A Tale of Two Hamiltons

Sometimes, the universe works in mysterious ways.

In 2012, a shortstop in the Cincinnati Reds’ farm system set a minor league record by stealing 155 bases.  He stole them so often and with such exhilarating ease that fans and pundits wondered if they were witnessing a prototype; a burgeoning, transformative figure in the art of base running.  Twenty-one year old Billy Hamilton certainly looked the part – lean and lithe; his long, kinetic strides leaving vapor trails in the spaces between the bases he took.

Hamilton Record

And that record – 155 steals in a single season – was a remarkable accomplishment.  Consider the company he bested to get there – Rickey Henderson, Lou Brock, Tim Raines, Vince Coleman, Maury Wills.  None of them ever stole that many bases in a single year.

Coleman was the closest at 145 in 1983 while he was with Single-A Macon, and it was Coleman’s record Hamilton broke, by fully ten more steals.  Granted, the minor leagues are not the major leagues, not by a long shot.  And Henderson, Brock, Raines, Coleman, and Wills all had superb stolen base totals at the game’s most difficult level.

Still, 155 steals is a staggering number, no matter the league.  Just think about what goes into a single steal attempt, let alone over 150 successful ones.

In the time it takes a baseball to travel from the pitcher to the catcher – at 90 miles per hour – and from the catcher to a given base – at 75-80 mph – a runner must be able to cover 90 feet – 30 yards – and beat the baseball to the bag.  And he has less than four seconds to do it.

Throw Second

In fact, the players who do it well routinely complete the theft very near the three-second mark.  They are among the elite who can actually outrun high-speed projectiles – bipeds beating ballistics.

To complicate matters – or to add spice to the stew – a base stealer must be able to determine when a pitcher has committed his balance and body to throw a pitch to the plate and when he can still wheel around and throw towards the runner and the base.  The runner has to process this – has to know with certainty – what the pitcher will do at the very instant he begins to do it.

Because once a runner decides to leave the base, there’s no looking back.  He plants that first big stride in the ground and goes.  Those three seconds are incredibly unforgiving.

Hamilton Run2

In turn, the pitcher can disguise his intent – whether he will throw to the plate or back to the base – letting doubt delay a runner’s decision and increase the odds of the ball outspeeding the base stealer to the target.   It’s a hand of poker, without the self-important posturing.


So, Hamilton’s record – his sheer bushel of beating thrown baseballs to bases – is impressive, indeed.

However, before bestowing Hamilton with any enduring crowns of base stealing exclusivity, it should be noted that he might not even be the best Billy Hamilton to blaze across the base paths.

That distinction is reserved for a speedy outfielder who pilfered his first big league bag 124 years before Cincinnati’s prodigy dazzled the modern game.

William Robert Hamilton earned the nickname “Sliding Billy” for his speed, his aggressive approach to the game, and, well, because, he slid so damned much.  However, there was good reason for all of that dirt on his uniform.


He is one of five players in Major League history to steal at least 100 bases in a single season, and he accomplished the feat four times (1889-1891, 1894).  Hamilton still ranks third all-time in career steals.  His 914 stolen bases remained a big league record for 77 years until Lou Brock finally surpassed the mark in 1978.

Over the years, though, many have discounted Sliding Billy’s gaudy stolen base total due to when they were taken (1888-1901).  For instance, rules of the time allowed for such things like a steal being awarded for taking an extra base on a hit. Such quirky ordinances have muddied the concept of the stolen base from that period, especially when compared to the version tallied in the modern game.

However, if steals of that era were truly that diluted, the top career marks in the category would be littered with players from the late-1800’s.  However, of the Top 15 base stealers in Major League history, only two others could be considered contemporaries of Hamilton (Arlie Latham – 7th and Tom Brown – 13th).  Even so, Hamilton had over 170 more stolen bases than his closest peer from that time (Latham with 742) and accumulated them in three fewer season, to boot.

