Now that we know the Yankees will be playing the Red Sox to open the 2022 season, we have exciting baseball to look forward to, both on April 7th, and very likely throughout the 2022 season. Although I can virtually guarantee that an Opening Day game at Yankee Stadium against the Yankees’ most bitter of rivals won’t be boring, I can also virtually guarantee this: It won’t be as wild as the Yankees-Red Sox game I attended in 1987, which was the craziest game I’ve ever been to. If you’re of a certain age, you may remember it as well. Although on the surface, it may have just been another mid-season game at the end of June, with the Yankees and Red Sox it’s rarely that simple.
The previous September, Don Mattingly had been in a tight race with Boston’s Wade Boggs for the 1986 AL batting title. Given that the two had alternated batting title wins the previous three seasons, and given the teams’ rivalry, this was not an insignificant story. On the last day of September, Boggs went 4-for-4, extending his lead to seven points in the race heading into the season’s final weekend – and as luck would have it, the Yankees would be in Boston to close out the season’s final four games.
That’s when the “Chicken Man” decided his hamstring was a little stiff and announced that he’d skip the final four games, as Boston had already clinched the AL East crown. Sitting out essentially guaranteed Boggs would win the batting crown, and it would be an understatement to say that didn’t sit well with Yankees’ fans. The 149 games he’d played had been “grueling” as Boggs said at the time, while Donnie Baseball sat out only four innings the entire 1986 season.
Regardless, Donnie did his part by going 8-for-19 over the weekend, but Boggs — refusing to even DH or pinch-hit — claimed the 1986 AL batting title, and even more of Yankees’ fans ire with it. Certainly, we’d all be appeased when Donnie would win his second consecutive MVP award in a few weeks; after all, he’d won the award in 1985 and by most accounts was even better in 1986. Yet a good dose of salt was rubbed in our collective wounds when the BBWAA actually awarded Roger Clemens the 1986 AL MVP. For Yankees fans, watching fan-favorite Donnie Baseball get cheated twice was bad enough, but to Boston players both times – that was teeth-gnashing material.
That’s why all of this was still fresh in the minds of fans on June 26, 1987, when Boston came to the Bronx for the first time of the season. To make matters even more interesting, Boggs brought a 25-game hitting streak into the night’s action with him, and Clemens — the reigning Cy Young award winner and MVP — would be on the mound for the Sox. Rather fortuitously, not only was I at the game, but I was sitting directly behind home plate, only about 100 feet from the field. (No, I’m not rich or well-connected — it was 1987, so seats were both available and affordable.)
Tommy John, who was having a bit of a career resurgence at age-44 in 1987 for the Yankees, quieted what had been a vociferous home crowd pretty quickly. After walking Boggs, John surrendered hard singles to Jim Rice and Don Baylor, giving Boston an early lead. Dwight Evans followed with a home run to right field (which wasn’t a pop-up that carried into the short porch – the crack of the bat echoed throughout the stadium) putting the Yankees in a 4-0 hole. Before the Bombers ever came to the plate, their chances of winning had already plummeted to about one-in-five.
In case you were wondering, Clemens in 1987 looked just like Clemens in 1986. Coming into the game that night, The Rocket had held opponents to a .228/.304/.333 triple-slash line with a 3.13 ERA and a 3.34 FIP (league averages were 4.46 and 4.47 respectively in the AL in 1987.) Although Mattingly lifted the crowd’s spirits with a single, the Yankees went down quietly in the first and it looked like this may not be a fun night of redemption after all.
Little did we know, matters would get worse. Spike Owen and Rich Gedman opened the second frame with a double and single, then after a single from Marty Barrett (who advanced to second on an error), Boggs came to the plate for the second time in less than two innings. That’s when Yankees manager Lou Piniella felt that walking Boggs (who had a ridiculous .382/.473/.599 triple-slash line at the time) intentionally, and bringing the right-handed Rich Bordi in to face Jim Rice was the right call. It must be noted that Boggs, who was obviously aware of his 25-game hit streak, was clearly not pleased with the free pass.
Piniella would go on to be a three-time Manager of the Year, but he did not in fact make the best call in this case. The future Hall of Famer Rice greeted Bordi by rocketing the baseball into the left-field seats, giving Boston a 9-0 lead. The second frame wasn’t even over, and the Yankees’ win probability was at two-percent, the Red Sox were absolutely vaporizing baseballs, and oh by the way the best pitcher in baseball was on the hill. To say the least, the game was not going according to plan.
It was already a wild contest, but it was about to get even wilder. After another quiet inning from Yankees bats in the bottom of the second, Bordi finally stopped the bleeding by getting through the top of the third without incident. Then, trailing by nine runs, Willie Randolph led off the bottom of the third with a single, and although we didn’t know it at the time, the tide amazingly had turned.
