HAVE the images ever been more vivid on the way to a World Series? Dave Henderson takes one last desperate swing. The ball sails far and high into a California afternoon. And a Boston team that was one strike away from elimination launches one of the all-time playoff comebacks.
Leadoff man Len Dykstra turns slugger, blasting a home run to win one game and tripling to ignite a ninth inning rally in another as New York pulls out a series of improbable victories.
And thus a new page opens in the historic sports rivalry between these two cities as the Red Sox and Mets prepare to meet in the 83rd edition of baseball's annual fall showcase.
The league championship series, of course, don't go back quite that far, having started only in 1969, but they already have their own rich history. Most fans would probably argue that for sheer game-after-game excitement, the 1980 National League playoffs still stand as the most extraordinary. And just last year there were dramatic battles in both leagues. But the 1986 encounters that have now produced this classic World Series matchup certainly have to rank well up there on the excitement scale.
This year's playoffs also added more than their share of names to that annual list of unsung players leaping into their own at the most propitious moment. Henderson, a reserve outfielder, was one such instant celebrity, of course, while Boston second baseman Marty Barrett, who hit .367 and earned American League playoff MVP honors, was another.
Now these unexpected stars, along with their better-known teammates, will face each other in the final best-of-seven showdown beginning Saturday night in New York's Shea Stadium. Their confrontation is, of course, the one baseball aficionados have been anticipating since midseason, when both teams already looked like probable winners of their division races. It will have to go some to live up to its advance billing -- but most observers will be surprised if it doesn't at least come close.
Who could ask for anything more, for example, than to see New York's Dwight Gooden, already being compared to the game's greatest pitchers at the age of 21, going up against batting champion Wade Boggs, sluggers Jim Rice and Don Baylor, and the rest of that hard-hitting Boston lineup.
Or Boston fireballer Roger Clemens, who stole Gooden's thunder this year with a 24-4 record, trying to throw his 90-plus m.p.h. fastball past such feared hitters as Darryl Strawberry, Gary Carter, and Keith Hernandez.
Plus, of course, all those other outstanding players on both sides who could easily push their better known peers out of the spotlight -- as so often happens in these postseason classics.
And now that dream of July and August has become an October reality -- but only after a pair of thrill-packed playoff series that left both clubs physically and emotionally drained. Indeed, those dramatic victories over Houston and California are going to be tough acts to follow -- so much so that the ultimate outcome may well depend upon that intangible factor of which club can best rise to the occasion one more time.
The Mets, who rolled to the best record in the majors with 108 regular-season wins, found their bats silenced by the Astros' pitching throughout the National League championship series -- so much so that they wound up batting a puny .189 as a team. They made their few hits count, though, pulling one game after another out of the fire with late rallies and eventually prevailing in two consecutive extra-inning contests to win the best-of-seven series, four games to two.
The Red Sox, on the other hand, packed most of their histrionics into one game -- but what a game it was! Trailing the Angels three games to one in the American League playoffs and down 5-2 in the ninth inning of Game 5, Boston was on the verge of still another in a long litany of frustrating postseason failures. But a two-run homer by Baylor closed the gap, Henderson hit his two-out, two-strike, last-gasp homer, the Red Sox went on to win in 11 innings and then romped in the next two games to capture their first pennant since 1975.
And so these two teams, which have never met except in exhibition games, will now add their own first chapter to one of the nation's oldest, richest, and most fiercely contested inter-city sports rivalries. And while football, basketball, and hockey have all had their moments in this litany, it is on the baseball field that the representatives of the two cities have created their most memorable tableaus.
Back in the early days of this century the Red Sox defeated both the New York Giants (in 1912) and the Brooklyn Dodgers (1916) in World Series play. In the modern era, their frequent, mostly unsuccessful battles with the Yankees for American League supremacy have provided some even more exciting moments. And given the talent-laden squads on both sides getting ready for this year's fall classic, along with some fascinating ironies and subplots, it's a good prediction that this latest confrontation will add its share of new thrills.
The Mets have tremendous pitching. Their four-man starting rotation of Gooden, Ron Darling, Bob Ojeda, and Sid Fernandez ranks second to none, while the bullpen led by Jesse Orosco and Roger McDowell is also among the strongest around. In the playoffs, in fact, it was the New York relief pitching (3 earned runs in 21 innings) that really turned out to be the difference.
New York's hitting also looks good on paper -- but it was pretty feeble in the six games against Houston. Of course Mike Scott, who handcuffed the Met hitters in both of his starts to earn MVP honors despite playing for a losing team, is a tremendous pitcher who obviously came into the playoffs at the peak of his form. But are the other Houston pitchers also as good as they looked in this series -- or are the Mets in fact mired in a team-wide batting slump?
Scoring runs has been Boston's forte over the years -- though statistics can be a bit misleading since the Red Sox play half their games in cozy Fenway Park. But hitters like Rice, Baylor, Boggs, Rich Gedman, and Dwight Evans are dangerous anywhere. Even allowing for the American League's designated hitter rule, Boston's bats looked a lot more potent during the playoffs than the Mets'. The duel between this array and that New York pitching promises to be most interesting.
Actually, though, it is on the mound that this 1986 Boston team differs most noticeably from the many hard-hitting clubs of other years that failed to reach the top. Clemens heads a strong starting rotation that also includes Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd and left-hander Bruce Hurst, while ex-Met Calvin Schiraldi has emerged as a major force coming out of the bullpen as the late-inning relief specialist.
The presence of Schiraldi in a Red Sox uniform is one of the ironic subplots of this series, as is that of Ojeda with the Mets -- the pair having been involved in a multi-player trade between the two teams last November. All-time pitching great Tom Seaver, who gained his greatest fame with the Mets, now pitches for Boston, but may not be able to participate in the Series because of a knee injury.