Former Astros Kevin Bass regaled about 25 members attending the December SABR meeting of the Larry Dierker Chapter at the Ragin’ Cajun restaurant on Richmond last night. He took us all through his career, from his wide-eyed wonderment years as a rookie with the Brewers through his playing days as a seasoned, accomplished veteran. After all that, his first big question of the night (from Mike McCroskey) was: “How did you feel when you struck out to end the 1986 NLCS Series for the Astros in the 16th inning of Game 6 to give the 1986 National pennant to the New York Mets?”
Bass most probably was thinking: “Thanks a lot, fella. No one’s ever put me on the spot about that not so happy moment in my playing days until now.” Kevin Bass handled it fine, never showing any signs that it has remained an open wound. To the contrary, Bass says it was the great learning moment in his playing career. I’ll have to paraphrase what I head him say about striking out swinging on a too low and outside curveball from Mets reliever Jess Orosco to end the game:
“I went up to the plate just sure that I was going to either drive one in the gap to tie the game or hit one out to win it all. p against the crafty old lefty Jesse Orosco, that was a bad time to lose my focus and be out of the moment of what was going on. He killed me with slow outside curves that would have put me on first with a walk, had I not been so dedicated to swinging at whatever came up there. The tying run was on second base, but I couldn’t think out anything. The fact that Jose Cruz was hitting behind me just didn’t even occur to me. It was the stupidest at bat of my career, but it taught me that a batter has to stay grounded in the moment and not get ahead of everything with his own dream about what he alone was going to do.
Kevin Bass may have made the last out in Game 6 of ’86, but he did not lose this game alone. For starters, even Kevin Bass says that Astros manager Hal Lanier seemed to lose his season-long intensity and grip on the club once the Astros reached the Playoffs. According to Bass, Lanier just seemed to accept getting to the Playoffs as good enough as he started making moves that even the players questioned. Bass cited Lanier’s use of lefty Jeff Calhoun late in the game when he had Jimmy Deshaies available in the pen. We will never know if that would have mattered. There is always second-guessing when a club loses a close big game – and some of that second-guessing takes up residence forever.
As you probably recall, lefty Bob Knepper had pitched the Astros into the top of the ninth with a 3-0 lead with the Mets’ leadoff left pest Lynny Dykstra coming to bat. Bass in right and Cruz in left had pulled way back to prevent against extra base hits in the gap. For some inexplicable reason, however, center fielder Billy Hatcher didn’t get the message. He remained in his preferred shallow spot, about 20-25 feet behind second base.
When Dykstra then connected on a high arching fly ball to the right-shaded side of center, everybody who also wasn’t paying attention to Hatcher previously, and that seems to include about everyone in the park, assumed it was going to be the routine fly out it should have been, but wasn’t. Hatcher could not get back on the ball and Dykstra wound up with a leadoff triple.
A single by Mookie WIlson then scored Dykstra and a double by Keith Hernandez plated Wilson. With the Astros now only leading by 3-2, Knepper was done. Remember: the Astros entered this game down 3 games to 2, A win would tie the Series and set up Mike Scott with an opportunity to win it all at home for the Astros. Iron Mike had already won the only games the Astros had taken against the Mets and made them look silly in the process, The last thing the Mets wanted was Game 7 in Houston versus Mike Scott.
Dave Smith replaced Knepper in the 9th, but he promptly walked Gary Carter and Daryl Strawberry to load the bases. Ray Knight then poked a sacrifice fly to score Hernandez and tie the game at 3-3. Smith then struck out Danny Heep, but the Mets had surfaced as alive and kicking, After the Astros went down scoreless in their half, the game moved to xtra innings, tied at 3-3.
Still tied going into the top of the 14th, the Mets plated a go-ahead run when Wally Backman singled in Daryl Strawberry on a pitch from the Astros’ Aurelio Lopez, but that was all they could get when Mookie Wilson struck out with the bases loaded.
With one out in the bottom of the 14th, Billy Hatcher unloaded his now iconic homer to left to tie the game at 4-4 and send it forward into yet further extra stanza of action.
The Mets took the next lead off Lopez and the Astros in the top of the 16th when Strawberry doubled and came home on a single by Knight. That’s when manager Lanier brought in Jeff Calhoun, and not Jimmy DeShaies, to take over the pitching.
Calhoun promptly tossed up two wild pitches, scoring Knight from third on the second one. Backman then walked, moved up to second, and then scored on a single by Dykstra. That was it was the Mets, but they now went into the bottom of the 16th with a 7-4 lead and needing only three more Astro outs to claim the 1986 National League pennant.
Things got exciting again, if only for last fleeting Astro moment.
With one out, Davey Lopes drew a pinch hit walk off Mets reliever Jesse Orosco. He then moved to second on a single by Billy Doran. Billy Hatcher then singled to score Lopes and reduce the Mets’ margin to 7-5.
After another out, Glenn Davis singled to score Doran, reducing the Met margin to only 7-6, as he also advanced the tying run by taking second base on the play at the plate. Now comes Kevin Bass to the plate with two outs, the tying run on second, and a chance for Houston heroism on an iconic level.
Not to be.
After fouling off a couple of unhittable low outside curves, Bass looked really bad on the one he missed completely. And the 1986 season for the Astros was over. Done. No more.
Astro players and fans have all since put that cry baby to bed and moved on. Baseball isn’t an easy game, but neither is life. And sometimes happen that don’t seem fair, but they happen anyway. And none of us escape them all, eventually.
As my dear old dad used to say in times of disappointment and bad news, and this line of was unintentionally straight out of the Cole Porter songbook:
“It was just ne of those things.”
We didn’t win in 1980 or 1986, but we came close in 2004 and even reached the Big Top in 2005 before we walked away with “Close, but no cigar!” as our pennant script until the day finally comes when the Houston Astros dance on top of the baseball world.
Thank you, Kevin Bass, for stirring up a lot of memories and for lighting again that eternal flame of hope for something better down the line by staying in touch with what we are doing and not doing in the here and now. Your talk was a reminder that today is where the work of tomorrow gets done.
I’ll stop on my adaptation of a Yogi expression to this point:
“It ain’t over til we start living like it’s over!”