Posts tagged ‘baseball’

July 7, 2019

#152) Happy 25th birthday to one of baseball’s smartest and under-rated comedies

“Little Big League” was victimized by bad timing. The movie was released in 1994, the year that a strike wiped out half of the baseball season. It entered a market saturated with average baseball comedies: “Rookie of the Year”, “Angels in the Outfield” and its most direct competitor, “Major League II.” The movie is not perfect – it gets preachy in some spots, its 119-minute run time could have been trimmed and some of the characters are one-dimensional.

Still, it’s better than its lukewarm reputation would have you believe.

You have to be a baseball fan to enjoy it, and there are fewer of us now than there were in ’94. But if you are and you haven’t seen this film for a while, give it another look. If you haven’t, you’re in for a pleasant surprise, especially if you are a fan of baseball comedies.

Billy Heywood (Luke Edwards) inherits the Minnesota Twins at age 11 when his grandfather (Jason Robards) dies. After firing unpopular manager George O’Farrell (Dennis Farina), Billy has difficulty finding a replacement (“None of the good guys want to work for a kid.”) One of his friends suggests that he do it himself: “It’s the American League. You have the designated hitter. How hard can it be?” Next thing we know, the young manager is donning a Twins cap at a press conference, telling the reporters, “First of all, I just want to say, this is really cool.”

The Twins are open-minded about the idea of playing for a 11-year old. To put it gently, there’s some skepticism among the Twins about their new skipper, who as one pitcher puts it, “won’t be able to get into an R-rated movie for another six years.” Even those who enjoyed talking baseball with the knowledgeable Billy when he visited them in the clubhouse doubt his ability to run the team. Inevitably, he wins them over, slowly but surely and the team gels, plays solid baseball and becomes a contender for the newly created wildcard playoff position (1994 was the first year in which Major League Baseball used a three-division format for each league, a fact that “Little Big League” integrated while “Major League II” used the obsolete playoff structure in its plot). Underdog stories such as this have to climax in the Big Game – where either the hero loses but it’s still a moral victory (“Rocky”, “School of Rock”) or the little guys win (every other movie ever). It’s hard to be original in either of these plot lines, but the denouement of “Little Big League” – if not unexpected – at least doesn’t come off as cheap.

Besides the underdog arc, the film’s other plot lines are also familiar. Billy starts off as the kid reminding the adults that baseball should be fun but becomes enamored with his power and loses track of his own message (he offers to send his friends a bucket of signed baseballs to apologize for blowing them off so he can have lunch with Reggie Jackson), then rights himself as the team comes together for the final push. Billy also struggles with his feelings about his mother’s budding romance with one of the stars. However, by balancing these threads with the team’s march toward the pennant and the players’ shenanigans, such as the lesson in water balloon physics, the film manages to avoid bogging itself down in trying to make us better people.

“Little Big League” playfully tests the limits of its “PG” rating. In his hotel room, Billy watches an adult film and then blames a player for ordering it when his mom confronts him with the bill. When Billy argues with an umpire, a strategically timed air horn bleeps out words that make veteran Rafael Palmeiro’s eyeballs bulge. Palmeiro is one of several MLB players who appears in the film as himself. Former MLB journeyman Kevin Elster is featured as the Twins’ shortstop. Scott Patterson, who plays the team’s “diva” pitcher, pitched in the minors before becoming an actor. (Patterson’s character is named Mike McGrevey, after an infamous early 1900s Red Sox fan). John Gordon, the actual Twins’ long-time announcer, might not be quite as quotable as Bob Uecker in “Major League” but he is still a strong comedic presence. He dots his commentary with deadpan stats that may have sounded absurd in 1994 but aren’t actually that much farther out than those purveyed by the baseball geeks of the Billy Beane era (“He’s eight for thirteen against left handed pitchers he’s facing for the first time in the seventh inning or later in night games.”)

One quarter century after its release, “Little Big League” isn’t remembered as a turkey; it simply isn’t remembered. To date, it is the only film Andrew Scheinman has directed. Not much has been heard from Luke Edwards recently. We recall Tim Busfield for “Revenge of the Nerds” and Jonathan Silverman for “Weekend at Bernie’s” more so than for their roles in this film. But “Little Big League” does have its loyal fans, including Rustin Dodd of the Kansas City Star, Eric Dodds of Time and “Deja Viewer” blogger Robert Lockard. Roger Ebert gave the film a positive review upon its release, praising it as having a “real feel for the game.” (An example of this is when Billy refers to himself in the third person at a press conference following his outburst against the umpire: “I’ve got to do what’s best for Bill Heywood…A Bill Heywood must be allowed to speak his mind; otherwise he cannot do his job.”)

Ultimately, maybe “Little Big League” does come up a little short compared to “Major League” – the combination of Uecker, James Gammon as Lou Brown, Wesley Snipes as Willie Mays Hays and of course Charlie Sheen’s “Wild Thing” is hard to beat. But despite their similar territory, there is room for both. “Major League” may have debated whether Jesus Christ could hit a curve ball, but it couldn’t speculate how the Savior would do on Wednesdays against teams north of the Mason-Dixon line whose home games aren’t played in a dome.

