Book Reviews

Book Review: One Pitch Away by Mike Sowell – What Happened During & After the 1986 Baseball Season

Being a New York Mets fan, the 1986 baseball season was the ultimate high in my life. I say that even having had three children, that’s how much of a fanatic I am. However, after the euphoria following the World Series win, I always had moments where I mused over the fate of Bill Buckner. He’d had a pretty good career up until that fateful play in the last inning of Game Six of the World Series when the Boston Red Sox seemed on the verge of winning only to throw it away. The final insult was the ball that dribbled through Buckner’s legs on what should have been a fairly easy play. Was that all he would be remembered for in baseball and not the years of being a top player and winning batting titles and awards?

In One Pitch Away, author Mike Sowell recounts the events of the 1986 Playoffs and World Series. Being a Mets fan, I hadn’t paid much attention to the series between the California Angels and Red Sox, except in regard to who would be the opponent of the National League Champions. Sowell narrates the events, having interviewed players, managers, and coaches, about what was happening behind the scenes, how the players were feeling and thinking, and what was being said between the people involved.

Sowell manages to capture the excitement of the League Championship Playoffs and World Series in the first part of the book, setting the stage for the second part. He has gone back years later and interviewed some of the players who were on the various teams. Not all the players are interviewed, but there are enough that it gives a good overview of what happened in the series.

One particularly tragic story is that of Donnie Moore, the Angels pitcher who felt as if the reason the Angels lost the series was because of him. There were other issues in his life that led to the headlines he made a few years later when he attempted to murder his wife and then committed suicide, but Sowell details here through a series of interviews with friends, teammates, and family how Moore continually beat himself up over the 1986 American League Playoffs.

One question for me as a Mets fan was always the dominance of Mike Scott in that playoff series. Accusations of his doctoring the ball after he suddenly became an unhittable pitcher followed him all season long, but never with the fervor that the Mets players and the New York press gave it. As Mets players collected baseballs pitched by Scott showing scuff marks all in the same place the noise level was ratcheted up. It became clear that if nothing else, Scott had the Mets psyched out. So does Scott admit to Sowell in an interview that he was doing something to the ball?

Of course, I was anxious to get to the part where Sowell interviewed Bill Buckner. He doesn’t sound bitter in his interview but does admit that the infamous play has dogged him for years, although he denies that’s the reason he left the Boston area or that he sold the World Series ring.

The interviews where Sowell sticks to baseball are fine. Even the parts that dealt with the aftermath of the series and the ends of various careers were interesting. Hearing the bitterness in Doug DeCinces’ interview about his abrupt dismissal from the Angels shows the darker side of baseball. Players are often painted as “million-dollar cry-babies” but you don’t hear the other side of it too often when the owners counteract with the shabby treatment of players who stick with teams despite offers of more money from other cities.

Where Sowell misses is when he details too much of what the players are doing at the time he wrote the book. A brief paragraph is fine, but I don’t need to know all the details of the various financial investments they have made. Reading that Mookie Wilson goes around as a speaker to church and community groups is one thing, hearing the details of him getting a financial consultant license is another.

I think the interviews could have been pared down a bit because of this, and it’s one of the reasons I put One Pitch Away down several times before finishing it. I did find it interesting to read the players’ perspectives on this part of the season many years later. Even Gary Carter admits that Mike Scott had the Mets players more psyched-out than anything else; it didn’t matter what he was throwing anymore.

Over the years I’ve read books by some of the players involved in this season, some of who are also interviewed here. I think taking it all together really helps form a picture of the entire season and post-season, and I do confess I liked some of the players’ books better than One Pitch Away.

For baseball fans who look beyond what’s played on the diamond, this is a decent book to get a look at the wider picture of the game, and how the effects of a good or bad play can linger for years or overshadow a career. This was definitely one of the most (if not the most) exciting Playoffs and World Series in baseball history and makes me want to locate videotapes of the games to watch with a different perspective than only knowing how it affected someone like Donnie Moore can give.

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