October 1986: A Month History Was Made
October is my favorite month. The weather is crisp and the scenery is beautiful. And the sports…well, the sports are never better than in October. The college football and NFL seasons have a good head of steam going, and baseball is hitting its dramatic climax.
The baseball playoffs of 1986 were among the most legendary in the long history of the sport. The heroes and goats of this particular autumn have lived on in baseball lore. In an era where the MLB postseason was comprised of just three series–ALCS, NLCS and World Series–two of them went seven games and another was a six-game battle so riveting that it might as well have been seven.
In this article, we take you deep into the heart of October 1986. The focus is baseball and an in-depth look at all twenty postseason baseball games. Then we mix in the football, both pro and college, for some leaven. So relax and take a ride through the extraordinary month that was October 1986.
September ‘86 had been mostly drama-free. All four baseball divisional races were essentially sewn up. The Mets, Red Sox, Angels and Astros had put a stranglehold on first place and were not seriously challenged. That made the buildup to October even more intense, with fans already anticipating the LCS matchups and knowing each team would have their pitching rotations lined up.
The college football world had a similar sense of stability. At the end of September, the Miami Hurricanes had decisively handled the defending national champion Oklahoma Sooners. The Hurricanes, with eventual Heisman-winning quarterback Vinny Testaverde and coached by Jimmy Johnson would dominate the balance of the regular season.
But there was still a joust for #2 going on. Alabama held the second spot in the polls. Michigan and Nebraska were, as usual, ranked in the top five. And Penn State, who had lost a national title battle to Oklahoma the previous January, was lurking at #6.
In the NFL, the defending champion Chicago Bears were not going to be challenged in the NFC Central (today’s NFC North, plus Tampa Bay). But the NFC East was shaping up into an exciting race. The New York Giants, Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys were trying to get separation from each other. The Cowboys had already scored the first blow with a season-opening Monday Night win over the Giants.
Over the AFC, a young gunslinger named John Elway was looking to take the next step in his career and get the Denver Broncos to a Super Bowl. They had rolled through September unbeaten. The Cleveland Browns had their own young quarterback in Bernie Kosar and rising star in coaching with Marty Schottenheimer on the sidelines. The Browns looked ready to emerge as a top-tier contender.
And the AFC East had a lot of action going on in the early season. The Patriots were the defending conference champs and the Jets were off to a hot start.
That was the landscape as the calendars of 1986 flipped over into October.
Saturday, October 4
It was the last weekend of the baseball regular season and with no pennant race drama, we could ease into the month. Lou Holtz was in his first year coaching at Notre Dame, looking to rebuild a program that had not competed on the national stage since 1980. Holtz would show clear progress in ‘86, but his team was still a step behind the nation’s best. That became apparent when they went to Alabama and were crushed 28-10.
Out west, a pair of ranked teams in Arizona State and UCLA met. The Bruins had won the Pac-10 and gone to the Rose Bowl the previous January, their third trip in four years. The Sun Devils were trying to get there and a 16-9 win was a significant step forward.
Sunday, October 5
Dallas went to Denver for a high-profile game. With veteran Cowboy quarterback Danny White’s body starting to give out, the mediocre Steve Pelleur was forced into action. He got no help, with the Dallas running game only producing 41 yards.
After a scoreless first quarter, Elway started making big plays. He finished 12/24 and made those passes go for 300 yards. Gerald Wilhite caught two touchdowns out of the backfield and ran for a third. With Pelleur forced to the air, he threw three interceptions. The Broncos jumped out to a 22-0 lead and coasted home, 29-14.
Monday, October 6
The Seattle Seahawks were a good team, one that would compete for a playoff spot to the bitter end before falling short and they would be a part of key games during this focal point month of October. Seattle got it started when they hosted division rival San Diego (the Seahawks were an AFC West team prior to the realignment of 2002) and blasted the Chargers 33-7.
Tuesday, October 7
It was time for baseball. The ALCS opened in Fenway Park, and it was a matchup of aces. Roger Clemens won the Cy Young and MVP for the Red Sox, while the Angels’ Mike Witt finished third in the Cy Young voting. And to the surprise of the Fenway crowd, this was Witt’s night.
In the top of the second, Clemens issued a pair of walks and then in rapid succession, Ruppert Jones singled, Wally Joyner doubled and Brian Downing singled to left. It was suddenly 4-0. In the top of the third, California had some more two-out magic. After an error by Boston shortstop Spike Owen, the Angels got hits from Bob Boone and Gary Pettis and the lead was 5-zip.
Witt was in command and not until the sixth did the Red Sox get on the board. Owen drew a walk, Wade Boggs beat out an infield hit and Marty Barrett took a single the other way to right. But it was not the sign of an impending comeback. Witt finished off a complete-game five-hitter with no further damage. Clemens worked into the eighth, sparing the bullpen, but the Angels tacked on another couple runs in the 8-1 win.
Wednesday, October 8
In a 3 PM EST start, lefty Bruce Hurst got the ball for the Red Sox who faced a virtual must-win on their homefield. Kirk McCaskill was on the mound for the Angels.
This time it was Boston who came out on the attack. In the bottom of the first, Boggs led off with a triple and Barrett doubled him home. In the bottom of the second, Rich Gedman and Owen singled and Boggs beat out another infield hit.
The bases were loaded with one out. Barrett popped a single to left and it was 2-0. McCaskill escaped further damage by getting Bill Buckner to bounce back to the mound and start a double play. California took advantage by tying the game up in the middle innings. Downing and Doug DeCinces opened with singles. A Boggs error and an infield hit by Dick Schofield brought in a run. One inning later Joyner homered to make it 2-2.
Boston got the lead back in the bottom of the frame when Buckner singled, veteran DH Don Baylor worked out a two-out walk and Dwight Evans doubled in the lead run. In the seventh, the Red Sox got real separation. After an error by second baseman Bobby Grich, Jim Rice singled and Baylor walked. Another error, this one by DeCinces at third, made the game 4-2.
McCaskill looked ready to get out of it when he got a ground ball to second that looked like a double play. California got the out at second, but Schofield’s throw to first went awry and two more runs scored. McCaskill was done and so were the Angels. Hurt gave up eleven hits, but finished the game because Joyner’s home run was the only one that went for extra bases. The Red Sox tacked on three runs in the eighth for good measure, keyed by Rice’s two-run homer. The final was 9-2.
The NLCS got rolling in prime-time. Houston had one advantage working for them right out of the gate—with homefield determined by a rotation system rather than merit, the NLCS would open in the Astrodome. And the Astros had the hottest pitcher in baseball, eventual Cy Young winner Mike Scott, who had recently thrown a division-clinching no-hitter.