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June 26, 2019

#151) Remembering Buckner

Former major league baseball player Bill Buckner died at age 69 on May 27th in Idaho, following a battle with Lewy body dementia. Despite my being a baseball geek and having listened to quite a bit of Boston sports radio since moving back to Massachusetts following 20 years in California, the news escaped my radar. Being a baseball geek (see above) I had a random fact I wanted to impulsively look up on the Baseball Reference website and I was saddened to see Buckner’s name in the “In Memoriam” section.

At first I was surprised that I hadn’t heard, but as I thought about it, it made sense that Buckner’s death wasn’t a big sensation. The Boston sports world has recently been focused on the Bruins’ run to the Stanley Cup finals, the Celtics’ disappointing playoff performance, the Red Sox’ unimpressive start and the prospects for the upcoming Patriots season. It could also be that perhaps the Boston media and fan base are (for once) doing the right thing and giving the Buckner family a little bit of space.

Buckner’s moment of infamy happened on October 25th, 1986 in the sixth game of the World Series against the New York Mets. Any Sox fan old enough can tell you exactly where they were; those too young to remember or born after it happened have heard the tale just like children whose parents told them about the JFK or John Lennon murders or the moon landing. When Buckner let a ground ball go between his legs, allowing the Mets to win the game, he and his family began an ordeal that included everything from harassment of their kids to death threats.

A tipping point happened in 1993 when Buckner got into a physical altercation with a fan (he was signing baseball cards at an event and the fan said, “Don’t give him a ball, he’ll just drop it.”) There are those who say that, just as crab fishermen risk their lives for a fat payday, once an athlete signs the big contract, they are fair game for ridicule if they make a mistake in the spotlight. For the most part though, by this point, Boston sports fans – not always known for tact or compassion – got the message: enough is enough.

Shortly after the incident, Buckner (who had made his home in the Boston area even after being released by the Sox) and his family moved to Idaho. According to the ESPN “Top Five Reasons You Can’t Blame…” show, Buckner, “tired of numerous replays of his error”, couldn’t get himself to watch the Red Sox’ 2004 World Series win. However, he received a standing ovation at Fenway Park when he threw out the first pitch of the 2008 season. He also drew praise for his turn on the show “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in which he played himself. He remained lifelong friends with Mookie Wilson, the Mets batter who hit the ball, appearing with him in a 2016 commercial.

With four Sox championships in the 21st century, it’s easy for those who remember Buckner to laugh about it now. That the man was willing to laugh about it himself perhaps spoke even more loudly than his on-field accomplishments: over 2,700 career hits, a batting title and being one of only 29 players in baseball history to play in four different decades. Some have argued that he belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Those too young to remember Buckner or indeed anything much of the lean years from 1987-2001, when the Sox, Bruins and Celtics were coming close but never going all the way and when Bill Belichick was a defensive coordinator for the Jets, can still learn from the story that began on that October night. In death, as he did in life, Bill Buckner teaches the lesson that while the world may not always be fair, one can always transcend the situation by taking the high road – and that forgiveness is a gift.

April 18, 2017

#126) Book review: “House of Nails” by Lenny Dykstra

Some baseball fans remember Lenny Dykstra for his hard-nosed, balls-to-the-wall style of play that earned him the nickname “Nails.” Others remember him for bankruptcy fraud, falsifying documents while leasing a car and writing a bad check to a prostitute. Dykstra’s ups and downs are chronicled in “House of Nails” – a memoir that is part self-reflection, part shit show (if you are offended by the term “shit show” don’t read this book; it contains an amount of cursing that would make a longshoreman uncomfortable.)

Anyone looking for balance, meaningful remorse or nuance in this book will want to keep looking, but that shouldn’t come as a shock. “House of Nails” is written by a die-hard Lenny Dykstra fan and is best read through that filter. Given that, how well does Lenny Dykstra present the awesomeness that is Lenny Dykstra?

Like the New York Mets in the years following their 1986 World Series championship, “House of Nails” is a collection of promising parts that never quite live up to their potential. The pieces are all there – no holds barred accounts of steroid use (by Dykstra and many others); unapologetic descriptions of life on the road with two of baseball’s most notorious teams (the 1986 Mets and the 1993 Philadelphia Phillies); boasts about blackmailing umpires; an insider’s perspective on the real estate crisis of 2008; escapades with Charlie Sheen – but while the anecdotes are by turns entertaining and cringe-worthy, the potential for a bigger whole is never realized. Granted, this is a sports bio, not Shakespeare, but with a little more finesse, “House of Nails” could have been a seminal baseball book of our times: “Ball Four” meets “Scarface.”

A mythological interpretation of the story, to which I don’t think Dykstra would object (he refers to himself as “a Greek fucking statue” in a way that may or may not be tongue in cheek) would see Dykstra as a tragic figure who starts from humble beginnings and achieves greatness but is undone by a desire for the forbidden (steroids, girls, Wayne Gretzky’s house). Our hero then pays his penance and becomes a New Man. However, Dykstra’s repentance is generic and conditional (“Undeniably, I have made some monumental mistakes in my life, some of which, inadvertently, have had a negative impact on my family”) while his accounts of those whom he feel wronged him are given much more detail (“Please note that [my attorney’s] letter is dated February 28th, 2012….eight months after I was incarcerated for grand theft auto.”) Dykstra enjoys playing the tough guy card (“I called him a cunt, and [Dodgers catcher Rick] Dempsey took something that resembled a swing at me”) but also the victim (“I was placed in solitary confinement for leasing a car”) when it suits his narrative.

