This article was written by Alan Cohen
“I’m on the bench with two out. My heart was breaking. Just a terrible feeling I had, as well as we played all game. You sit and try to comprehend what we just did. It’s hard to believe. It’s something you sit back and say, ‘Geez, how did we do it?’ I don’t (understand). I just really don’t.”
Rick Aguilera, sometime past midnight October 26, 1986, after giving up two runs in the top of the 10th inning only to see the Mets come back to score three runs and win Game Six of the 1986 World Series.[fn]Malcolm Moran, “Even Mets Are Amazed,” New York Times, October 26, 1986: S-1.[/fn]
“Maybe this is the best thing for me. Actually, I don’t remember what it feels like to start. But if I keep getting the ball in important situations, fine. I can get as much satisfaction out of a save as I used to get when I won as a starter.”
Rick Aguilera of the New York Mets, June, 1989[fn]Dan Castellano, “Amazing Transition,” The Sporting News, June 26, 1989: 14.[/fn]
Largely remembered as an ace reliever for the Minnesota Twins, Rick Aguilera first came to the major leagues as a starter with the New York Mets and was their fifth starter as they cruised to the 1986 National League Eastern Division championship and went on to win the World Series against the Boston Red Sox. Four years later he was in the bullpen in another city in another league.
Richard Warren Aguilera was born on December 31, 1961, in San Gabriel, California. In 1979, after batting .486 for Edgewood High School in West Covina, Aguilera was named to the All-California Interscholastic Federation second team as an infielder.
Originally selected by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 37th round of the 1980 amateur draft after he was MVP as a junior and senior in high school, Aguilera opted to attend Brigham Young University, where, when not on the ballfield, he majored in architectural design. At the collegiate level, his skills as an infielder were impeded by his slowness afoot. He remembered one of his coaches saying he “ran like a tombstone.” As a result, “By the end of my freshman year of college, I wasn’t getting a lot of playing time at third base, so they started working me off the mound. I’d always thrown the ball pretty hard, so that’s what made them think I could pitch.”[fn]J.G. Preston, “Fire and Ice,” Twins Magazine, September 1993: 21.[/fn] In short order, Aguilera, who had had limited experience as a pitcher in high school and American Legion baseball, became a full-time pitcher, and was tutored by BYU pitching coach Bob Noel. He was noticed by the scouts, who were actually eyeing his teammates Cory Snyder and Wally Joyner.
After his junior year at BYU, where he spent the season coming out of the bullpen,[fn]Omaha World-Herald, May 13, 1983: 33.[/fn] Aguilera was drafted in the third round (58th overall) of the 1983 amateur draft by the Mets and signed by scout Roy Partee. He was still somewhat raw and had yet to show the composure that would later characterize his presence on the mound. He was described as a tense athlete who, BYU head coach Gary Pullins observed, “was ready to jump out of his skin in some of those close (relief) situations.”[fn]Preston, 23.[/fn]
Aguiliera began his professional career in 1983 with Little Falls (New York) in the short-season Class-A New York-Penn League, going 5-6 with a 3.72 ERA. The following season, he moved up to Lynchburg in the Class-A Carolina League (8-3/2.34) and in June he was moved up to Jackson (Mississippi) in the Double-A Texas League. His first start for Jackson was not particularly good as he allowed three runs and three hits in his first inning of work against Shreveport. In his next outing, against Arkansas, he allowed only two hits as Jackson won, 8-0.[fn]The Sporting News, July 16, 1984: 43.[/fn] A month later, on July 29, Aguilera struck out 10 and did not allow a hit until the fifth inning as Jackson won 11-2. In his time with Jackson, he went 4-4, and over the course of the season, with Lynchburg and Jackson, struck out 172 batters in 155 innings. In 1985, Aguilera began the season at Triple-A Tidewater, where he recorded a 6-4 record with a 2.51 ERA before being called up to the Mets on June 10.
Aguilera’s first big-league appearance was in relief against the Philadelphia Phillies on June 12, 1985. He came into the game in the bottom of the 10th inning and retired all three batters. The Mets exploded for four runs in the top of the 11th, and Aguilera completed the game, striking out the last two batters for his first major-league win.
Aguilera started for the first time on June 16, losing to the Montreal Expos, 7-2. He remained in the starting rotation for the balance of the season. He pitched back-to-back complete-game wins on July 5 and 10, and went 3-1 with a 0.89 ERA in five July starts. He ended the year with a 10-7 record and 3.24 ERA while hitting an impressive .278.