New York countered with their own ace, Dwight Gooden, just a year removed from one of the great pitching seasons in modern history and still a 17-game winner with a sub-3.00 ERA in 1986. Game 1 had the makings of a pitchers’ duel and it proved exactly that.
Houston’s power-hitting first baseman Glen Davis homered to lead off the second inning. The Astros later got a double from Kevin Bass and loaded the bases with one out. Scott came to the plate and struck out, so the inning ended 1-0, and Gooden immediately settled into a brilliant night of pitching. But the damage was done.
It was still 1-0 in the eighth when the Mets got their first rally going. Danny Heep and Lenny Dykstra singled and there were two aboard with one out. Scott promptly struck out Wally Backman and Keith Hernandez. In the ninth, Darryl Strawberry singled and stole second with one out. A base hit could tie it, but Scott induced a harmless groundball from Mookie Wilson and struck out Ray Knight. Houston had drawn first blood.
Thursday, October 9
Bob Ojeda, who had the best ERA for a starter in what was a great Mets’ rotation, took the ball for Game 2. The Astros countered with the veteran fireballer Nolan Ryan. Houston again got something going in the bottom of the second, getting runners on the corners with one out. Ojeda got Alan Ashby to hit a comebacker and got the out at the plate, escaping the jam.
In the fourth, the Mets finally got on the board. With one out, Backman and Hernandez singled, and Gary Carter doubled. The score was 1-0 and there were runners on second and third. Strawberry added a second run with a sac fly. One inning later New York broke it open.
Light-hitting shortstop Rafael Santana singled with one out and Dykstra did the same with two outs. Backman’s two-out single scored a run and Hernandez cleared the bases with a double.
The 5-0 lead was plenty for Ojeda. He escaped a first and second with none out jam in the sixth. The Astros got a run in the seventh, but Ojeda finished the game scattering ten hits and winning 5-1. New York had a road win and three home games ahead of them starting Saturday afternoon in Shea Stadium
Friday, October 10
The American League scene had shifted west. Oil Can Boyd, the colorful Red Sox righthander got the Game 3 start and faced off with John Candelaria, a veteran of the Pittsburgh Pirates 1979 World Series champions. Boston got an early run in the second, but a baserunning error prevented a bigger inning. Rice led off with a walk and Baylor singled, but the lefthanded Candelaria picked Baylor off of first. Subsequent singles by Evans and Gedman only resulted in one run.
The Angels threatened in the fourth, putting runners on first and second with two outs. DeCinces then beat out an infield single to first, but Joyner tried to score all the way from second. Buckner wasn’t buying and threw him out at the plate. The Red Sox blew a bigger opportunity in the top of the fifth, failing to score after getting men on second and third with none out. Owens grounded to first, but failed to score the run, Barrett popped out and Candelaria escaped.
California finally tied it up in the sixth. Joyner drew a walk and moved up on a groundball. Hurst faced an old Boston nemesis, DH Reggie Jackson, who singled to tie the game. In the seventh, the Angels’ contact hitters displayed some muscle. The diminutive Schofield homered with two outs. After Bob Boone singled, speedy Gary Pettis also went deep. The Angels suddenly had a 4-1 lead.
The Red Sox made a move in the eighth when Barrett led off with a single. Rice drilled out a two-out double that spelled the end of the night for Candelaria. California manager Gene Mauch went to his closer, Donnie Moore, who promptly balked in a run. After issuing a walk to Evans, Moore surrendered a base hit to Rich Gedman that cut the lead to 4-3.
With two runners still on base Moore got the game’s biggest out, when Tony Armas flew out to center. California got an insurance run in the eighth when Jackson drew a walk, went all the way to third on a Boggs error and scored on a sac fly by Jones. Moore closed the ninth without incident and the 5-3 win put the Angels halfway to a pennant.
The significant downside that came out of the game for California was that Joyner would no longer be available. The first baseman and Rookie of the Year suffered a staph infection after Game 2 and while he tried to play in Game 3, it wasn’t working and he was out for the remainder of the ALCS.
Saturday, October 11
It was just after noon on the East Coast when National League action resumed. Ron Darling, the current TV analyst for the Mets and for Turner Broadcasting’s postseason package, was an excellent young pitcher in 1986 and he started Game 3 against Astro veteran lefty Bob Knepper. It was Houston that got to Darling in the early going.
Billy Hatcher singled with one out in the first and stole second. He ultimately scored on a bloop hit by Denny Walling, who moved up to second on a wild pitch and later scored on a single by Jose Cruz. One inning later, second baseman Billy Doran made Darling pay for a walk by hitting a two-run homer. It was 4-0 and Knepper cruised through the first five innings with no problems.
New York pushed back in the bottom of the sixth. Kevin Mitchell and Hernandez singled, and an error by shortstop Craig Reynolds brought in their first run. Strawberry then pulled a home run down the rightfield line and it was tied 4-4.
Darling, still in the game, gave the lead back, with some “help” from his defense. After a walk to Doran, a sacrifice bunt attempt resulted in a throwing error by third baseman Ray Knight. Doran made it to third and scored on a groundball out. In the ninth inning, the Astro closer Dave Smith was on, looking to nail down the win—and with Scott scheduled to pitch Game 4 on short rest, the Mets looked in serious trouble.
Backman started the inning with a single. With one out, Dykstra came to the plate. In one of the most famous hits in Mets history, he did the same thing Strawberry had done earlier—homered down the rightfield line. New York might still have to deal with Scott on Sunday night, but with a 6-5 win they were ahead in the series.
The college football schedule was mostly non-descript. The Oklahoma-Texas game carries some marquee juice, but this year’s Longhorn team would finish sub-.500 and get Fred Akers–who had played for a national title in both 1977 and 1983–fired. The Sooners rolled to an easy 47-12 win in this edition of the Red River Rivalry.
Of more intrigue was the fact that Penn State had its hands full with Cincinnati. The Bearcat defense caused problems for a Lion offense that was a question mark and PSU had to escape with a 23-17 win on their home field.
In prime-time out West, The Red Sox turned to Clemens on three days’ rest to even the series. The Angels, in the stronger position for the series, and having a future Hall of Famer in veteran Don Sutton available, kept on their normal rotation.
Clemens and Sutton traded zeroes for three innings in the prime-time game. In the top of the fourth, Boston missed a chance. Boggs led off with a double and Barrett bunted him up. But a Buckner fly ball wasn’t deep enough and Sutton escaped. The Red Sox got another chance in the sixth and cashed in. Armas started it with a single, Owen dropped down a sac bunt and with two outs, Buckner ultimately redeemed himself with an RBI single.