Dykstra’s grievances have legitimacy. Major League Baseball turned a blind eye to steroids when record-breaking home run races were filling seats and then took the moral high ground when it made them look good (and why exactly did the federal government feel the need to step in anyways?) Dykstra may have been obsessed with buying Wayne Gretzky’s mansion, the prize that would prove to be his undoing, to the point where he irrationally walked into an unsound home loan, but at the height of the real estate bubble, banks weren’t exactly known for doing the right thing either. As for Dykstra’s treatment while incarcerated, the book may only give his side of the story – but misconduct by wardens and other officials in the L.A. County jail system is a matter of record.

Ultimately, “House of Nails” could be seen as a microcosm of Dykstra’s baseball career. Hall of Fame? No. Fun to watch/read? Yes. Considering how many books and baseball players alike come and go without making an impact, one could do worse than Lenny Dykstra did both on the diamond and the printed page.

 

April 13, 2017

#125) Why the 1985 World Series matters

If there’s one thing I love, it’s squeezing teachable moments out of the game of baseball. Often times, the more of a stretch it is to find a lesson from an event on the diamond, the more I enjoy trying to do it. With another baseball season underway, let’s examine the fallout for one of the most controversial calls in the history of the game, one which is still dissected and debated more than 30 years later.

If you’re a baseball geek, feel free to drop down to the Important Life Lesson part of this post. For those of you who actually have lives, here’s the backstory:

In the 1985 World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals led their in-state rivals, the Kansas City Royals, three games to two. In the sixth game, Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog brought his closer, Todd Worrell, in to protect a 1-0 ninth inning lead. The first Royals batter, Jorge Orta, hit a chopper which first baseman Jack Clark fielded and tossed to Worrell, who had run over to cover the base. First base umpire Don Denkinger called Orta safe. Despite arguments from Clark, Worrell and Herzog and replays that clearly showed Orta was out, the call stood. A misplayed pop fly, a passed ball, an intentional walk and a two-run base hit later, the Royals had a 2-1 win to force a seventh game. Angry and deflated from the loss, the Cardinals imploded the next night. Both Herzog and relief pitcher Joaquin Andujar were ejected for arguing with Denkinger as the Royals rolled to an 11-0 win.

Needless to say, St. Louis fans saw Don Denkinger as the reason their team lost. In the ensuing months, Denkinger would receive much harassment from irate fans, up to and including death threats. Losing in such a manner had to suck for St. Louis fans, especially with Missouri bragging rights on the line, but scapegoating Denkinger didn’t account for Clark misplaying an easy foul ball that could have been the first out or for the passed ball that put the Royals in a prime position to win the game. This was game six, not game seven and despite the momentum having swung in the Royals’ favor, the Cardinals had another chance to win.

There are also the circumstances that led up to game 6. After winning three of the first four games of the Series, the Cardinals had had a chance to close it out in game 5 as well but didn’t. The Cards’ offense was M.I.A., even in the three games they won. Their four-run ninth inning rally to win game 2 was the only inning in the entire series in which they scored more than one run. To be sure, losing rookie star Vince Coleman in the infamous “runaway tarp” incident during the previous series against the Dodgers didn’t help, but that alone didn’t explain the Cardinals’ team average of .185 against K.C., setting a record for lowest batting average for a team in a 7-game World Series. The Cardinals even benefited by another questionable umpiring call earlier in game 6: Kansas City’s Frank White was called out on a stolen base attempt despite appearing to have been safe from multiple replay angles. The next Royals batter lined a base hit which would have likely scored White for the game’s first run.

Important Life Lesson Part of This Post

Are there parallels between one of baseball’s most controversial calls and one of America’s most controversial elections?

Every Denkinger moment has both a history and a subsequent series of events that made it significant. It didn’t come from nowhere and after it happened, it could have been contained. Donald Trump didn’t come out of nowhere. While his Republican opponents were bickering and posturing, Trump got alienated voters on board. Sure, many of them saw him as the least of several evils but a desirable Republican candidate could have easily put an end to the issue. Similarly, the Democrats put up a candidate who failed to inspire. Perhaps they never took the opposition seriously; perhaps, like the St. Louis Cardinals, they felt as if being right should have trumped (sorry) winning. Either way the results on November 8th, 2016 were, as they were on October 26th, 1985, tough for the losers to swallow.

The most compelling, actionable parallel however, is in the reactions following the key moment. After the self-fulfilling prophecy of the Cardinals’ game 7 meltdown, there was little reflection among Whitey Herzog, the players or the fans about how the team could have done better. In the months since the election, I have seen articles making fun of Melania Trump’s inefficient planning of the Easter Egg Roll; re-posts of tweets by Trump against Syrian involvement vintage 2013; all manner of clever Sean Spicer memes and a general contest among bloggers, YouTubers and Instagrammers to be the most shareable critic of the administration.

What I haven’t seen is any serious indication of who the Democrats plan on grooming for 2020. The decisive winner of a March, 2017 Harvard-Harris poll, with 45% of the vote, was “Someone new.” Vegas apparently likes Elizabeth Warren, but the Massachusetts senator, with declining numbers in her own state, faces a no-sure-thing election in 2018 – possibly against former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling (see, you just can’t escape baseball!)