As the Mets and Cardinals fought each other for the pennant, it became apparent that their three-game series in St. Louis in the last week of the season would be do-or-die. The Mets won the first two games to pull within one game of the division-leading Cardinals. Aguilera started the third game. Manager Davey Johnson observed, “I was asking a lot from a rookie pitcher. I was starting him in the most pressure-packed game we’ve played all year. He was pitching for the pennant in front of fifty thousand [the actual figure was 47,720] unruly Cardinal fans.”[fn]Davey Johnson with Peter Golenbock, Bats (New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1986), 314.[/fn]
New York took the early lead when Keith Hernandez singled in Mookie Wilson in the top of the first inning. The Cardinals tied the game in the bottom of the second and took a 3-1 lead in the fourth. Aguilera left the game for a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning with the score 4-2 in favor of St. Louis. The Mets got within one run but lost the game, putting them two back with three to play. The Cardinals clinched the division two days later.
A year later, there would again be pressure, and the result would be much different, as Aguilera pitched in two games that no Mets fan of the era will ever forget. But to get to that point, the Mets would have to have their best regular season ever.
Things started slowly for Aguilera in 1986. After three disappointing starts, during which he went 0-2 and failed to get past the sixth inning, he was moved to the bullpen, where he spent most of his time through the end of June. His low point came on May 13 against Atlanta in his second appearance in relief. Bruce Berenyi started for the Mets and New York led 3-2 after five innings. Aguilera entered the game to pitch the top of the sixth inning, and the Braves took the lead with three runs in the seventh inning. The turning point of the inning came when he was called for a balk, on a 3-and-2 pitch, by umpire Bob Davidson, and, in an unnerved state, gave up a home run to Claudell Washington on the next pitch.[fn]Murray Chass, “Aguilera Falters as Mets Lose,” New York Times, May 14, 1986: D-29.[/fn] Aguilera stayed in the game until he was removed with one out in the ninth inning. He was charged with the loss and his record stood at 0-3 with an ERA of 8.38. He gave the folks behind home plate a good view of the back of his uniform as he allowed nine home runs in his first 18 innings of 1986.
Nevertheless, manager Johnson was not about to give up on him and, at the beginning of July Aguilera replaced Berenyi in the Mets’ starting rotation. He got his second win of the season on July 12, going seven innings as the Mets defeated the Braves 10-1. Johnson said, “That was the outing I was looking for. That was the Aguilera of last year. He was outstanding with everything. He mixed his pitches well … curve, split-finger fastball, and slider.” Aguilera said, “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time. It couldn’t come at a better time, and now I’m ready to make a contribution in the second half.”[fn]Los Angeles Times, July 13, 1986: 5.[/fn]
But there would be a brief and surprising interruption. On July 18, during a series in Houston, Aguilera and three teammates were in the wrong place at the wrong time. On a team known for its rowdiness, four of the more quiet players were Aguilera, Bob Ojeda, Ron Darling, and Tim Teufel. They went to a place called Cooters Executive Games and Burgers to celebrate Teufel’s becoming a father for the first time.[fn]Mookie Wilson with Erik Sherman, Mookie: Life, Baseball, and the ’86 Mets (New York: Berkley Books, 2014), 137.[/fn] As they left Cooters, Teufel was holding his unfinished glass of beer and was confronted by local policemen who were providing security for Cooters. A scuffle ensued, and the four players were arrested. In January 1987, misdemeanor charges against Aguilera and Ojeda were dismissed.[fn]Joseph Durso, “Darling, Teufel Get Probation; Charges Dismissed for Two Others,” New York Times, January 27, 1987: A-19.[/fn]
In the first game after the Cooters incident, Aguilera struck out a career-high nine batters and pitched eight innings as the Mets defeated Cincinnati 4-2. He reeled off five straight wins between July 12 and August 7. Over this stretch, his ERA was 1.33. Aguilera credited his renewed success to his “slow curve that I could use to keep the hitters off stride.”[fn]Jack Lang, The Sporting News, July 28, 1986: 23.[/fn]
The Mets were on a roll, and so was Aguilera. But in mid-September, the Mets were having trouble nailing down the Eastern Division championship. They lost six of seven, but on September 16 Aguilera righted the ship with a 4-2 win over the Cardinals, and the following evening, at Shea Stadium, the Mets defeated the Cubs in the clincher. In the delirium that erupted at the end of the game, one of the 47,823 exuberant fans in attendance knocked Aguilera to the ground, and Aguilera suffered a severe bruise to his shoulder that resulted in his missing his next start.[fn]Michael Martinez, “Aguilera Sits Out; Mets Lose,” New York Times, September 22, 1986: C-4.[/fn]
The injury proved not to be serious and over the balance of the season, Aguilera went 2-1, to bring his record to 10-7. In the League Championship Series with Houston, Aguilera, the Mets’ fifth starter, spent his time in the bullpen and pitched in two games, including the clincher.
