthful things, they didn’t talk much after that. Need to focus on the positives . . . Sorry to hear of the passing of John. We had great success with him as our manager.”

In that same eighth, with the bases loaded against Mets relief pitcher Roger McDowell, Mets manager Davey Johnson lifted McDowell for the lefthanded half of his great closing tandem, Jesse Orosco—with lefthanded hitting, ankle-challenged first baseman Bill Buckner coming up to hit. No pinch hitter in sight.

As Shaughnessy would write in The Curse of the Bambino, there was “only one logical” reason McNamara refused to pinch hit for Buckner in the top of the eighth.

McNamara wanted his veteran war horse in the victory celebration photographs. The manager and Buckner have always bristled when this subject is raised, but leaving Buckner in the game simply didn’t make sense and was a departure from the way McNamara had managed in every other postseason victory. Boston won seven playoff and Series games in 1986, and in the final inning of every victory, Dave Stapleton was playing first base.

Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter tied the game with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the eighth. The game went to the tenth inning. Henderson led off against Rick Aguilera with a home run shot right off the Shea Stadium auxiliary scoreboard in left field. Marty Barrett subsequently drove Hall of Fame Red Sox third baseman Wade Boggs (double) home with a base hit.

In that moment McNamara looked like a genius with a two-run tenth-inning lead. He also left his young closer Calvin Schiraldi, a former starter now working his third inning on the night, in for the bottom of the tenth. On the Mets bench, Aguilera spent most of his time in apparent deep prayer.

Back-to-back fly outs to center from Wally Backman and Keith Hernandez. Carter dumping a single into right center field. Aguilera’s pinch hitter Kevin Mitchell lining Schiraldi’s 0-1 slider into short center. Ray Knight—down to the Mets’ final strike—dumping a quail into center to send Carter home. 5-4, Red Sox.

Then McNamara lifted Schiraldi for veteran righthander Bob Stanley. Finally, it seemed, McNamara paid attention to Schiraldi’s self-admitted wounding flaw as a pitcher, a tendency to indict and convict himself when things got a little dicey. The Mets, who’d developed Schiraldi before trading him for stout lefthander Bob Ojeda, thought this game was too big for Schiraldi, who’d only been closing since August after not quite making it as a starter.

Stanley had Mookie Wilson to a full count and the Mets down to their final strike once more. Then, the wild pitch that should have been ruled a passed ball, allowing Mitchell to score the tying run and Knight to take second. Then, the slow roller up the first base side. Then Buckner playing Wilson deep on the infield creaking over to field it with Stanley going to cover first base.

Then the ball skipping through Buckner’s feet and into right field. Knight barreling home with the winning run. The Mets living to play another day and eventually winning Game Seven after being down 3-2 again, but after would-have-been Series MVP Bruce Hurst finally ran out of fuel on the mound. Buckner—who died last year—wrongfully and often cruelly derided as the Series goat, though he alone seemed to know it wasn’t supposed to be the end of the world.

“Hey,” he’d remember thinking, “we get to play in Game Seven of the World Series.”

Stapleton’s major league career ended after that season for one reason: a Rookie of the Year runner-up in 1980, Stapleton gradually lost what bat he had and couldn’t hit now if you handed him a door. He’d lost his regular first base job to Buckner in 1984. But he was healthy and could play the position without caution tape wrapped around his hide.

“He would have fielded that ground ball,” wrote Mike Sowell in One Pitch Away. “He would have gotten the out. Stapleton knew it. The other ballplayers knew it. Maybe deep down even the manager knew it.”

Maybe he would have. But Wilson had the play beaten by about two steps at first, with Howard Johnson—to come into his own as one of the National League’s premier power hitters in 1987—on deck. The best case for the Red Sox was Wilson beating out the grounder, first and third, tie game, two out, and hoping Stanley could get Johnson out.

Another Red Sox relief pitcher, fellow former Met Joe Sambito, told Thomas Boswell the following spring training that Schiraldi was so down on himself it worried Sambito. Possibly every other Red Sox, too.

“So what happened after Schiraldi’s defeat in Game Six?” Boswell wrote. “He came back the next day ready to redeem himself. And it rained. He had a day to sit in a New York hotel room and think. When Schiraldi took the mound in the seventh inning of the seventh game, score tied, he was a wreck.”

Eventual Series MVP Knight wrecked Schiraldi at once with a leadoff liner into the left field bleachers. Schiraldi now looked like the guy who came home with anniversary roses for his wife and found his best friend in bed with her. Tie broken. Heart broken. Game, set, and Series eventually lost.

Schiraldi told Sowell that, so far as he was concerned, the League Championship Series was way more significant than the World Series: “If you lose the championship series, basically nobody remembers you. The World Series, at least you’re there. And there’s a lot of people who haven’t been there.”

McNamara would long insist in the years to follow, “We lost Game Six but [the Mets] won Game Seven.” Strictly speaking, he was right. But he may not really have taken the complete measure of his players, may not have known them as fully as he might have. He also overestimated his righthander-heavy Series relief corps (Sambito was its only lefthander), as Backman hinted to Sports Illustrated after the set: “I wouldn’t have said this before the Series, but we knew that if we could get into their bullpen it would be no contest.”

