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Was the Maine Italian Sanwich the Secret Villain of the 1986 World Series?

Briggs Seekins@BriggsfighttalkFeatured ColumnistMay 27, 2011

At least nobody on the 1986 Red Sox had a porn stache'
At least nobody on the 1986 Red Sox had a porn stache'T.G. Higgins/Getty Images

For the Red Sox fans of my generation, the 1986 World Series was the scab on our souls that would never heal, forever picked at and regretted.

How could it be possible for the Baseball Gods to treat us so cruelly? O’ Lord, there we were: one strike away with nobody on base. The long contained eruption of New England joy starting to bubble over in anticipation.

My younger brother and I stood in front of our television, cowbells and pots and pans at the ready. All those summer nights we’d tuned in with the volume low after bedtime, suffering through the mediocrity of the 1980s-era Boston Red Sox—finally, it was all going to pay off! 

And then the roof began to slowly cave in.

And of course, it was nothing as quick and merciful as a walk-off homerun—oh, no. Just a drawn out, impossible to comprehend string of blink base hits…a wild pitch and an error.

Watching the bottom of the 10th inning of the sixth game of the 1986 World Series for a Red Sox fan was like finding yourself suddenly locked by a movie villain in a sealed room, the water slowly but steadily seeping in.

Gary Carter singles with two strikes to left field and there’s water on the floor. Kevin Mitchell strokes one up the middle and the water is all of a sudden over your feet. Ray Knight pokes an 0-2 pitch into center to score Carter and the water has risen to your knees. And then the wild pitch to Mookie Wilson and you are soaked to above the chest and you just know you are down to your final few breaths. By the time the slow roller dribbles beneath Bill Buckner’s glove, your lungs have already started to burn.

And if you are not a Red Sox or Mets fan, you might not remember this, but in Game 7, the Red Sox came back to take an early lead before frittering it away late.

Yes, in 1986, the Baseball Gods kicked our balls into our throats in Game 6, then lifted us up, dusted us off, breathed some life back into our battered bodies, and then promptly proceeded to kick us square in the nuts again.

For those New England boys not so tightly wound, that World Series was downright traumatic. I was 16 at the time, and in the years that followed I never believed, deep-down, that they would ever be able to win. My grandfathers would both go to their graves without seeing the Boston Nine win, and so, I was convinced, would I. During the dark periods of my 20s, I even saw my status as a Red Sox fan as somehow connected to the over-arching depressive state of my life: My professional and personal life were in shambles and even cheering for my baseball team was just another way of confirming my membership in the cult of perpetual misery.

And then the miracle of 2004 happened and everything was healed. The terrible collapse of 1986 transformed in our collective memories into one of those things we could look back on now with some perspective, that we could laugh about ruefully. Oh, that was a painful moment, all right, but the championships of ’04 and ’07 had only tasted sweeter for the experience.

It was during my long drive back to Maine last December, while listening to sports radio out of Boston, that I found my mind wandering back to the 20-plus-year-old memories of that fateful and historic World Series.

As baseball fans will remember, the Red Sox had just added Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to their roster last December, and the callers to the WEIII Big Show were all—and some of them clearly with the help of a few holiday cocktails—excitedly celebrating the several World Series titles that the Red Sox will inevitably win over the next half dozen years.

These are different times than when I grew up, I thought to myself. Now we expect to win. Being a Sox fan now means being a member in good standing of the Optimist’s Club. And at that point in the football season, the Patriots were red hot, too. It was a heady time to be a New England sports fan last holiday season. Sure, the economy may have been in shambles, and the whole world was going to hell, but as I drove back to Maine I took some comfort in the fact that my sports teams were on a roll.

But musing on the 1986 World Series while headed back to Maine, I had a sudden insight into what might have gone wrong during the bottom of the 10th inning in Game 6. After all these years I developed a shocking new theory, one that would no doubt have been too painful to even contemplate prior to the deliverance of 2004. As I drove home it occurred to me that the true villain of that terrible World Series event might very well be not a player, not a manager, not any human being at all. No, the real villain, I’ve come to believe, might very well have been an Italian sandwich.

