By In Joe Vault

My Favorite Year (1986)

There’s no reason you should care about this … but 1986 was the pivotal year of my life. It was the year my car spun out, the year I worked in a factory and in the photo department of a retail store (I called people while they were eating dinner to offer them a free 3×5 photograph), the year she said she just wanted to be friends. It was the year everything seemed hopeful and the year when reality came crashing down like the top shelf of an overstuffed closet. It was the year when a little man dunked, when young Bears rapped and an old bear charged, when the hand of God reached out (and the referee missed it), when a ball rolled through the legs, when a genius set up behind the net. It was a year of folk heroes and comic book bad guys, a year when a gladiator dressed in black terrified the world.

Twenty-five years ago, I was not aware enough to appreciate that there was something in the air, that the world was about to change, that everything was about to get larger and smaller all at the same time. Soon there would be wall-to-wall sports, Internet madness, paralyzing hype, high-definition replays from every angle. We would all get closer to the games, a great thing, but maybe we lost a little something, too. Maybe we lost a little bit of magnitude. In 1986, Michael Jordan scored 63 in the real Boston Garden. In 1986, Jack Nicklaus raised his putter to the sky. In 1986, Willie Shoemaker charged down the stretch at Churchill Downs and won one more Kentucky Derby. In 1986, we simply called Wayne Gretzky “The Great One.”

It was right at the beginning of 1986 that I went in to see a career counselor at college. “What do you love doing?” he asked me. I had something resembling an answer, but I was afraid to say it out loud.

* * *


Of all the useless bits of trivia and trifles that bounce and carom around in my brain — each knocking out more useful tidbits such as where I put my car keys — the most useless is undoubtedly the lyrics from the 1985 Bears’ Super Bowl Shuffle, which I can recall just about any time of day but with particular clarity when trying to fall asleep at 2 a.m.

We are the Bears shufflin’ crew
Shufflin’ on down, doin’ it for you
We’re so bad, we know we’re good
Blowin’ your mind like we knew we would
You know we’re just struttin’ for fun
Struttin’ our stuff for everyone
We’re not here to start no trouble
We’re just here to do the Super Bowl Shuffle

Oh, yes, it’s all there: double negatives, G-droppin’, comically lame rhymes. Trouble. Shuffle. It’s cruel to just print the lyrics like that because if you’re around my age, seeing those words ordered just so will cause that musical travesty to play in your head for roughly the next 17 hours, until a more powerful bad song — such as Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling” — emerges and drowns it out. But, hey, if I have to suffer …

The thing about those Chicago Bears: At the beginning of 1986, they were the most ferocious thing going in America. They were horror-movie scary. They were nightmare scary. There have been other great defenses in NFL history, of course. Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain defense might have been the best ever. The Gritz Blitz defense — that’s Atlanta in 1977 — allowed just 9.2 points per game, the lowest average in NFL history. Oh, there was the No-Name Defense, the Doomsday Defense, the New York Sack Exchange, the Fearsome Foursome, the Purple People Eaters and all that.

But the thing about that Bears’ defense was that it did not seem particularly interested in STOPPING offenses. No, it only seemed interested in destruction and mayhem and world domination. Buddy Ryan coached that defense, and he had all the charisma and sinister ambition of a supervillain. He called his defense the “46,” and others called it “Buddyball” — much in the same way that Lex Luthor wanted to call his post-earthquake version of the West Coast “Costa del Lex.” Ryan sent Richard Dent and Wilber Marshall flying toward the quarterback from one side, Otis Wilson from the other. Steve McMichael and Dan Hampton and, yes, the Fridge, the quintessential 1980s hero, William (Refrigerator) Perry, plowed up the middle. The safeties — Gary Fencik and Dave Duerson – circled the field for opportunities to unleash knockout blows.

And all the while, in the middle, those enormous eyes of Mike Singletary saw all.

Buddyball was inescapable. Whenever defensive dominance comes up, people like to talk about quarterback sacks — and the Bears had 64 of them* — but Chicago’s ultimate weapon wasn’t pain. It was fear. Alfred Hitchcock always said that suspense was a ticking bomb under the table, but it only lingered as long as it didn’t go off. The Bears ticked like that bomb. Quarterbacks completed just 48 percent of their passes, and they threw 34 interceptions to only 16 touchdowns. They spent games dodging shadows, flinching at flickers of light, bracing for blindside shots, throwing off their back foot. No team in NFL history — perhaps no sports franchise other than the Broad Street Bullies — had turned pressure into such a winning formula. The Bears did not just beat New England 46-10 in Super Bowl XX. They scared the little Patriot guy right off their helmets — that’s why New England changed helmets, you know.

*Here’s a great trivia question: Which team led the NFL in sacks in 1985? Obviously it was not the Bears — otherwise it wouldn’t be a great trivia question. The Giants actually had 68 sacks. But the Raiders, with 65, also had more than the Bears.

The Bears were so intimidating and frightening that when they did the Super Bowl Shuffle rap, it seemed vaguely cool at the time. Oh, the song itself was an instant catastrophe, the video an immediate disaster. But the Bears themselves demanded a certain deference; it would be like Attila the Hun showing you a painting he made of a bowl of fruit. You would nod and say that it looks very nice. I remember someone at the time wrote that the Super Bowl Shuffle “humanized” the ’85 Bears, but I think the opposite was true. They weren’t human, not that Bears team, not in January 1986. We listened to them rap because they scared us to death. You never knew which one was flying in from the blind side.

* * *


The dunk wasn’t spent in 1986. We had not seen too many of them yet. The NBA Slam Dunk contest — and the dunk was still most often called a “slam dunk” in those days — was only three years old. There were no round-the-clock highlight shows showing every relatively interesting dunk 25 times a day. The super-slow-motion replay wasn’t in full use then, so on even the best dunks, players did not seem to be floating like Underdog in the Macy’s Day Parade.

Maybe that’s why Spud Webb’s slam dunk championship stretched the imagination. The top level of basketball, we all know, is played above the rim, and, as such, is not for short men — men who are 6-foot-5 are often called too short to play in the NBA. Only a handful of players who are listed at 5-8 or smaller have made any kind of impact in the NBA over the last 50 years. It just so happened that two of those shorter men were prominent in 1986. One, Muggsy Bogues, was 5-3; he wasn’t in the NBA yet. He was a stunningly commanding player at Wake Forest. I was living in Charlotte at the time, and I watched Bogues play a lot. Guards in the ACC simply could not dribble the ball against him. He was a one-man full-court press. I remember Billy Packer gushing that Bogues was, in his own way, as dominant a player as anyone in the country. Muggsy would become a first-round NBA pick and play in the league for 15 years — he even played in an All-Star Game.

Webb was the other, at 5-7, and the thing that followed him around was that he could dunk. This, in itself, seemed startling. The dunk, as mentioned, still felt fresh then, and the idea that someone shorter than your neighbor could dunk a basketball seemed cartoonish. Webb, too, had gone to college in North Carolina — North Carolina State, to be specific — and so we in Charlotte had heard rumors for a couple of years that Webb could not only dunk the ball but he also could do various KINDS of dunks, which seemed even more dubious.

