Deep In The Heart Of Texas:
The Houston Astros’ Improbable Path To The 1986 World Series
By Chris Oakley
When the 1986 National League Championship Series began, most people expected it to be a cakewalk for the New York Mets. They came into the NLCS with 108 regular season victories and had clinched the East division title by a whopping 40 games; furthermore, their opponents in the series, the West division champion Houston Astros, had needed to scratch and claw for most of the regular season just to get into postseason contention. Last but not least, the Astros’ only previous playoff appearance had seen them get trounced at the hands of the eventual 1981 World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers. It seemed like there was little for manager Davey Johnson and his players to do except knock Houston off fast and celebrate their pennant before moving to the 1986 World Series to face the winners of the American League playoffs between the Boston Red Sox and the California Angels.
But a strange thing happened on the way to the Mets’ coronation: the Astros split the first two games of the 1986 NLCS, casting doubts onwhat had previously seemed like a sure bet. Then in Game 5-- which, ironically, the Mets won in a one-run shutout --New York outfielder Mookie Wilson broke a kneecap while trying to run down a fly ball in the seventh inning. As the Mets and Astros returned to Houston for Game 6, baseball fans throughout America were wondering what could happen next...
As it turned out, they didn’t have to wait too long to find out. On the eve of Game 6, Mets manager Davey Johnson was forced to scratch shortstop Rafael Santana from his lineup after Santana dislocated an elbow during an on-field workout with his teammates. Kevin Elster, Santana’s backup, was penciled in to substitute for him while reserve outfielder Len Dykstra took Mookie Wilson’s place in center field.
In Game 6, the Astros jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first inning only to have the Mets tie the score in the sixth inning and take a 4-3 lead in the eighth courtesy of a solo home run by New York third baseman Ray Knight. At the start of the ninth inning, the mood in the Mets dugout was almost euphoric after starting pitcher Bobby Ojeda struck out the first two batters he faced; bottles of champagne were wheeled into the Astrodome visitors’ clubhouse in anticipation of the Mets’ third National League pennant in team history and first since 1973, when they beat the Cincinnati Reds to set up a World Series showdown against the notorious "Gashouse Gang" of Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s.
Then Ojeda threw a fastball to Houston left fielder Jose Cruz-- and in the words of a Houston Post sportswriter, "the wheels came off the truck". Cruz bounced a bloop single past New York second baseman Tim Teufel; Astros catcher Alan Ashby then walked to advance Cruz to second base. Two pitches later, Ojeda had the misfortune to hit Houston shortstop Dickie Thon in the chest, loading the bases and forcing Davey Johnson to bring in reliever Roger McDowell. McDowell’s luck, however, was no better than Ojeda’s; he ran up a 3-0 count on Houston starting pitcher Bob Knepper, then coughed up a wild pitch that allowed Cruz to score the tying run for the Astros.
McDowell was lifted for Rick Aguilera and Houston second baseman Bill Doran came to the plate for what would turn out to be the most important at-bat in Astros franchise history...
Aguilera’s first two pitches to Doran were strikes. The tension instantly ratcheted up several notches inside the Astrodome(and, one suspects, millions of New York City living rooms). The Houston infielder then proceeded to foul off five pitches in a row, prompting Davey Johnson to start warming up righthanded reliever Jesse Orosco in the New York bullpen; as Orosco was putting himself through his paces, Aguilera slung a changeup at Doran-- which Doran promptly lined in the direction of New York first baseman Keith Hernandez.
Nine times out of ten it would have been an easy putout for Hernandez, who’d been making thousands of such plays since breaking into the majors with the St. Louis Cardinals 12 years earlier. But unfortunately for Mets fans, it happened to be the eleventh time; the ball took a weird hop off the Astrodome’s notoriously springy artificial turf and ricocheted off Hernandez’s shoe, enabling Ashby to score from second and give the Astros a 5-4 victory that forced the NLCS to a winner-take-all Game 7 the next night.