That clincher, Game Six at Houston, was one for the ages. The Mets considered it a must-win: Although they were leading three games to two, Houston had Mike Scott waiting to pitch a potential Game Seven and the Mets had not been able to figure out Scott’s sinker all season. Houston took an early lead with three first-inning runs against Bob Ojeda, and Aguilera was summoned in the sixth inning. In three innings he allowed only one runner to reach first base and the score was 3-0 going into the top of the ninth inning. Aguilera was scheduled to lead off the top of the ninth for the Mets. As a hitter, he posed a threat. He had homered twice during the season and over the course of his career posted a decent .201 batting average. But there were good bats on the bench and strong arms in the bullpen. Len Dykstra pinch-hit for Aguilera and his leadoff triple propelled the Mets to a three-run inning that tied the game. Seven grueling innings later, the Mets had won, 5-4, and were on their way to the World Series.
Aguilera’s World Series performance went from being mildly disappointing in Game Two to a Game Six appearance that in short order changed from despair to delight in a game where viewers still remember what they were doing when the game reached its climactic ending with the Mets on top.
In Game Two, the Mets trailed 6-3 when Aguilera entered the game and pitched a scoreless sixth inning. However, the game was blown open in the seventh inning when he surrendered five consecutive singles to the Red Sox, who went on to win 9-3 and take a Series lead of two games to none.
Aguilera’s next appearance was in Game Six. Aguilera entered the game in the ninth with the score tied. He pitched a scoreless ninth inning, but the wheels came off in the 10th and he gave up two runs. In the bottom of the inning, with two outs and a runner on first, Kevin Mitchell pinch-hit for Aguilera, singled to keep the Mets alive and scored the tying run. The game ended shortly thereafter when Bill Buckner booted Mookie Wilson’s groundball. The win went to Aguilera, who despite a 12.00 Series ERA won arguably the most critical game of the 1986 season.
After successive 10-7 seasons, Aguilera sought to improve his effectiveness in 1987 with a new pitch, the split-finger fastball. Eventually the pitch would turn Aguilera’s career in a new direction, but it would take a while.
Aguilera struggled with injuries over the next two seasons, appearing in only 18 games in 1987 and 11 in 1988. His problems in 1987 began on May 26 when he felt a pain in his elbow while warming up. His stint on the disabled list, during which time he spent some time rehabbing at Tidewater, lasted until August. Despite limited duty in 1987, he ran off a streak of seven straight winning starts that lasted from May 20 to September 19, and finished the season with 11 wins. In 1988 elbow problems resurfaced and Aguilera was put on the disabled list on April 19. He was sent to Port St. Lucie and Tidewater in June on rehab assignments, and eventually had arthroscopic surgery on July 13, at which point he had an 0-4 record and an 8.41 ERA. He returned to the Mets during the final weeks of the season and pitched in three games. In the League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, he pitched in three games, mostly in mop-up roles, as the Mets lost to the Dodgers in seven games.
The Mets moved Aguilera to the bullpen in 1989, and it was a successful transition. He got his first save on May 10 and eventually displaced Roger McDowell as the Mets’ closer. By mid-June Aguilera had a 3-1 record with six saves and a 0.84 ERA, with 51 strikeouts in 43 innings.
However, Aguilera was unhappy with the Mets. During the prior two seasons, when he was missing many games, his teammates were not conciliatory. As Howard Blatt of the New York Daily News noted, “He was painfully aware of the derisive whispers of his Mets teammates while he was sidelined with elbow pain in 1987 and 1988. Perhaps he even knew that some of them referred to him as ‘The Bearded Lady’ because of how they believed he babied his talented right arm.”[fn]Howard Blatt, “Aguilera Has Last Minny Ha-Ha,” New York Daily News, July 15, 1990: 48.[/fn]
In a season that saw much disassembling of the 1986 squad, Aguilera was dealt at the July 31 trading deadline, along with Kevin Tapani, David West, and Tim Drummond to the Minnesota Twins for Frank Viola and Jack Savage. At the time the Mets had lost seven games in a row, were looking to Randy Myers as their closer, and were in dire need, due to injuries to key personnel, of top-shelf starting pitching. In the long run, the Twins got the best of the deal as Aguilera and Tapani helped celebrate a world championship in 1991, while Viola, after winning 20 games in 1990, sank to 13-15 in 1991 for the fifth-place Mets, and left for free agency after the season.
