BOSTON -- Wade Boggs will ascend to the ranks of Boston Red Sox royalty on Thursday night when the team retires his No. 26 jersey in a pregame ceremony at Fenway Park. As a warmup to that signature achievement, Boggs got together with a couple dozen old friends to reminisce, enjoy a cold beverage and lament what might have been.
The Red Sox, who are as adept as any team in baseball at celebrating the past, turned Yawkey Way into Memory Lane on Wednesday night when they paid tribute to the 1986 American League pennant club that lost to the New York Mets in seven games in the World Series.
Three decades later, many of the former Sox are predictably grayer or balder. They're also slightly conflicted, taking pride in their achievements while acknowledging their star-crossed place in history. Before the Red Sox got off the schneid with titles in 2004, 2007 and 2013, the 1986 club was another in a long line of bonding agents for Boston baseball fans who reveled in their designation as "long-suffering."
"It was a heartbreak," Boggs said. "Everybody kept saying, '1918, 1918, 1918,' and we got tired of hearing that. One thing people have to understand is, at the beginning of spring training we were picked to finish fifth. People said we underachieved. I don't think we were underachievers at all. We were on the brink of winning one of the greatest World Series of all time. We didn't bring a championship back to Boston, but thank God for 2004."
After a video tribute to the accompaniment of Huey Lewis and the News' "Stuck With You," the Fenway scoreboard flashed a photo of late Red Sox general manager Lou Gorman and former manager John McNamara, who was not in attendance. With the ballpark about half-empty because of late arrivals, a long line of players and coaches appeared from the dugout and walked a red carpet to the center of the diamond.
The list of honorees ranged from prominent (Roger Clemens, Jim Rice and Dwight Evans) to obscure (Pat Dodson, Mike Brown, Rob Woodward and Mike Trujillo). Once they assembled behind the mound, Dave Henderson's widow, Nancy, emerged from the dugout and threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Red Sox DH David Ortiz. Henderson, who died of a heart attack in December at age 57, hit one of the most dramatic postseason homers in history when he took Donnie Moore deep to power Boston past the California Angels in the American League Championship Series.
"That was the most exciting game I ever played in," Bill Buckner said. "It was the magic moment of my career."
Buckner, 66, remains the most poignant figure from the '86 club. He hit .315 with eight home runs and 22 RBIs in a monster September to help Boston finish 5 games ahead of the second-place New York Yankees in the AL East. But he will be remembered foremost for the Mookie Wilson ground ball that rolled between his legs and allowed New York to score the winning run in Game 6 of the World Series. Two nights later, the Mets rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win Game 7 and capture the Series.
After his retirement, Buckner stayed away from Fenway Park until 2008, when he threw out the first pitch to a five-minute standing ovation. To this day, he maintains that the Game 6 error was not the soul-crushing experience that many observers assumed it would be.
"Hey listen," Buckner said. "If you had asked me, 'Are you good with playing 22 years in the big leagues, winning a batting title, playing in two World Series, getting 200 hits in both leagues and playing in a World Series game and making an error?' I would have said, 'You're damn right, I'm good with that.' That's the way baseball and sports are. You've got a winner and you've got a loser. That's the way life is.'"
Buckner wasn't the only Boston player to run the gamut of emotions in 1986. Boggs went through a personal crisis in June when his mother, Sue, died in a car accident. When he rejoined the team a week later, he received a prolonged ovation from a crowd of 35,355 at Fenway.
"It was the darkest day in my life, but we had to get back to business as usual," Boggs said. "That [game] resonates so much now. I looked at the umpire and I said, 'Are we going to start the game?' And he said, 'No, I'm enjoying this.' The fans were so wonderful."
The 1986 season was a formative experience for Clemens, who went 24-4 with a 2.48 ERA, won the first of seven career Cy Young Awards and set a major-league record with 20 strikeouts against the Seattle Mariners. Don Baylor, acquired in a spring training trade with the Yankees, led the team with 31 homers. And Bruce Hurst and Oil Can Boyd ably supported Clemens in the 2-3 spots in the rotation.
For all the anguish the 1986 team generated, it helped broaden the Red Sox fan base. Dave Stapleton, a valuable utility man on the '86 club, retired after the season and went home to Alabama to become a custom home builder. His three children all grew up as diehard Red Sox fans, even though they were raised in the Deep South.
"My daughter and my sons are diehard Red Sox fans," Stapleton said. "They have memorabilia in their rooms and on their cars. My daughter went to Ole Miss and she had a professor there who said he was a member of 'Red Sox Nation Mississippi.' She told the professor that I was her dad. I think she got an 'A' in that class."
In hindsight, the members of the '86 club insist they put the lie to the perception of the old Red Sox as a collection of egos with the camaraderie of an actuarial convention. Wade Boggs couldn't have asked for a more fitting group of escorts on his way to Thursday's number retirement ceremony.
"So many things were written about us being '25 players, 25 cabs,'" Boggs said. "But we got along really good together. If you were in the hospitality suite with us tonight, you would have seen it."