"SHEA IT AIN’T SO!" pleaded the front page of the New York Daily News the morning after the Mets’ stunning Game 6 meltdown. "ASTRO- DUMB" scolded the New York Post in reaction to Hernandez’s defensive gaffe. Even the customarily more restrained New York Times couldn’t help expressing some jitters about this turn of events: "9TH-INNING HOUSTON RALLY PUTS QUESTIONMARK ON HISTORIC METS SEASON."
In Boston, where the Red Sox had narrowly prevailed in their own do-or-die Game 7 against the Angels to clinch the American League crown, manager John McNamara huddled with his scouts in preparation for a possible World Series clash with Hal Lanier’s fearless underdogs. One player on McNamara’s roster who took an especially keen interest in the Astros’ Lazarus-like revival was pitcher Roger Clemens, a native of the Houston suburb of Katy who’d grown up idolizing veteran Astros pitcher Nolan Ryan.1 If Houston held on to beat the Mets, Clemens would have the opportunity to pitch in a World Series game before a hometown crowd-- possibly even facing his boyhood hero.
The Boston media was also intrigued by the possibilities a Red Sox- Astros World Series matchup offered. Sox first baseman Bill Buckner had logged hundreds of road games against Houston during his years in the National League and thus had a unique perspective on the ins and outs of playing defense in the Astrodome; three of his teammates, third baseman Wade Boggs and outfielders Jim Rice and Dwight Evans, were among the American League’s most prolific hitters at that time and the Astrodome’s slugger-friendly dimensions seemed tailor-made to showcase their individual and collective power.
For his own part Ryan-- then wrapping up his 17th season in the major leagues --was looking forward to making a return visit to Boston, a city where he’d earned his share of road wins during his seven-year stint with California.2 A World Series victory at Fenway Park would make a welcome addition to his already-stellar resumé. Many of his Astros teammates, like third baseman and future Houston manager Phil Garner, itched for the chance to find out if they could knock a homer over Fenway’s distinctive left field wall, the Green Monster.
Both the Mets and the Astros went with their big guns for Game 7 of the NLCS. Mike Scott, the winning pitcher in Games 1 and 4, would start for Houston; New York countered with Dwight Gooden, a 17-game winner in the regular season and the 1985 National League Rookie of the Year. Gooden, who’d only lasted two innings in Game 1, was intent on avenging that embarrassment, while Scott hoped to clinch the NLCS most valuable player trophy with an Astros victory in Game 7.
In a managerial decision that’s still controversial two decades later, Davey Johnson benched Keith Hernandez for utility infielder Dave Magadan. Though critics saw it(and in some cases still see it) as unfairly penalizing Hernandez for a single lapse, to Johnson it was simply a way of injecting fresh blood into his team's infield. In any case, defenders of the decision argued, since Hernandez's confidence was shaken up by the Game 6 blunder he might not have been at his best anyway.
The Astrodome was packed to the rafters by the time Lanier’s team took the field. Virtually every TV set in Houston was tuned in to the game; even technicians at the Johnson Manned Spaceflight Center took a break from their normal duties to follow the action. In his official residence at the US Naval Observatory in Washington, Vice- President George Bush, a native Texan and devoted sports fan, sat down with his family and top aides to watch the game.
Out in California Angels manager Gene Mauch, whose vanquished team had returned from Boston earlier that day to start yet another long winter, got a phone call from the CBS affiliate in Los Angeles asking if he would write a special scouting report on the Mets-Astros tilt for them to use as background material for their coverage of the 1986 World Series. Mauch, citing emotional and physical exhaustion from the ALCS, politely declined the request.
In New York City it seemed like the five boroughs were holding their breath all at once; the National League pennant, which just a week earlier had seemed predestined to wind up at Shea Stadium, was now very much up for grabs.
Sportswriters throughout America predicted that Game 7 of the 1986 NLCS would go down in the books as a classic, and the contestants didn’t let them down. For six full innings, Gooden and Scott shut down each other’s respective batting orders, stirring talk in the stands that the crowd might be about to witness MLB’s second-ever postseason no-hitter and first in an LCS.3 The closest either the Mets or Astros got to a hit during those six innings was when Scott issued a walk to New York infielder Wally Backman in the top of the fourth.