Sutton left after seven excellent innings and Vern Ruhle came on. But the bottom of the order was causing problems. Owen singled, took second on a groundball out and eventually scored on a base hit from Barrett. Chuck Finley came out of the Angel bullpen, but was let down by a pair of errors that resulted in Barrett scoring. Mauch, emptying his bullpen, to try and keep it close, went to Doug Corbett, who struck with Baylor with two outs and two on.
I still recall this Saturday night. A high school junior who was playing poker in a room separate from the TV set, I was walking back and forth and confidently reported to the other teenage card players that “the series is tied.” It would be a premature call.
Clemens, after a magnificent night, gave up a leadoff home run to DeCinces. With one out, consecutive singles from veteran pinch-hitter George Hendrick and Schofield, got the Red Sox ace out of the game. Manager John McNamara went to closer Calvin Schiraldi. Pettis greeted him with an RBI double that made it 3-2 and put runners on second and third.
After an intentional walk to Jones, Schiraldi came up with a big strikeout of Grich that looked ready to save the game. But with two outs, the closer plunked Downing. The score was tied and Reggie was coming to the plate. If nothing else, Schiraldi didn’t let the longtime New England nemesis deliver the final blow and Jackson grounded to second. But it merely delayed what looked like a fatal loss.
Schiraldi was still on the eleventh, as the Boston offense could get nothing going in extra innings. Angels’ catcher Jerry Narron singled and was bunted up by Pettis. Grich redeemed himself with a line drive single to left that won the game and put California on the brink of a pennant. With Witt ready to go on full rest for Sunday afternoon, and Clemens having been beaten twice, there seemed little hope left for the Red Sox.
Sunday, October 12
Baseball wouldn’t get going until the late afternoon, so the NFL could have the early television window to themselves. But if fans in New York and Boston thought they would get them a breather, they had another think coming. The Jets and Patriots were set to battle in a key AFC East game.
For some reason the schedulemakers had decided to frontload the Jets’ divisional games and they were playing their sixth straight game against an AFC East opponent. One that had beaten them on a Thursday night in the Meadowlands back in Week 2. But the Jets hadn’t lost since and they would dominate the line of scrimmage today in Foxboro. They got 143 rush yards from Johnny Hector and held New England to 17 yards on the ground.
New York built up a 24-zip lead before veteran backup quarterback Steve Grogan, playing for the injured Tony Eason, brought the Pats roaring back. Grogan hit Stanley Morgan on a 44-yard touchdown pass and Irving Fryar on a 69-yard strike. The Patriots pulled to within 24-17, but the hill was too high to climb and the Jets won it 31-24.
Dallas continued to have a difficult schedule in the early going. The Giants, Broncos and Redskins constituted most of the league’s elite in 1986 and this would be the Cowboys’ third game against that trio in the season’s first six weeks. But they were ready and played their best game of the season.
It started on defense, with the potent Redskin ground attack held to 71 yards. Dallas also got four sacks. Pelleur was outstanding, going 19/30 for 323 yards, with Herschel Walker being the prime target—his six catches produced 155 yards. Dallas led 16-0 at the half and it could have been worse, with one drive stalling inside the five-yard line. The final was 30-6.
The Kansas City Chiefs would make the playoffs this season and they came to Cleveland. The Chiefs took a 7-0 lead into the second quarter. But the Browns defensive line was dominating. They would sack Todd Blackledge four times and hold KC to 43 yards on the ground. In time, the Brown offense picked up. Bernie Kosar threw short touchdown passes to Byner and Newsome.The result was a 20-7 Cleveland win.
Game 5 for the Red Sox-Angels was a noon start local time (3 PM for the folks back East), so Boston had to immediately put Saturday night behind them. They came out strong, with Rice singling in the second inning and Gedman hitting a two-out home run.
Hurst, on short rest, escaped a jam in the innings’ bottom half pitching around a leadoff double by DeCinces and keeping the score 2-0. But the Boston bats fell silent, as Witt began cruising through the lineup. And California cut the lead in half on a solo shot by Boone in the third. They took the lead in the sixth when DeCinces hit a two-out double and Grich homered to make it 3-2.
The Angels appeared to all but sew up the pennant in the seventh. Hendrick legged out an infield hit. After a sac bunt by Boone, Pettis drew a walk and a double by Rob Wilfong put California up 5-2. There were just six outs left and Witt worked the eighth without incident.
Witt took the mound to open the ninth and quickly got into trouble. Buckner singled to center. After Rice struck out, Baylor homered and now it was 5-4. Witt recovered to get Evans to pop out and Angels Stadium was ready to celebrate. With the lefthanded hitting Gedman at the plate, Mauch decided to engage in situational managing and brought in lefty Gary Lucas.
This managerial decision has been the subject of considerable controversy, pulling your ace with one out to go and no one in base. In Mauch’s defense, Gedman had homered earlier and another one would tie the game. And the fact that Baylor had already homered this inning suggested Witt was just hanging on. But when Lucas hit Gedman with a pitch, it seemed a useless change.
Mauch summoned the righthanded Moore to face Boston’s Dave Henderson. The count ran 2-2. One strike from elimination, Henderson homered on the next pitch. The Red Sox had a stunning 6-5 lead.
This is the moment when most recollection of the 1986 ALCS basically shuts down and the eventual Boston triumph seemed inevitable. It didn’t actually play out that way on late Sunday afternoon. The Angels rallied against the Red Sox bullpen in the ninth.
Boone led off with a single. Ruppert Jones came in to pinch run for the aging catcher and was bunted to second. McNamara played his own righty-lefty game and removed Bob Stanley, opting for lefty Joe Sambito to face Wilfong. It didn’t work. Wilfong singled and the game was tied.
McNamara went back to the pen, going for righty Steve Crawford. He allowed a single to Schofield, sending Wilfong to third with the winning run and only one out. Downing was intentionally walked. DeCinces came to the plate and got a fly ball to right…but not deep enough to score. The agony of the Angels only increased when Grich hit a line drive, but right back at Crawford. The Red Sox had escaped the ninth inning not once, but twice and it was 6-6 as Sunday afternoon wore on.
Boston missed a chance in the tenth, as Rice grounded into a double play with runners on the corners and one out. Moore was still in the game in the top of the eleventh. Baylor was hit by a pitch and Evans singled. Gedman dropped down a bunt and beat it out. The bases were loaded with none out. Henderson—who else—hit a sac fly that made it 7-6. Even though no further damage resulted, this one was finally over. Schiraldi came in for the Red Sox and closed it out.
