The Joy of Sox

April 23, 2021

Two Sides of Glory: the 1986 Boston Red Sox in their own words, by Erik Sherman. U. of Nebraska Press: Lincoln NE. $29.95. 253 pages.

 

THE ART OF THE INTERVIEW

Interviewing sources is one of the hardest skills for a writer to master, at least it was for me. I stopped trying to do it about six rungs of the ladder below "mastery." I taught my journalism students how to do it, and I did that pretty well, because I could discuss the pitfalls, the various techniques, the preparation and sequencing of questions to ask, the mid-interview course-corrections, and other important elements of interviewing but for the life of me, I couldn’t actually do most of these things in real time.

Mainly, I could not keep myself from arguing with the person I was interviewing. Invariably, he or she would say something crazy, stupid, mistaken, wrong, offensive, or clueless, and when I couldn’t keep my trap shut in response, my interview-subject would blow up, and so would the interview. It was a miracle I managed to publish a dozen or so successful interviews during my career as a journalist, but I never really got comfortable in that role.

It isn’t at all rare for a subject to say something during an interview that is plainly not true. It’s pretty common for subjects simply to tell outrageous lies, whoppers that can be contradicted easily by looking at the historical record, often recorded on videotape, and it’s easy to understand their motivations in lying to an interviewer. Everyone would prefer to take an embarrassing moment in his or her past and make it go away. That’s exactly what people do in interviews all the time. They take advantage of the opportunity to spin stories as they wish they had happened, in the hope that their untrue version might replace the embarrassing truth, or at least create some confusion in the historical record.

The best interviewers will allow these misrepresentations (six syllables for "lies") to pass without comment, and perhaps note in their published articles where their version strays from the facts. (The interview-subject then proceeds to get furious at the contradiction, and to denounce the interviewer as deceitful, or the quote as "out-of-context" or simply invented, but that’s a whole nother matter.)  The difficult part for the interviewer is to let the misrepresentation stand without comment but not to let that false narrative determine the course of the entire interview.

For example, if a member of the 1986 Boston Red Sox were to assert "We won the World Series that year," it would be tempting for an interviewer to say "What? Are you insane? It was televised before millions of people that you LOST the 1986 World Series!! It was in all the papers!!!" which might be accurate but would probably cause the interview to be terminated. The interviews in Two Sides of Glory by Erik Sherman don’t quite approach that "out-of-his-skull" level of duplicity, but he does an admirable job of conducting long, affable interviews with 15 members of the 1986 Red Sox ranging from the "reasonably honest and self-perceptive" to the "delusionally self-justifying," interviews that turn out, on the whole, to be revealing and entertaining.

Thirty-five autumns have passed since that epochal event, of course, and time has mellowed some of the players more than others, but the ones who struck me at the time as having belligerent personalities still retain some of their essential hostility and the ones who struck me as being modest and self-aware still retain their essential decency.

Oil Can Boyd, for example, came across at the time as an eccentric young man, not to say an irrational hot-head, who hadn’t cooled off measurably at the age of 60 when Sherman spoke with him. Among the wackier utterances of the Oil Can was his insistence that he, and not Bruce Hurst, should have started the fatal seventh game of that World Series. Hurst, may I remind you, had pitched a beautiful Game Two shutout, beating Ron Darling 1-0 and then in Game Five had defeated Doc Gooden in an even more devastating performance, throwing seven shutout innings before giving up a harmless run in the 8th inning and another in the 9th.  The Oil Can had been kicked hard, meanwhile, in Game Three, giving up four runs in the top of the first inning, and six runs in seven innings overall. More crucial in Sox Manager John McNamara’s thinking, however, was the state of mind of his ballclub going into that final game: having blown the previous Game Six in demoralizing fashion, did the Red Sox want the calm Mormon Hurst on the mound or the volatile and unstable Oil Can? Yet thirty-five years later, Boyd is still angrily denouncing the Red Sox management for choosing Hurst over him, because he had one more day of rest than Hurst. Pitching on short rest in Game Seven of the Series is traditionally considered low-risk, even no-risk, mainly because there is no Game Eight. Boyd’s reasoning is further flawed by his insistence that Hurst was due for a bad game, after two stellar ones, while he was due to pitch well because he had gotten lit up in his previous outing.

At this point in the interview, I confess, I would have simply lost my shit.

Frothing at the mouth, I would have let out a long howl at the moon, and then said to the Oil Can, "WTF!!! Have you ever heard of Sandy Koufax? Bob Gibson? Mickey Lolich? Christy Mathewson? Randy Johnson?  Lew Burdette? Jack Morris? Madison Bumgarner? Orel Hershiser? Whitey Ford? Carl Hubbell? Ah-wooooooooooooooooooo-gah!!"