The hitting logjam was finally broken with two outs in the bottom of the seventh when Houston infielder Denny Walling belted a double through the gap in right field. Outfielder Kevin Bass scored Walling on a long single to center, and after that the Astros never looked back; Bill Doran, Houston’s savior in Game 6, expanded his team’s lead with a two-run homer in the eighth inning and a flawlessly executed force play by Dickie Thon to Billy Hatcher squelched a potential Mets rally in the top of the ninth.
When Scott was finally lifted for relief pitcher Larry Andersen with the Astros leading 3-1, a deafening ovation from the Astrodome crowd followed him back to the dugout. The same champagne bottles that had been on ice for the Mets 24 hours earlier were now sent to to Houston’s locker room in anticipation of a National League pennant their fans had been waiting for nearly a quarter-century; the pain Rafael Santana had experienced when he dislocated his elbow was nothing compared to the heartache of knowing that his team’s World Series bid was about to go up in smoke.
Mets reserve outfielder Danny Heep managed to coax a last-gasp run over the plate with a two-out RBI single that scored catcher Gary Carter from second base. After that, however, New York had no more rabbits to pull from its hat-- Darryl Strawberry, the talented and somewhat temperamental centerfielder who’d been a key spark plug in the Mets’ offensive engine all year long, saw his hitting skills fail him at the worst possible time as he bounced a grounder to Thon, who then flipped the ball to Bill Doran to get Heep out at second.
Moments later, a joyful pandemonium swept Houston; Doran’s teammates mobbed him in the infield and fireworks exploded in the skies above the Astrodome roof as Astros fans reveled in their team’s first-ever National League championship. City police and Harris County sheriff’s deputies had braced themselves for all kinds of mayhem, but the fans were for the most part well-behaved; there were only eight arrests that evening, the most serious of which was for indecent exposure when an overly enthusiastic female fan doffed her blouse in front of a TV news camera to reveal the uniform number of her favorite player scrawled in lipstick on her chest.4
Mike Scott and Bill Doran shared NLCS most valuable player honors; in the hallway outside the Astros’ locker room, NBC sportscaster Bob Costas practically had to yell to be heard over the post-game victory party while conducting an interview with Houston general manager Dick Wagner. Nolan Ryan took a number of congratulatory phone calls that evening from former teammates like Jerry Koosman and Rod Carew. Over at his locker, Jose Cruz held court for Houston’s Spanish-speaking media. Cases of Alamo beer were brought in to augment the champagne being drunk(and sprayed) in the post-game festivities.
The atmosphere in the Mets’ clubhouse, by contrast, was almost tomblike. Davey Johnson gave a gloomy post-game press conference5; the players packed their equipment and personal effects for the plane ride home in a funereal silence. Back east at Columbia University Medical Center, Mookie Wilson, recuperating from his broken kneecap, struggled to hold back tears-- his club’s magnificent season had come to an all-too-early end, and the psychological pain of that end would still haunt Wilson months after the physical pain of his knee injury had subsided.
An unfortunate postscript to the Mets’ elimination would be written two days later when a team official lashed out at the New York Daily News during a live interview on WNYC-AM radio in reaction to a story in the paper’s sports section which he saw as belitting the club’s defensive efforts in the latter stages of the NLCS. In an obscenity- laced tirade that got both him and the station in hot water, he accused the paper of having a bias against the Mets and hinted that he might pursue legal action unless the Daily News apologized for its remarks.
On the day Hal Lanier and his players left for Boston to play in the first two games of the 1986 World Series, a massive rally was held at William P. Hobby Airport to mark the event. Local VIPs who turned up for the rally included then-Houston mayor Kathy Whitmire; Johnson Space Center director Gene Kranz; basketball coach Bill Fitch, who that spring had led the Houston Rockets to the NBA Finals for the second time in five years; former Astros righthander J.R. Richard, whose career had been abruptly terminated by a stroke in 1980; and legendary Oilers running back Earl Campbell.