There was no Sunday NIght Football back in 1986, so that evening was all about Astros-Mets. Houston took advantage of having their ace back on the mound and staked him to an early lead. Davis started the second with a single off Sid Fernandez, and Ashby homered for a 2-0 lead. In the top of the fifth, Dickie Thon hit a solo blast. Not until the eighth did the Mets finally score against Scott for the first time in the series and even that took some ultra-aggressive baserunning.
Mookie Wilson led off with a single and on a groundball out from Ray Knight, took off for third and made it. A sac fly scored the run. At 3-1, a leadoff single in the ninth by Dykstra gave New York three cracks at tying the game with one swing. None of it mattered and Scott had another complete-game win.
Monday, October 13
It would be a pretty quiet Monday. The rains came in New York and Game 5 was pushed back to Tuesday afternoon. At night, the Cincinnati Bengals edged out the Pittsburgh Steelers 24-22. The Steelers were a bad team, their two years of contention post-Terry Bradshaw now over. The Bengals, like the Seahawks, would win ten games in the AFC, but narrowly miss the playoffs.
Tuesday, October 14
Nolan Ryan and Dwight Gooden was the pitching matchup when play resumed on Tuesday at 1:30 PM EST. Houston threatened early with singles from Bass and Cruz in the second inning, setting up runners on the corners with no outs. Gooden reared back and struck out Ashby, then got a double play ball from Reynolds.
In the fifth, Houston got on the board. Ashby doubled down the rightfield line and a Reynolds single moved him to third. A sac bunt attempt by Ryan didn’t work, but Doran’s ensuing groundball out was able to score the game’s first run.
After the way the Astros had to gut out that run, what happened next seems almost unfair. Strawberry wiped out with a single swing of the bat, a solo blast that tied it.
The two flamethrowers, Ryan the veteran and Gooden the young arm, went toe-to-toe in a masterpiece. Ryan completed nine innings, while Gooden went ten. No one threatened and the game stretched to the twelfth inning.
Charlie Kerfeld was in the game for Houston now and had been outstanding all year as his team’s #2 reliever. It took a soft rally, but New York got him. Backman legged out an infield hit, and then took second on an errant pickoff throw. Carter slapped a groundball back through the box and Backman raced home with the winning run.
The Angels were on hostile turf in Fenway and had to try and reclaim some momentum. They got right at it against Boyd. After Jones worked a walk, Jackson and DeCinces hit back-to-back doubles for a quick 2-0 lead. But the Red Sox countered with a soft rally. Boggs and Barrett each worked full-count walks off McCaskill. A productive groundout, a passed ball and another productive ground ball tied the game.
In the third inning, Boston leveled McCaskill. Owens and Boggs singled to lead it off. Barrett doubled and Buckner singled to make it 4-2. Barrett tried to score on a groundball to third off the bat of Rice, but was thrown out at the plate. But with runners on first and second, Baylor singled to the opposite field. In an attempt to make another play at home, Joyner’s relay throw went wild and both runs scored, while Baylor went to third. Evans smacked a single to center making it 7-2 and ending McCaskill’s night.
California tried to rally in the fourth, putting the first two men on base. Boyd reached back to strike out Boone and Pettis and there were no runs. The Red Sox added to the lead in the fifth. After Baylor was hit by a pitch, Evans and Gedman singled, setting up an RBI groundball by Henderson. Even though Boggs ultimately killed the rally with a double-play, it wouldn’t really matter. The Angels got a solo home run from Downing in the seventh and an unearned run in the ninth, but even those were sandwiched around a two-run triple by Owen. The final was 10-4 and it was all coming down to a seventh game.
Wednesday, October 15
Monday’s rainout in New York eliminated the NLCS travel day, so the teams went to Houston and got back at it in a late afternoon start on Wednesday. Game 7 of the Red Sox-Angels ALCS battle was in prime-time, but this one had the feel of a seventh game itself. Scott was waiting in the wings for Houston if they could extend the series and New York players were freely admitting they had no idea how to handle his split-finger fastball. There was a strong sense that this game was really the one that would settle the National League pennant and Game 6 proved to be worthy of those stakes.
It took a while for this game to become a classic. The Astros got to Ojeda quickly. Doran started the home half of the first with a single, Phil Garner doubled him home with one out and a Davis base hit scored Garner. After a walk, Cruz singled and the Astros had a 3-zip lead. Both pitchers settled down and began cruising. It reached the top of the ninth, still 3-0 and Houston fans smelling a Game 7.
New York played with the desperation that believed it was also on the brink. Dykstra began the ninth with a triple and scored on a single from Wilson. Knepper got Kevin Mitchell to ground out, but a Hernandez double made it 3-2 and put the tying run in scoring position. Smith was summoned to try and close it out.
Walks to Carter and Strawberry loaded the bases and when Knight lifted a fly ball to rightfield, it was deep enough to score the tying run.
The bullpens took over and the tension grow. Larry Anderson pitched three innings of one-hit ball for Houston. Roger McDowell ultimately gave New York five innings of one-hit baseball himself. Through 13 innings, Game 6 was still tied 3-3.
In the top of the fourteenth, Carter singled to right off Aurelio Lopez and Strawberry drew a walk. Even though Knight’s sac bunt failed, Backman’s single to right brought in the run and an unnecessary throw home moved the runners to second and third. Lopez got Howard Johnson to pop out and kept the score 4-3, something that would prove critical when Hatcher homered down the leftfield line against the Mets’ best reliever, Jesse Orosco. It was 4-4 and the game would go on.
Lopez was still on for the top of the sixteenth. Strawberry doubled and Knight drove him in with a single, taking second on yet another undisciplined throw home. Two wild pitches brought Knight in. Backman walked, was bunted up and scored on a Dykstra single. It was 7-4 and surely this game was finally over?
Not so fast. Houston came roaring back. With one out, pinch-hitter Davey Lopes worked a walk off of Orosco. Doran and Hatcher each singled. The lead was cut to 7-5 and there were runners on first and second. Walling hit a groundball to first and while the Mets weren’t able to turn a double play, Hernandez cut down Hatcher at second base and kept him from scoring position. Which proved vital when Davis singled to center. It was a 7-6 game, but had the fast Hatcher had been at second, he would have surely tied the game again.
Bass came to the plate and the count ran full. Orosco finally got the third strike and an extraordinary Game 6 had come to an end. The Mets were going to the World Series for the first time since their championship season of 1969.
Given the impact Scott had on the series—two complete games, giving up only eight hits and one run combined and a presence that completely loomed over the games he wasn’t pitching in, it was appropriate that he win the NLCS MVP, and that’s what happened.
