On June 29, 1986 the Boston Red Sox sent a relatively young utility player, Steve Lyons, to the Chicago White Sox for one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, Tom Seaver. And the history of baseball forever changed.
Well, actually, it didn’t. But it could have.
This post is going to examine what might have happened to the 1986 Red Sox and to the future of baseball had things gone just a bit differently for Tom Terrific.
In ’86, the Sox were trotting out a young and outstanding Roger Clemens, a very credible arm in Bruce Hurst, and a somewhat valuable and highly enigmatic Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd. After that, it was dreck. Al Nipper made 26 starts with a 5.38 ERA and a 78 ERA+ (100 is average). Jeff Sellers made 13 starts and posted a 4.94 ERA and an 85 ERA+. And Mike Brown made 10 starts with a 5.34 ERA and a 79 ERA+. It’s not unfair to say this trio was awful in 1986. And before the Seaver trade, one of them was going to have to start in the playoffs. Enter the 306-game winner. Seaver wasn’t amazing for the Sox, going only 5-7 and finishing his career with 311 wins, but he was a huge step up. In 16 starts, he posted a 3.80 ERA and a 111 ERA+. It seemed the Sox had found their #4 starter for the playoffs. A September knee injury followed by arthroscopic surgery ended those hopes, and the rest, as they say…
Let’s alter history if we could.
On Wednesday night, October 22, 1986, Tom Seaver steps onto the mound at Fenway Park. He allows a solo shot to Lenny Dykstra with two outs in the third. But that’s the only damage in his complete game four-hitter. He strikes out nine, including slugger Darryl Strawberry three times. The Sox rally for two in the eighth against Roger McDowell, win the game 2-1, and take a 3-1 lead in the World Series. The next night, Dwight Gooden faces Red Sox playoff hero, Bruce Hurst. Doc doesn’t have his best stuff. Hurst does. And the Red Sox close out the World Series four games to one.
Much of that stuff actually happened. But Tom Seaver was hurt, and history changed. Let’s take a look as to how.
Bruce Hurst: He would never need to pay for dinner in the Back Bay again. The 1986 World Series MVP trophy that was his and then wasn’t after the Game 6 collapse would be his. In the 2000 Hall of Fame voting, he’d get a second vote.
Al Nipper: He would never have become the answer to the trivia question, “Who’s the only pitcher in history to start in the World Series after posting a 5.00+ ERA during the regular seasons?”
Bill Buckner: No death threats, that’s for sure. He never would have been hated by Red Sox fans, and he wouldn’t have received all the love he did in 2008. Had his Game 6 never occurred, maybe we’d take a real look at his playing record. The 1980 NL batting champ was really mediocre. He may have put up 2715 hits, but he just wasn’t that good a player. The problem? It was really the bat. In terms of running, fielding, and double plays, he was average. His career high in unintentional walks was 32. His next best was 26. That’s one per week. For a short and simple answer to a longer story, his career OPS+ (100 is average) was 100. Buck was pretty average.
Mookie Wilson: Say goodbye to the lucrative post-career autograph market. All that’s left is a great nickname and an even greater smile. And, you know, he may have had a greater career than Billy Buck. WAR says so, at least. If we’re looking for the reason why, it was his work running the bases. He was successful 58 times in 74 times trying to steal in 1982. In 1983 it was 54 out of 70. Even as his career wound down, he was safe 23 out of 27 times for the Jays in 1983.
Gary Carter: He would never become the unquestioned leader that 1986 made him. Rather, people might focus on his career as one of the five greatest catchers ever. Had Johnny Bench not existed, or if he had played in the AL, or if his career began a few years after Carter’s rather than before it, maybe our perspective on Carter would be a little different. What a crime, by the way, that Kid finished 12th in the 1982 NL MVP voting, behind Bill Buckner of all people. That award absolutely could have been his – yet another way for our perspective to change.
Davey Johnson: He would be remembered with even fewer accolades than a manager of his greatness should be. The guy won at every stop. In six full seasons with the Mets, he finished first twice and second four times. He won in both of his full seasons in Cincinnati. In his two seasons in Baltimore, he finished first and second. As a Dodger, he really stunk it up, just leading them to a second and a third. And in Washington, he won once and finished second the other year.
Lenny Dykstra: None of the good times, perhaps, but all of the bad. His 1993 season was a rare healthy one and a very special one. He put up 6.5 WAR, but that wasn’t the special thing. Every year he was healthy from 1992 through the end of his career, Barry Bonds led the NL in walks, except two. Dykstra beat him in 1993, and Mark McGwire beat him in 1998.
Theo Epstein: He’d become known as the guy who led the Red Sox to their first World Series title in 18 years. No big deal. Until he leads the Cubs to their first in 109.
Curt Schilling: The bloody sock loses some of its importance. He needs his actual playing record to get him into the Hall. The BBWAA fails again and again and again. Seriously. Though Schilling isn’t the loveable figure that Bert Blyleven is, he was nearly as good. We’re going to talk about his case come the 2013 election, but let’s take a moment to speculate as to why one of the two dozen or so best pitchers ever got votes from fewer than 3 in 10 members of the BBWAA last year. First, there’s the backlog. That hurts nearly everyone. There was also the presence of a clearly superior pitcher in Greg Maddux. But 91.9% for Tom Glavine and only 29.2% for Schilling? That’s the difference between 305 wins and 216. Hell, it’s probably the difference between 305 and 299. And there’s the fact that as great as Schilling was, he pitched with superior hurlers in Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez. I hate to ask fans of any particular player to be patient, but at least the 2001 World Series MVP isn’t in the same camp as Kevin Brown and Lou Whitaker. At least the writers still have a chance at him.
Manny Ramirez: No change at all. Manny would still be Manny.
Mets fans everywhere: They not only bemoan all of their team’s tragic twists and turns, but they no longer have such affection for the best player in their history.
Me: I lose out on one of the best moments of my life, standing at a window on the second floor of a Boylston Street office building, watching the 2004 Red Sox parade pass by. I’ve seldom seen joy in anyone like the joy I saw in Pedro Martinez that day.
So thanks, Tom, I guess.