It wasn't just in Houston that hopes for an Astros victory in the Series were running high. By the time the team boarded their charter jet, the entire state of Texas seemed to be having an epidemic of baseball fever; from oil workers in the Panhandle to legislators at the state capital in Austin, just about everybody who could fit their head under an Astros cap was wearing one.
Even in Dallas, a city which has long had a bitter rivalry with Houston in just about every human field imaginable, people were getting behind the Astros. With the Cowboys still caught in the dry spell between the end of the Roger Staubach dynasty and the start of the Troy Aikman era, the Mavericks an NBA doormat, and the Texas Rangers the joke of the American League, Dallasites were starved for good news on the pro sports front and they'd take it anywhere they could get it.
In Boston, the anticipation level was just as high if not higher; Red Sox fans were hoping to see their club finally end its 68-year-long World Series drought; since 1918 the Sox had tried for the brass ring three times only to fall heartbreakingly short at the last second. On top of that, the Sox-Astros showdown would cap off a year that had previously seen the Celtics earn their 16th NBA championship, the New England Patriots reach the Super Bowl for the first time in NFL history, and the Boston College Eagles notch an upset win over the University of Georgia Bulldogs in the NCAA’s Hall of Fame Bowl.
Sporting tournaments in general, American pro sports playoffs in particular, and the World Series above all have a knack for drawing their share of VIPs, and Game 1 of the 1986 Series at Fenway was no exception. Local and national dignitaries could be found everywhere from the front rows of the bleachers to the highest luxury boxes; then-Massachusetts governor Edward J. King, who was campaigning for re-election that fall, stopped by the park to meet and greet voters, as did his challenger(and gubernatorial predecessor) Michael Dukakis.
Not only were there a considerable number of ex-Sox players present for the game, but the city’s other three sports teams were generously represented too. Celtics boss Red Auerbach, his trademark cigar in tow, joined two dozen of his active and former players out in the grandstands for the game; ex-Bruins Eddie Shore, Phil Esposito, and Bobby Orr visited the Sox dugout prior to the game, while Patriots head coach Raymond Berry and nine of his men took time out from the defense of their AFC championship to watch the pre-game festivities.
The Game 1 pitching matchup was a study in contrasts: Jim Deshaies, the coolest of cool customers, would be toeing the mound for Houston against Boston’s gifted but unpredictable Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd in a showdown in which nobody, including Deshaies and Boyd themselves, could be sure what to expect since they were facing each other for the first time...
As it turned out, neither man would last very long that night. Jim Deshaies was gone by the end of the second inning, pulled from the game after surrendering a two-run homer to Sox catcher Rich Gedman. Oil Can Boyd, meanwhile, got pulled in the third inning when he booted a grounder by Bill Doran. Neither the Sox nor the Astros exactly covered themselves in glory on defense that night; in fact, by the time the game finally ended with a 4-3 Houston victory, both teams had combined for an embarrassing 13 errors-- including two in the same inning by Sox backup shortstop Spike Owen.
Thankfully for fans, the caliber of defensive play would improve considerably for Game 2, in which Bob Knepper squared off against Bruce Hurst for six and a half innings before Hal Lanier lifted a worn-out Knepper during the seventh inning stretch. The Red Sox were the victors on that occasion, beating the Astros 3-1 on the strength of a two-run eighth inning double by Dwight Evans.
With the Series squared at 1-all, the action shifted to the Astrodome for Game 3; the Red Sox started Al Nipper for that matchup, while the Astros countered with Mike Scott, the hero of Game 6 of the NLCS. Nipper was doing well until the bottom of the sixth inning, when a Jose Cruz RBI double sparked an offensive surge which culminated in a 7-4 Houston victory; the Game 3 loss by Boston stirred familiar fears of disaster among Red Sox fans—and manager John McNamara’s decision to go with Oil Can Boyd as his starter for Game 4 did nothing to allay those fears. With Nolan Ryan scheduled as the Astros’ Game 4 starting pitcher, conventional wisdom argued that Roger Clemens should take the mound for Boston.