On the New York side, Dykstra was the best choice, having gone 7-for-23 with a memorable game-winning home run. Strawberry was only 5-for-22, but the magnitude of his hits gave him an outsized impact. Orosco was the winning pitcher in three games, even though he gave up three runs in eight innings of work.
The Red Sox had Clemens available for a third start, while the Angels would turn to Candelaria. Even without Witt, you had to still like the pitching option for California. Candelaria had some big-game mojo from 1979 and had pitched a shutout in Game 6 of the World Series in Baltimore, a game his Pirates faced elimination in. But October 15 in Fenway wouldn’t work out quite as well.
In the bottom of the second, an error by Schofield started the rally. It was followed by a base hit from Baylor, a walk to Evans and an RBI groundout from Gedman. With two outs, Boggs slapped a two-run single and it was 3-0.
Boston missed a chance in the third, when a Baylor double keyed a second and third situation with one out. But Evans couldn’t pick up the RBI and Candelaria escaped. But the roof finally fell in on the Angels in the fourth.
A fly ball off the bat of Henderson turned into an error by Pettis and Henderson ended up on third. Owens singled in the run. After a walk and two outs, Rice came to the plate. He smashed a three-run homer sending Fenway into a frenzy and at 7-0, this American League Championship Series was all but over.
Evans tacked on another home run in the seventh and Clemens pitched seven innings of four-hit ball and left after an eighth-inning single that the Angels turned into a meaningless run. The 8-1 final sent the Red Sox to the World Series for the first time since 1975. And it would be another chapter to the Angel history of heartbreak.
Barrett was named ALCS MVP, going 11-for-30. Other good contributors were Owen, whose 9-for-21 was a boon to the lineup out of the 9-hole. Gedman had ten hits and Baylor added nine of his own. On the Angel side, Boone went 10-for-22 and had the team closed it out in Game 5, Witt would almost certainly have been named series MVP.
The most notable struggle came from McCaskill, an integral part of the California rotation all year, but who only worked nine innings combined in his two starts and gave up 13 runs. And the loss of Joyner is a big what-might-have-been for Angels fans.
Saturday, October 18
The World Series would start in prime-time from Shea Stadium, and the afternoon belonged to college football.
One year earlier Michigan and Iowa had played the best game of the season. The Hawkeyes were #1 in the polls, the Wolverines were #2 and the entire Midwest was abuzz for their game in Iowa City. The game came down to a Rob Houghtlin field goal winning it for Iowa, 12-10. Even though the Hawkeyes later fell to Ohio State, this game was the difference in the Big Ten race and maybe costing the Wolverines a national championship.
The stakes for the 1986 rematch weren’t that high, but they were close. Michigan was ranked fourth, having opened Big Ten play with an easy 34-17 win over then-lowly Wisconsin. Iowa was 5-0 and ranked #8 in spite of having lost Heisman runner-up quarterback Chuck Long from the ’85 team. And one more time, Michigan and Iowa played a football game down to the last kick.
Michigan flirted with a lot of danger. They turned the ball over four times on the day and were behind 10-3 at the half. After taking a 17-10 lead, the Wolverines surrendered an early fourth-quarter touchdown pass. When Iowa got the ball back late in the game, it looked like the best Michigan could hope for was a tie.
Instead, the Hawkeyes fumbled, Harbaugh moved Michigan into field goal range and kicker Mike Gillette came onto the field with five seconds left. He nailed it and the Wolverines were still on track for the Rose Bowl and a possible national title.
Arizona State continued its march toward the Rose Bowl, with a 29-20 win over 15th-ranked US. The Sun Devils were now firmly entrenched in the Top 10 under head coach John Cooper. At the top of the polls, Miami hammered Cincinnati 45-13. The Hurricanes ability to dismantle the Bearcats contrasted with the Nittany Lion struggles the previous week–a contrast that would draw greater scrutiny further down the line.
The Mets sent Ron Darling against Bruce Hurst. Both pitchers would dominate. New York missed an early opportunity in the third, putting runners on first and second with one out, before Hurst got Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter to kill the threat.
No one else threatened until the top of the seventh when the Red Sox made a move, with considerable help from the Mets.
Jim Rice drew a walk, took second on a wild pitch and scored on an error by New York second baseman Tim Teufel, in for starter Wally Backman only because Hurst was a lefty and Teufel was a right-handed bat. This softest of runs was all that was needed. The teams combined for just nine hits and all were singles. Boston’s 1-0 road win gave them an early hold on the series
Sunday, October 19
After a nondescript slate of early NFL games, the New York Giants traveled west to face Seattle in the late afternoon TV window. The Giants were a three-point underdog, indicating oddsmakers did not yet see this as a great team. This game gave them no reason to change their minds. Phil Simms threw four interceptions in a 17-12 loss.
The Red Sox could now give the ball to their ace. Roger Clemens was a 24-game winner who won both the Cy Young and MVP awards in 1986. He faced off with New York’s Dwight Gooden, who had won the Cy Young in 1985 and enjoyed a strong year in ’86.
Pitching continued to dominate through two innings as neither team could get a hit. In the top of the third, it was Gooden who blinked first.
Boston shortstop Spike Owen worked a walk. Clemens came to the plate and dropped down a bunt. An error by Hernandez left both runners on. The top of the order came up and in succession, Wade Boggs doubled, Marty Barrett singled and Buckner singled. It was 3-0 and there were still two on with none out. Rice’s fly ball to rightfield moved Barrett to third base, but Gooden buckled down to strike out Dwight Evans and Rich Gedman and keep the score as is.
New York bounced right back in the bottom of the third, scoring its first runs of the Series and they also started with the bottom of the order. Rafael Santana singled and Gooden beat out his bunt. Leadoff man Lenny Dykstra sacrificed again to put runners on second and third. A single by Backman scored one run and an RBI groundball from Hernandez scored another to cut the lead to 3-2.
Over the next two innings, the Red Sox broke it open. Dave Henderson led off the top of the fourth with a home run. In the fifth, Rice started with a single and Evans hit a two-run blast. It was 6-2 and everything was set up for Clemens, but he couldn’t get settled in. In the bottom of the fifth, he issued a walk to Backman and Hernandez singled. Manager John McNamara pulled the trigger and pulled his ace before he could qualify for the win.
Reliever Steve Crawford gave up a run-scoring single to Gary Carter, but was able to strike out Darryl Strawberry and keep the score 6-3. The Mets stopped hitting and the Red Sox kept going. In the top of the seventh Boston got five straight singles, with Rice, Evans, Gedman, Henderson and Owen all coming in succession. Two runs came in. Another was tacked on in the ninth.