In retrospect — and on the grainy little screen of YouTube — Webb’s dunks in the 1986 contest are not all that mind-blowing. I suppose it’s a bit like watching Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Olympics; gymnasts have moved on to more athletic maneuvers. But at the time, every dunk that Webb made felt like man going to the moon. His first dunk was just a simple one-handed slam … but what is simple about a 5-7 man doing it?

On his second, he did a little double-clutch thing, which took the emotion up a little higher. His third dunk was a tribute to timing — he bounced the ball off the court, it ricocheted off the backboard, he caught it with one hand and dunked it. The little man wasn’t playing for fun. He was really trying to win the dunk contest.

Of course, the NBA dunk contest is not a real sporting event. It is a manufactured event with half-interested contestants, vague rules and judges who, in the end, are trying only to give the performance a little structure. But sometimes, in these concocted events, Josh Hamilton homers again and again or Billie Jean King wins in straight sets. Sometimes hints of something real and marvelous spark and burst. Dominique Wilkins, who had won the dunk contest the year before and walked around with the descriptive moniker “Human Highlight Film,” fully expected to do his usual array of power dunks and walk away with the trophy and the momentary flash of glory that goes with being dunk champion. But then Webb did a 360-dunk — it was really more of a 240, as he seemed about one-third of the way around before he jumped, but it was still impressive. Then, as if to make his point, Webb did a reverse dunk with a little pump in it, the Wilkins trademark dunk. ‘Nique would be heard saying: “Dang, I gotta come out with something a little nastier now.”
And finally, to clinch the championship, Webb threw the ball high, leaped with the bounce, caught it and reverse dunked. This was 1986. This was before we saw Jordan really fly. This was before we saw Vince Carter’s best dunks. This was before we saw anyone dunk over a car. Webb’s dunk was such a mind-boggling intersection of timing, athleticism and sheer boldness that people across America jumped out of their chairs …

Beautiful thing about sports: You never quite know when a magical thing will happen.

* * *


By 1986, we had all seen replays that suggested — sometimes proved — that NFL referees had blown the call. This, they said then, was just part of the game. But was it? The cameras saw all: fumbles that weren’t fumbles; catches with one foot out-of-bounds; defensive stops where it sure looked like the ball crossed the plane of the goal line. And at some point, some people began to wonder: Why does obvious error have to be part of the game?

Here’s a crazy thing: I don’t remember ever making the leap to using instant replay in the games. I watched replays. I saw that they sometimes contradicted the call on the field. I screamed about it, complained about it, whined about it when my Cleveland Browns were victims. But I never connected anything. It’s almost like there was something blocking that thought path. I never actually thought: “Hey, they should use replay to change bad calls.” There was an invisible wall there.

That March, the NFL burst through the wall and, I think, changed the way we watch sports as much as anything that has happened in the last 25 years. The NFL voted to use instant replay in a limited way. It was a different system from what we have now. Back then they had a replay official up in the booth, and he had to try to reach the referee on the field using a radio transmitter that the NFL obviously bought at Revco right next to the cap guns. Games would be delayed for what seemed like hours as they tried to work things out.

Referee: “Hey, John, you see something on replay?”
Replay official: “Deoje DOJE eodde FFFFFFFrr gosss.”
Referee: “Repeat. Couldn’t quite hear you.”
Replay official: “Deoje DOJE eodde FFFFFFFrr gosss.”
Referee: “Yeah, that’s what I thought you said. I’m not following.”
Replay official: “SSSSSSSeeddd bounds DEDDDDEDDED.”
Referee: “Wait, did you say he was out of bounds?”
Replay official: “…….”
Referee: “Hello? You there, John?”
Replay official: “He was out of bounds, Bob. It was clear.”
Referee: “Deoje DOJE eodde FFFFFFFrr gosss.”

Even though the NFL didn’t smooth the wrinkles and come up with the popular challenge system for years, I would argue that by bringing replay to sports in 1986, the league broke the fourth wall. Suddenly, the game was not entirely controlled on the field. Suddenly, the action was not a hostage of the moment. Suddenly, EVERYTHING was up for review — the calls, the results and also that instant reaction to cheer or gasp, that turn of the stomach or that blast of elation. We all had to wait for further review. And it has changed everything.

Now, we expect mistakes on the field to be fixed. Close call at the U.S. Open? Bring in Hawk-Eye. Last-second shot? Check the monitor to make sure he got it off in time. Did the puck cross the line? Look at it from another angle. This is good for sports, I think, but the whole idea is still quite new, and there are still strong feelings for and against it, as is apparent by the constant debate about whether replay belongs in baseball (Editor’s note: They used to debate this). Replay has corrected countless calls in sports, but it has also forced us to ask questions that we never thought were questions before — what EXACTLY is a catch, what EXACTLY is a fumble, what EXACTLY is a forward pass — concepts that seemed pretty straightforward in 1986.

And it does leave behind a question …

Do we spend too much of our time
Watching replays
Breaking them down
Millisecond by millisecond
And not enough of our time
Going live
and making things worth replaying?

* * *


I cared nothing at all for golf in April 1986, before Jack Nicklaus won the Masters at age 46. It wasn’t a game I understood. My father, of course, did not play. He worked in a factory. And golf was for rich people. There was a private golf course called Oakwood a couple of miles down the road from where we lived in Cleveland. I used to ride my bicycle past it, and all I could see was the metal fence with the green covering that, I assumed, was there to prevent people like me from taking in too much of the scenery.*

*Friends have often not believed me when I tell them how little I knew about golf when I was growing up. So I tell them that when I first starting writing sports for the Rock Hill bureau of The Charlotte Observer, I was told to write a weekly golf column. I will always remember the first one, because I was talking to a guy whose club was having a captain’s choice tournament … and I had never heard of captain’s choice. So I asked him what that meant, and he kindly explained it to me, and I was so taken by the idea that I wrote a fairly lengthy entry about this wonderful new concept called captain’s choice, in which different people hit a ball and the captain gets to choose which one to play, and, oh my, what a great idea. I was a bit humbled when told by a copy editor — who made it clear that she had never played or watched a round of golf in her life — that even she knew (her words) that captain’s choice was not new, and not unusual, and not worth several paragraphs of praise.

At the very least, I wasn’t like another copy editor, who drew a brief burst of fame for changing the phrase “par at 12,” to “par at noon.”

I was aware of the best golfers — Nicklaus, Watson, Ballesteros and so on — but nothing more. And then: 1986. It may be a cliché to say that one event can make someone fall in love with a sport. But Nicklaus did that for me. I can’t even tell you for sure why I was watching that Sunday round. But I can tell you about the charge I felt as Nicklaus charged. I’m pretty sure I remember hearing CBS’ Ben Wright shout, “The battle is joined!” at the 15th hole, though it has been replayed so often that perhaps I only think I remember. I know I remember Nicklaus’ shot at 16, the one that leads to my all-time favorite story in golf.* And I know I remember when he made the putt at 17, raised his putter, and Verne Lundquist said, “Yes sir!”

You certainly know the Nicklaus story from the 16th hole at Augusta, but that’s OK, it can never be told too often. Nicklaus came to the 16th hole, the par-3, a place of great history for Nicklaus. Jim Nantz was there, and at one point he asked Tom Weiskopf what he thought was going through Nicklaus’ mind. Weiskopf said perhaps the most self-revealing thing that a golf announcer has ever said on TV. He said: “If I knew the way he thought, I would’ve won this tournament.”