Fate, however, would ultimately vindicate McNamara’s gamble...
The first hint that Nolan Ryan’s skills might not be enough by themselves to guarantee a Game 4 victory for the Astros came in the top of the third inning, when Bill Buckner lined a two-out double into center field to put Dwight Evans in scoring position. Two pitches later, Rich Gedman homered over the Astrodome’s right field wall and the Sox were ahead 3-0. By the fifth inning Ryan was gone, chased out of the game by a Marty Barrett sacrifice bunt that scored Sox utility infielder Dave Stapleton from third base.
Oil Can Boyd, by contrast, lasted seven and a half innings before John McNamara lifted him for Calvin Schiraldi in the bottom of the eighth. He finished the night having racked up eleven strikeouts and given up just three hits; the Sox went on to win the game 4-1, evening up the Series and injecting a note of added excitement into the coming Game 5 showdown between Roger Clemens and Astros right- hander Danny Darwin...
The Astrodome crowd was on pins and needles as Houston took the field for Game 5, and for that matter so was Danny Darwin; he had the daunting task of trying to keep the Astros’ World Series title hopes alive against the most formidable pitcher the American League had to offer. A tall order under any circumstances, but it was an especially challenging proposition given that Alan Ashby had fallen into a hitting slump since Game 3.
For the first six innings Darwin seemed to have everything under control as he confined the Red Sox to just two hits, and as the Astros coasted toward the seventh-inning stretch with a 4-0 lead it looked like the Houston righthander had this game in the bag. But with Darwin needing just two strikes to preserve his shutout into the eighth inning, all hell broke loose; a walk by Dwight Evans and a double by Sox DH Don Baylor put runners in scoring position for Wade Boggs, who promptly exploited the opportunity by slamming a homer into center field to cut Houston’s lead to 4-3. Then reserve outfielder Dave Henderson, who’d saved the day when Boston was on the verge of being eliminated by the Angels in Game 5 of the ALCS, tied the score in the eighth by driving Spike Owen home all the way from first with a one-out double.
The tie lasted all of the ninth inning and well into the tenth; when Larry Andersen came on to relieve Darwin with two outs on Boston and retire Sox reliever Bob Stanley, fans and players alike were bracing themselves for an eleventh inning. But at that point fate proceeded to pull the rug out from under the Astros just as it had done to the Mets in Game 6 of the NLCS: Stanley, not normally noted for his hitting prowess, smacked a double into center field to put himself in position to score the winning run. Three pitches later Jim Rice lined a hard single over the head of Kevin Bass to send Stanley home and clinch a 5-4 Boston victory.
The Astrodome crowd staggered out of the ballpark in stunned silence after the game ended; this was not the way they had envisioned the Astros’ final home game of the year turning out. It seemed that not only was the clock striking midnight for Cinderella, but her coach and glass slippers had been stolen while she wasn’t looking. With the Series shifting back to Boston for Game 6, the already intense pressure on Hal Lanier and his players had increased-- the question now was whether they would thrive or buckle under that added burden.
The start of the sixth game of the 1986 World Series was delayed over 90 minutes when the Astros’ team charter bus suffered mechanical trouble en route from their hotel to Fenway Park. For superstitious sports fans, that breakdown might have been an omen; for Hal Lanier, however, it was just an annoying inconvenience. But whether one believes in omens or not, the breakdown did hamper the Astros’ cause in one respect: it reduced the amount of warmup time Jim Deshaies, Houston’s scheduled Game 6 starting pitcher, had before the game started.
As a result, Houston quickly found itself in a 5-0 hole. and by the end of the fourth inning Deshaies had been pulled for Larry Anderson after giving up a bases-loaded Dave Stapleton double. For the next five innings Anderson did a superb job of keeping the Sox at bay, confining them to just one hit while his teammates fought to tie the game and give themselves a chance to win it in extra innings.