Actually, I don’t think I would have been quite that rational in rattling off the names of multiple-gem pitchers in World Series play, and might have been unable even to pronounce words in the English language at all, just barely able to chew the nearest carpeting while losing control of my bowel functions.

But Erik Sherman, bless his kindly soul, not only avoids soiling his trousers but calmly continues the Oil Can interview, recording his misrepresentations, mistakes, self-aggrandizements, and whoppers. Even the honest statements Sherman got out of Boyd are pretty sensational, such as the confession (or boast?) of his drug habits:

               "You don’t have to answer this," I say delicately, "but do you think your not starting Game Seven had anything to do with your smoking marijuana before games?"

               Boyd doesn’t hesitate. "I smoked pot since I was five years old—every damn day of my life," Oil Can confesses. "And at the time I was fighting cocaine, too."

And then after McNamara informed him that Hurst would be starting Game Seven,

               "And he didn’t even tell me that if Bruce got into any trouble, I would be the first one in. As it turned out, I didn’t even pitch in that game—period. So after talking with [McNamara], I walked right out of the hotel in New York City, by myself, in a dangerous neighborhood and bought some drugs."

               "Uptown?" I ask.

               "Yeah, with a gun," Boyd says.

               "You had a gun?" I ask, incredulously.

               "I had a gun," Boyd confirms. You could bring a gun in your luggage. It ain’t like that today. When I think about it all, it still makes me cry."

 

What Boyd was crying about was how unfair the Sox, baseball, and the world have treated him, cutting his career short (he pitched five more years after 1986) because of that one World Series, judging him on the basis of his personality rather than on his pitching. (His losing record from 1987-1991 and his E.R.A. 9% more than league average might have contributed to his being cut after only 102 more starts, but that’s not how Boyd sees it. In his final half-season with the Texas Rangers, he went 2-7 with an E.R.A. slightly higher than the sign of the beast in the book of Revelation, 13:18).  He also has a trait of characterizing the opinions of his absent teammates as agreeing strongly with his version, even those opinions that degrade the teammates’ abilities: Boyd claims that "in actuality Bruce [Hurst] would tell you that Dennis [i.e., Oil Can] should have pitched that ballgame because I’m the man you put out there to take care of business." Okey-dokey—not exactly what Hurst says when Sherman speaks to him, but let’s move on. Roger Clemens won the Cy Young Award in 1986 unanimously, yet Boyd asserts, "I was thinking for that game, ‘I’m the best pitcher on the staff—and that includes our Cy Young award winner.’"

               "Roger?" Sherman asks, confirming that he means to claim what he just claimed.

               "Damn right!" Boyd responds emphatically. "[Clemens] will tell you that."

               It would be nice to hear Clemens saying that Boyd was the best pitcher on the staff—and I actually think Boyd was specifically talking about "that game," not that he was better that year or over his career than Clemens was. (Clemens had started Game Six, so he probably was not in the greatest shape to pitch the next day, too, but it’s hard to imagine him stating that Boyd was ever a better pitcher than he was, on the best day of Boyd’s life or on the worst day of his own.)  The habit of quoting teammates to support one’s outlandish opinions is certainly open to question, but Sherman to his credit doesn’t challenge these opinions, and so is able to describe Boyd as "slyly intelligent" "exceedingly cordial," and "a delight" who at the end of the interview "howls with laughter. He’s enjoyed our visit—almost as much as baseball and marijuana!"

               The final interview-chapter isn’t an interview with the two players Sherman writes about, Don Baylor and Dave Henderson, on account they weren’t available for an interview, being among the recently deceased, so Sherman spoke to their teammates about them and their unique contributions to the 1986 team and what they added to Sox culture, and like the rest of the book, it’s insightful and respectful and filled with all sorts of details about the unusual personalities of Hendu and Groove.  He did get to interview some players, Bill Buckner and Tom Seaver, who have since died, two veteran ’86 Sox who had their own unique perspective on the Sox-Mets relationship that I’m glad to see Sherman got down on paper while they were still with us.

               The subject of this book is perspective. As frustrated and upset as the 1986 Red Sox were at the time of their defeat, they’ve all struggled over the years to view it in the context of their entire lives, and the lives of others. The others who’ve put that loss into a broader context include children of Bob Stanley, whose son Kyle was diagnosed with cancer, and of Dewey Evans, whose two sons, Justin and Tim, contracted neurofibromatosis, a nerve disorder that took both of their lives. The team as a whole has gained some understanding of what genuine tragedies can be, and they now can view the 1986 World Series through that understanding, with sadness but sadness mixed with joy.

All the Red Sox spoken to (or spoken about) seem to have mellowed in the intervening third of a century, though the more difficult Sox, such as Boyd and Jim Rice, aren’t quite up to "full mellow" yet and might never get there in this lifetime, or the next, while the more pleasant or affable Sox, such as Marty Barrett and Rich Gedman, have long since absorbed the hurt and resentment of losing the 1986 Series in such a shocking and disheartening manner and now express the thrill of being members of a team that came so close to winning it all, as well as just having been part of a team that was, and remains, so close to each other.