Will the Dems (and other Trump opponents throughout the political spectrum) continue the path to self-destruction as the Cardinals did or will they take a page from Armando Galarraga’s playbook? The Tigers pitcher had a perfect game ruined by a first base umpire’s blown call, on a very similar play to the one from 1985. Talking to reporters after the game, Galarraga was calm and forgiving of umpire Jim Joyce, saying, “Nobody’s perfect.”

I leave you with the words of Seth Godin: “You can disdain gravity all you want…seek to have it banned. But that’s not going to help you build an airplane.”

 

September 18, 2016

#119) Classic at a crossroads: the 20th anniversary of 20 strikeouts (v 2.0)

There wasn’t much reason to attend the Detroit Tigers baseball game on Wednesday, September 18th, 1996. The Tigers had not had a winning season in three years and were currently mired in a 10-game losing streak, a whopping 36 games out of first place in their division. Yet whether it was to catch Alan Trammell in the final days of his illustrious Tigers career, to celebrate making it through “Hump Day” or maybe just due to pure boredom, 8,779 fans showed up to Tiger Stadium that night as their team took the field against the visiting Boston Red Sox.

The Sox season had been disappointing as well. They sputtered into Detroit all but mathematically eliminated from the pennant race, 8 games behind their rivals the New York Yankees, a team led by rookie all-star Derek Jeter and new manager Joe Torre. Pitcher Roger Clemens took the mound for Boston, in danger of posting the second losing season of his career with a record of 9 wins, 11 losses. Clemens was in the final year of his contract. Sox general manager Dan Duquette commented that he hoped to “keep him in Boston during the twilight of his career.” Perhaps some of the fans in attendance wanted a chance to see the 34-year old fastballer before he hung it up, but like Trammell, it would have been hard to watch Clemens without any sense of loss for the glory days. For Sox fans, Clemens’ three Cy Young awards must have seemed forever ago, as was the night just over a decade earlier that he set a major league record by striking out 20 Seattle Mariners.

My 1996 was about as uplifting as those of the Sox and Tigers. I’d just retreated to my parents’ house following a dramatic breakup. One of my best friends had just moved out of town and I’d been downsized from my band, which decided to have the rhythm guitar player take over on bass.  Like the fans in Detroit, I had little else to do that night. The game would distract me for at least a couple of hours so I plopped in front of the TV in the living room where I’d grown up, tuned to NESN and let announcers Bob Kurtz and Jerry Remy do their thing.

Jeff Frye popped up to start the game. The second Sox batter had a long name that I didn’t recognize and didn’t appear on the TV screen long enough for me to figure out how to pronounce. Like most people watching the game, I had no idea that Nomar Garciaparra, a shortstop who’d made his debut three weeks earlier, would become the first Red Sox Rookie of the Year since 1975 the following season. “No-Maah”, as he would soon become known, walked and stole second but was left on base when Jose Canseco grounded out to end the inning. The novelty of seeing the former Sox nemesis in a Boston uniform had long since worn off for me; I almost felt bad for the poor bastard. In Oakland he had been Rookie of the Year and become the first player ever to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same year. Since then his off-field shenanigans seemed to overshadow his play on the diamond, which included injuring himself during an ill-advised pitching stint and letting a fly ball bounce off his head into the stands for a home run.

In the bottom of the first, Trammell gave the fans a taste of the past with a base hit, but it was all for nought as Clemens struck out the next two batters. He struck out the side in the second inning and picked up two more in the third.

In the top of the fourth, Mike Greenwell got a hit and scored a run. “Gator” had been an all-star back in ’88 and ’89, but would play only 77 games in 1996, his last season. He and Clemens were the only veterans of Boston’s 1986 American League champion team still with the club. The Sox posted three runs before No-Maah struck out to end the inning.

Clemens remained strong, striking out five consecutive batters over the next two innings. After allowing a leadoff single in the sixth, he struck out the side, good for an impressive total of 15 as the game headed into the seventh. The hometown fans were starting to applaud each strikeout, the drudgery of the lame-duck season forgotten.

The Sox added an insurance run to make it 4-0 and Clemens picked up two more strikeouts each in the seventh and eighth innings. After Canseco struck out to end the top of the 9th, Kurtz told the TV audience, “Don’t go away, folks.”

I wasn’t going away. It had been a while since a Red Sox game had held me captive like this. I’d been too young to remember anything much of Clemens’ first 20-strikeout game. The last Red Sox no-hitter had happened in 1965. The last Red Sox World Series win…well, the less said about that the better. But tonight, in an otherwise lackluster season, Clemens was knocking on history’s door. I felt a wave of excitement and stood up, shaking myself loose before sitting back down. My recent  break-up and other tribulations suddenly didn’t matter; I had a chance to watch the most notable positive Red Sox moment in recent memory.

Trammell popped up to start the inning, drawing a smattering of boos from the crowd. After allowing a base hit to Ruben Sierra, Clemens got two strikes on Tony Clark but the Detroit batter kept fouling off pitches before finally sending a fly ball to Greenwell, deep in left field. As more boos rained from the stands from fans who now knew that no record would be broken tonight, Remy commented, “Well, it looks like the record is safe.”

I too was disappointed to know that I would not get to watch a record get broken, but at least the game had distracted me for two hours. I still had a chance to see Clemens match his record – a feat that might well be even more impressive and meaningful than the first time he did it.