So, he was the elite base runner of his day, whether or not split hairs over the statistical classification of his many jaunts around the bases are applied.  He was the best at what he did when he did it – and by a fairly wide margin.


But because he played most of his career before the advent of radio and decades before newsreels and, later, television and the internet, Sliding Billy pretty much slid his way right out of the public consciousness.

However, when another speedy player – coincidentally named Billy Hamilton – came along decades later but happened upon the spotlight at time when media attention was never greater, that singularity of name helped to rightfully bring attention back to the brilliant career of the 19th century star.

Although the elder Hamilton’s base running exploits were remarkable, his ability to get on base to do all of that burglary was even better.

His .344 career batting average is tied for 7th All-time in big league history, in a statistical dead heat with the great Ted Williams – all the way out to a fourth decimal point, actually.  Along the way, Hamilton topped the .400 mark in 1894, hitting .403 for the Philadelphia Phillies, and finished north of .380 on two other occasions.

And he was so selective at the plate that he led the National League in walks five times.  Combined with his exceptional hitting, that penchant for getting on base brought Hamilton another piece of history.  His .455 career on-base percentage still ranks as the fourth-highest ever.

Sliding Billy H

However, his most impressive deed on the field is at the very heart of the game itself.

If the entire object of the sport is scoring runs – which it is – Hamilton scored more of them in a single season than any player in big league history, ever.  In 1894 – the year he hit .403 – Hamilton scored 198 runs.  Since then, only Babe Ruth has gotten as close as 20 runs from the record (1921).  And in the last 50 years, only one player has gotten within 50 runs of the mark (Jeff Bagwell with 152 in 2000).

Although he was one of the game’s greatest players, his personality was more bookkeeper than baseball superstar – particularly one of that vintage.  Perhaps, it was that sedate persona during such an unruly time in the sport that limited his notoriety, because there was certainly more than enough spectacle to go around.

Ball players of the late-1800’s were a staggeringly rowdy bunch, often profane and habitually self-indulgent.


As for the staggering part (pun very much intended), many players imbibed so often and in such volume that they either drank themselves out of the game or, worse, to any early grave.  Alcohol infused shenanigans commonly resulted in brawls on the diamond and saloon melees off of it.  Coarse language at nearly every utterance was probably more acclimation than intentional vulgarity – wild milieus couldn’t help but produce wild denizens.

Perhaps, it was the uncertainty of the industry that drove the rollicking behavior.  If a player lost his metaphorical grip on baseball, he was likely doomed to a life of agrarian or industrial misery.  Few were educated enough to survive comfortably outside of the game.  So, while they were privy to celebrity and decent money, many lived like there wasn’t a tomorrow, because – for a lot of them – there wouldn’t be.


Amidst that, Sliding Billy was an anomaly.  He didn’t drink or cheat on his wife or curse repeatedly.  In fact, the only hell he raised was on the field, and, even then, it was his running that caused the ruckus and not an overly aggressive personality or borderline dirty play that were hallmarks of most of his contemporaries.

He lived modestly, saved his money, and led a quiet but honorable life.  Sadly, his spectacular play on the baseball diamond wasn’t enough to have saved his legend over the years.  It seems that history preferred stormy over calm. As proof, it took the Hall of Fame over two decades to recognize Hamilton’s accomplishments (the Hall opened in 1936; Hamilton was inducted in 1961).

Meanwhile, 19th century stars Mike “King” Kelly and George ”Rube” Waddell – both superb players but chronic drunks – were allowed Cooperstown entry 15 years earlier than Hamilton (Kelly was inducted in 1945; Waddell in 1946).  No doubt, the colorful yarns attached to Kelly and Waddell over time – whether brimming with hyperbole or not – helped to keep their names more ready at the recall when it came time to honor players from that era.  After all, few could forget a baseball star who once kept a pet monkey on his shoulder (Kelly) or another who would occasionally miss games to chase fire engines down the street (Waddell).