And the story: Nicklaus pulled out his five-iron and hit his shot. While the ball was in the air, Jackie Nicklaus, Jack’s son, who was caddying, stared up at the shot, which was headed right toward the hole, and he shouted, “Be the right club!”

And Jack, who couldn’t see a damn thing by then, didn’t even look at the ball. The old man turned to Jackie, gave a little wink and said, “It is.” And it was.

I remember getting my Sports Illustrated that Thursday — and in it I had a new hero, a guy by the name of Rick Reilly, who wrote two pieces that had a deep effect on me. One was called “King of the Sports Pages,” a story about the great columnist Jim Murray, probably the best story ever written about a sportswriter. The other was about Nicklaus and the Masters, and it contained this series of sentences:

“It is a trick no other golf god has pulled, not Palmer or Hogan or Snead or Sarazen. Nicklaus had beaten young men at a young man’s game on young men’s greens and beaten them when they were at their youthful best.”

And, reading that, I had this living dream of what I might do with my life.

* * *


In every era of sports, young fans inherit old athletes who, apparently, are legends. Joe Namath was one of those athletes for me. By the time I became deeply aware of professional football, around 1975 or ’76, Namath was a near-broken man. His knees were shot. His aim wasn’t too good. But I figured that he had to be somebody, because there was such a big deal made about him when he ended up on the Los Angeles Rams. Also, if I remember correctly, he was a guest star on Sha Na Na. Or The Muppet Show. Or both.

Willie McCovey was a star from another time. People were so reverential toward him, though he hit about .200. Joe DiMaggio, of course, was Mr. Coffee. Bill Russell obviously had been somebody quite famous, but now he was an announcer. Gordie Howe and Rod Laver and Arnold Palmer must have been great once, but their greatness was not easily seen through a boy’s eyes.

My world was filled with people who were famous for reasons I did not particularly understand — Dick Cavett, Orson Welles, Phyllis Diller, Bob Gibson, Connie Francis, Joey Bishop. Being a child, in so many ways, is like wandering into a conversation that has been going on for a long time.

Of all the old legends who baffled me, Bill Shoemaker was king. It always astonished me, the level of awe he inspired in people. Time after time after time, there would be some reference to him on TV, and you would hear people refer to Shoemaker … Willie … Shoe … as the greatest athlete they ever saw. Red Smith once wrote: “If Bill Shoemaker were six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds, he could beat anybody in any sport.” There was a lot of that sort of talk, though Shoemaker topped out at 4-foot-11. Shoe could beat you at golf … Shoe could beat you at tennis … Shoe could beat you at bowling … Shoe could beat you swimming laps … the guy apparently could do anything.

Shoemaker was a jockey by trade, of course. And I knew he had won a few races in his day. You couldn’t help but know. Everyone kept talking about it. By 1986 he had won three Kentucky Derbies, two Preaknesses and five Belmont Stakes. But, all of them were years and years before. I had never seen any of them. I did not doubt Shoemaker’s greatness, but I had no personal connection to it. I watched the Kentucky Derby every year and listened to the awestruck men talk about Willie Shoemaker. But I never saw him cross the line first.

Then came 1986 — barely two weeks after Nicklaus won the Masters. Shoemaker was 54 years old … too old, certainly, to win the Derby. He was on an 18-to-1 shot called Ferdinand. And as the race began, the unlikely pair settled into last place. One of the beautiful tales of sports is of revisited youth. It never lasts long — certainly never lasts long enough — but sometimes for a few minutes, the mind whirs, and the body responds as it once did, and so Shoemaker guided Ferdinand through the pack. At the top of the stretch, they burst through an opening that perhaps they saw together, and once through, they pulled away. It was awe-inspiring. The most graceful sportswriter I have ever read, Bill Nack, wrote it like so in the Sports Illustrated that landed in my mailbox that week:

“But whoa! Stop right there. Reset your stopwatches. Turn back your clocks. In this 112th running of the Derby, one of the most wide-open and competitive in years, Shoemaker reached all the way back to the 1950s and ’60s, to the decades when he dominated this sport with the lightest, sweetest pair of hands in the game.”

Shoemaker rode Ferdinand to victory at the Breeders’ Cup the next year. It was a beautiful thing for me to get to see the great man in action; it was like getting to see Mantle hit one more 500-foot homer or see Cousy make one more behind-the-back pass. No, old legends don’t always get a final moment. But that’s probably the wrong way to look at it. The amazing thing about sports, it seems to me, is that sometimes … they do.

* * *


I started writing sports stories in 1986 for a card-collecting magazine called Beckett Monthly. I was a small-time card collector, and I had been reading the magazine when I saw that it was accepting submissions. To this day, I don’t know what possessed me — and I never really connected writing those stories with ACTUAL sports writing — but I wrote a story about who I thought would make it into the baseball Hall of Fame. The magazine accepted the story and paid me three cents a word. I remember the first check came out to something like $33.72, and my father said, “You should frame that.” I cashed it instead, filled up my car with gasoline and asked out the girl who told me she just wanted to be friends.

I only just found the first story that I wrote, and have to say that it’s actually not as bad as I would have expected. Of course, I expected it to be so bad that I would turn to stone looking at it. But, in fact, I wasn’t too far off. I wrote that five players at the time were guaranteed Hall of Famers: Rod Carew, Reggie Jackson, Phil Niekro, Tom Seaver and Don Sutton, and all of them are indeed in the Hall of Fame.* I wrote about seven players who were borderline candidates, and only Carlton Fisk has made it in, though Tommy John, Darrell Evans and Ted Simmons remain borderline candidates for many. In the “On Their Way” category – players over 30 — I did pretty well, too. I wrote that George Brett, Jim Rice, Dave Winfield, Robin Yount and Bert Blyleven were on their way. All are in. I’m also proud to say that I wrote that Dan Quisenberry should get into the Hall someday, and this was many years before I met that wonderful man.

*About Yount, I wrote, “[I]f he can just get healthy, he can end up with INCREDIBLE statistics.” Yes, I wrote it just like that, with the all-capital-letter INCREDIBLE. It just goes to show that we might not grow and change as much as we hope in life.

I bring all this up because I very clearly remember when I heard that Len Bias died. It was the day I got the Beckett baseball card magazine where I had written my predictions for a future all-star team. It’s an odd connection, but there you go. I loved Bias. It was impossible to watch him play basketball at Maryland without loving him. He was a great player, obviously, but more than that he played with this beautiful spirit.

The ACC was an amazing basketball league in the 1980s. We in the South spent our winter evenings watching Michael Jordan and James Worthy and Ralph Sampson and Johnny Dawkins and Mark Price, we watched Jim Valvano’s miraculous N.C. State team, and so many others. Bias was a little bit different from any of them. He was electrifying, of course. He could jump out of the building, as announcers used to say back then. But there was something else about him. He seemed to be, well, regal is the word that comes to mind. His future was not just limitless, it was certain. The Boston Celtics drafted him. And there was no doubt that he would become the next great Celtics star, the man to follow Bird and Havlicek and Russell and Cousy.