The Red Sox finished the game with 18 hits, double the combined output of both teams from Game 1. Every starter had a hit, seven of the eight position players had multiple hits, six drove in runs and six scored runs. It was a complete team emasculation of Gooden in the 9-3 win.
Only once before in history had a team lost two straight at home to open the Series and then gone on to win it. And the first time had come in 1985, when the Kansas City Royals did it against the St. Louis Cardinals. What were the odds it was going to happen two years in a row? The Mets were in serious trouble as the Series went to Fenway for games on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday night.
Monday, October 20
Fans in the Big Apple got no rest, as Monday Night Football would feature the Jets, now 5-1, facing the undefeated Broncos. Denver was a 3 ½ point favorite on their home field. It was a battle to see who would set the pace in the AFC as the regular season neared the halfway point.
The Jets continued to run the football and stop the run. They dominated rush yardage, 137-47 and sacked the mobile Elway five times to boot. The Bronco quarterback threw a couple interceptions and by halftime, New York led 22-0. Denver scored ten points to make the final respectable, but the 22-10 result was never in doubt.
Tuesday, October 21
Prior to the season, the Red Sox and Mets had made an eight-player trade in which the focal points were New York getting lefty starter Bob Ojeda and Boston getting a talented young closer in Calvin Schiraldi. It was Ojeda on the mound as the Mets tried realistically to save their season in Game 3.
And the New York offense came on the attack against Red Sox starter Oil Can Boyd. Dykstra opened the game with a home run to rightfield. After Backman and Hernandez singled, Carter doubled to score another run and set up second and third. With one out, Danny Heep singled both runs in and Ojeda had a 4-0 lead before he took the mound.
Boston got a run back in the third when Dave Henderson singled, Boggs walked and Barrett hit an RBI single. But that was the only noise the Red Sox would make all night. The Mets put it away in the seventh. With one out, Santana and Dykstra singled and with two outs, Hernandez drew a walk and Carter knocked in two runs with a base. They added another run in the eighth. The game ended 7-1 with Ojeda giving up five hits in seven innings of work.
Wednesday, October 22
With the Mets still facing a desperate situation, they went back to Darling for Game 4. The Red Sox should have considered the same tactic and returned to Hurst—both he and Clemens had worked on short rest in the ALCS and this was a customary short series approach at the time. Boston’s fourth starter, Al Nipper, was easily the biggest liability in the rotation.
The Red Sox threatened early, loading the bases with two outs in the first and Gedman starting the second with a double. Darling escaped both times and in the fourth, the Mets got after Nipper.
Backman led off with a single and Carter homered over the Green Monster. Strawberry doubled down the left field line and scored on a single from Knight.
Darling was continuing to pitch well and made the 3-0 lead stand up. The Mets threatened to add to the lead in the sixth when Carter doubled and reached third with one out. But he was thrown out at the plate by Rice attempting to score on a fly ball. Nipper, to his credit, at least gave his team a chance.
But the Mets broke it open against Crawford. In the seventh, Mookie Wilson singled with one out and Dykstra homered with two outs. Carter again homered over the Green Monster in the eighth. The lead was 6-0 and even though Darling left after seven innings and the Red Sox scored twice in the eighth, they never got the tying run to the plate in the 6-2 final
Thursday, October 23
Through four games we have already seen two big twists, with the underdog Red Sox grabbing the early lead and the Mets then showing their resilience in front of the Fenway crowd. Hurst and Gooden were on the mound for a crucial Game 5.
Not only had the road teams won all four games, but the home teams had never even led. That changed in the bottom of the second with Henderson tripled into the Fenway Triangle in rightcenter and scored on a sac fly from Owen. Boston got another run in the third. An error by Santana and a walk opened the door and Evans hit a two-out RBI single to make it 2-0.
Hurst was again in complete command and not until the fifth did New York threaten, putting runners on second and third with one out. He struck out Dykstra and got out of the inning. The Red Sox then added some insurance in the bottom of the inning.
Another triple to the Triangle, this one from Rice, got it rolling. Don Baylor, the DH was only able to start in the Fenway games, singled in the run and Evans followed with another single. Gooden was lifted and Sid Fernandez came on. Henderson doubled to left for another run and it was 4-0.
The last two innings got a little bit interesting. Red Sox fans serenaded Strawberry with “Dar-ryl, Darryl!” taunting chants, and drawing an equally mocking doff of the cap from Strawberry. And on the field, the Mets made a bit of a move.
Teufel homered in the eighth, the first time the Mets had scored off Hurst in seventeen innings. In the ninth, with two outs, Wilson doubled and Santana singled to make it 4-2 and bring the tying run to the plate. Hurst again struck out Dykstra to close the win.
Boston was one win from their first championship since 1918 and the fans were feeling it. This World Series was shaping up as one in which the overall series was competitive, but the individual games at least modestly one-sided. All that was about to change as they headed back to New York for the weekend.
Saturday, October 25
Nebraska was quietly ascending its way through the polls. After opening the season at #8 and beating Florida State 34-17, the Cornhuskers moved through a series of lesser opponents to get to #3. On October 25, only second-ranked Alabama stood between Nebraska and a clean crack at Miami. And the Crimson Tide would face their toughest test of the season today against Penn State.
The Cornhuskers had slipped behind Oklahoma, then their prime rival in the old Big Eight Conference. Even though head coach Tom Osborne had taken teams to major bowls in seven of the previous eight years, Nebraska had narrowly missed the Big Eight title and the accompanying Orange Bowl bid in 1984 and 1985. That was coming off their heartbreaking loss to Miami in the Orange Bowl following the 1983 season.
Winning a national title was the only way to cure Husker wounds and the focus was simple—win out, including a home finale against Oklahoma, and hope Alabama lost once. It’s fair to say that on October 25, Alabama’s game with Penn State might have been more of the minds of Nebraska fans than their own trip to Colorado.
The Buffaloes had gone 0-4 in non-conference play and like the rest of the Big Eight, had served as mostly doormats for the OU/Nebraska freight train since reaching the Orange Bowl in 1976. A new head coach in Bill McCartney was rebuilding and this afternoon in Boulder was his first big blow.
Colorado came out swinging and scored on a 39-yard reverse in the first quarter. Then kicker Dave Deline hit a 57-yard field goal. The Buffs led 10-0 at half. When the Cornhuskers cut it to 10-7, McCartney went to his bag of tricks again—running back O.C. Oliver threw a 52-yard touchdown pass to Lance Carl.