Before I continue further, I know I must explain exactly what an Italian sandwich is—any readers I might have who have never spent significant time in Maine will not understand.  

The Italian sandwich is a Maine phenomenon, a delicious culinary invention that exists nowhere else but in our own tiny state. Out-of-staters, it should be noted, rarely share our own native enthusiasm when confronted with this local sensation. A native New Yorker once complained to me: “I thought I was ordering an Italian Cold Cult sandwich. I expected to get a nice hard roll with provolone, salami and capicola. Instead I got a soggy, over-sized hot dog roll with luncheon ham, American cheese and some sliced up pickles and tomatoes.  What the hell is that supposed to be?” But for the Mainer who has moved away, no trip home is complete without at least one Italian sandwich.

Getting back to the 1986 World Series, Bob Stanley, the Red Sox pitcher who threw the cursed wild pitch that allowed Kevin Mitchell to scamper home with the tying run, is himself a son of Maine, a South Portland native. And as I drove home last December I remembered how one of the sportscasters on one of the Portland television stations had tried to give his coverage a more local flare by hand-delivering Bob Stanley a sack of Italian sandwiches from his favorite package store back home. I remembered the story because they had been from the store around the corner from where my grandparents had lived when I was a kid—a store I’ve always considered among the top makers of Italian sandwiches, and one of the places I was contemplating as a possible candidate for satisfying my own Italian sandwich jones. 

Now as delicious as it might be, an Italian sandwich is a relatively simple thing—you take a long, soft sandwich roll split down the top, line it with ham and cheese, then layer on diced onions and black olives, sliced pickles, green peppers and tomato wedges. You sprinkle with salt and pepper and then douse it with virgin olive oil, and yes, the word is douse. A proper Italian sandwich has probably a half cup of olive oil drizzled over it.  Sure, that’s an exaggeration, but not by a lot. The roll of an Italian sandwich gets soaked thoroughly; even the wax paper it’s wrapped in. If you eat an Italian sandwich for your lunch, you will still be drying your hands late into the afternoon.

One thing: You sure wouldn’t want to be gripping a baseball after you ate one. Because there’s an excellent chance that ball would slip right out of your hand when you threw it. Why, it just might slip right out of your hand and veer low and inside and out of the reach of your lunging catcher, and all the way to the backstop, while Kevin Mitchell comes tearing in from third base, scoring the tying run.

Of course, I’m not saying with absolute certainty that Bob Stanley was gobbling down an Italian sandwich in the bullpen prior to getting called in to put out the fire in the bottom of the 10th on that historic autumn night long ago.

It had looked like there were about four or five sandwiches in the bag that the television hack had delivered to Stanley. If he hadn’t been back to Maine all season long (which is likely), he would have been at least six months or more without eating an Italian, long enough to build up a pretty strong craving for them. So it’s a good bet that he might have sat right down and polished off the whole sack of them the very evening he got them, which was early in the series. Remember, Stanley was a pretty good-sized guy—his nickname was Big Foot.

But maybe he saved one of them, a familiar treat from back home to bring with him for the Game 6 and 7 road trip into New York, that city of corned beef deli sandwiches and bagels with lox spread.

Maybe he set it aside to savor at a special moment—a victory Italian, if you will. And what better time to break that sucker open then with two outs and two strikes, no runners on base, the Shea Stadium scoreboard even already flashing “Congratulations to the Red Sox.”

Understand, ideally, an Italian sandwich should be eaten within about 20 minutes of being made. Even after an hour, the roll is pretty much soaked from all the oil. If you had been saving one for a week or so, it would be as soggy as a sponge left out in the rain for days. 

I’ll admit this is an improbable, even a crackpot, theory. But like many improbable crackpot theories, it offers a rational explanation for a traumatic event.

I do believe that back prior to the championship of 2004, this theory would have been too haunting for me to contemplate. That a food item which has given me so much pleasure over the years might have been at the heart of the greatest sporting disappointment of my life would have been a bitter pill to swallow, something no amount of Moxie soda could wash down.

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