Clemens, baseball and myself had all grown older. His record-setting game and Cy Young awards had electrified Boston but hadn’t been able to bring the city the one thing it wanted more than anything else. Now Clemens and Boston were a couple together for too long; for the last few years he’d made the news more for running his mouth at umps and reporters than for strikeouts.

Travis Fryman took the first two pitches for balls. Perhaps he was wary of being a part of history. Some of the fans who had been standing sat back down.

We often look back at the past with rose-colored glasses, but in 1996, it was hard not  to feel as if Clemens’ 20-strikeout game of 1986 was an event of a bygone era. The strike of 1994 was still a sore memory for many fans. Pete Rose was now known more for his gambling and tax scandals than for his record-setting career. Players’ salaries were already raising eyebrows in 1986, but by 1996, they had nearly tripled. Baseball’s new playoff format and division re-alignment had met with a response that was mixed at best; traditionalists were also upset about the onset of inter-league play, scheduled to start the following season.

Clemens’ 149th and 150th pitches of the night were strikes, bringing the count to 2-2 and once again sparking the interest of the fans. For the moment, the recent strike, inflated salaries, Clemens’ looming departure from Boston were forgotten. Clemens was one strike away from proving that even in complicated times, the game of baseball still has the power to thrill. No matter how disappointing the season may be, you can still go to the ball park and have a chance to see history. Even when a relationship had run its course, there could still be one last shot at glory. Even when a local hero’s best days seemed long gone, he could still add one last chapter to his legacy.

Clemens got the sign from catcher Bill Haselman. Peering in at Fryman, he set, wound up and delivered one last pitch.

December 28, 2015

#104) Remembering Hendu

Why couldn’t he have just struck out?

On October 12th, 1986 in Anaheim, Dave Henderson was batting with two outs in the top of the ninth inning, 2-2 count, one runner on base, the Red Sox trailing the Angels, 5-4. It was the fifth game of the American League Championship Series with the Angels leading the best-of-seven set, three games to one. All Henderson had to do was swing at Donnie Moore’s next pitch and miss it, or perhaps tap a grounder to third baseman Doug DeCinces or shortstop Dick Schofield for an easy out.

The man responsible for one of baseball’s most famous home runs died from a heart attack yesterday at age 57. Henderson’s home run not only made the 1986 A.L.C.S. historic but it paved the way for an equally famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) 1986 World Series against the New York Mets. In the sixth game, Henderson’s home run gave the Red Sox a short-lived lead in the 10th inning.

As a Red Sox fan and an admitted baseball geek, I can’t help but find the circumstances leading up to and following Henderson’s at-bat against Moore to be fascinating. Henderson, who had arrived in a quiet mid-season trade with Seattle, was a replacement in Game 5 for veteran Tony Armas, who’d been injured. With the Red Sox leading 2-1, Henderson tipped a Bobby Grich fly ball over the fence for a home run, appearing to be the latest victim of the “Curse of the Bambino.” In the ninth inning, Henderson came to the plate with a chance to redeem himself–Boston’s last chance.

Sadly, for Angels pitcher Donnie Moore, the loss proved to be the beginning of the end of his career. Worse still, Moore battled alcoholism and depression and following his release from baseball in 1989, shot his wife before turning the gun on himself. Unfortunately for Boston, the victory would merely prove the adage that if the Red Sox win today, that’s because it will hurt more for them to lose tomorrow. Boston scapegoat Bill Buckner would endure years of ridicule and harassment by fans,  causing him and his family to move to Idaho.

All that trouble because Henderson didn’t strike out.

But it’s another example of how America’s Pastime can teach us–even those who don’t care about the game. We’ve all had our backs to the wall, perhaps burdened as Hendu was by the memory of a recent mistake, surrounded by people just waiting for us to fail. No, the act of swinging at a ball and hitting it out of a stadium doesn’t change humanity, but it did galvanize a city and still inspires memories almost thirty years later.

Henderson would continue his post season success in Oakland, leading the Athletics to three consecutive World Series appearances, including a championship in 1989, before retiring in 1994. He later became a color commentator for the Seattle Mariners and continued to make his home in the Seattle area until his death.

While Henderson is most famous for his post season heroics, he’s also remembered as a positive team player who enjoyed interacting with the fans. Former Oakland teammate Terry Steinbach said, “People talk about all the big hits and the World Series, but to me, it was that great attitude he brought every day. He would instantly pick you up, put you in the right frame of mind, get you going.” Rich Gedman, the Boston catcher who was on base when Henderson hit the homer off Moore, said, “Go back and look at every picture of him. He always had a smile on his face.”

 

 

February 26, 2014

#73) The best baseball game you’ve never heard of

We already know that Game 6 of the 2011 World Series was the greatest game of baseball ever played, but in this post – with a fresh new season of America’s Pastime about to get underway – we’ll look at a game played more than 50 years ago that, despite the winning team’s dramatic comeback, has been surprisingly overlooked in Greatest Game Ever Played discussions.

I speak of the second playoff game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Milwaukee Braves to decide the 1959 National League Pennant.  Until recently I wasn’t aware that there had even been a best-of-three playoff to decide the ’59 NL race, much less that the Dodgers won the second game and the pennant with a three-run ninth inning rally and another run in the twelfth.   I’m not the only baseball fan who’s been unaware of or has overlooked this game: in Bert Randolph Sugar’s “Baseball’s 50 Greatest Games”, the book to which I attribute more than any other my baseball history geekery, he passes this one over.  The game is also not mentioned on the Baseball Moments page of Major League Baseball’s official website.