The Buffalo defense stymied the Husker running attack, holding them to 123 yards, the lowest rushing output for Nebraska in eight years. Cornhusker quarterback Steve Taylor was an erratic passer generally, completing just 42 percent of his passes on the season and he wasn’t going to make up the difference. Colorado pulled a 20-10 upset.
Nebraska’s loss was a break for Penn State, who arrived in Alabama ranked #6. If the Lions could win, they were certain to vault past one-loss Oklahoma and perhaps Michigan as well. It made the late afternoon battle in Tuscaloosa a game for the #2 ranking.
But was Penn State good enough? You couldn’t be blamed if you were skeptical. The Lions’ best win to date was over Boston College, who was a nice enough team that finished 8-3. But it wasn’t Doug Flutie’s Eagles and Penn State’s 26-14 win in Foxboro back on September 20 wasn’t awe-inspiring.
The Lions had also opened the year with a 45-14 win over Temple, whose running back Paul Palmer finished second to Testaverde in the Heisman voting. Again, nice enough, nothing to suggest a national championship pedigree. And their escape against Cincinnati at home was a red flag.
Which left everyone outside of central Pennsylvania completely unprepared for what happened—not that Penn State won. While modestly surprising, Joe Paterno’s program certainly had enough respect to be given a chance. It was the manner in which the Lions dominated. They spotted the Tide a field goal and after the first quarter, just took the game over.
D.J. Dozier and Blair Thomas ran for touchdowns in the second quarter to give Penn State control of the game. Quarterback John Shaffer played the kind of efficient, winning football that his critics doubted he could deliver—13/17 for 168 yards and no mistakes.
Meanwhile, ‘Bama quarterback Mike Shula was forced into an erratic 14/30 for 172 yards and two interceptions. More damaging to the Tide was the shutdown of the running game—Humphrey ran for a meager 27 yards. Penn State sacked Shula five times, forced five turnovers and coasted to a shockingly easy 23-3 win. It made moving them past Michigan and into the #2 spot a no-brainer for the pollsters.
The Red Sox gave the ball to Clemens that night and the Mets countered with Ojeda. Boggs started the game by beating out an infield hit and with two outs scored on a double by Evans. In the bottom of the second, Owen singled with one out. Boston again finished the rally with two outs, with a single to right by Boggs moving Owen to third and a base hit from Barrett bringing him home.
Clemens cruised through four with the 2-0 lead before New York made a counterattack. Strawberry started it with a single and stole second. Knight singled to center to cut the lead in half. Wilson singled and moved Knight to third. There was still none out and the infield was playing for the double play. Clemens got it, with Heep grounding into a 4-6-3 twin-killing that brought the tying run in through the backdoor.
The Mets again threatened in the sixth, with runners on first and third, one out and Carter and Strawberry due up. Clemens K’d them both and one inning later the Red Sox got the lead.
Ojeda was removed for Roger McDowell, the best righthanded option out of the New York bullpen. Barrett walked and then took second a groundball out from Buckner. Rice grounded to third, but a throwing error by Knight set up a second and third situation. Gedman came to the plate and singled to left, but in a play that would loom large, Rice was thrown out at home by Mookie Wilson. Boston had a 3-2 lead, but it could have been more.
Prior to the eighth, Clemens was removed and there were debates about whether he asked out or McNamara made the decision on his own. Given how well Clemens was pitching, and his competitive nature, it seems unlikely the pitcher would have asked out on his own. Schiraldi was summoned.
Lee Mazzilli came up as a pinch-hitter, batting in the pitcher’s spot, and singled to right. Dykstra laid down a bunt that wasn’t handled and everyone was safe. Backman bunted again and there were runners on second and third. Hernandez was intentionally walked to set up the force at home, but Carter did his job and lifted a sac fly that tied the game. Strawberry had the chance to give his team the lead, but flew out to center.
The Mets got in position to win the game in the ninth, with a walk and yet another muffed bunt putting two aboard with none out. This time, Schiraldi punched out Howard Johnson, then got Mazzilli and Dykstra to send the game to extra innings.
Rick Aguilera, a combination fifth starter/long reliever, had come on for the ninth. In the tenth, Henderson greeted him with a leadoff home run. After hitting the home run that saved the Red Sox in the ALCS, Henderson was in position to become a New England hero. That outcome seemed even more likely after, with two outs, Boggs doubled and Barrett singled him in.
Schiraldi was still on to hold the 5-3 lead. He got Backman and Hernandez to fly out. Carter came up and kept the game alive with a single to left. Moments earlier, Kevin Mitchell had been in the clubhouse making arrangements for his flight into the offseason, so certain was he that the game was over. He had to rush back into his pants when summoned to pinch-hit. He singled. Knight singled.
The score was now 5-4, runners were on first and third and Mookie Wilson was at the plate. Bob Stanley was called into the game. Earlier in the year, Stanley had been booed by the fans. His response was that they would love him in October when he got the last out of the World Series.
With that opportunity in front of him, Stanley and Gedman couldn’t get on the same page and an inside pitch skipped past the catcher and tied the game, with Knight moving up to second. It was then that Wilson hit the groundball we’ve all seen countless times, the one that skipped through the legs of Buckner and gave the Mets a stunning 6-5 win.
Buckner has to be defended on three different counts—the game was already tied when he made the error. It was also a deep groundball and with bad heels, Buckner did not run well and there’s a good chance Wilson beats the ball out. Knight would have to stay on third and keep the game going, but it’s far from a guarantee this even ends the inning. And there was still a Game 7 to play.
Sunday, October 26
Tony Eason’s return at lowly Buffalo was overshadowed by two things. The obvious one was that sports fans in New England might not have sufficiently recovered to watch an early window kickoff against a bad team. The other thing overshadowing Eason was more appealing to Patriot fans and it’s the play of the defense.
Ronnie Lippett, who had intercepted Miami’s Dan Marino twice earlier in the season, did it again to a future Hall of Fame quarterback. This time it was Jim Kelly—although unlike Marino, Kelly and his team were very much in a developmental phase. Lippett got his two picks, the great outside linebacker Andre Tippett rang up 3 ½ sacks, as the Pats made Kelly’s day positively miserable in a 23-3 win.
Denver’s undefeated run might have been over but they bounced in the late afternoon with a tough home win over Seattle. Elway was 18/32 for 301 yards while spreading the ball around. It trumped Seattle running back Curt Warner’s 139-yard day in a 20-13 Bronco win.
And at night…well, the rains came again in New York and Game 7 of the World Series would be postponed.
Monday, October 27
1986 was a time when the seventh game of a World Series could still outdraw an NFL game, even a big one. And the Redskins coming to the Meadowlands for Monday Night Football against the Giants was certainly that. The game would be an afterthought for much of the country, but it was a good one and proved to have long-term consequences.