But Bias died of a cocaine overdose. The nation mourned. Eight days later — and this hit me even harder, because I grew up in Cleveland — Browns defensive back Don Rogers died of a cocaine overdose one day before he was supposed to get married. Rogers was an amazing young defensive back, a ferocious hitter, a force of will for an ascendant Browns team. The sports pages overflowed with talk of drugs and death.

There is something jolting about the death of a young athlete. Maybe it is because we think of young athletes being so alive. Or maybe it is because we infuse their futures with such hope, and so that hope dies with them.

Incidentally, I went back to that Beckett Monthly magazine and found my predictions for the 1990 MLB All-Star team. I was only choosing young players who had been a rookie within the past three years. The only one I got right was Roger Clemens. Futures are so hard to predict.

* * *


If I’m not mistaken, Crockett Park in Charlotte was, for a time, the only wood-framed ballpark in America. It was certainly the only ballpark in America named for a wrestling promoter. That was Big Jim Crockett. The park had originally been named for Clark Griffith — they called him the Old Fox in his playing days — and for many years Charlotte had been a Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins weigh station. Harmon Killebrew played in Charlotte. Tony Oliva. Graig Nettles. Early Wynn. But the town lost interest, and the team moved away.

The Crocketts — famed throughout the South for Jim Crockett Promotions, which would introduce to the world Ric Flair and Blackjack Mulligan and Dusty Rhodes and many other wrestlers of various nationalities — brought a Baltimore Orioles minor league baseball team back to town in the early 1970s. Big Jim’s youngest daughter, Frances Crockett, ran the team. The old wrestler Klondike Bill was the groundskeeper. Frances came up with a bunch of wrestling-type promotions, the most memorable for a 19-year-old boy being the Pepper girls, a collection of pretty young women who would wander around the stadium in halter tops and shorts and, well, um, wander around the stadium in halter tops and shorts. I’m not sure if Frances was the first one to come up with this concept, but I do know that she had the best answer to anyone who was offended. She pointed out that her daughter, Lisa, was a Pepper Girl.

Anyway: Crockett Park was an amazing place. It felt old and dingy, no question, but when you wandered in there, you could not help but feel like you were wandering into another time. A wood ballpark smells a little bit different. It feels a little bit different. You half expected men in fedoras to walk in (they never did, or at least I never saw them, but I might have been looking at the Pepper Girls). Cal Ripken Jr. played in Charlotte in 1980, Storm Davis in 1981, but like all kids in minor league towns, I remember the local legends, like Drungo Hazewood, who hit 68 home runs over his Charlotte career, but one year struck out 177 times.

One other thing about wooden ballparks — they burn. In 1985, the ballpark burned to the ground. The rumor always was that some kids burned it down, perhaps with intention, perhaps by accident, but I don’t think anyone was ever arrested, and anyway I heard that rumor from the same people who said that Mikey’s stomach exploded while drinking Coke and eating Pop Rocks.

In any case, the Crocketts were industrious souls, and so they threw together a makeshift ballpark that included rickety metal stands and trailers that served as clubhouses. And it was in that version of Crockett Park, on July 13, 1986, that I saw Bo Jackson hit his first professional home run.

Bo was already a legend. He had won the Heisman Trophy as a running back at Auburn. And as a college outfielder he had hit the sort of impossibly long home runs that people never forget. In fact, just a few days before I saw him play, Bo had become part of Buck O’Neil’s famous trio. Buck — who had grown up around spring training baseball in Florida, who had played and managed in the Negro Leagues, who had been the first African-American coach in the majors, who had scouted Lou Brock and Joe Carter and talked Billy Williams into playing baseball again — always said that he heard three special baseball sounds in his life. Those were the sounds of ball and bat meeting with such force that the sound echoed in Buck’s mind.

The first time he heard that sound, Buck always said, was when he was young and saw Babe Ruth during batting practice before a spring training game. The second time, Buck always said, was when he was playing for the Monarchs and Josh Gibson was taking batting practice. And the third was Bo Jackson when he showed up in Kansas City shortly after being signed. Bo took a few swings and hit some shots that Royals old-timers still talk about. And Buck, until his death, talked about the sound of the ball coming off Bo’s bat.

In any case, my friend Robert said we had to go see Jackson play, and so we did. We were not the only ones to come up with the idea. There were probably not too many people there, but this was a makeshift ballpark with no cover, no concourse — it was really just stands and dirt — and so it FELT like a lot of people. It was an amazing game. I’ve talked before about how that was the day I saw Van Snider hit perhaps the longest home run I’ve ever seen live. Snider had homered earlier in the game, if I remember correctly, and then he got knocked down by the pitcher. He was furious. I remember he took a couple of steps toward the pitcher, and it looked like there might be a fight. Then there wasn’t. Cooler heads. On the next pitch, Snider crushed a home run that I never saw come down.*

*A 2015 editor’s note: I heard from Van Snider recently. It seems that he’s a police officer in Cleveland, of all places. In fact, I believe he’s in Mayfield Heights which is like the next suburb over from where i grew up. Van had heard I wrote about this home run a few times and was hoping I could send him a copy. I did, and I asked him if he remembered the game … haven’t heard back yet but will let you know if I do.

But the only thing that really mattered that day was Bo Jackson, and we wanted to see if he was this folk hero whom everyone had made him out to be. And sure enough, he hit a home run, his first as a pro. It was a fairly uninspiring shot to left-center; an announcer might say that he muscled it out of the park. The ball had no real trajectory to it, and it just barely got over the wall in my memory. Still, it was a home run, and we were appreciative. We knew that we probably saw something historic.

Then word began to filter around the little stadium. There was something odd about the home run. People turned to each other to pass the word. The stadium started to buzz a little bit, and then a little bit more. It was a strange and wonderful thing to see. And finally, word trickled to us in the left field stands.

Bo Jackson had broken his bat while hitting the home run. He had hit a home run on a pitch that broke … his … bat.

It’s fun to be in the place where a legend begins.

* * *


I was born and raised in Cleveland, and so up to 1986 my favorite teams were not even good enough to break my heart. Well, that’s not entirely true: The Browns broke my heart on Jan. 4, 1981, when they trailed Oakland by two on a miserably cold Cleveland afternoon, and they were on the Raiders’ 13, and coach Sam Rutigliano called the play that will forever haunt my memories: Red Right 88. The play called for quarterback Brian Sipe to connect with the great tight end Ozzie Newsome on a crossing pattern in the back of the end zone. He told Sipe that if no one was open, he should “throw it in Lake Erie.” Sipe instead threw it in the arms of Oakland’s Mike Davis.

Thing is, Sipe – and I loved him for this — was simply incapable of seeing receivers as covered. To him, every receiver was open if he threw the ball just right. This was why he led the NFL in interceptions twice, but it is also why (despite being small, despite a weak arm, despite a notable lack of speed) he was the NFL MVP in 1980, and why he led the Browns to the playoffs in the first place. Time after time, Sipe brought Cleveland back in the final seconds of the game, so many times that the Browns called themselves the “Kardiac Kids.” Yes, with two Ks. Rutigliano would later sum up Red Right 88 and Sipe’s interception as “You live by the sword, you die the by sword.” I guess I can see that now. I still wish he had thrown the damn ball into Lake Erie.*

*It is well known in Cleveland that kicker Don Cockroft – one of the last straight-on kickers in the NFL, and the last punter/kicker — had missed an extra point (well, it was blocked) and two field goals in the terrible conditions that day. But, and this is an under-reported part of Red Right 88, Cockroft had also MADE two field goals, both from 30 yards, which is how long the final kick would have been. In fact, Cockroft went up to Sipe before Red Right 88 and told him to be sure to keep the ball on the right hashmark, where he had his best shot to make the kick.