Mattingly followed with his second hit of the night, and future Cooperstown inductee Dave Winfield crushed a baseball over the center-field wall for a three-run home run. Although still in a grim situation, the stands had a pulse again, as we watched Clemens issue a walk to Claudell Washington after Winfield’s long ball. Mike Easler and Mike Pagliarulo followed the free pass with hits, scoring Washington to make the score 9-4. When light-hitting backup catcher Mark Salas drew a walk off of Clemens, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was thinking “We still have a chance.”
Hope turned into full-blown faith when the Yankees shortstop, wearing uniform number 2 (Wayne Tolleson, who did you think I meant?) singled to left field, driving in two runs. The number nine hitter in the lineup with the .238 batting average had made the score 9-6, sending The Rocket – who was anything but that night – to the showers.
Steve Crawford came in for Boston and wasn’t much better than Clemens, immediately issuing a walk then surrendering three straight RBI hits, one a Mattingly double. He quickly joined Clemens in the Boston clubhouse as Tom Bolton came in and did everything he could to keep the Yankees’ momentum going as well. A wild pitch, a walk, and a run-scoring passed ball later, and the Yankees remarkably led 11-9 after three innings. An inning that started with a two-percent win probability ended with a 75-percent win probability, and the best part for Yankees’ fans was that the reigning MVP took the brunt of the beating. Raucous is the best word to describe the Yankee Stadium crowd at that point.
Although we were all still amped after the third-inning explosion, then even more so after a Boggs groundout (Wade was running out of chances to extend that hit streak to 26) we were forced back into groaning quickly. After a Baylor single and an Evans double, Todd Benzinger (who would later become famous for catching Paul O’Neill’s dropkick in Cincinnati) tied the game with a two-run single. Cecilio Guante replaced Bordi and escaped further trouble, but the fans’ excitement had been tempered. After three and a half innings, we’d seen 22 runs scored, and the game was tied at 11 apiece.
For the next couple of hours, most fans anxiously sat at the edge of their seats as the action had trained us to do to that point. Yet for the most part, despite a fifth-inning fly out from Boggs that got many cheers, and another hit from Mattingly, it was simply just tense as the game moved into the eighth inning still tied at 11. Things were especially tight when the still hitless Boggs came to bat with the go-ahead run on first base in the eighth. When Boggs grounded to shortstop, starting a double play, the crowd erupted in part due to the threat being over, but more so for the likelihood that Boggs’ hit streak was over too.
After a scoreless ninth, Boston’s Ed Romero singled to right field with two outs in the tenth inning, putting the go-ahead runner on base. Everyone’s shoulders tightened a little bit as Boggs strode to the plate for his sixth plate appearance. Our schadenfreude from a little while earlier had quickly been replaced by the realization that it was highly unlikely that a hitter like Boggs would get six PA without getting a hit. The possibility that the “Chicken Man” was not only going to keep his streak alive but that he’d do it by winning this crazy game for Boston was, unfortunately for Yankees’ fans, a real one.
Relief pitcher Pat Clements balked Romero to second base, and it turned out to be a very popular balk. Now with first base open, Piniella signaled for the intentional walk, and for all intents and purposes, ended Boggs’ night and hitting streak in the process. From the stands, you could see the Red Sox dugout was not happy. Boggs — never one to hide his emotions — was clearly not pleased with Piniella, as he glared into the Yankees’ dugout at least once.
There were still 40,000-something fans in attendance that night and the vast majority of us reveled in taunting the Red Sox third baseman during the duration of the free pass and on his angry trot to first base. Even better, we got to do it a second time, as this time Piniella’s roll of the dice worked, as Rice followed by striking out to end the threat.
I’m sure you’re aware that I wouldn’t be writing this if the story didn’t have a happy ending. Mike Pagliarulo led off the bottom of the tenth by drawing a walk off Calvin Schiraldi, and moved to second base on a sacrifice bunt from Rick Cerrone. Uniform number 2, Tolleson, came through once again with an RBI single to center field, giving the Yankees a highly improbable and insanely gratifying, 12-11 walk-off win in ten innings.
I’ve been fortunate enough, mostly due to growing up in an era in which tickets were reasonably priced, to attend many, many Yankees games. I’ve certainly seen my share of crazy things at the Stadium, both in the stands and on the field.
Yet, to this point anyway, nothing has topped being present at that game. Trailing by nine runs facing the arch rivals with the best pitcher on the planet, and not only coming back to win but doing in that particular fashion with the surrounding sub-plots, all from a great vantage point is one of my favorite baseball memories. Hopefully, we’ll all get more great ones, starting on April 7th.