However, it should be noted that Hamilton had significantly higher career totals in batting average, on-base percentage, hits, steals, and runs scored than Kelly (Waddell was a pitcher).  He was also a much better defensive player than Kelly and had far greater range.  What he did not have was a quirky, grandiose persona, and that, apparently, cost him the enduring recognition his playing record would seem to merit.

One has to wonder, then, if the modern-day Billy Hamilton – he of the 155 steals in a year – will be similarly swallowed by time, because he has also has a modest and unassuming personality.  In fact, Cincinnati’s Hamilton has a number of things in common with Sliding Billy of yesteryear.

There is the name, of course.  There is also the demeanor.  The current Hamilton is polite and gracious, never allowing the notoriety of the moment go to his head.  He works hard and mostly lets his accomplishments punctuate his play.

Hamilton Work

Then, there is the speed.  Both Hamiltons share that – the game-changing, unstoppable ability to propel themselves around the bases with extraordinary quickness.  And within that frantic realm is the stolen base.

Base stealing is in some parts brains, bravado, and birthright.  Players best suited for it study pitchers and their pickoff moves relentlessly.  Even then, they have to have the fortitude and faith to believe that they can outrun a thrown baseball.  Most importantly, they need the God-given ability to become a blur.

Hamilton run

The two Hamiltons truly have that – Sliding Billy’s 914 big league thefts and the modern Billy’s 155-steal minor league season are proof of extraordinary speed.  However, what remains to be seen is what the 21st century version of Billy Hamilton will produce at the Major League level.

So far in 2014 – his rookie season in the big leagues – Hamilton has stolen 43 bases in just over 100 games.  He has also been caught 16 times, the most in the National League.  That difference between major and minor leagues has been a bit problematic for Cincinnati’s wunderkind – a 150-steal season in the majors is still a ways off.  However, a likely 60-steal rookie campaign is not a bad way to start what could be the next great base stealing career.

Hamilton is also hitting a respectable .271, though his .299 on-base percentage could use some polish.  At 23, he has plenty of time to sharpen his skills, to truly weaponize his remarkable speed.  If he’s lucky he may even carve out a 14-year Hall of Fame career in the big leagues, become a lifetime .300 hitter and steal 900 bases.


If he does, it will be difficult to determine the better of the two Billy Hamiltons. Until then, the nod has to go to the player who did accomplish all of those things, even if history has given him the cold shoulder.  Hopefully, the universe will not be required to conjure up a third Billy Hamilton in order for us to rightfully celebrate the other two.




























The Pride of Lions

He couldn’t hear the roar of the crowd, but he could feel it.

And it was enough. It had to be, because it was all he was ever going to have.

Curtis Pride played baseball with power and speed, crackling with competitive fire. He also played it in utter silence. When Pride made his big league debut in 1993 for the Montreal Expos, he was the first deaf player to reach the majors in nearly fifty years.


A perinatal case of rubella siphoned his hearing. From birth, he never had the rich texture of sound in his life. Instead, he had to rely primarily on sight and touch to replace audio cues.

For an outfielder like Pride, the game was made even more difficult, because he could not rely on calls from teammates to prevent collisions on fly balls. Nor could he pick up fair or foul calls from umpires. He had to see it happening – all at once – perpetually dividing his vision. He needed to visually process so much more than other players it was a wonder that he could keep it all from dooming his play to distraction.

Reaching the major leagues – one of sport’s most exclusive fraternities – is difficult enough using all of one’s senses stretched taut. However, to arrive at such a coveted spot missing one such perceptive instrument is a stunning achievement.

So, when Pride made it to the big leagues in 1993, he had conquered what few others in the history of the sport ever had. And he had done so while squashing his own doubting whispers – the only sound ever available to him.

As a reward for his remarkable journey, he received a standing ovation after his first major league hit, a double lashed all the way to the left center field wall in Montreal. Even though he never heard the cheers, he saw the enthusiastic faces and felt the vibration of the applause. Perhaps, it was an even more profound way to receive such adulation, because he felt it in his bones.