On arrival in Minnesota, Aguilera was moved into the Twins’ starting rotation and he compiled a 3-5 record with a 3.21 ERA in 11 games. Those 11 starts were his last with the Twins for seven seasons. Before the 1990 season Aguilera got a call from Twins manager Tom Kelly. With the departure of Jeff Reardon to free agency, the Twins needed a closer. With the Mets, Aguilera’s bullpen role had been ill-defined. He had been a closer, but had also been used in long relief and as a mop-up man. With the Twins he would be the closer, but he still had some doubts. “Deep down, when I was first told by T.K. (Kelly) that I was going to be in this short role, I wondered if I would be able to handle the pressure of the job,” he said.[fn]Preston, 21.[/fn]
As the Twins closer Aguilera got off to a spectacular start, saving four games in April and posting a 1.17 ERA. However, the team was not in contention and at the end of May was in sixth place, with a 23-25 record, trailing the first-place Texas Rangers by 5½ games. Then the Twins caught fire. From June 1 through 25, they won 21 of 23 games and took over first place. Aguilera pitched in 12 of the games and earned 10 saves. By season’s end he was third in the league with a career-high and team record 42 saves. He had his career best 2.35 ERA, and the Twins won their division by eight games. Aguilera was named to the first of three consecutive All-Star teams and finished 18th in the MVP balloting.
In the American League Championship Series, Aguilera pitched in three games and saved all three, including the decisive Game Five. In his 3⅓ innings of work he allowed no runs and one hit.
Aguilera pitched in four World Series games against Atlanta. He saved the first two games at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. Game Three was tied 4-4 and went into extra innings. In the top of the 12th inning, the Twins mounted a threat. They loaded the bases with two outs and pitcher Mark Guthrie was scheduled to hit. Aguilera was warming up to take the mound in the bottom of the inning but his warmups were rushed to an unexpected conclusion. Manager Kelly was out of pinch-hitters and needed Aguilera’s services as a batter. He had not swung a bat in a game since leaving the Mets. Aguilera recalled the moment. “After I got the phone call, I wondered why they wanted me to hit. Then I realized we didn’t have any players left. It was definitely a little surprising but looking back at it now, there were not a whole lot of other alternatives.”[fn]Jayson Stark, “Twins’ Aguilera a Pitcher Who Was Caught in a Pinch,” Philadelphia Inquirer, October 24, 1991.[/fn] He got good wood on the ball and it sailed to center field, but disappeared into the glove of Ron Gant. Aguilera then pitched the bottom of the 12th and, with two outs, gave up a game-winning single to Mark Lemke.
The Braves won the remaining two games at Atlanta and the teams returned to the noisy confines of the Metrodome with Atlanta needing one win to gain the championship. Game Six went into extra innings with the score tied 3-3, and Aguilera came on to pitch in the 10th inning. In two innings he allowed no runs and two hits. Both runners were erased, one on a double play and the other (ironically Kevin Mitchell, who had pinch-hit for Aguilera in the 1986 Series) was caught stealing. In the bottom of the 11th, Kirby Puckett’s leadoff homer secured the win for the Twins and forced Game Seven. Only one pitcher was needed by the Twins in Game Seven as Jack Morris beat the Braves 1-0, and the Twins were the world champions.
Over the next two seasons Aguilera continued to excel and was named to two more All-Star teams. In his three All-Star games, all won by the American League, he pitched three innings, struck out five, and had a 3.00 ERA. The only blemish was a home run by Will Clark in 1992.
In 1992 for the second-place Twins, Aguilera pitched in 64 games and had 41 saves with an ERA of 2.84. He followed that up with 65 appearances and 34 saves in 1993, but the Twins dropped to fifth place. On June 6 of that season, Aguilera began a stretch that bordered on the unfathomable. He retired all four Cleveland batters he faced for his 16th save of the season. Over his next eight appearances Aguilera faced 23 batters, retired them all, and earned five saves. In the month of June he faced 42 batters in 13 games, and allowed but two hits and one walk. His ERA for the month was 0.00.