In any case, that was the only Cleveland team of my childhood good enough to break my heart — and, even then, my realistic side knows that team pretty wildly overachieved. The Browns were mediocre in the late ’70s, and dreadful after Red Right 88. The Cavaliers had a wonderful little run to the Eastern Conference finals in 1976 — a run so unlikely that they became known as “the Miracle at Richfield” — but it was clear that they weren’t that good, and soon they were bad, and soon after that they were the joke of the NBA.

Then there were the Indians. They were probably the biggest joke in baseball. It wasn’t exactly because they were terrible — to be honest, they weren’t always terrible. They topped .500 in 1976, again in 1979, again in the strike year of 1981. But they were just easy to insult. Cleveland was going through a rough time, and Cleveland Municipal Stadium was so vast and empty that it felt haunted, and the infield was so bumpy that people would call it a car graveyard. In 1985, the Indians truly were terrible — they lost 100 games for the first time in my consciousness, and the pitching staff was like a giant box of instant rally, and in my memory David Letterman made Indians jokes every night.

But 1986 was different. The Indians had quietly collected some good young hitters. They had gotten Joe Carter and Mel Hall from Chicago in the Rick Sutcliffe deal. They picked up Brett Butler and Brook Jacoby from Atlanta in the Len Barker trade. They got Julio Franco from Philadelphia in the Von Hayes deal. And in the first round of the 1984 draft, they took a strong-armed, power-hitting outfielder out of BYU named Cory Snyder.

And much to everyone’s surprise — I suspect even the Indians’ management — it kind of worked. The 1986 Indians flat-out hit. They led all of baseball in runs scored. They led the American League in average, slugging and stolen bases. Carter was a marvel — he hit .300, banged 29 homers, stole 29 bases and led the American League with 121 RBIs. Snyder hit 24 homers in 103 games and showed off an arm that reminded old Cleveland fans of Rocky Colavito. Even 29-year-old Tony Bernazard, on his fourth team, got into the act, hitting .301 with 17 home runs.

As August began, the Indians were eight games over .500 and just six games back in the AL East. They beat Ron Guidry on Aug. 1 — Carter tripled and homered and Franco knocked in the game-winner on a double. Sure, even then, if you were paying attention, you knew that it probably wouldn’t last. The pitching staff was still in shambles. The Indians’ starter that day was Bryan Oelkers; he was relieved by 94-year-old Phil Niekro, and the game was closed out by the not entirely convincing Ernie Camacho. The Indians still didn’t have any pitching. And they would finish the year fifth. But people were taking notice. The very next year, the Indians would be on the cover of the Sports Illustrated baseball preview issue with the word “Believe” prominent.
See, what the Indians and Cleveland had in 1986 was belief.

* * *


I’m fairly sure that by September 1986 I had given up my dream of becoming a professional tennis player. In many ways, that was the hardest dream to let go of for me. At some point, I understood that I was too small for basketball, too slow for football, and I couldn’t stand in against a good fastball, much less a curve. But tennis … I still had this odd hope that I might get discovered somehow. I had a pretty good serve. I had pretty good hands. I was not an unrealistic young man. Except for tennis.

That U.S. Open, I saw my favorite men’s player, Ivan Lendl,* destroy the field and play tennis about as well as it could be played. I cannot quite explain why Lendl was my favorite player. After all, nobody really liked him, he seemed to have no interest in being liked, and the tennis world overflowed with so many more interesting players — Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, on and on and on. I don’t have an explanation now, just like I did not have an explanation then. I loved the way he played, and I hated that he would not get credit for being so great, and I liked his style so much that I wanted to carry sawdust around in my pocket the way he did. Weird? Yes. But so it goes. Lendl dropped one set the entire tournament, and finished off Miloslav Mečíř at love in the decisive final set.

*Years later, in Cincinnati, Lendl played in one of his final pro tournaments. I was telling one of the ATP guys that Lendl was my favorite player when I was younger, and the guy got a huge kick out of that. He said, “You have to tell him that.” I suspect that Lendl has not had many sportswriters tell him that he was once their hero. So I agreed to talk to him, but unfortunately Lendl lost the match, and afterward he looked like a man who would rather be anywhere on planet earth, including Folsom Prison, than in the interview room. I was the first one in there, and the ATP guy said, “Oh, hey, do you have any questions for Ivan before everyone else gets down here?”

I looked at Lendl and saw nothing but pain.

“No,” I said. “I’m fine.”

And to this my old tennis hero said the only two words he ever said to me: “Good plan.”

But my real memory of the tournament was the semifinal match between an aging Martina Navratilova (she was only 29 then, but we were often told that was ancient in tennis) and a 17-year-old Steffi Graf. There was already a sense that Navratilova was the best ever, and already a sense that Graf was a new kind of women’s player. Before the semifinal, Graf had beaten five players at the Open. So that means she won 10 sets. She won nine of them at 6-1 or love.

Navratilova was in the middle of an amazing streak — she would reach the final in 14 consecutive Grand Slam finals. She had lost at the French Open for the second straight year to her great rival, Chris Evert, but she would end the year a remarkable 89-3, with two of those losses coming on clay, the toughest surface for her. She was a relentless player, constantly on the attack, the Chicago Bears of women’s tennis.

Graf just hit the ball so hard. It’s odd to go back and look at old tennis matches, men or women. Our eyes have grown used to a 2011 tennis pace, a certain rhythm generated by futuristic rackets and ferociously fit players, and so to go back and watch highlights from the mid-1980s or before is like going back to watch two people play Pong on their 13-inch televisions with rabbit ears sticking out of the top. Graf, more than anyone, changed those rhythms. She didn’t just hit the ball harder than any woman before her; she hit the ball harder by multiples, as if she had skipped a generation.

It isn’t often that you get a sports moment that so vividly and obviously matches past and future, yesterday and tomorrow, but that’s what happened in New York that year. Yesterday won the 1986 U.S. Open semifinals in three sets; it was an amazing match, a clash of styles, and Navratilova needed to fight off a handful of match points before taking the final tiebreaker. She won. But time was running out. In 1987, Graf would beat Navratilova at the French Open. In 1988, Graf would win the Grand Slam.

* * *


Why Bill Buckner? It’s one of the great mysteries of sports. Why has the sports world crashed down on Bill Buckner? Why not Leon Durham? Why not Tony Fernandez? Why not Alex Gonzalez? Why not Jose Lind? Baseball in particular has been a sport with no shortage of goats, men who made untimely errors. Why does Bill Buckner stand apart?

Of course, Red Sox and Mets aficionados know: The game was already tied when Buckner let that ground ball go through his legs. The Red Sox had already blown it. This was Game 6 of the World Series, of course, and it was at the end of the most intense and overwhelming postseason of the last 50 years. It is stunning how many lives were forever altered by the 1986 baseball postseason, for good and bad, for joy and tragedy.