As noted in this space, I came thisclose to naming my first-born child "Mookie," so delighted was I at the results of the 1986 World Series that preceded her birth by a few days, so I might not seem the most unbiased person to review Erik Sherman’s book about the 1986 Red Sox.  I didn’t get to name my daughter Elizabeth after my favorite 1986 Met (and honestly, I came only about this           close, my wife getting an equal and opposed vote), but for decades afterwards my office door was decorated with a full-color photograph of the grounder bouncing between Bill Buckner’s wickets as Met #1 speedily approached first base.

That photo remained posted on my door, even after I became disillusioned with the M.E.T.S. (an acronym derived from the hourly-repeated phrase My Entire Team Sucks) and became a big Sox fan in the early 2000s, partly out of disgust with Willie Randolph’s dunderheaded campaign to drive me from the team, partly because the new Sox G.M. was the son of a friend of mine (bonus: excellent seats at Fenway, btw!!), partly because Bill James was hired by the Sox, and partly because my younger daughter went to college at Wellesley—this perfect storm of events blew me off-course as a Mets fan and into the welcoming harbor of Boston, where I had gone to grad school and a city that’s still dear to my heart. (The memoir chapter about my MA year at B.U. is entitled "The Best Year of My Life," and it has almost nothing to do with the Red Sox.) The pennants the Sox have won in the nearly 20 years I have rooted for them, even after Randolph has been cancelled by MLB, Theo has moved on to Chicago, Bill has left the building, and my young’un has long since graduated from Wellesley, are just so much whipped cream on the four-layer cake, and I just smile when my former fellow Mets fans call me a bandwagon-jumper. "The view is great from up here, fellows," I answer. "Take a look for yourselves!"

But even if you don’t like the Red Sox, and don’t like the Mets, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy this book, if only as a primer in the art of interviewing. Erik Sherman does a great job of persuading these men to submit to interviews, and of asking the right questions in the right order to get heartfelt answers out of them, and of presenting those answers in a clear and artful narrative.

 
 

COMMENTS (8 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
Yeah, Sherman told me that he actually conducted the interview when he was at Seaver's vineyard, which was the destination of the 1969 Mets in the After The Miracle, a true two-fer.

Never did any live on-the-air interviews, but I'd imagine that would give the interviewer an aggressiveness advantage--storming off the set isn't a good look, though Piers Morgan might disagree with you.
6:53 AM Apr 24th
 
steve161
There is also a Kindle edition at $22.40, I'm happy to report. Wait a year and it'll probably cost less than ten bucks, but what the hell, it's only money and it sounds like a fun book.

I'll come at it from a different perspective: I was rooting for both teams to lose.

As for the art of the interview: is print different from on-air? One of the reasons Mike Wallace was one of the very best is that he was not afraid to challenge any attempt to play fast and loose with the facts. Based on one sample, his son plays in the same league. Is it harder for the subject to get up and walk away when there's a camera running?

Incidentally, Sherman (no relation) seems to have generated at least two other books centered on 1986: Kings of Queens: Life Beyond Baseball with the '86 Mets and the previously-reviewed After the Miracle, with Art Shamsky. as well as books with or about Davey Johnson and Mookie Wilson. Evidently he's trying to match the overlong Yankee shelf single-handedly.
5:52 AM Apr 24th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Exactly, Manushfan. Rice (and Boyd) gave the press a mildly hard time, and they continue their hostility (which never got near Carlton- or Belle-levels) with Sherman, who takes it so well that it never seems like hostility. I'm sure if a more confrontive reporter had tried interviewing either one of them for this book, it would have been cut short.
9:51 PM Apr 23rd
 
Manushfan
Hmmmm. A dig at Jim Rice? Last I checked, while he was never that friendly with the press, he's NOT Albert Belle or anything, that's just who he is. It is a shame both Dave Henderson and Don Baylor were long gone before the writer got a chance to talk to them.
9:36 PM Apr 23rd
 
bearbyz
Really nice article. Great perspective.
4:56 PM Apr 23rd
 
jfenimore
Great article! Thank you. In 1988 when we got a family dog for our two kids, we named him Mookie. BTW-My daughter was wait-listed by Wellesley and went to Sarah Lawrence.
12:37 PM Apr 23rd
 
tickeno
Thank you, can't wait to read the book.
10:08 AM Apr 23rd
 
Jaytaft
I enjoyed this. I have a bobblehead of Buckner standing right next to my Mookie bobblehead. I watch that epic at-bat like twice a year.
10:01 AM Apr 23rd
 
 
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