The Giants were pounding the ball on the ground, with Joe Morris carrying 31 times for 181 yards. They built a 20-3 lead and seemed to have control of the game, with the Redskins’ own famed ground attack stuck in neutral. But Washington came all the way back to tie it 20-apiece before Morris finally had one last answer– a three-yard touchdown run that won it 27-20.
McNamara used the extra day to get Hurst on the mound. Hurst had already been voted Series MVP once, when the preparations were being made for the Boston celebration. He could really seal the deal by winning his third game on Monday night.
Darling was making his own third start, as the Series would end with the same pitching matchup that it began. It wouldn’t be quite the pitcher’s duel this time around.
Any thought of the Red Sox just rolling over after the events of late Saturday night were dispelled in the second inning. Evans and Gedman hit back-to-back home runs to start the frame. Henderson walked and with one out Hurst bunted him out, and then Boggs knocked in the run with a single.
It was 3-0, although a fatalist Red Sox fan might recall that in 1975 Boston also led the seventh game 3-zip and that was also against a 108-win team, Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine.
Hurst continued his extraordinary pitching through five innings, allowing just one hit and Darling also settled in. New York came back in the sixth.
Mazzilli and Wilson each singled with one out and Teufel worked a walk. Hernandez delivered a two-run single to center and with runners on the corners, a productive groundball from Carter tied the game 3-3. Hurst would leave after the sixth, turning it over to Schiraldi, a circumstance that no one in Boston could possibly feel good about.
Knight greeted Schiraldi with a home run to start the seventh. Dykstra singled, moved up on a wild pitch and scored on a base hit by Santana. McDowell, now in the game for Darling, stayed in to bat for himself with the 5-3 lead and bunted up Santana. McNamara made a pitching change, going to the lefthanded Joe Sambito. After an intentional walk to Wilson and a real walk to Backman, Hernandez hit a sac fly to make it 6-3.
Now the Mets were in command, and the Red Sox were the ones that refused to go quietly. In the top of the eighth, Buckner and Rice singled and each scored on a double from Evans. There was nobody out, the score was 6-5 and the tying run was on second. Jesse Orosco, the lefthanded option out of the pen came on for McDowell. Gedman hit a line drive, but it resulted in an out. Henderson, out of miracles, struck out. Baylor grounded out.
The Mets were three outs away, but insurance wasn’t going to hurt. Nipper was now in the game and Strawberry took his revenge for the Game 5 taunts, homering to right. Knight singled and eventually scored on a single from Orosco, who helped seal his own save.
The drama was finally over. At 8-5, Orosco took care of business in the ninth, striking out Barrett to end it.
Knight would be named Series MVP, going 9-for-23 for the series and the Game 7 home run that put his team ahead to stay. Carter was 8-for-29, had the two-homer game in the must-win Game 4 and finished with 9 RBI—no one else on the Mets had more than five. Kudos also to Darling, who pitched 17 2/3 innings in his three starts and only gave up four runs.
On the Red Sox side, Hurst would still have been a reasonable pick in defeat, going 2-0 and giving up just five runs in 23 innings pitched. Henderson went 10-for-25 and had what looked to be the Series-clinching home run in Game 6. Evans was 8-for-26 and also drove in nine runs—and like the Mets, no one else had more than five. My own personal ballot would go Carter-Hurst-Knight.
One thing we can say for certain is that there were enough heroes in the 1986 World Series, that historical discussion should focus there rather than the unfair goats horns that stayed hung on one man and didn’t let up until the Red Sox finally won a title eighteen years later. As for the Mets, with all their young talent–especially in the starting rotation–they were seen as taking the first step to a dynasty.
It would have come as a major surprise to know that this was the last team this group of players would even play in a World Series, much less win it. The Mets franchise didn’t return to the Fall Classic until 2000 and then again in 2015. Their great fan base is still waiting for its next title.
In the NFL, the Giants’ Monday Night win over the Redskins marked a clear turning point in Big Blue’s season. It’s when Bill Parcells’ team made the transition from solid playoff contender to championship-caliber. Later in November, the Cowboys would start to slide and missed the playoffs entirely. It marked the beginning of the end for the great Tom Landry.
By late December, the Giants, Redskins and Bears were clearly the class of the NFC. New York won a big game in Washington secure the division title and #1 seed. Chicago’s quarterback problems caught up with them in a divisional playoff loss to the Redskins. The Giants then made it three straight over the ‘Skins in the NFC Championship Game and easily won the Super Bowl against Denver.
The New York Jets’ record would reach 10-1 and the Big Apple was smelling a Jets-Giants Super Bowl. There was one notable dissenting voice. NBC’s Paul Maguire openly predicted that the Jets would not win another game the rest of the season.
Astonishingly, Maguire was right–at least for the regular season. The Jets lost their final five games. They still made the playoffs and a wild-card win over the Chiefs saved some face. But a crushing loss in Cleveland ended the roller-coaster ride for good.
New England would win the AFC East and travel to Denver for the divisional playoffs.Elway’s Broncos were the 2-seed and won a tough game to reach the conference championship game. One week later in Cleveland, Elway authored his first big legendary moment–a 98-yard drive in the closing minutes to tie the game and then win it in overtime.
In college football, Miami and Penn State were atop the polls and attention shifted to the fact that the opportunity for a new bowl game to make a name for itself was now very real. The ‘Canes and Lions were independents and the four traditional major bowls–Rose, Orange, Sugar and Cotton–were all committed to taking at least one conference champion. The Fiesta and Citrus Bowls were the lead candidates to create a 1 vs. 2 championship game.
The Fiesta Bowl had gotten to major status back in 1981 when they shifted to January 1 and were able to match up Penn State against USC and Heisman Trophy-winning running back Marcus Allen. The Lions won that game and finished the season ranked #3. The previous year, Michigan had beaten Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl to finish #2. Getting a game that would produce a team that finished #1 was the natural next step in the progression.
The Citrus Bowl had no such history, but they had already decided to move their game to January 1 and more important, they were located in Orlando. Miami, as the #1-ranked team, would get to make the decision on where they played and Penn State would have to follow. The bidding and politicking behind closed doors and in the media heated up.
The Fiesta made the winning move when they shifted their game to January 2, a Friday night, that would guarantee an exclusive TV window. The result was a game that’s still the most-watched college football game in history. And one of its biggest upsets. No one gave Penn State much of a chance, but they intercepted Testaverde five times and pulled a 14-10 shocker in the desert.
October of 1986. It was a special time and it would end up making history. I hope you enjoyed this day-by-day ride through the month.