In the American League Championship Series, the California Angels were on the brink of going to their first World Series at least twice. In Game 5 — with a commanding 3-1 lead in the series — they led 5-2 going into the ninth inning. Part of the reason they led was that in the seventh, with a man on, California’s Bobby Grich had hit a long fly ball to the warning track. Boston’s Dave Henderson reached it, and the ball deflected off his glove and bounced over the fence for a home run. Henderson was directly in the goat line of fire. But his destiny was different.

With one out in the ninth, Don Baylor hit a two-run homer to pull the Red Sox within one. After Dwight Evans made the second out, reliever Gary Lucas came in and hit Rich Gedman with a pitch. That was the only batter Lucas faced. Gedman had hit .186 against lefties that season. Lucas had not hit a batter in almost five years.

And that’s when the moment happened: Angels reliever Donnie Moore came into the game. Moore was a good enough closer in 1985 to finish sixth in the MVP voting. His 1986 was shakier; he had blown eight of his 29 save opportunities. Still, he was the best the Angels had for the moment. Henderson hit a two-run home run that gave the Red Sox the lead.

That was the first time that the Angels were on the brink of winning. But, not quite as well-known, the Angels tied the game in the bottom of the ninth and then had the bases loaded with only one out. A relatively deep fly ball, a well-placed ground ball, a wild pitch, so many things could have won the game for the Angels. Doug DeCinces hit a shallow fly ball toward Evans, too shallow to even try to test Evans’ great arm. DeCinces would say that he has regretted that at-bat ever since. Grich then lined back to the pitcher to end the inning. The Red Sox won in 11 innings. They blew out the Angels in Games 6 and 7 to go to the World Series.

Moore’s life, after that, was a spiral of despair. He was booed every time he stepped on the field in Anaheim. His pitching disintegrated. And in 1989, after being released by a team for the final time, he killed himself, one of baseball’s most tragic stories.

In the National League Championship Series, the Astros and Mets played an equally monumental series — monumental largely because of one man named Mike Scott. The Mets had come in as huge favorites. They had won 108 games, and they already were being talked about as one of the greatest teams in baseball history. They led the league in runs scored and ERA, they had perhaps the two most exciting players in the game — Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden — and they were in New York. It was supposed to be pretty easy come October.

Scott made it epic instead. He had started his career with the Mets, and after going 14-27 with a 4.64 ERA over parts of four seasons, he was traded to Houston for Danny Heep. Scott kicked around for a couple of years with the Astros before connecting with the guru of the split-fingered fastball, Roger Craig. Scott took to the pitch quite well. There are those who will say that Scott also took to scuffing baseballs, but the larger point was that in 1985 he won 18 games, dropped his ERA by more than a run, and the Astros signed him to a two-year deal.

Then came 1986. Think of the most stunning seasons in baseball history — Jose Bautista in 2010, Brady Anderson in 1996, Davey Johnson in 1973, Norm Cash in 1961 — and double them for Scott in 1986. He led the National League in ERA (2.22), strikeouts (306 — he had never struck out more than 137 in a season), WHIP (0.923), hits per nine innings (5.9), batting average against (.186) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.25 to 1).

Scott had, seemingly overnight, become a right-handed Koufax. He was pitching about the same as he had been until, say, May 25, at Wrigley Field, when for the first time in his career he struck out 10 in a game. His next time out, against Montreal, he struck out 11. In late June, he threw a two-hit shutout against the Dodgers and struck out 11 again. Scott had found that magical convergence of speed and drop — the ball LOOKED like a strike, but then it dropped and WASN’T a strike — and hitters swung over it again and again and again. He struck out 13 in Philadelphia. He struck out 14 in San Diego. He clinched the Astros’ division championship with a 13-strikeout no-hitter against the Giants. In his last six starts, he struck out 65 in 46 innings, and the Astros entered the playoffs with the hottest pitcher imaginable.

And sure enough, in Game 1 against the Mets, Scott threw a shutout, struck out 14. The Mets could not touch him. New York won Games 2 and 3, and then Scott returned, allowed three hits and one run, and the Astros won again.

And that led to Game 5, where Gooden and Nolan Ryan matched up. Ryan allowed two hits and one run (a Strawberry homer) in nine innings. Gooden allowed one run in TEN innings. It went to the bullpens, and the Mets scored on Charlie Kerfeld in the 12th to win it.
And THAT led to Game 6, which lasted 16 innings. Scott obviously did not pitch in Games 5 or 6, but his presence was always there. Everybody understood — E-V-E-R-Y-B-O-D-Y — that if this series went to a seventh game, Mike Scott would pitch and the Astros would win. The Mets were spooked by him. In other words, this was an elimination game for both teams. If the Astros lost, they were done. If the Mets lost, they would face Mike Scott … and they were done.

The Astros led 3-0 going into the top of the ninth. Before October 1986, after October 1986, big leads in the ninth inning tended to be pretty decisive. But they seemed to mean nothing at all for those three weeks. Here’s what followed for the Mets:

Lenny Dykstra tripled
Mookie Wilson singled (Dykstra scored, 3-1 Astros)
Kevin Mitchell grounded out (Wilson to 2nd)
Keith Hernandez doubled (Wilson scored, 3-2 Astros)
Gary Carter walked
Darryl Strawberry walked (loading the bases)
Ray Knight sac fly (Hernandez scored, 3-3 tie)
Wally Backman walked
Danny Heep (with a chance, perhaps, to knock out his trade counterpart) struck out swinging

So that made it 3-3. The Mets scored in the top of the 14th. Another lead going into the final inning. Billy Hatcher homered in the bottom of the 14th to tie it.

Then in the 16th, the Mets seemed to put it away by scoring three runs, in large part because of the wildness of Jeff Calhoun. But this game could not end easily. The Astros scored two and had runners on first and second with two outs. And that’s when Jesse Orosco struck out Kevin Bass to send the Mets to the World Series.

The point is that everything felt outsized in the 1986 postseason. The improbable happened so often that it no longer felt improbable. The floor felt unstable. When the Red Sox scored two runs in the top of the 10th inning in Game 6 of the World Series — one on a home run by the suddenly insatiable Dave Henderson — and then got two quick outs in the bottom of the 10th, reality demanded that the game was over and Boston would finally win the World Series. But this was 1986. And reality was having a bad month. Carter singled to left. Mitchell followed with a single.

The ghosts began to howl. I don’t believe in curses. But I do believe that others believe in curses. Knight singled to score Carter and move Mitchell to third.

That’s when Bob Stanley came in and threw the wild pitch that logic demands was the crucial mistake of the game. That pitch scored Mitchell, which meant that the game was tied again. That pitch also moved Knight into scoring position. The very best that the Red Sox could hope for was another inning and another chance. They had already blown the lead.

But then Mookie Wilson hit the ground ball that, well, in Vin Scully’s words: “Little roller up along first … Behind the bag! It gets through Buckner! Here comes Knight and the Mets win it!”

Buckner’s career — a fine 22-year career with more than 2,700 hits, almost 500 doubles, a batting title, an All-Star game appearance — has in the minds of so many been reduced to a single ground ball that slipped through his legs in Game 6. That’s a sad thing, of course, and an unfair thing. But even more than that, it’s a puzzling thing. Why did that error so pierce the consciousness? Yes, it ended a stunning World Series game. Yes, it climaxed a collapse for a team that had already grown famous for its collapses. Yes, it spoke to New England’s fragile baseball psyche. But I think perhaps most of all, it happened in October of ’86, when everything just felt bigger and brighter and sadder than ordinary life.