Why has this game languished in obscurity?

The biggest reason may be that it wasn’t a decisive game, unlike the playoff games the Dodgers lost to the Giants in 1951 and 1962, or the famous American League East one-game playoff in 1978.  The Dodgers had beaten the Braves in Milwaukee and were not in a must-win situation when they faced Lew Burdette in the L.A. Coliseum for the second game.  The Dodgers’ comeback in the bottom of the 9th lacked a dramatic home run; they scored three runs on four singles and a sacrifice fly, and their winning tally in the 12th was the result of a throwing error.

Another factor may have been timing.  The 1959 Dodgers were a team in transition, posting a rather forgettable 86-68 record.  They still had a few mainstays from their glory years in Brooklyn – Duke Snider, Gil Hodges and Carl Furillo to name a few – but PeeWee Reese, Roy Campanella and Jackie Robinson were gone and it would be a few years before Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax would reach their primes, leading the team to two championships in the ’60s.

It’s possible too that the baseball world didn’t yet take the Los Angeles Dodgers fully seriously; perhaps the team was still dealing with the backlash from having moved to L.A. the year before.  While the franchise would go on to win a total of five titles in L.A. with Koufax, Drysdale, Steve Garvey, Kirk Gibson and Tommy Lasorda all becoming household names along the way, in 1959, baseball in So Cal might have felt like the proverbial round peg in a square hole.  The L.A. Memorial Coliseum, where the team played through the 1961 season, wasn’t meant for baseball, as evidenced by the awkward playing field dimensions.

Still, one would think that a game that so perfectly illustrates what everyone loves about baseball – the unpredictability, the lack of a clock – would be better known.  If anything, the Braves, then two-time defending NL champs and boasting the bats of Hank Aaron and Eddie Matthews and the arms of Warren Spahn (who won more games than any other lefty in baseball history) and 20-game winner Lew Burdette, should have given this game some cache.

Baseball fans can be guilty of selective memory.  Why did the Red Sox lose the 1986 World Series?  Because they blew two leads in Game 6, allowing the Mets to force extra innings, then after scoring two more gave up three runs in the bottom of the 10th.  They also blew a three run lead in Game 7. Bill Buckner.  When you Google search for George Brett, what comes up in the search bar?  Why, his .390 average in 1980 and his championship with the Royals in 1985, of course.  Just kidding; pine tar.  It’s ironic that in a sport that cherishes history perhaps more than any other, great moments remain overlooked.  Perhaps comparing this game to legendary contests such as the ’51 Giants/Dodgers playoff or Game 6 of the 1975 (or 1986 or 2011) World Series is a stretch, but there have been plenty of less dramatic games that have gotten more attention.

The Dodgers would go on to beat the “Go Go” White Sox in a six-game World Series.  The playoff proved to be the end of an era for the Braves, who would move to Atlanta in 1966.

October 29, 2011

#29) Top five lessons from “Moneyball”

This will be the last baseball post for a while, I promise.

It’s been said that one doesn’t have to be a baseball fan to enjoy “Moneyball.”  As a baseball fan, I wouldn’t be the one to ask, but I would guess that one would have to be a baseball fan to really enjoy the book.  There were some parts that were a little hard to follow, even as a baseball fan, and it’s my guess that the non-fan would be lost or bored by them.

That said, with “Moneyball”, the movie vs. book debate is apples and oranges: the film, thoroughly enjoyable, has wide appeal, whereas the book is already a classic among hardcore baseball geeks.

The book has several valuable lessons that transcend the sport, so for those who don’t feel like reading “Moneyball” but might be interested in some of its take-aways, I present my five favorites.

1) When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.  This may be the oldest cliche out there, but the story of Billy Beane, Oakland Athletics general manager, puts a new twist on it.  Beane himself was a highly touted baseball prospect in the early 1980s, whose career was a disappointment.  However, he became his own cautionary tale.  The scouts who saw him and built him up were impressed by his appearance, and Beane used the lesson of his own story to judge players by their actual statistics and records, not just what is apparent.

2) Use what you have, not what you need.  Billy Beane’s 2002 Oakland A’s won the same number of games as the Yankees, a team with a payroll four times higher.  Beane knew early on that it wouldn’t pay to fixate on the gap between the two teams’ budgets; he had to find a different way of looking at the numbers.  He reinvented how to read baseball statistics and found value in players who were under-appreciated by the market; he also saw how to replace the higher-priced stars whom he couldn’t afford to keep.

3) Know what you want.  Once Beane realized the type of players he wanted, he would put their names up on a board and figure out exactly what he needed to do to get them, bluffing, cajoling and negotiating his way to his goal.

4) Know how to be “wrong.”  Baseball people, be they fans, writers or those inside the game, are notorious for being stuck in their ways.  Beane didn’t change his course when his strategies were lambasted by the media.

5) Know how to be right.  As word spread of Beane’s effectiveness in finding undervalued players, others in the baseball world refused to do business with him, knowing that by definition, they were probably getting the short end of the stick.  Like a pool hustler, Beane had to convince his marks that the deal was actually in their interest.

The story of Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics is certainly entertaining, educational and inspirational.  Even non-baseball fans can learn a thing or two from his persistence, innovation and creativity.

October 29, 2011

#28) Baseball’s greatest game

The debate is officially over.

Game 6 of the 2011 World Series is, by any reasonable measurement, the greatest game in the history of baseball.  Of course, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and proclaim a recently played game to be the greatest ever, but as a baseball historian and long-time Red Sox fan myself, I here present an air-tight argument for my case.

I’ll start by comparing this Game 6 to MLB’s panel-voted top five games of the last fifty years.

#1) 1975 World Series, Game 6: as a Bostonian, I was taught to revere this as one of the greatest moments in sports history.  Certainly it was a classic, but the closest the Sox ever were to being eliminated was four outs.  The Cardinals were down to their last strike TWICE.

#2) 1991 World Series, Game 7: as a seventh game, perhaps this one does have an advantage over this year’s game 6, and it was certainly a tense, tight battle.  But for pure entertainment value, one has to place a 10-9 win with many ties and lead changes above a 1-0 shutout.

#3) 1986 World Series, Game 6: until last night, only the New York Mets had ever come back to win a World Series after being down to the last strike.  The Mets, however, only did it once in this game.  This year’s game 6 ended with a home run, which is a little more aesthetically appealing than a ground ball through the first baseman’s legs.

#4) 1992 N.L.C.S., game 7: never had a seventh game been decided with one swing of the bat, as Atlanta pinch-hitter Francisco Cabrera singled in two runs to beat the Pirates.  However, this game only decided the pennant.

#5) 1986 N.L.C.S., game 6: another classic; the Mets tied the score with three runs in the ninth inning and went onto win in 16, making it the then-longest post season game ever.  Still, this was pennant-clinching, not World Series-clinching game, and the Mets were never down to their last strike.  In fact, had the Mets lost, they would have had another chance in Game 7, albeit against Astros pitcher Mike Scott, who’d been dominant in his last two starts against them.

Since MLB’s list only covered the last 50 years, I’ve dug a little deeper and come up with five historic games that rival – but do not beat – Thursday’s game.

1) The Bobby Thompson “Shot Heard Round the World” is baseball legend, but Thompson’s home run to give the Giants a 5-4 win over the Dodgers came with one, not two outs; it also only decided the pennant.

2) Bill Mazeroski’s home run in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series was one of only two times a Fall Classic has ended with a jack.  The game, with multiple lead changes, was very entertaining, and the Pirates’ upset over the Yankees should not be underestimated, but for the sake of this argument,  Maz’s shot came with the score tied.

3) The seventh game in 1946 saw the Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter score from first base on a double (not a single, as is often said), making a goat out of Johnny Pesky and turning the Red Sox into World Series losers for the first time.  Slaughter scored in the eighth inning, however.

4) Who was the only team to lose game 7 of a best-of-seven series and win the World Series?  Why, the Boston Red Sox, of course.  The 1912 World Series actually went eight games (game 2 was called due to darkness).  In the eighth and decisive game, the Sox became the first team to win a Series after being an inning away from elimination (this wouldn’t happen again until 1985).   But it comes up short against Thursday’s game, in that the Sox tied the score with one out before winning on a sacrifice fly.

5) The Washington Senators – not the second version of the team which became the Rangers, but the first, which moved to Minnesota in 1960 – won the 1924 World Series.  In the seventh game, they scored the winning run in the bottom of the twelfth, after tying the score with two runs in the eighth.  A Game 7 wouldn’t go extra innings again until 1991.

The journey of the 2011 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals is not unlike that of the very sport they play.  Over the last few decades, America’s pastime has been written off as irrelevant; languishing in its own history while losing market shares to basketball and football.  But baseball has a way of coming back–providing great games perfectly timed to revitalize interest in the sport.  Just as 10 years ago, the great 2001 World Series gave fans a much-needed escape a few weeks after the terrorist attacks, this one, the first to see a seventh game since 2002, will undoubtedly provide a great boost for baseball.  With a basketball strike threatening the upcoming NBA season, perhaps fans, inspired by the great World Series that just finished, will rediscover America’s pastime.

September 30, 2011

#27) The top ten Yankees losses of all time

Ken Griffey, Jr. slides across home plate with the winning run vs. the Yankees

Son of a bitch, it happened again: the Red Sox blew it.

Of course, it would have been a lot worse if not for their recent World Series wins (not to mention the three Patriots Super Bowls, Bruins’ Stanley Cup and Celtics championship win in the last decade), but any time the Yankees are in the playoffs and the Red Sox are not, it’s a drag, especially when it could have easily been avoided.

But while their team is no longer a contender, at least the members of Red Sox Nation can live on the hope that this October will bring a great Yankees collapse.  After all, the biggest fall the hardest.  To help get in the mood, here are ten of the greatest games in baseball – all of which found the Yankees on the short end of the score.

October 10, 1926 (World Series game 7) at New York: Cardinals 3, Yankees 2

The 1926 Series was the only one to date to end with a runner being caught stealing.  Ironically, the would-be thief was Babe Ruth, who represented the tying run.  The game is also noted for Cards’ pitcher Grover Alexander’s clutch strike out of Tony Lazerri with the bases loaded in the seventh.