However, as the legendary Yogi Berra once correctly pointed out, "When you keep playing catchup, it catches up with you." Houston soon found to their dismay that their bats had run out of steam just as the Mets’ had in Game 7 of the NLCS; only one Astros hitter, Kevin Bass, managed to reach base in the tenth inning, and he was picked off trying to steal second. Anderson tried to quiet the butterflies in his stomach as he struck out the first two Sox batters he faced in the bottom of the tenth, but like his teammates he felt a deep sense of foreboding that their incredible ride was about to come to an end.
His fears would prove well-founded; after fouling off three pitches in a row, second-year Boston reserve outfielder Mike Greenwell belted a solo home run into center field, giving Boston a 6-5 victory and ensconsing himself in the record books for having hit only the second Series-winning home run in MLB history.6
Euphoria flooded Fenway Park as it gradually sank in that the Red Sox had finally broken their 68-year-long dry spell. The crowd(and some of the players) spilled into the streets of Boston to revel in their team’s first Series champion since Babe Ruth left the club in 1919. Two days later, Boston mayor Raymond Flynn hosted a victory parade that attracted nearly three million spectators.
Back in Houston, meanwhile, only a handful turned out at William P. Hobby Airport to greet the returning Astros; the mood of Hal Lanier and his players was understandably somber, so it was no surprise when a press conference originally scheduled to last a full hour was cut short after just 15 minutes.
Of the four managers who were involved in the 1986 MLB playoffs, only one-- Lanier --would finish his career without a World Series trophy to his credit. Davey Johnson bounced back from his heartbreaking NLCS losses in 1986 and 1988 to lead the Cincinnati Reds to a sweep of the Oakland A’s in the 1990 World Series; seven years later, Gene Mauch would come out of retirement to steer the Florida Marlins to a Series victory over the Cleveland Indians.
Rick Aguilera found redemption too; traded to the Minnesota
Twins during the offseason, he quickly became an integral part of that club’s
starting rotation and would receive much of the credit for helping the Twins
beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1987 World Series. A year later, his onetime
teammate Jesse Orosco would rack up three saves for the Dodgers in their
successful 1988 World Series campaign.
Nolan Ryan signed as a free agent with the Texas Rangers just after the end of the 1990 season; he would finish his career with them, retiring in 1993 after a career which had spanned over a quarter- century and seen him leave an indelible mark on baseball history as the only man ever to pitch seven MLB no-hitters.
Darryl Strawberry would eventually get his World Series ring, but not with the Mets: in 1995 he joined the New York Yankees just in time to become part of the Joe Torre-managed squad that would win four of the next five Series championships and dominate the AL East for close to a decade. Among his teammates during that time was ex- 1986 Series adversary Roger Clemens, who left Boston at the end of the 1996 season for a stint with the Toronto Blue Jays before coming to the Bronx via the free agent route.
But Clemens’ heart lay in his home state of Texas, and in 2000 he pulled up stakes again to sign with the Houston Astros; in 2005 he would be one of the key ingredients in their drive to their second- ever National League championship. Working on manager Phil Garner’s coaching staff that season were Bill Doran, now the team’s third base coach, and Doran’s NLCS co-MVP Mike Scott, now Houston’s pitching coach.
Garner’s club would accomplish something the Lanier Astros team had only dreamed of-- after surviving a grueling seven-game NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals, they swept the American League champion Chicago White Sox to finally bring the World Series championship to Houston.
1 Ryan, ironically, had started his major league career with the Mets and was later traded to the Angels before joining the Astros.
2 Ryan would notch several more wins at Fenway Park in the early 1990s as a starter with the Texas Rangers.
3 Yankee pitcher Don Larsen threw the only World Series no-hitter back in 1956.
4 By sharp contrast, the NYPD made more than three dozen arrests in the Bayside section of Queens alone on charges ranging from vandalism to attempted murder as riots erupted in New York City after the Mets’ NLCS defeat.
5 It would have been even gloomier had he known that in two years’ time he’d be fired after the Mets were crushed by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1988 National League playoffs.
6 Bill Mazerowski hit the first one to clinch the 1960 World Series for the Pittsburgh Pirates; Joe Carter would hit the third in 1993 to give the Toronto Blue Jays the Series championship over the Philadelphia Phillies.