* * *


Mike Tyson never beat a great heavyweight boxer. People have a hard time with that one, but it’s true. In November 1986, Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion ever at age 20. He was the most frightening force in the ring since the young George Foreman or perhaps even since Sonny Liston. Everything about him spoke fury. He entered the ring without a robe. He wore black. He demanded attention. And he knocked out powerful and frightened men in seconds.

But how many great heavyweight opponents did he beat? Well, Michael Spinks was a great light heavyweight, though he was out of his class and scared out of his mind when he stepped into the ring for his payday against Tyson. He lasted all of 90 seconds. Larry Holmes was a great fighter in his day, an unappreciated great fighter, but he was well past his prime when Tyson knocked him out in four. Razor Ruddock was a good fighter, and the two men had a couple of memorable fights, with Tyson winning in seven and then 12 rounds. But Tyson wasn’t even champion then. Who else is even in the discussion of being a great heavyweight? Pinklon Thomas? James (Bonecrusher) Smith? Trevor Berbick? Tyrell Biggs? Carl (The Truth) Williams?

Maybe one of these men would have been a great fighter had they come up in another time. I don’t think so. Tyson fought great heavyweight fighters later in his career. Evander Holyfield knocked him out in 11 rounds and sparked the ear-biting bit the next time around. Lennox Lewis knocked him out in eight. Buster Douglas was a great fighter for one night, and on that night he obliterated Tyson and left him grasping helplessly for his mouthpiece in the 10th round.

The feeling among many seems to be that Tyson was a great fighter who let his life and career fall apart after the death of his beloved trainer, Cus D’Amato. The feeling among many might be that had the young Tyson fought those great champions — before he spent time in jail and before he lost his way — he might have knocked them out. And that may be so.

But I think there’s another possibility: We all just wanted to believe in Mike Tyson. I’m not saying we wanted to LIKE him; many desperately rooted against him. But I would argue that even they wanted to believe in Mike Tyson. They wanted to believe in the rogue. They wanted to believe in the warrior. People wanted Darth Vader. And Tyson provided that. He gave boxing fans a place to store all the complicated emotions (or not-so-complicated emotions) that boxing draws from within. Tyson was indisputably a great puncher. He had a deep appreciation for boxing and its history. He came from a terrible background, and he seemed to be trying to escape from it, and he often failed. Whatever that dark part of our souls that is drawn to boxing … that part was drawn to the idea of Mike Tyson.

On Nov. 22, 1986 — 23 years to the day after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas — Tyson stepped into the ring against Trevor Berbick in Las Vegas. This was for the title. Tyson wore no robe. He wore black. He paced the ring during introductions, like a caged tiger. During the referee’s instructions, Berbick’s eyes did not meet Tyson’s. Berbick had the first good exchange of the fight, about 30 seconds in, a combination that included a couple of rights and a rabbit punch, but it did not seem to hurt or even affect Tyson. About 10 seconds later, Tyson landed a 1-2 combination of his own. That did seem to hurt Berbick. At the end of the first round, Tyson threw a left hook that sent Berbick staggering backward. The announcers mentioned that Tyson’s punches even sound different from those of other heavyweights.

Tyson’s first punch of the second round, an overhand right, made Berbick wobble, and Berbick fell a couple of punches later. For the next two minutes or so, Tyson stalked, Berbick retreated, and every now and again Tyson would unleash. It was as frightening as a sporting moment can be; you could imagine yourself in that ring with no escape. With about 30 seconds left, Tyson crushed Berbick with a short and savage left hook to the head — a friend of mine has always been convinced that it was an elbow to the head. Whatever it was, Berbick fell. He tried to get up and stumbled into the ropes. He tried to get up again and stumbled back into the middle of the ring. He looked like he might not be able to stand for the rest of his life. The fight was over. The rise of Tyson was complete.

And that fight, all that it meant, all that it seemed — that lasted much longer than Mike Tyson himself. Years after he stopped being even a good boxer, that idea of Tyson resonated. There were those who really thought that he would beat Lewis 16 years after he won the heavyweight title. Lewis, though, pummeled Tyson and left him a broken man. After that, Tyson was knocked out by men named Danny Williams and Kevin McBride — but even then, so many people could not see it. They still thought that the next time out, Tyson would again rage. By then, Tyson was blurry and flawed. But in 1986, he was still as clear as the feeling of being young.

* * *


Innocence, I suspect, is that last moment in your life when you don’t yet know that you are about to get kicked in the teeth. In a strange way, December 1986 was my last moment of sports innocence. That was the month when the Indians looked promising, when the Cavaliers had rookies Brad Daugherty, Ron Harper, Hot Rod Williams and Mark Price and were looking like a team rising, when the Browns … well, I’ll get to them in a minute.

The Indians, as mentioned, had their most auspicious season in two decades; they would be on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1987. They promptly lost 100 games. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, would indeed rise, but never beyond the grasp of Michael Jordan. All the ambition and faith I pumped into those teams would come back as stale candy and flat beer.

That was heartbreak … but not really. More like heartburn. Maybe I didn’t expect more from them. The Indians were the Indians, after all, an orphan of a team with a cavernous stadium from another era and a lonely drummer banging his loser’s rhythm through a cold wind coming in off the lake. I hoped the Indians might become good someday, but I don’t know that I ever believed it.

And the Cavaliers, well, their apex probably came in 1989, when Jordan hit that final game-winning shot over Craig Ehlo to knock the Cavaliers out of the playoffs. It was a shot to the stomach, no question, but there was something undeniable about it. A friend once told me a story about Julius Erving back in college. Dr. J was playing a summer exhibition game in a hot gymnasium, and a player on the other team was also a college star. At one point, Erving drove hard to the basket and this other player ran in to stop him, and they both leaped at the same time, and for the tiniest instant there were at the same height. In that instant they were equal — same age, same dreams, same unlimited future. And then the instant ended. Erving kept going up. The other player started to descend, and Erving dunked. The other player bowed his head. Their roads diverged. And that was Jordan and Ehlo. I’m still bitter about it. I still feel sick to my stomach when seeing it. But how could it go any other way? Jordan was Jordan. And Ehlo was Ehlo.

No, the heartbreak, the real stuff, would be reserved for the Browns, because in December 1986 I had every reason to believe that they would win the Super Bowl. I was so sure that I had begun to clip newspapers in anticipation of a scrapbook. That December was heaven. The Browns began it by winning at Buffalo in overtime. The next week, they crushed a good Bengals team. Then, with the division wrapped up and home-field advantage secured, they still went out and destroyed San Diego 47-17.

Those Browns were a good team, and even more they were a perfect Cleveland team, led by a quarterback who grew up a Browns fan (Bernie Kosar) and two cornerbacks who blanketed receivers (Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield) and intense and loyal fans who barked when agitated. Yes, as 1986 ended, I had every reason to believe that they would go to the Super Bowl, maybe win the Super Bowl, maybe win two or three Super Bowls. As 1986 ended, I was writing sports part time for the local paper, and I was the sports editor of my college paper, and my teams were on the upswing, and my life had something resembling a direction. As 1986 ended, I was certain — in a way that I had never been certain, in a way that I never again would be certain — that great things were about to happen.

