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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Saluting the spirit of '86

There was not much buzz about them when they first gathered in Winter Haven, Fla., late in February 1986. Greater Boston was still reeling from the Patriots' maiden voyage to the Super Bowl (which ended in a severe beating by the Chicago Bears), and there were indications, later fulfilled, that the Celtics were on their way to a 16th world championship.

The Red Sox? They were well below the radar, coming off a thoroughly boring 81-81 season. They had finished an aggregate 56 1/2 games out of first place in the previous three seasons and the only reason to watch them was to see if sensational singles hitter Wade Boggs might crack .400. He'd hit an astounding .368 in 1985.

There was no Nation, no Monster Section, no pink hats, no ``Sweet Caroline", no Curse, and no automatic sellout for every game. Playing in the dour image of manager John McNamara, the Sox drew well under 24,000 per game in 1985 and there was no reason to believe anything was going to be different when they broke camp to start the '86 season.

Seven months later they came within one strike of winning the World Series. Boston held a parade in their honor. And tonight, before the Red Sox and Mets meet at Fenway (just as they did in the 1986 World Series) , members of the '86 Sox will be honored in a ceremony.

The timing is perfect because the Red Sox and their fans now have a championship in their pockets. The Miracle Boys of 2004 brought infinite joy to Sox fans around the world, and in the process saved the souls of hundreds of worthy players who toiled here with honor without gaining the ultimate reward. No team got kicked around more than the Class of '86, and now the time is ripe for Boggs and friends to take a long-deserved bow.

Bill Buckner is the poster boy for the plague that infected the '86ers. He's been vilified, his wonderful career (more base hits than Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio) reduced to a 10-second video in which we see Mookie Wilson's grounder and hear Vin Scully exclaim, ``A little roller up along first . . . behind the bag! It gets through Buckner! Here comes Knight . . . and the Mets win it!"

Unfortunately, Buckner will not be at Fenway tonight. He's got a switch-hitting teenage son who's appearing in showcase games all over the country, hoping to draw interest from pro scouts or a major college program.

``I would love to have been there," Buckner said over the phone yesterday. ``Say hello to everybody for me, especially Walter [hitting coach Walt Hriniak] and Marty [Barrett]. I'll catch up with them on the golf course."

Hriniak and Barrett are here for the reunion, but several of the '86ers -- those most involved in the unfortunate collapse, are unable to attend. McNamara is in poor health. Rich Gedman is managing the Worcester Tornadoes. Bob Stanley is a pitching coach in the Giants organization. Physiological freak Roger Clemens is starting for the Astros tonight in Detroit.

They've all been treated unfairly, of course, and I'll own up to my contributions in this area. Remembered as chokers because of what happened in the World Series' sixth game, the '86 Sox actually pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history -- a fact that has been regularly overlooked because of the manner in which they lost the Series.

These men who'll be honored tonight engineered a comeback every bit as unlikely as what the '04 Red Sox did against the Yankees. Trailing the California Angels, three games to one, they came back from a 5-2 deficit in the ninth inning of Game 5 in Anaheim. And it was Buckner who started the rally with a single up the middle in the ninth. A home run by Dave Henderson became instant Boston folklore as the Sox rallied to win Game 5, 7-6, in 11 innings.

They won the next two in Boston with ease, then took the first two games of the Series in New York.

We all know what happened after that. And we don't need to go there. Not tonight.

``I guess we should have gotten our due earlier," said Buckner. ``It's a good season any time you win a pennant. For some reason a lot of people weren't able to enjoy that. If they can enjoy it now, that's fine."

The 1986 team deserves credit, not just for coming back against the Angels, not just for making it to Game 7 of the Series, but for putting big league baseball back on the map in New England. Hub hardball had gone flat in the wake of the 1978 pennant race and there was little excitement in the seven seasons after Bucky Dent.

The '86ers changed everything. Dwight Evans homered on the first pitch of the season on April Fool's Day and McNamara's Band gave us a nonstop thrill ride right into Halloween.

On the night of April 29, when most of the New England sports media was gathered at the old Garden, watching the Celtics and Atlanta Hawks in a playoff game, Clemens struck out a major league-record 20 Seattle Mariners. On his way to an MVP/Cy Young season, it was the young Rocket who first brought us back to Fenway.

So much happened after that. Don Baylor, acquired in a trade for Reverend Mike Easler on Good Friday, emerged as a clubhouse leader and MVP candidate. Oil Can Boyd pulled a nutty when he was snubbed for the All-Star Game, but he pitched well enough to win 16 games, including the division clincher at home against Toronto. Jim Rice mashed American League pitching en route to finishing third in the MVP race, and Gedman enjoyed an All-Star season behind the plate.

Calvin Schiraldi earned a spot as late-season closer after general manager Lou Gorman struck a deal that brought Spike Owen and Henderson into the mix. Boggs won another batting title, Barrett was MVP of the ALCS, and the Sox used four home-grown pitchers (Clemens, Boyd, Bruce Hurst, and Al Nipper) as World Series starters.

Hurst won a pair of Series games, dominating as Jim Lonborg had in 1967.

In the end, of course, they were scorned because of the manner in which they lost, and McNamara provided the lasting epithet when he said, ``I don't know nothin' about history and I don't want to hear anything about choking or any of that crap."

The following spring, it was Mac himself who reminded his troops they needed to forget about 1986. The Sox became the first team in history instructed to erase all memory of their trip to the seventh game of the World Series.

And they carried that around for 18 years. Unfairly.

Tonight we salute the 1986 Red Sox. Finally.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com. MEMORIES OF '86: For a recap of the 1986 World Series and to watch NESN video from yesterday's news conference with members of the '86 Sox, go to www.boston.com/redsox

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