McNamara lost his team gradually in 1987 and just about permanently in 1988, before he was fired in favour of Joe Morgan (not the Hall of Fame second baseman), who yanked the Red Sox up and back into the race and to a division title.

Before that dissipated ’86 Series, McNamara had a reputation as a firm but fair man managing several teams, including having been the man to take the Cincinnati Reds’ bridge when—with the Big Red Machine’s late-1970s dismantling in full swing—Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson was fired. Not a pleasant way to take a job.

McNamara managed to get the Reds to the 1979 National League West title before they were flattened in the League Championship Series in three straight by the “Fam-I-Lee” Pirates. He’d previously managed in Oakland (where a crack by Dave Duncan provoked owner Charlie Finley to fire Johnny Mac with those A’s on the threshold of dominance) and San Diego. (Where equally over-his-head owner Ray Kroc didn’t get that the Padres’ poor pitching was killing the team.)

After the Red Sox, McNamara would get final managing chances with the Cleveland Indians (where he shepherded the coming-together of the young team that would restore the Tribe to greatness in the early 1990s, though he’d be fired in 1991) and the Angels. (When Marcell Lachemann, who’d succeeded Buck Rodgers, resigned in August 1996, McNamara finishing the season before handing off to ill-fated Terry Collins.)

Remembering McNamara’s ill-fated 1987 spring counsel that his players not even think about getting to that previous World Series, Hurst thinks like Mrs. McNamara that Johnny Mac never got over the ’86 Series loss. “Everything seemed to be negative after that,” Hurst told Shaughnessy while saying McNamara’s death saddened him.

The haunted Angels relief pitcher who surrendered Henderson’s ALCS-changing home run, Donnie Moore, would find his own inner demons married to the fury of Angel fans and writers who never forgave him for throwing a nasty, down-and-away fork ball that Henderson somehow sent over the left field fence.

They culminated in Moore’s 1989 suicide. Upon which tragedy Boswell, in a Washington Post column re-published in his anthology Game Day, laid down the new law: the sports goat business was too far out of hand.

This is for Bill Buckner, Ralph Branca, John McNamara, Tom Neidenfuer, Don Denkinger, Johnny Pesky and Gene Mauch. It’s for the ’64 Phillies, the ’78 Red Sox, the ’87 Blue Jays and every Cub since World War II. In particular, it’s for Donnie Moore, who shot his wife, then committed suicide this week.

You, and countless others who get branded as “goats” in sports, didn’t do anything wrong. We know it, though we almost never say it. Just once, let’s put it in words: The reason we don’t forgive you is because there’s nothing to forgive in the first place. You tried your best and failed. In games, there’s a law that says somebody has to lose.

Many of us wish that, just once, we could be in your shoes and have a chance to fail so grandly. Although, if we really had to live the experience and its aftermath, which sometimes lasts a lifetime, maybe we would not.

Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson would agree with Ellen McNamara that her husband was a good, kind, loving man who doesn’t deserve to be remembered for one larger-than-life game loss. In one of his memoirs, Jackson remembered McNamara managing him in the minors and being a man who’d stand up to bigots on the road in the minor-league South still under segregation’s yoke.

“When we’d be on a road trip and we’d stop at a diner for hamburgers or something to eat, McNamara wouldn’t compromise,” Jackson wrote. “It was simple for him: if they wouldn’t serve me they weren’t going to serve anybody. He’d just take the whole team out of the restaurant, we’d get into the bus and we’d keep driving.”

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what a good, kind, loving man does. The best of men have made the worst of mistakes, and the worst of men have often done even one thing transcending them. So why do enough of us still forgive, justify, and spin politicians’, police’s, and even soldiers’ transgressions—but still want to guillotine baseball players and managers for theirs?

A man who managed to manage 2,395 major league baseball games and win 1,160 of them, despite skippering a not-so-great team here and there, doesn’t deserve eternal condemnation for one terrible night in New York.

I do not want John’s professional career defined by one game.

Mrs. McNamara, as far as I’m concerned, it no longer is. May the angels of the Lord escort your Johnny Mac to the gentler world of the Elysian Fields, where surely Bill Buckner awaited him with an embrace, a drink, and a hearty thank you for the loyalty laid waste by one skipping ground ball.


* An interesting turn of phrase, that. I wonder if Mrs. McNamara is aware that the Yankees’ King-of-Hearts owner George Steinbrenner once used it to humiliate a prospect whose rough patch provoked Steinbrenner to banish him to the minors.

The prospect was Ken Clay, whose moment in the Yankee sun was when he combined with Jim Beattie to beat the Kansas City Royals on a two-hitter in Game One of the 1978 American League Championship Series.

Clay would ultimately be used erratically, inconsistently deployed between starting and relieving, until a particularly rough outing in September 1979. “He’s a morning glory,” The Boss said of Clay after accusing him of lacking heart. “That’s a term we use for a horse who is great in the morning workouts, who looks beautiful, but who can’t do it in the race. The horse spits the bit, and Ken Clay has spit the bit.”

The Yankees traded Clay to the Texas Rangers for Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry in August 1980. After eight games with the Rangers, then 22 in 1981 following a trade to the Seattle Mariners, Clay was released in spring training. Career over, except for a bid in the 1980 Senior Professional Baseball League—where he joined, but never pitched for, the Gold Coast Suns.

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