For Red Sox fans my age who grew up in the 1980’s, Dave Stapleton was a player who perfectly linked the Fred Lynn and Carlton Fisk era to the 1986 World Series.
His place in baseball lore will be the fact that he was sitting on the bench during one of the most infamous (and overrated) moments in the history of baseball.
The Red Sox drafted Stapleton from University of South Alabama in the 1975 draft. He proceeded to be one of many former Red Sox farm hands who stayed in Pawtucket for many years while the major league team remained stacked. He was a .300 hitter with 15 homer power at Pawtucket in 1979 but couldn’t get a call up.
Finally in 1980, he made the club and his .321 average put him among the league leaders. He managed to play all around the infield, mainly subbing for an injured Jerry Remy.
In 1981, he found his role as a super sub. He started double digit games at first, second, third and shortstop. The team was going through an overhaul as Carlton Fisk left and Rick Burleson, Fred Lynn and Butch Hobson were all dealt away. Stapleton’s ability to play all over the field helped the Red Sox restabilize the team. He would get the big hit from time to time, including an inside the park homer in 1982.
In 1983, he became the starting first baseman during Carl Yastremzski’s farewell season but his offensive numbers were plummeting each season. He no longer had the average or the pop to justify being a starting first baseman. In 1983, Tony Armas arrived to give the Red Sox a new powersource. Mike Easler came in 1984 but the needed one more bat at first.
The Red Sox dealt for Bill Buckner, the player with whom Stapleton would be linked to for all of baseball history. The arrival of Buckner meant the end of Stapleton’s time as a starting player. Buckner was a solid hitter and respected veteran. Stapleton’s job was now to fill in for Buckner in late innings when his sore ankles were getting the better of him.
In the post season, Stapleton had a single job: Come in the game for the final innings of a win. If the Red Sox had the lead at the end of the game, Stapleton would be on the field. If the Red Sox were behind, Buckner and his bat would remain int he lineup.
In Game 5 of the ALCS, the “Dave Henderson Game”, Stapleton came in as a pinch runner in the 9th inning. He was driven home by Don Baylor when he launched his often forgotten 2 run shot that set up Dave Henderson’s heroics.
Stapleton would later single in extra innings and would catch the final pop up to end the marathon game.
He filled in for Buckner in Game 6 and came into Game 7 in the third inning when Buckner’s ankles were getting the best of him. Stapleton was on the field when they clinched.
As the Red Sox won World Series Games 1 and 2 at Shea Stadium, each game ended with Stapes at first. He did not come into Games 3 and 4 at Fenway when the Mets won.
In Game 5, Buckner endeared himself to the fans by scoring from second and awkwardly sliding home on a Dwight Evans single. He limped back to the dugout and stayed in the game until the 9th when Stapleton came in.
Then game 6 came about, which has been so unfairly associated with Bill Buckner to this day. Truth be told, Buckner should not have started that game. Bobby Ojeda, a left hander, got the start for the Mets and Buckner was in a slump in the series. Don Baylor should have started at first base. Yes he was a poor defensive first baseman, but using Bill Buckner’s DEFENSE as a reason to start him is a strange argument.
The Red Sox took a 2 run lead in the 10th and reliever Rick Aguilera hit Buckner with a pitch. There was the ideal moment to put healthier legs on the basepaths and make the defensive replacement.
Buckner stayed in the game. Manager John McNamara has stated that he wanted Buckner, a respected baseball lifer, to be on the field when the World Series was clinched.
You know what happened next… or do you? Most people seem to think that if Bill Buckner had made that play, the Red Sox would have won the World Series.
That is factually untrue. The game was tied already after the wild pitch. But that being said, chances are Dave Stapleton would have made that play.
But then what? They would have gone into extra innings, having burnt through their bullpen and Dave Stapleton and his .128 average and .325 OPS would be in the number 3 hole.
As it turned out Game 5 of the 1986 World Series would be his final appearance in the big leagues. He tried out with the Mariners in 1987 but could not supplant Alvin Davis and Ken Phelps and called it a career.
Stapes has since moved back to Alabama where he has his own business. But his spot in baseball history is secure. He was the guy who should have been in the game for Bill Buckner. How much that would have helped is anyone’s guess.
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