Some great things did happen. Some didn’t. Eleven days into 1987, John Elway led the Denver Broncos 98 yards through the wind, the Cleveland Browns’ defense and the collective hope of a million Cleveland Browns fans. The Browns did not win the Super Bowl, not then, not ever. And I learned the lesson that childhood cannot teach. Sometimes those moments that you spend hoping and believing and waiting for something good to happen are the best moments of your life.

25 Responses to My Favorite Year (1986)

  1. My grandson has discovered baseball and I love to tell him stories about games I watched. When I get to the 1986 post-season, though, I think he believes I’m making stuff up.

    • invitro says:

      Your grandson must not have been watching the 2011 World Series or last regular-season day. I’m not sure which year had more dramatic baseball… but I suppose 1986, since all three postseason series were impossibly exciting.

      • Gesge says:

        The 1986 Mets and the 2011 Cardinals are the only teams to be one out away from World Series elimination only to come back and win that series–and the Cardinals did it twice.

      • Richard says:

        Check out “One Pitch Away” by Mike Sowell, where (several years later) he catches up with and talks with all the key players from those playoffs and World Series…

  2. invitro says:

    It was definitely an amazing year, and I’m going to wait until I have enough time to savor Joe’s post. But there was one thing that definitely sucked about it: the Topps 1986 set had a butt-ugly design, and was a horrible set for rookie cards. Donruss and Fleer were even worse, being lame remakes of their previous designs.

    But at least there were cheap baseball cards in 1986. As collecting cards was such a big part of baseball to me when I was a kid/teen, I wonder if their demise has anything to do with the theory that today’s kids are vanishing as baseball fans.

  3. invitro says:

    Well, OK, this should have a mention of the 1986 Celtics, who I’m pretty sure are agreed to be one of the top five NBA teams ever. Maybe top ten. It’d be easy to fit them in with the Bias story.

  4. Steve Holtje says:

    Even if Buckner had fielded that grounder, he was not going to get the out. Nobody was going to beat Wilson to the bag. Granted, Knight wouldn’t have scored on that play if Buckner fielded it, but the game wasn’t going to end on that grounder.

    • Gesge says:

      Yep. Stanley was late getting off the bag. Even if Buckner fields the ball, Wilson is safe.

      The reason Alex Gonzalez isn’t one of history’s all-time goats is of course Bartman–or more specifically Moises Alou’s inexcusable temper tantrum.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      I never understood why Buckner was the big villain rather than the incompetent Red Sox bullpen. They were the ones that blew the game. Can’t get one damn out with a two run lead, no one on and two outs? Schiraldi and Stanley should have been the names that lived in infamy.

  5. MikeN says:

    Blake Griffin’s dunk is the most overrated. He didn’t dunk over a car. He didn’t go lengthwise over the car, or widthwise. He dunked over the corner of a Kia.

  6. Dale says:

    Damn, I’m glad I read this. And I was amazed at the Van Snider story. I also live in Mayfield Hts., and my daughter and Van’s daughter play on the same school softball team. Very cool.

  7. wordyduke says:

    I was busy teaching school and in between relationships and, not remembering any specifics, am delighted to get your take on the favorite year of 1986. I will have to go back to the first installment and see what else made it the favorite for you in your personal life (if anything), beyond getting the sniff of what you REALLY wanted to do in life.

    Here’s the one sporting memory. I had a friend who wanted the Red Sox to win and she could not get over the fact that poor Calvin Schiraldi, who had done so well all season long, collapsed to an 18.00 ERA in those final two games. He was gold turned to dross.

    The other memory. I was personally rootless in 1986. That summer, I saw in a newspaper story that the girl, now living 400 miles away, had been recognized for a fine piece of writing. Hadn’t ever dated her, hadn’t even talked to her one-on-one, hadn’t seen her in more than 20 years. Wrote her congratulations. A year later we began corresponding and then, after two months of visiting across those 400 miles, we got married, now working on year 28. So 1986 — though I couldn’t see it at that time — became crucial to my favorite year.

  8. Puckpaul11 says:

    What was Buckner doing in the game? Up by two, he had bad knees. Had to be a better defensive option.

    • Brett Alan says:

      John McNamara usually used Dave Stapleton as a defensive replacement for Buckner in those situations, including the three games the Sox won in the series, but decided to let him stay in in game 6 so he could be on the field for the winning play.

      • Marc Schneider says:

        I find that astonishing. That’s why John McNamara is-well, John McNamara. It’s not like they were ahead by 9 runs-obviously. The Red Sox seem to have cornered the market, for a while, in managers making totally boneheaded decisions. ie, Grady Little leaving in Pedro in 2003. Do they make these managers go to stupid school before taking over?

  9. Dan says:

    Don’t forget, the Tiger-Cats also won the Grey Cup in 1986 behind a dominant defensive performance. Definitely a good year.

  10. Paul Zummo says:

    In 1986 I was nine years old, and in my third year of following sports. By then I was already a fanatic and could recite a ton of baseball history. I was (and am) a Mets and Giants fan, so got to watch the two most dominant seasons I have ever seen from teams I root for. Throw in a Rangers conference final appearance, and it don’t get much better than that.

  11. belmontbill says:

    I was listening to game 6 of the famous Mets-Red Sox Series on my car radio as I drove downtown so see a movie. As I parked my car, the Red Sox were batting in the top of the 10th inning and taking the lead. When the top of tenth ended I debated whether to stay in the car and listen to the Mets half of the inning or not. I’d been a baseball fan
    for over 20 years at that point and I knew that teams just don’t come back from 2 runs
    down with the World Series on the line. It just doesn’t happen.

    So I turned off the radio and walked to the theater to watch the movie.


  12. Scott Behson says:

    This may be my favorite piece of your writing, Joe. And that’s saying a lot.

    As a 12 year old Mets fan and baseball addict (that very year my little league all star team made it about 80% of the way to the LLWS), this post -season is my favorite baseball memory.

    After the Red Sox took the lead in game 6, I was depressed, tired and worn out (and had School the next day), so I told my dad I was going to bed. My dad (a Yankee fan) told me to stay up and watch, saying, “you were with this team the whole way when things were good. You owe it to them to be here now.” Of course, he was right. Lesson learned, and then what amazing positive reinforcement I received from the baseball gods.

  13. Ed Davis says:

    1986 was big for me too. I had moved to CA, and began to pay attention to baseball again, and fell in love with the Giants: Will Clark, Robby Thompson, Jose Uribe, Chris Brown (now forgotten, but he led the team in BA, played 3b with abandon and was heading to greatness – maybe – before he took a fastball to the face the next year); the outfield of Jeff Leonard, Dan Gladden, and Chili Davis, with Brenly behind the plate. Krukow and a couple other decent pitchers, but oddly Roger Craig never really developed a major pitching talent with the Giants. The next year I picked up Bill James Historical Abstract, and I never was thesame after that.

  14. […] did I love this one. In My Favorite Year (Redux), Joe went through the entire sports calendar of 1986 and broke down, month-by-month, why it is his […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *