Big Enough

For weeks, Sergio Romo told anyone who would listen that he wasn’t sure if he was big enough for the moment.

Turns out, the moment wasn’t nearly big enough for him.

With the 2012 World Series on the line, the exuberant, eyelash of a relief pitcher for the San Francisco Giants needed one more strike to bring a championship title to his team. However, he needed to push that final pitch past the most intimidating hitter on the planet, Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera – the first player in 45 years to win a Triple Crown.

After teasing Cabrera with a procession of sliders bending like elbows of macaroni, Romo summoned his resolve – and all 170 pounds of his lean body mass – and threw a fastball on the inner half of the plate. It was a pitch that barreled into the most dangerous part of a right-handed power hitter’s swing – precisely the kind of pitch an accomplished slugger like Cabrera routinely turned into loud headlines.

Under the circumstances, though, it may have been the last thing in the world Cabrera expected to see from his whipcord-thin adversary. So, Romo threw it – threw it with the cool of a safecracker and the conviction of a drill sergeant.

The most vulnerable pitch in the game went directly into the teeth of the most dangerous swing in the sport…and went completely untouched. Cabrera’s bat never moved – as if rusted to his beefy shoulder – and Romo’s iron nerves were rewarded with a happy mob of teammates racing each other to reach their self-effacing savior.

In the end, the moments – and there were plenty of them during an inexplicably magical season – were never too big for any of them. The 2012 San Francisco Giants answered every critic, cleared every hurdle, and conquered every doubt on their way to a second World Series triumph in three years. And they did so with the kind of unshakeable resolve and affable unity representing the truest qualities of the team concept.

A Major League roster contains twenty-five players, and the Giants used every last one of them to find ways to win often enough and timely enough to push past every other team in the sport. Each player left a distinct set of fingerprints on the championship season – twenty-five pairs of hands helping to lift the World Series trophy and carry it back to San Francisco.

And they came from everywhere, landing on the Giants’ roster as if carried by a serendipitous tide.

They came from Dotham, Alabama – like Matt Cain, the sturdy starting pitcher who opened the All-Star Game less than a month after throwing the first perfect game in franchise history. In the playoffs, the Giants relied on him to propel them forward in the deciding game of each round, which he did dutifully and doggedly, somehow squashing the pressure of the moment to answer the call every time.

They came from San Felipe, Venezuela – like Marco Scutaro, who started the year with the Colorado Rockies, his fifth team in eleven big league seasons, and drifted to the Giants at the trade deadline in a deal that barely registered amidst higher profile swaps. But the veteran second baseman wasted little time in being noticed. For a player who spent his entire career doing everything well but nothing great, Scutaro was spectacular from the moment he put on a San Francisco uniform. In 61 games with the Giants, he hit .362. And he carried his torrid hitting into the playoffs, peppering St. Louis with 14 hits over seven games of the National League Championship Series – a journeyman who finally found purpose in the journey.

They also came from nearby Carabobo, Venezuela – like Pablo Sandoval, San Francisco’s cherubic third baseman, whose unlikely agility earned him the affectionate nickname, “King Fu Panda.” Moreover, Sandoval’s endearing naiveté and buoyant personality brought smiles to fans and teammates all season.

But he was more than just a source of cheerfulness. His slashing, unpredictable approach at the plate produced moments of wonder – none bigger than the three thunderous home runs he hit in the opening game of the World Series en route to being named MVP of the Fall Classic.

They came from Atglen, Pennsylvania – llike Ryan Vogelsong, who pitched across three continents and through major arm surgery to get one last shot in the big leagues. At 35, he didn’t waste it, either. Starting three of the biggest games of his life for the Giants in the playoffs, Vogelsong was superb in each. And San Francisco won them all – in Cincinnati with elimination looming, in San Francisco against the Cardinals with the season again on the line, and in Detroit with a title inching closer. Through it all, Vogelsong allowed just three runs in over 24 innings of work.

They came from Leesburg, Georgia – like Buster Posey, the team’s phenomenal young catcher who missed nearly all of the 2011 season with a horrific ankle injury but came thundering back with a likely MVP year in 2012. Despite having less than three years of big league experience, Posey’s remarkable poise and knowledge of the game commanded respect in the locker room and on the field. Behind the plate, his extraordinary insight into pitch selection earned the unwavering confidence of a pitching staff that excelled when the stakes were greatest. He was also the anchor on offense, the hitter opposing teams justifiably feared the most in the Giants’ lineup. His grand slam off of Mat Latos in the deciding game against Cincinnati provided San Francisco’s final margin of victory in that playoff round and was one of the biggest swings of the bat in the entire postseason.

They came from Las Vegas, Nevada – like Barry Zito, who signed one of baseball’s biggest contracts in 2007 but had delivered a litany of disappointment and misery from the mound ever since. In fact, Zito’s San Francisco legacy deteriorated to such low ebb that his name alone prompted derision and bitterness from fans.

So, when he took the mound against the Cardinals in the league championship series and with the Giants needing to win yet again to stay alive, few believed Zito could save them. But he did. He pitched brilliantly, shutting St. Louis out for almost eight innings – nearly restoring his reputation in one magical night. As if to finish the restoration job, Zito outpitched Detroit’s fire-breathing ace Justin Verlander in Game One of the World Series, an 8-3 San Francisco victory.

They came from Fort Worth, Texas – like Hunter Pence, a gangly but powerful outfielder who, like Marco Scutaro, arrived in San Francisco at the trade deadline. But unlike Scutaro, Pence came to the team with sizeable expectations and initially struggled to meet any of them. Although he did produce enough timely hits to drive in 45 runs in 59 regular season games for the Giants, his true impact came right before a playoff game in Cincinnati. After losing two important games to the Reds, Pence tried to rally his deflated teammates. With evangelical zeal, he implored that “no matter what happens we must not give in. We owe it to each other, play for each other. I need one more day with you guys.” His fiery plea turned out to be the rallying point they needed to push past Cincinnati and keep tomorrows appearing on their postseason calendar all the way through the World Series.

They came from Renton, Washington – like Tim Lincecum, the Giants’ unorthodox star pitcher who parlayed his unusual throwing motion and outstanding ability into consecutive Cy Young awards in 2008 and 2009.

However, in 2012, his remarkable pitching prowess vanished, his struggles magnified by the unexpected nature of the erosion. His velocity dipped, he gave up the most earned runs in the league, and no one could figure out what had gone wrong so quickly. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Lincecum had offered little evidence that his fortunes would improve in the postseason. So, he was sent to the bullpen – baseball Siberia for any starting pitcher, let alone one with his sparkling resume. Rather than complain or sulk, the former trophy-winning starter accepted his demotion as a challenge. Fittingly, he had spent his entire baseball life overcoming them. At 5’11” and 175 pounds, he wasn’t supposed to be a power pitcher. But he was. His unconventional delivery wasn’t supposed to work. But it did. And, now, his postseason banishment to the bullpen was supposed to confirm a slide into mediocrity. But it didn’t. With his shoulder-length hair snapping and his diminutive frame contorting furiously, Lincecum regained his extraordinary pitching form when it mattered most and annihilated hitters in his new role. In 13 postseason innings from the bullpen, he gave up just three hits and struck out 17. Baseball’s biggest rock star was back and had the renewed swagger to prove it.

There were so many key contributors to the Giants’ extraordinary season that the heroics seemed to come in waves, with different players showcasing specific skills just as the team needed them.

Brandon Crawford grew up just a few miles from San Francisco, likely never imagining that he would become the starting shortstop for the team he grew up idolizing. But when he did, his spectacular defense and timely hitting proved to be the necessary anchor for the infield. Pitcher Madison Bumgarner won 16 games – tied with Cain for the team lead – and played with such poise and tenacity that it was easy to forget he had just celebrated his 23rd birthday. Although reliever Jeremy Affeldt recorded so many important outs throughout the year, none were bigger than the five he registered in Game Four of the World Series – cutting right through the heart of Detroit’s fearsome lineup, striking out four of them – including Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. Outfielder Angel Pagan provided much needed speed – leading the team in steals with 29 – at the top of the order and energized the team with his terrific defense and passion for the game.

Collectively, the 2012 Giants came back – again and again and again. In fact, they pulled themselves from the edge of oblivion so many times it defied all baseball logic.

In April, the club lost its flamboyant All-Star closer, Brian Wilson, to a season-ending elbow injury but used the remaining relief pitchers in enough variations to finish games until Sergio Romo claimed the job for good late in the season.

In August, one of the team’s best hitters, outfielder Melky Cabrera, was suspended 50 games for violating Major League Baseball’s rule against performance-enhancing drugs. Rather than explaining what he had done and why he had done it, Cabrera simply fled the scene, leaving his teammates to sort through the betrayal on their own.

The best way to deal with the duplicity, they decided, was to play even better without him. In the 45 regular season games after Cabrera’s suspension, the Giants won 30 of them.

Ten days after Cabrera abandoned the club, the rival Los Angeles Dodgers acquired perennial slugger Adrian Gonzalez from Boston in a stunning trade that most experts believed would propel the Dodgers to the division title.

Instead, San Francisco rallied to increase its hold on first place from two games to eight, clinching the National League West with over a week to spare.

And in the postseason, their restorative powers were taken to an entirely different realm.

In the first round of the playoffs, the Giants lost the first two games of the best-of-five series to Cincinnati at home. The second defeat, a demoralizing 9-0 blowout, seemed an emphatic stamp by the Reds on their way to a dominant series win. After all, Cincinnati needed only to win one more game in the next three opportunities – all in their own ballpark – to eliminate San Francisco. However, Pence preached, Posey slammed, and Cain was able. The Giants won all three elimination games – all on the road, the first time a playoff team survived such a stretch while living out of suitcases.

In the best-of-seven National League Championship Series, the Giants once again lost early ground, dropping three of the first four games to St. Louis. Although San Francisco faced the familiar scenario of having to win three straight to advance, the team at least knew if they could win one more game on the road the final two games would take place at home in front of 45,000 of the loudest fans in the sport. Once Zito pitched his way back into the hearts of San Franciscans everywhere, Vogelsong and Cain made sure it mattered by shutting down the Cardinals in front of packed Bay Area houses.

Perhaps, as fitting punctuation, Scutaro caught the final out off the bat of St. Louis outfielder Matt Holliday, the very same player who – earlier in the series – barreled viciously into him nearly mangling the much smaller infielder’s left knee. Moments before the final clinching catch, Scutaro extended his arms out from his sides as far as they would go and tilted his head back as a sudden downpour drenched the field. Literally and figuratively, he soaked in the moment as an impending National League champion and series MVP.

In the end, the Giants had played six games in less than two weeks facing the immediate end of their season – and had won them all.

In a way, the World Series was anti-climatic. Sandoval’s three-homer haymaker and Romo’s gutsy gamesmanship served as bookends to a lopsided Giants’ sweep over the Detroit Tigers. The team that thrived on tension and adversity all season long encountered little of it in the final series of the year.

Of course, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy probably welcomed the change – his personality better suited for calm and steady. However, whenever the pressure surged or the amalgam of hardship threatened to swallow the team, it was Bochy who soothed them. His even-tempered nature set the tone in the clubhouse and dugout and out on the field, his deep Southern drawl a soundtrack for thoughtful, committed play.

Behind the placid persona, the Giants’ skipper was relentless in preparing and executing his game strategy. When Wilson was injured, Bochy simply rearranged his bullpen until he found a workable combination, all the while getting his veteran relief pitchers to willingly accept new roles.

After Cabrera vanished and the Dodgers fortified, Bochy motivated his team to rely on each other rather than allow others to push them apart. In the playoffs, he trusted Zito and happily accepted the dividends. In the World Series, he used Gregor Blanco in left field primarily for his defense and watched as Blanco made three spectacular catches in crucial situations.

More to the point, the Giants played relentlessly and confidently amidst near-historic pressure, and the manager of the team deserved a goodly portion of praise for the effort.

Perhaps, few embodied that relentless spirit better than the newly-minted closer Romo. Growing up in Brawley, California – a desolate farming town 20 miles from the Mexican border – the Giants’ undersized bullpen lion probably knew better than most how difficult but rewarding defying the odds could be. After all, he rose all the way to the big leagues as a 28th round draft pick largely relying on one pitch – a knee-buckling, gravity-rebelling slider.

Yet, there he was, staring down big, bad Miguel Cabrera in the World Series and then decided to throw him something other than the pitch responsible for getting him to the majors. That kind of extraordinary belief was an utterly perfect way for San Francisco to crown its title run.

The familiar mantra the team had used to stave off elimination in all of those pressure- packed games was that they wanted one more day together, because they simply weren’t ready to go home.

Well, the 2012 San Francisco Giants finally went home – as World Champions.

Sources:

http://www.usatoday.com/story/gameon/2012/10/10/hunter-pence-inspirational-speech/1624633/

http://www.latimes.com/sports/la-sp-1027-sergio-romo-giants-20121027,0,6411058.story?page=1

http://www.tampabay.com/sports/baseball/ml/world-series-shows-san-francisco-giants-bruce-bochy-is-one-of-baseballs/1258999

http://www.sfgate.com/giants/article/When-Cabrera-left-SF-Giants-thrived-3890499.php

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/s/scutama01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/v/vogelry01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/p/pencehu01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/l/linceti01.shtml

Photos:

http://www.zimbio.com/pictures/VbwMBc7ocln/Arizona+Diamondbacks+v+San+Francisco+Giants/DR7au51xcLN/Sergio+Romo

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Throwing Kryptonite Curveballs into the Abyss

When the situation called for Superman, he summoned Clark Kent.

As it turned out, the cape was highly overrated.

In 1929, the Philadelphia Athletics were baseball royalty. Their loaded roster included four eventual Hall of Famers – three in the heart of a fearsome batting order; the other, a formidable presence on the mound.  From the dugout, the team’s architect, conductor, and patriarch – manager Connie Mack – manipulated his supremely talented chess pieces for maximum effect.

Catcher Mickey Cochrane, outfielder Al Simmons, and first baseman Jimmie Foxx powered an offense with five players who hit .300 or better.  And it was Simmons who led them all with the rather impressive combination of a .365 batting average, 34 home runs, and 157 runs batted in.

However, it was the pitching staff that truly separated the Athletics from the rest of the American League that season.  Southpaw ace Lefty Grove and fellow left-hander George Earnshaw had a combined 44-14 record in 1929, and Philadelphia allowed nearly 100 fewer runs than any other team in the league as well as besting them all in strikeouts.

And sitting at the head of the table was Mack, in his 29th season as the team’s manager.  He had brought six pennants and three World Series titles home in that span and had established a sterling reputation for leading with a firm but benevolent hand.  He also studied the game endlessly earning him the nickname, the Tall Tactician.

So when the brainy, brawny, strong-armed Philadelphians stormed out of the gate to a 39-11 record in 1929, the baseball world took notice.  And Connie Mack’s bunch never let up, finishing their trek with a 104-46 record, eighteen full strides ahead of everyone else.  Even more impressive, the red-hot Athletics had jostled the legendary New York Yankess of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig from the throne – a palace coup of commendable scale.

Advancing to their first World Series in fifteen seasons, Philadelphia was matched up against the National League champion Chicago Cubs.

The Cubs, who were a decade removed from their last championship appearance, had a similarly fearsome cluster of sluggers.  Barrel-chested – and barrel shaped – outfielder Hack Wilson hit the ball as hard as he lived.  And he lived very, very hard. 

In 1929, Wilson fulfilled the baseball part of the equation by hitting 39 home runs with 159 RBI’s.  His outfield mates, Kiki Cuyler and Riggs Stephenson, both hit .360 or better and drove in over 100 runs apiece.  Cuyler even stole 43 bases to add speed into the mix.

However, the jewel at the center of Chicago’s pennant-winning run was Rogers Hornsby, perhaps the greatest right-handed hitter who ever played the game.  And his pedigree was spectacular.  A seven-time batting champion, Hornsby hit better than .400 three times and led the league in home runs twice.  Although he was 33 years old in 1929 and entering the twilight of his brilliant career, he could still hit and was, therefore, exceptionally dangerous.  As proof, Hornsby finished the year with a .380 batting average, 39 home runs, and 149 RBI’s.

The Athletics were going to have their hands full trying to deal with that gaggle of noisy Chicago hitters, and Connie Mack knew it.  To further complicate matters, Philadelphia’s two best pitchers, Grove and Earnshaw, were lefties while nearly all of the Cubs’ best hitters were right-handed.  And in baseball, the general axiom holds that right-handed hitters see the ball better coming from left-handed pitchers and are more apt to be effective against them because of it.

So, what was Mack to do for Game One of the Series?  If he offered up one of his aces into the teeth of Chicago’s greatest strength and that ace got devoured, the tone for the entire championship could irreparably darken.  If Mack chose to try to neutralize all of that right-handed thump with a right-handed pitcher, he needed one he trusted enough to accept the challenge.

Enter Clark Kent.

In 14 big league seasons, Howard Ehmke won precisely one more game than he lost.  And the rest of his pitching numbers were similarly nondescript.  His ERA hovered near the league average as did his strikeout rate, and he allowed roughly one hit per inning.  When he threw a pitch, it neither baffled nor intimidated.  It mostly got hit.

Still, he was good enough to find gainful employment in the game for over a decade.  He just hadn’t been good enough to accumulate any discernible star quality.  And on Philadelphia’s star-studded roster, he was the perfect Clark Kent – a neutral face blended almost entirely into the background.

As if to underscore this transparency, he only appeared in 11 games for the Athletics in 1929, pitching a grand total of 54 2/3 innings all season long.  Though, when he was used, he did well.  Going 7-2 with a 3.29 ERA, it had been one of his better years, brevity or not.  And in those sporadic glimpses, Connie Mack must have seen something, because it gave Mack an idea – either utterly brilliant or foolish – addressing the question of Chicago’s heavy right-handed presence.

The answer, he decided, was Howard Ehmke.

Philadelphia’s invisible man took the game’s biggest stage – Game One of the World Series – with the entire sporting public wondering who he was and why one of baseball’s most respected managers selected him over the likes of Lefty Grove and George Earnshaw.  However, Mack didn’t have time to worry about such things, if he even cared at all, because the tactician was too busy doing what he did best – outflanking an opponent.

Ehmke, who did not pitch at all over the last two weeks of the season, was certainly well rested.  More than that, he was handsomely cloaked in the fog of unfamiliarity.  Chicago scouts and hitters had little useful reconnaissance they could use to prepare a game plan, and it showed.

Perhaps, he’d waited his entire life for the opportunity or just sensed the rarity of the moment as it happened.  Whatever the motivation, Ehmke’s transformation – when it mattered most – was remarkable.  The fact that it happened on the road, no less, in front of a hostile crowd in Chicago made it even more amazing.

His assortment of off-speed pitches, which had been the source of league-wide yawns for such a long time, crackled.  Every pitch he threw caused confusion, and the Cubs powerful offense couldn’t touch him.  Strike after strike snaked its way from the mound with a relentless drumbeat.

Chicago fans watched in astonishment as Ehmke, the anonymous journeyman, struck out the side in the third – including Hack Wilson and Rogers Hornsby to end the inning. 

He did it again in the sixth, fanning Hornsby a second time on his way back to the dugout.

In the seventh, the Cubs put a pair of runners in scoring position – the biggest threat they had mounted all afternoon long – but Ehmke struck out future Hall of Fame catcher Gabby Hartnett to keep Chicago from scoring.  The outs and strikeouts just kept coming like a growing stack of split timber in a lumber yard.

In the bottom of the ninth, the Cubs finally scratched across a run, closing the score to 3-1.  However, Ehmke fittingly brought the curtain down by throwing one last pitch past a befuddled Chicago player, dispatching pinch-hitter Chick Tolson – his thirteenth strikeout of the game.

Ehmke not only made a devastating and soul-crushing impression on the Cubs and their fans, he made history.  His thirteen strikeouts set a World Series record, which stood for another twenty-four years.  He also vindicated his manager by pushing every last word of pre-game skepticism back into the mouths of the critics.

Philadelphia went on to take the World Series, four games to one.  And one of those games continues to live on in franchise lore, because an unlikely soul took the one chance he had to make a name for himself and wrote it into the record books.

However, Ehmke’s time in the spotlight was brief, as it is for most unexpected heroes.  The following season was disastrous for him.  He appeared in only three games for Philadelphia in 1930 – the last, a humiliating 10-1 loss to the Yankees, in which he lasted only two innings.  In fact, it was his last game in the majors.  At 36, he was finished as big league pitcher.

The Athletics defended their championship title in 1930 and had an opportunity to make it three in a row in 1931 but lost the World Series that season to St. Louis in seven games.  After that, the franchise chose the bottom line over a winning line and systematically started to pare the roster of its star players and their contracts.  Simmons, Foxx, Cochrane, and Grove were eventually scattered to the winds, and the team predictably fell out of contention, becoming a perennial American League doormat.

In 1950, Connie Mack finally stepped down as manager, ending a full half-century residency in the Philadelphia dugout.  No manager lived or breathed in the game more deeply than Mack, and none likely ever will.  Unfortunately, his final seasons with the Athletics were a cash-strapped misery.

However, his true legacy is firmly secured.  He is still regarded as one of the great figures in the game. His unmatched baseball life was filled with too many remarkable moments for it to be otherwise – perhaps, none more so than the day he sent Clark Kent out to do Superman’s work and looked all the more brilliant for doing so.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/AL/1929.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/PHA/1929.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/managers/mackco01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/CHC/1929.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/hornsro01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/e/ehmkeho01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/CHN/CHN192910080.shtml

http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/history/postseason/mlb_ws_recaps.jsp?feature=1929

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/PHA/PHA193005221.shtml

Photos:

http://www.philadelphiaathletics.org/ppp/images/teams/1929Asteam.jpg

http://cdn.bleacherreport.net/images_root/slides/photos/001/576/987/AlSimmons_display_image_display_image.jpg?1321626087

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http://static.ddmcdn.com/gif/hack-wilson-hof.jpg

http://www.nndb.com/people/046/000085788/rogers-hornsby-1.jpg

http://www.theconloncollection.com/media/catalog/product/cache/1/image/300x/da92497cb12e24eee17a0680e01ad935/Ehmke_Howard_007.jpg

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-gmUSA6vP2p0/TvPEYprVcWI/AAAAAAAARoQ/inyJopXiHA0/s1600/Connie_Mack_2.jpg

http://www.chautauquasportshalloffame.org/images/hehmke4.jpg

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http://cdn.bleacherreport.net/images_root/slides/photos/000/692/772/mack_display_image.jpg?1296767954

October Snapshots

Heroes are still lauded and goats horned. It just happens faster – much faster – during the World Series. Baseball time is accelerated to the point where a single play – and in some cases, a single instant within a single play – can define a player’s entire career.

Consider the fate of a trio of players whose baseball lives were changed forever by individual moments in the October spotlight, three snapshots capturing the very best and worst the game has to dish out to the men who play it.

Dateline – Boston, Massachusetts, October 21, 1975. The Boston Red Sox knew they were fighting against history. The team hadn’t won a World Series title since 1918 when a gifted young left handed pitcher named George Ruth threw a pair of gems, including a shutout in the Series opener, and led Boston to a championship crown. Two years later, Ruth discovered that his ability to hit a baseball dwarfed even his considerable skill in throwing it, and he would go on to revolutionize the game, ushering in the thunderous age of the home run. He’d even been given the peculiar nickname, Babe, along the way.

Unfortunately for the Red Sox, he staged that revolution wearing a New York Yankees uniform, because Boston owner Harry Frazee – who was perpetually dulling his manicure scratching for nickels – sold Ruth’s contract just as the burgeoning slugger was was finding his stroke. To make matters worse, Frazee didn’t reinvest the proceeds back into the team. Instead, he diverted the funds into his other entrepreneurial venue, musical theater. So, in essence, the greatest slugger in the history of the game was exchanged for a handful of show tunes.

The rest, as they say, was history. And it was that history the 1975 Red Sox were still fighting against fifty-five years later.

So, when Boston, who trailed the Cincinnati Reds three games to two in the World Series, was pushed into extra innings in Game Six, the cursed aura of Ruth’s history seemed to be winning again.

They needed something, anything, to save them from elimination and another frigid New England winter shivering in disappointment.

The Red Sox rising young catcher Carlton Fisk knew all about the harsh Northeastern off seasons. He grew up in Charlestown, New Hampshire – squarely in the shadow of Boston’s generational tussle with its baseball past. So, he knew exactly what it would mean to the franchise and its tortured fan base if he could deliver the promise of a Game Seven and one more chance to win a championship.

When he stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the of the 12th inning, all of that was waiting for him – his New England roots, the hope and dread of the nervous crowd, and the foreboding weight of the team’s past failures. As Cincinnati’s Pat Darcy delivered his second pitch, everything collided as Fisk swung the bat.

He hit a soaring drive directly down the left field line and began to frantically wave his arms, trying to will the ball to stay fair. When it did, Fisk danced around the bases, the Boston crowd stormed the field, and Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” played triumphantly in the background.

It was one of the great moments in Red Sox history and a snapshot of Carlton Fisk that has served as the lasting image of his brilliant career.

Interestingly, Fisk’s dramatic performance ended up overshadowing the fact that Boston lost Game Seven and the Series to Cincinnati the next evening. That the eventual outcome of the championship wound up a mere footnote to one extraordinary instant for the losing side speaks to the magnitude of the moment.

As further proof, it even transcended the sport. One of the best scenes in the Academy Award-winning film “Good Will Hunting” featured the Fisk homer as its central theme.

How was anyone supposed to know that Pudge was going to hit a home run?

Sometimes, those snapshots aren’t quite as flattering, though.

Dateline – Flushing, New York, October 25, 1986. Bill Buckner played in the big leagues for twenty-two seasons, won a batting title, and finished his accomplished career with 2,715 hits. However, no one remembers any of that. Instead, all people seem to recall is one instant of human failure, forcing Buckner to learn the game’s hardest lesson – a big enough mistake at the wrong time can undo decades of heroics.

Playing first base for the Boston Red Sox in 1986, Buckner found himself in the World Series, only a single out away from the championship, when the wrong moment came bouncing ominously his way.

Boston’s opponent, the New York Mets, were trailing 5-3 with two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game Six when they put on a furious rally. Parlaying three straight base hits and a wild pitch into the two runs they needed to tie the score, they put the potential winning run at second with outfielder Mookie Wilson coming up to bat.

Wilson hit a slow roller up the first base line, the kind of ball Buckner had successfully fielded hundreds of times before. However, when he ambled over to get it this time – in a moment that would haunt him for years – the ball inexplicably trickled under his glove. The winning run came all the way around from second to give the Mets a stunning victory.

The snapshot of Buckner leaving the field after Game Six with the unforgettable look of shock and embarrassment became the poster for the ultimate cautionary tale in the sport. You better make the play or it will unmake you.

And the degree to which that one mistake unmade him was stunning. After the Sox dropped Game Seven two nights later, the focus on the lost championship all but won a game earlier was directed squarely towards the Red Sox first baseman. The media was merciless in rehashing the moment, over and over. And they never let him forget it.

Because of the repetitive drumbeat of watching the replays and reading articles retelling the story, it became more and more difficult for people to separate the player from the play. Eventually, there simply wasn’t any separation – Buckner became the error and, by extension, a euphemism for sports misery. For years, anytime any player made a mistake in a crucial game Buckner’s name would inevitably be brought up by the press.

And hero-making and scapegoating is an ongoing process.

For better or worse, October baseball has an eternal eye open, especially during the World Series. Perhaps, it’s the intensity of the stage – entire seasons often hang on a crucial play or two. And the relentless lens of the postseason never stops focusing on the moment, ready to lionize or condemn in an instant. So, every championship brings fresh potential for snapshots, and in 2011, one picture clearly stood out more than the rest.

Dateline – St. Louis, Missouri, October 27, 2011. David Freese had told anyone who would listen that he was just happy to be there. And there was good reason for that. After spending nearly four seasons in the minor leagues and having a series of injuries limit his playing time in the Majors once he arrived, he finally had a starting position – for his hometeam team.

Growing up in Wildwood, Missouri, Freese idolized Ozzie Smith and the rest of the St. Louis Cardinals. In fact, during a brief stint as a pitcher in his youth, he donned the number “45” as a tribute to longtime Cardinal pitching ace Bob Gibson.

So, winning a starting job at the Major League level was thrilling enough. Manning third base for the team he’d dreamed of playing for must have been surreal, in a good way.

And just when the elasticity of believability and good fortune was stretched to its limits, the World Series pulled it even further.

The Cardinals had clawed their way into the postseason by overcoming a 10 ½ game deficit over the last month of the regular season. In the playoffs, they had beaten the heavily favored Philadelphia Phillies and slugging Milwaukee Brewers. In the World Series, they fell behind the Texas Rangers three games to two and were losing by three runs with only two innings left in Game Six (yes, more Game Six madness!).

Although St. Louis had cut the lead to two runs in the eighth, they were now down to their final strike in the bottom of the ninth. And everything rested on the kid from Wildwood to save the season. With two runners on, Freese hit a long looping fly ball into right field. Texas outfielder Nelson Cruz made a desperate leap for the ball, but it landed just beyond his glove and bounced against the fence.

As Freese sprinted into third with a triple, the other two runners scored and the game was tied – new life granted with an electrifying bolt out of the blue.

In the 10th, the Rangers re-took the lead, only to watch the Cards tie it back up.

In the 11th, Freese made his way to the plate again and, this time, delivered the dagger that finally put Texas away. During a game in which the lead changed hands five different times, he hit a booming fly ball to straight away center with no outstretched gloves in the vicinity. As he rounded first, he thrust his right arm up in the air in triumph. As his giddy teammates spilled out of the dugout to celebrate, David Freese’s October snapshot was made complete.

Whether or not David Freese’s moment of triumph will endure in World Series lore like the disparate images of Fisk and Buckner remains to be seen. Certainly, the timing of Freese’s dramatic homer – capping, perhaps, the greatest game in World Series history – will help. However, historical memory takes time, because the snapshots that are commemorated in that album stay fixed for years, recalled instantly at the mere mention of a name or circumstance.

So, decades from now, the name of the young St. Louis third baseman or the phrase – Game Six, Cards/Rangers – may conjure the reflexive image of a euphoric hero in crimson circling the bases with a triumphant fist in the air.

World Series moments have that kind of power. Just ask Carlton Fisk, Bill Buckner, or the next unwitting player whose baseball life will change in an October instant.

Sources:

http://www.accuracyproject.org/cbe-Frazee,Harry.html

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/r/ruthba01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/BOS/BOS197510210.shtml

Shaughnessy, Dan, At Fenway: Dispatches from Red Sox Nation, Random House Digital, Inc. 1997.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/b/bucknbi01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYN/NYN198610250.shtml

http://articles.latimes.com/2001/apr/13/sports/sp-50553

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/SLN/SLN201110270.shtml

Photos:

http://www.angleton.isd.tenet.edu/secondary/hs/smith/web/webs%202010/Boston_Red_Sox/Images/carlton%20fisk.jpg

http://img.timeinc.net/time/photoessays/2008/world_series/world_series_buckner.jpg

http://s3.amazonaws.com/data.tumblr.com/tumblr_lts4niRjU51qm9rypo1_1280.jpg?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJ6IHWSU3BX3X7X3Q&Expires=1320996468&Signature=mU3TSu2J7G9hzIvkmRmDOU6zglA%3D

Videos:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jg_9FQk6UnA

In the Red – the Collateral Damage of the Black Sox Scandal

In finance terms, debt and loss are said to reside “in the red.”

So, perhaps, it is appropriate that one of baseball’s biggest losses – its true loss of sporting innocence – involved a team called the Reds. Yet, the Cincinnati Reds, in this instance, were entirely blameless. In fact, there were only eight individuals in all of baseball really responsible. Though, depending on who is asked, that number could drop to as few as five or as high as a few dozen. None of them from Cincinnati, however.

Nevertheless, the moment the news broke that several members of the Chicago White Sox were paid off by gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series the focus has been entirely on the Chicago side of the ledger. For decades, all of the hand wringing over the tainted Series has had to do with vilifying the gamblers and White Sox players who participated in the fix, blaming miserly Chicago owner Charles Comiskey for driving the players to such desperate measures in the first place, and commiserating with Chicago fans and the “clean” Chicago players for the betrayal they had to endure. Shoeless Joe and Buck Weaver have even since been made martyrs in several circles, and there has been the unquestioned assumption that the Sox would have annihilated Cincinnati had the Series been on the square.

But what of the team that was deprived of everything because of the tainted Series – the opportunity to compete fairly, the validity of the championship they won, and their rightful legacy of converting years of mediocrity into one season of glory?

Sadly, all of that has been effectively wiped out by history. However, the 1919 Cincinnati Reds deserve better. At the very least, they deserve some restored visibility. The shadow cast by the scandalous events of that fall has rendered them invisible for decades. It is ninety-two years later, and they are still being treated as a guilty party, even though they did nothing wrong. In fact, it can be reasonably argued that being ignored is, in many ways, just as bad being reviled.

So, who were the 1919 Reds?

They had a vicarious lineage to the legendary Harry Wright, who managed and played center field for the first professional team in baseball history, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. Under Wright’s skilled tutelage, the Red Stockings went undefeated – yes, for the entire 50+ game season – and laid the foundation for professional baseball leagues in the U.S. However, Wright’s iteration of the team in Cincinnati didn’t survive the tumultuous early years of the developing pro game and moved away.

When a franchise did return to the city a few years later, the glory days of Harry Wright were gone and replaced with a numbing string of listless campaigns. Entering the 1919 season, it had been over three decades since Cincinnati had finished on top. Although the team had climbed to third place in the National League in 1918, they were still 15 games out of the money and had finished last or next to last in four of the prior five seasons. Still, there was reason for optimism in the Queen City in 1919.

Slick fielding infielders Jake Daubert and Morrie Rath were added to incumbent third baseman Henry Groh, giving the Reds one of the best interior defenses in all of baseball. Twenty-four-year-old Hod Eller was coming off of a 16-win season, and 25-year-old Walter “Dutch” Ruether returned to the team after missing nearly all of the 1918 season while serving in the Army during World War I. The pitching rotation was also strengthened with the addition of veteran lefty Slim Sallee, who was only two years removed from an 18-7 season with a 2.17 ERA for the National League Champion New York Giants. And Cincinnati’s resident superstar, center fielder Edd Roush, already had a batting title to his credit and, at 26, was just entering his prime.

Yet, even in an era of “small ball” – limited power with heavy emphasis on drawing walks, stealing bases, and bunting runners over to produce runs – Cincinnati’s offensive approach was downright microscopic. Hitting only twenty home runs as a team in 1919, they had to assemble individual runs with an even more painstaking level of precision and patience than their peers. Despite the meager home run total, the Reds managed to score the second highest number of runs in the National League, due mostly to leading the league in both walks and sacrifices. In fact, no other team was close in either category as the Reds drew 50 more walks and had 32 more sacrifices than anyone else.

Individually, Roush and Groh were the most potent hitters. The star center fielder won his second batting crown by hitting .321 to go along with 20 steals, 20 sacrifices (the 20/20 club, Cincinnati Reds style), and a team-high 71 RBI’s. Meanwhile, Groh, who had gained nearly as much notoriety for the unique design of his bat as what he did at the plate with it, hit .310 – his third straight season batting over .300 with the Reds. Armed with his trademark “Bottle Bat,” he led the team in on-base percentage at .392 and homers with five.

However, the intricacy with which Cincinnati had to operate the offense necessarily distributed responsibility throughout the lineup. Daubert finished the season as the National League leader in sacrifices with the rather impressive total of 39 and tied Groh for the team lead in runs scored with 79. Rath finished second in the league in walks, and right fielder Alfred “Greasy” Neale – who would later go on to a Hall of Fame pro football coaching career – had a team-high 28 steals.

However, the real hallmarks of the team were pitching and defense. The starting pitching trio of Sallee, Eller, and Ruether were brilliant in 1919, combining for a 59-22 record and a 2.09 ERA. And each contributed to the effort in different ways. Sallee had remarkable control – actually, historically impressive control – finishing the season with more wins (21) than walks (20). Eller led the team in strikeouts with 137 and shutouts with seven. Ruether finished with the third lowest ERA in the National League at 1.82 and allowed only a single home run in over 242 innings pitched. In addition, Eller and Ruether helped their own causes at the plate, hitting .280 and .261, respectively, and driving in a combined 19 runs with 12 extra base hits.

Ray Fisher, Jimmy Ring, and a 28-year-old from Havana, Cuba named Dolf Luque rounded out the pitching staff, compiling an aggregate 34-17 record with a 2.31 ERA and seven saves. Although just in his second full season at 28, Luque would amazingly pitch another 16 seasons in the big leagues and would eventually lead the league in ERA and shutouts twice, while establishing himself as one of the earliest stars from either the Caribbean or Latin America in Major League history.

As with most superb pitching staffs, the Reds were supported by a stellar defense. Though, it was the infield that shined the brightest. While Daubert was a solid defender at first, it was Rath at second and Groh at third who truly excelled. Rath displayed excellent range while compiling a fielding average 15 points higher than the league average. Groh did even better, finishing 26 points better than the league average. In the outfield, Roush flashed some impressive defensive credentials himself – better than average range with a fielding average 22 points higher than the league standard. Although Gold Glove Awards weren’t presented until 1957, the 1919 Reds could safely argue that three of the team’s eight starters had a strong claim to such an award – had it existed that season – and a fourth was at least in the discussion.

With a strong pitching staff and a stingy defense, the Reds finished 1919 with a 96-44 record, nine full games ahead of the perennial National League powerhouse Giants.

As fate would have it, though, the Reds would match up against the American League champion Chicago White Sox in the World Series. And the White Sox were a troubled team – to say the least. Despite a hugely talented roster boasting three eventual Hall of Famers (second baseman Eddie Collins, catcher Ray Schalk, and pitcher Red Faber) and three more players (Buck Weaver, Joe Jackson, and Eddie Cicotte) meriting serious – and, in Jackson’s case, practically foregone – consideration if not for the looming scandal, there was an unsettling tension tugging at different factions within the clubhouse. Ivy League alum Collins was mutually disdained by blue collar first baseman Chick Gandil and shortstop Charles “Swede” Risberg. Southerners Jackson and pitcher Claude “Lefty” Williams tended to sequester themselves from teammates, and all of the players seemed dissatisfied and resentful of owner Comiskey’s penurious ways.

Ultimately, though, it was a combination of economics and isolation that completed the inevitable fracture of the American League champs. Gambling interests of all levels of influence and bankrolls had long been attempting to make money by securing the outcome of baseball games with varying degrees of success. However, the volatile situation roiling through the White Sox locker room provided the perfect opportunity to make the ultimate statement – a chance to control the outcome of, and profit handsomely from, the sacred cow of American sports, the World Series. With the precision of predators on the Serengeti, shadowy figures with cold, hard stacks of cash found the neediest and most willing members of the White Sox herd and took them down. They hadn’t even noticed or cared that the Reds had been irrevocably damaged in the process as well.

In fact, Cincinnati’s first at-bat of the Series set the tone for the entire sorry affair. Cicotte drilled Rath in the back with a fastball, the universal signal to all involved that the genie was out of the bottle. Imagine, though, Rath’s excitement that he had opened the Series exactly as he had hoped – getting on base to set things up for his team in the biggest game of his life. And Rath had taken a rather circuitous way to the 1919 Cincinnati roster. He’d earned a reputation as a slick fielding but light-hitting second baseman playing intermittently with various big league clubs from 1909-1913. However, he spent the next four years in the minors, hitting well over .300, to help build his resume and a possible return to the big leagues. In 1918, though, he enlisted in the Navy as America’s entry into World War I loomed. So, by 1919, it had been five years of the bush leagues and battleships since Rath put on a big league uniform. Yet, standing on first base in Game One of the World Series, he had not only made it all the way back to the majors he was playing for the game’s biggest prize. A base hit and sacrifice fly later, Rath scored Cincinnati’s first run and paved the way for a stunning, lopsided 9-1 Reds win.

Though many wrote the opening game upset off as an anomaly, the Reds took three of the next four games as well to stake themselves to a commanding 4-1 lead in the newly formatted best-of-nine Series. In fact, as if to punctuate their unexpected dominance, Jimmy Ring and Hod Eller threw back-to-back shutouts in Games Four  and Five.

Though Chicago rallied to win the next two games – on the road, no less (they hadn’t even the decency to let the Reds and their fans celebrate at home), Cincinnati hammered Lefty Williams in Game Eight, en route to a 10-5 blowout and Series clinching win. The Reds had done it. The team that had stumbled through decades of mediocrity and misery had capped its miraculous turn around season with a championship. The champagne, in this case, was particularly satisfying because it not only celebrated a long awaited title but also served as a toast to the unlikely cast besting such a dominant opponent.

Though, as with any glow derived from alcoholic beverages, it didn’t last long. And in this case, the hangover was particularly devastating. There had been whispers during the Series lamenting Chicago’s lackluster play, particularly the pitching failures of Cicotte and Williams, and vague grumbling that something just didn’t seem right about the entire thing. However, from the Reds’ perspective, they had been so immersed in the competition and so acutely focused on playing their best on the game’s biggest stage that they hadn’t noticed any let down from their opponents. And how could they? When a team fights for its very sporting life, there’s little room to notice or care about the motivation or effort of the other side.

Nonetheless, once the details of the ill-fated 1919 Series started to come out, they were all-encompassing and shaped public perception of the event for good. Key members of the White Sox were crooked, the gambling interests who had bribed and coerced them were even more crooked, and the integrity of professional baseball in America was in a precarious state. Absent in this perception, though, was what to make of the Series victors.

Though they were unwitting participants in the game’s biggest fraud, the Reds were never fully acknowledged as champions after that, either. Instead, Chicago was vilified for its part in the scandal and Cincinnati was conveniently ignored. As for what could have happened that fall, the White Sox willingly forfeited that potential the moment their players accepted money to guarantee what did happen. And what happened in the box scores was unmistakable – Cincinnati won five games, Chicago only three.

That was little solace to the Reds, though. As time and distance separated them from their remarkable championship run, they were individually left to ponder the meaning and value of 1919 while the rest of the sporting world contemplated what that season meant to everyone but the Reds.

And the magic Cincinnati captured that season didn’t last. They fell to third in 1920 and wouldn’t get back to the World Series for another 19 years. Most of the players from the 1919 roster fared little better, individually. Though Roush, Groh, and Ruether would play superbly for several more seasons (particularly Roush, an eventual Hall of Famer), many of their teammates were out of the game shortly after the championship year. Hod Eller only pitched another two years, bottoming out with an ERA nearing 5.00 in 1921, before leaving the majors for good at just 26. Slim Sallee could only coax another two seasons out of his pitching arm, as well. Greasy Neale had moved on to his football future by 1923.

However, fate reserved its cruelest outcomes for Cincinnati’s dynamic right side of the infield, Jake Daubert and Morrie Rath. Daubert, whose impressive career included a pair of batting titles, an MVP award, a career .303 average, and 2,326 career hits, suffered a serious beaning in the 1924 season. Though he kept playing, his health deteriorated quickly. By October, he was hospitalized and died just days later. He was only 40 years old.

Rath was never able to coax enough offense out of his bat at the big league level to justify keeping a space open for his exceptional glove work. As icing, his walk total dropped by nearly half in 1920 and his Major League career was over. Details of his post-baseball life are publicly scarce, except for his sad final moment. In 1945, he committed suicide at the age of 58.

Though it is impossible to know what kind of darkness took hold to push him to such despair, the ghosts of 1919 may have lingered somewhere in that pitch black place to which he retreated. Some part of him may have even wished that he could somehow go back to that moment he was standing on first base at the start of Game One, full of joy and hope, unaware that the dull pain in his back where he was hit by the pitch was more dagger than baseball.

The exhilaration of hitting the bag at second and dashing for third on Daubert’s crisp liner to right center must have seemed a lifetime ago. The roar of the crowd as he touched the plate on Groh’s arcing fly ball to left would have been unforgettable, though. And the smiling faces of teammates and joyful pats on the back in the dugout were the happy residue of his baseball apex – before it all went bad, before the greed of gamblers and thoughtless opponents took it all away.

And they took it all – every last shred of meaning – for a dirty heap of money.  The only thing left was a hallow crown that no one wanted to wear and few even wanted to acknowledge existed at all. However, the legacy of the 1919 Cincinnati Reds should be taken back from the ghosts who stole it from them in the first place.

Debt and loss may, indeed, reside in the red. However, the team from Cincinnati who rose from the ashes ninety-two years ago to scrap its way to a championship should no longer have to reside there as well. Their rightful legacy should be as a champion, no matter the circumstances of how such a title was won. In fact, it can be argued that the penance they have paid has earned them the moniker in a way as genuine as, or more than, any other champion in the history of the game.

Ultimately, that is a much more fitting way to remember the 1919 Cincinnati Reds – as World Champions and as the happy group of underdogs patting Morrie Rath on the back on the way to taking down Goliath.

Sources:

http://www.baseballlibrary.com/ballplayers/player.php?name=Harry_Wright_1835

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/CIN/

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/CIN/1919.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/NL/1919.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/AL/1919.shtml

http://bioproj.sabr.org/bioproj.cfm?a=v&v=l&bid=966&pid=3274

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/d/daubeja01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/r/rathmo01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/minors/player.cgi?id=rath–001mor

http://bioproj.sabr.org/bioproj.cfm?a=v&v=l&bid=975&pid=5524

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/grohhe01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/r/roushed01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Hod_Eller

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/e/ellerho01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/r/ruethdu01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Slim_Sallee

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/l/luquedo01.shtml

Photos:

http://www.sportscollectorsdaily.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/1919WSpin.jpg

http://irapl.altervista.org/cpm/albums/bain-63/31381–Edd-Roush–Cincinnati-NL–baseball–.jpg

http://www.cincinnativiews.net/images-3/Hod%20Eller-NL.jpg

http://web.me.com/kihm/Site/Bat_Bottle_files/bottlebat.jpg

http://www.hellocincinnati.com/images/people/5262006infielders_1919.jpg

http://www.chriscreamer.com/images/logos/4/484/full/5104.gif

http://www.cincinnativiews.net/images-2/Jake%20Daubert-1B.jpg

http://www.cincinnativiews.net/images-2/Morris%20Rath-2B.jpg

http://thedeadballera.com/TeamPhotos/1919Reds.jpg