October 3, 1947 (World Series game 4) at Brooklyn: Dodgers 3, Yankees 2

Even die-hard Sox fans have to have a little sympathy for Bill Bevens, a Yankees pitcher who came one out away from throwing the first no-hitter in post-season history.  Bevens lost both the no-hitter and the game with one swing of the bat, as Dodgers third baseman Cookie Lavagetto doubled with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.  It was the Dodgers’ first hit of the game, and it drove in the tying and winning runs.

October 4, 1955 (World Series Game 7) at New York: Dodgers 2, Yankees 0

The Red Sox were not the first team to finally avenge years of torment at the hands of the Yankees.  After years of losing to their crosstown rivals, the Dodgers finally turned the tables in 1955, helped by a great catch by Sandy Amoros and shutout pitching by Johnny Podres.  Here’s a video of Jackie Robinson stealing home in the first game of the series.  (He had better luck than Babe Ruth).

October 13, 1960 (World Series game 7) at Pittsburgh: Pirates 10, Yankees 9 

It may sound funny to hear the words “World Series” and “Pittsburgh Pirates” used in the same sentence, but that’s what was happening in 1960.  The Pirates hung in there, battling the Yankees through six games.  In the decisive contest, the lead went back and forth between the two teams, entering the bottom of the ninth tied.  Leading off, Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski became the first of only two men (along with Joe Carter) in baseball history to end a World Series with a home run.

October 10, 1980 (A.L.C.S. game 3) at New York: Royals 4, Yankees 2

As with the Pirates, it may seem weird to think of the Kansas City Royals in the World Series, but they got there in 1980 by beating the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, then a best-of-five.  They had lost three consecutive times to the Yanks in the A.L.C.S. but finally turned the tables in 1980, winning the first two games at home and taking the third on George Brett’s three-run homer off Goose Gossage.   The names of Brett and Gossage would be linked again a few years later.

July 24 and August 18, 1983 (“Pine Tar” game) at New York: Royals 5, Yankees 4 

George Brett won a World Series, had over 3,000 hits, batted .390 in 1980 and even battled hemorrhoids, but this Hall of Famer is remembered by most people for only one thing.   While the sight of an enraged Brett charging out of the dugout may be legendary, however, not as well known is the back-story behind what would now probably be called one of baseball’s best viral videos.  With the Yankees leading 4-3 in the top of the ninth inning, Brett was batting with one on and two out.  He hit a 2-run homer off Goose Gossage to give Kansas City a 5-4 lead.  As Brett crossed home, Yankees manager Billy Martin asked to see the bat.  The umpires conferred and called Brett out, sparking his famous eruption.  Ultimately the home-run was reinstated on the grounds that Martin should have asked to see the bat before Brett got to the plate.  The game was rescheduled for almost a month later and picked up in the top of the ninth with two outs and the Royals up, 5-4.  Martin told the umpires that Brett hadn’t touched all of the bases, but he was over-ruled.  After the Yankees went down in order in the bottom of the 9th, the Pine Tar game was over, almost a month after it began.

October 8, 1995 (A.L.D.S. game 5) at Seattle: Mariners 6, Yankees 5 (11 innings)

Back in the post season for the first time in 14 years, the Yankees faced an unlikely opponent in the first year of the American League Division Series: the Seattle Mariners.  The Mariners had pretty much been a joke since starting play in 1977, but in 1995, after a big comeback, they beat the California Angels (later to become the Anaheim Angels and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim) in a one-game playoff to reach the post-season.  After dropping two games at Yankees Stadium, the Mariners won two in the Kingdome, pushing the best-of-five series to a decisive contest.  With the Yankees leading 5-4 in the bottom of the 11th, Edgar Martinez of the Mariners hit a game-winning double, described here by announcer Dave Niehaus.  MLB listed this game as #15 on their list of the all-time best list; highlights of the game can be seen here.

November 4, 2001 (World Series game 7) at Arizona: Diamondbacks 3, Yankees 2

Even if the 2001 World Series had been a clunker, it would still have been memorable in giving Americans a much-needed escape after the recent terrorist attacks.  As it turned out, 2001’s World Series was a down-to-the-wire classic.  Even many non-Yankees fans (although not the author) were rooting for them as they battled the Diamondbacks, National League champs in only their fourth season ever.  Extra-inning comebacks in games 4 and 5 put the Yankees up, 3 games to 2 as the teams headed back into the desert to decide things.  With the Yankees leading 2-1 in game 7, the Diamondbacks rallied in the bottom of the ninth, winning a Series quicker than any other expansion team in history.

August 31, 2004 at New York: Indians 22, Yankees 0

This nail-biter represented the biggest margin of loss in Yankees history; according to ESPN (see above link) even Jeter left the clubhouse before reporters could come in.

October 20, 2004 (A.L.C.S. game 7) at New York: Red Sox 10, Yankees 3

Of all of the teams that had lost the first three games of a baseball playoff series, only two had even gone as far as game 6.  The Sox were the first to force a game 7 after dropping the first three, and it seemed perfectly logical that they would find a way to blow it after getting the Nation’s hopes up.  But on the strength of Derek Lowe’s pitching and Johnny Damon’s grand slam, the Sox completed their comeback with a 10-3 win, going on to beat the Cardinals in the World Series for their first championship since 1918.  It’s too bad that no World Series trophy will be raised in Boston in 2011, but there’s always next year–and the hope that by opening day in 2012, the Yankees will have added more great losses to this list.