In the strike year of 1994, Aguilera pitched in 44 of the Twins’ 113 games, saving 23. He said he achieved success as a closer by not trying “to show any emotion at all, whether positive or negative, and that’s what works best for me. I don’t want to try to put any more importance on the last three outs of the game than the first three outs.”[fn]Preston, 25.[/fn] Life was good in Minneapolis. Rick and his wife, the former Sherry Snider, who had been his childhood sweetheart, had moved to Minneapolis with their young daughter and Sherry had gotten into the act when she contributed a recipe to a book called Home Plate Hits, Recipes from the Kitchens of the Minnesota Twins’ Wives, Players, and Staff, that was published early in 1994.[fn]Ann Burckhardt, Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 13, 1994: 4T[/fn] And then, things would change. Before the strike in 1994, the Twins had a losing record, and things were not going well in 1995.
A July 6, 1995 trade brought Aguilera to the Boston Red Sox, and at the time of the trade, the Red Sox were playing at Minneapolis. The timing and circumstances of the trade were steep with irony. Aguilera was, at midnight, to become a 10-and-5 man (10 years in the majors and 5 with the Twins), and have the right to veto a trade. As the trade was being finalized he was waiting his turn in the bullpen to go into a game against the Red Sox. Within 24 hours, he made his first appearance with Boston, and it was against his former teammates. The Red Sox took a 5-4 advantage into the top of the ninth inning, and Aguilera retired his former mates in order after surrendering a leadoff single to Chuck Knoblauch. His first save with the Red Sox was his 13th of the season and gave Boston a three-game lead in the AL East. He was 2-2 with 20 saves with the Red Sox in 30 appearances, as Boston won the American League East by seven games.
In the playoffs the Red Sox faced the Indians and were swept in three games. The first game of the series went into extra innings and after the Red Sox took the lead in the top of the 11th inning on a home run by Tim Naehring, Aguilera came in for the save but yielded a tying homer to Albert Belle. Cleveland went on to win the game in the 13th inning on a home run by Tony Pena off the Red Sox’ Zane Smith. That was Aguilera’s only appearance in the series.
Aguilera returned home to the Twins as a free agent the next year, signing a three-year contract, and was not only put in the rotation but was counted on to lead the staff.[fn]Jon Souhan, Minneapolis Star Tribune, February 19, 1996: 1C.[/fn] But an injury, alleged to have occurred when he picked up a suitcase during spring training, delayed his return and, except for a three-inning stint on April 20, he did not pitch regularly until June. After an 8-6 campaign as a starter, he moved back to the bullpen in 1997. In 1998, he had a subpar season. In May 1999, with his potential free agency looming, he was traded to the Chicago Cubs with pitcher Scott Downs for pitchers Kyle Lohse and Jason Ryan. His 254 saves for the Twins were the franchise record until 2011, when he was passed by Joe Nathan.
With the Cubs Aguilera was reunited with former Mets teammate Ed Lynch, now the general manager of the Cubs. He was also reunited with Kevin Tapani.
Aguilera went 6-3 with eight saves for the Cubs in 1999, and was re-signed after the season, spending one more year in the majors. It was an unhappy and disappointing season for the Cubs and Aguilera. His season highlight came on June 2, when he recorded his 300th career save. But by July, there was frustration in Aguilera’s voice when he said, “Coming out of camp this year, or even when I was traded (to Chicago) last year, you think, ‘This is a good team.’ Then things fall apart. You find yourself shaking your head and saying, ‘What happened?’”[fn]Jon Souhan, Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 14, 2000: 9C.[/fn] After the season he retired.
After his playing days, the Aguileras returned to California to raise their family, which included a daughter Rachel Rae, born in 1991, and a son Austin, who was born in 1997. In 2008 Aguilera was elected to the Twins’ Hall of Fame. At the time he was the head baseball coach at the Santa Fe Christian School in Solana Beach, California. He held that position while his children attended school there.
When Aguilera retired after the 2000 season, he was eighth on the all-time saves list with 318. In 1998, as he was passing Dan Quisenberry on the list, Quisenberry was battling cancer. Putting things into perspective, Aguilera said, “Are we playing for glorification through numbers, or are we playing the game for the love of the game?”[fn]La Velle E. Neal III, Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 21, 1998: 4C. [/fn]
This biography is included in the book “The 1986 New York Mets: There Was More Than Game Six” (SABR, 2016), edited by Leslie Heaphy and Bill Nowlin.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also relied on:
Aguilera’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame Library.