The date: August 2, 1985.
The scene: Yankee Stadium, where the Yankees were tied with the White Sox at three runs apiece, with the Bombers batting in the bottom of the seventh. There are runners on first and second with nobody out. It’s a terrific chance to break the game open.
What happened next would turn out to be one of the more infamous gaffes in Yankees’ history, but to truly appreciate it, let’s step back to reintroduce ourselves to some of the main characters of the tragic comedy.
Bob Meacham was a sympathetic character on the 1985 Yankees. Five of the nine regular lineup spots on that team were filled by Rickey Henderson, Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield, Willie Randolph, and Don Baylor (two future Hall of Famers, three MVPs, and five All-Stars if you’re counting). Three other lineup spots were filled by semi-regular platoons, so a representative bat was in the lineup pretty much every day in those spots.
Then there was Meacham, who not only struggled all season but had the misfortune of having his struggles stick out like a sore thumb due to the talent and production that surrounded him. Ironically, for the purposes of this discussion, Meacham was a very good baserunner, posting six baserunning runs above average in 1985.
Dale Berra, who due to having a Yankee royalty surname and not playing regularly was able to keep his poor play under the radar. Yet for a guy who only took an extra-base 31 percent of the time in 1985, his newfound aggression that night put his poor acumen front and center for all to see.
Gene Michael, who is unquestionably one of the best front-office executives in Yankees’ history, but may not have been the best third-base coach (the Yankees had the second most outs made at home in the AL in 1985) and had a history of not being particularly good at hiding his emotions.
Carlton Fisk, who was seriously disliked by both Yankees fans and players. Ron Blomberg wrote what Thurman Munson felt about Fisk in Blomberg’s most recent book:
“He thought Fisk was a pretty boy who never had a hair out of place. Whenever Fisk would step into the box while Thurman was catching, Thurman would grab a handful of dirt and casually toss it all over Fisk’s shoes and socks.”
Most Yankee fans and players agreed with Munson’s character judgment, and although Fisk had left the hated Red Sox a few seasons earlier, it would be safe to say he still didn’t have many fans in the Bronx.
The Yankees’ Andre Robertson led off that infamous seventh inning with a single, which prompted manager Billy Martin to insert Meacham as a pinch-runner. Berra followed with two amateurish bunt attempts, and then with two strikes popped another bunt in the air toward third base. Chicago third baseman Tim Hulett picked the ball up on a hop and threw a forkball to second base for an error. This brought Henderson to the plate with first and second, nobody out, and mashers Mattingly and Winfield to follow.
A long meeting at the mound followed to discuss defensive strategy (with noted participants Fisk, Chicago manager Tony La Russa, and the 1985 Rookie of the Year, shortstop Ozzie Guillen). Announcer Vin Scully suggested on the broadcast, “the White Sox are looking for a bunt,” with commentator Joe Garagiola adding, “they have to be.”
Martin disagreed with the collective assessment, as one should when the batter has a .351/.437/.566 slash line as Henderson did on that day. He had Rickey swing away.
In case you don’t remember, here’s what happened:
Rickey drove the ball to the cavernous left-center field of Yankee Stadium, where Chicago center fielder Luis Salazar somewhat misjudged the ball, allowing it to land. Meacham, thinking the ball would be caught, retreated to second base to tag up. Berra, seeing the (mis)play in left-center kept running, at one point almost running into the retreating Meacham. When both runners recovered, Michael waved Meacham home and we can only speculate what Berra was thinking, as he tried to score as well – both were thrown out by a relay throw from Guillen, with Fisk making both tags at the plate.
Now if that isn’t funny enough, let’s examine the play a little more closely. The way Rickey admires his work for a second before running has nothing to do with the outcome of the play, but you can’t watch that without smirking. That simply wasn’t common in that era, especially on batted balls that clearly were not out of the park — that man was a character. Then Berra — after missing second base completely — almost runs into Meacham who had stumbled, making matters even worse.
After Berra yelled and waved at Meacham’s back to implore Meacham to run (because Meacham may not have thought of that), Michael waved Meacham home but did not wave Berra home, which clearly didn’t stop Berra. Guillen, after receiving the throw from the outfield even paused for a second, clearly surprised by what he was watching. His throw was “in plenty of time to get one” as Scully correctly noted.
Alas, this comedy routine was not yet over. Michael demonstrated what all were thinking when he threw his arms in the air as Berra passed him “as if to say ‘what are YOU doing?’” to use Garagiola’s description. Meacham, who lost the race with the ball to the plate by about 15 feet, somewhat comically, decided running into Fisk was the best remaining option. (Comical in the sense that Fisk was a very large man wearing catcher’s equipment — Meacham could say neither of those things.) Yet somehow Meacham’s decision was better than Berra’s, who rather than try to knock the ball loose from Fisk, or slide, or stop and get into a rundown — thought just running at home plate as if nothing unusual was happening was the best play.
The dagger itself wasn’t enough for Yankee fans though, as it was still yet to be twisted. For a brief moment, it appeared when applying the tag that Fisk reached for Berra with his glove while the ball was in his bare hand and that Berra may have dodged a bullet. Turns out that — if you’re like me, you’ll have to clench your jaw for a moment here — Fisk simply made a really nice play, reaching and getting Berra with his hand that was holding the ball.
To the surprise of no one who ever watched him manage, Martin — after already being visibly annoyed by Berra’s inability to bunt — had enough of Berra after the baserunning circus and inserted Mike Pagliarulo into the game to take over at third base for Berra. Given that a lefty was still pitching for Chicago, and another lefty was warming up for them, this was very telling given Martin’s feelings about the left-handed Pagliarulo facing lefties.
The Yankees would go on to lose that night in extra innings, which was a microcosm of the 1985 season. That team was a very good team that had a great season but just fell short on the season’s last weekend. For what it’s worth, I saw Dale Berra at the announcement of the Yogi Berra stamp being unveiled this past spring, and Dale looks much better and seems a bit more “with it” at age 64 than he did back in 1985.
No, I didn’t stick around long enough to ask him if, with the benefit of hindsight, he looks back and laughs at that incident the way we fans do.
*Author’s note: For time’s sake I linked the video of the play only. If you’d like to see the entire inning, the full game video can be seen here. The fun starts a few minutes after the two-hour mark.