However, the struggle to reach the big leagues is only surpassed by the more daunting task of staying there. Although he had proven himself at each minor league level – at times even performing brilliantly enough to suggest future stardom in the majors – Pride had difficulty with the staying part of the Major League equation.

He wandered through six different big league clubhouses in 11 seasons and played sparingly, only once appearing in more than 90 games in a major league season and often bounced between the minors and majors in the same year. His lone shining moment in the big leagues – aside from that thrilling ovation in Quebec – came in 1996. That season, he achieved career highs in home runs (10), doubles (17), RBI’s (31), and steals (11) with Detroit. He also hit an even .300, the revered hallmark of batting success.

Pride Detroit

The following year, though, his average plummeted to .210, and the vagabond’s road through the majors beckoned. Although he never hit higher than .252 or played in more than 70 games in a big league season after 1996, he did draw a Major League salary until he was 37 years old.

But he also spent time in Norfolk, Pawtucket, Salt Lake City, and Albuquerque. In all, he played parts of 23 seasons in the minors and independent leagues, a testament to how difficult it is to fully escape the shadows of the lower floors once the penthouse has been reached.

Salt Lake

More difficult still, of course, was that Pride had to try to maintain his hold on the big leagues as a deaf player – something that only two others had ever done more successfully.

William Hoy and Luther Taylor claimed that they were never bothered by a common troublesome nickname. The late 1800’s and early 1900’s were not particularly progressive or enlightened times. So, calling a deaf player “Dummy” seemed strangely normal for the age.

However, neither man lacked the smarts, ability, or courage to play the game – and play it well – amidst the myopic thinking of the day.

Hoy made his big league debut in 1888 for the Washington Nationals, who played their home games at the splendidly named Swampoodle Grounds. Although the Nationals finished last, Hoy was one of the team’s few bright spots. He led the league in steals with 82 and finished the year with a team-high .274 batting average.


And he played the outfield with aggressive panache. From center field, he directed his teammates – as a deaf man – on pop ups and fly balls. If the play was his, he would bellow as loudly as he could to signal his bead on the ball. If he couldn’t reach it, he would simply remain silent, tacitly commanding one of his peers to make the play. And he wasn’t timid about his preference for this arrangement.

His teammates respected the dynamic, because Hoy was exceptionally skilled and they all knew it. In 14 Major League seasons, he collected over 2,000 hits, stole 596 bases, and scored nearly 1,500 runs. He was fast and smart and could hit, In fact, he was talented enough to almost make them forget he couldn’t hear.

But there was that nickname.

In time, though, it became a badge of honor, a constant reminder of everything he had to overcome to find success and respect at the game’s highest level.

Just as Hoy was finishing his big league career, a young pitcher in New York was just about to earn a badge of his own.

Luther Taylor played most of his career for the New York Giants and John McGraw, one of the least sentimental managers in the history of the game. So, if Taylor wanted any special dispensation for his deafness, he certainly wasn’t going to get any from McGraw. Not that Taylor ever needed any, though; he was an accomplished amateur boxer in his youth and had an undeniable toughness.

Perhaps, it was that tenacity and his intelligence from the mound that won McGraw over. While the pragmatic skipper lacked pathos, he brimmed with loyalty. Once a player proved his competency and combativeness on the diamond, McGraw willingly became a mentor and protector.

In nine seasons with the Giants, Taylor won 115 games with a 2.77 ERA – including a career high 21 wins in 1904, a pennant–winning year for the New Yorkers.


Although Hoy and Taylor shared scant overlap in their big league tenures, they did have one collective moment of history. In 1902 – Taylor’s rookie year and Hoy’s final season in the majors – the two squared off in game between the Giants and Reds.

In that instant, the two men transcended their insulting nicknames and shattered perceived limitations. If two deaf men could rise to enough athletic fame to meet on a Major League baseball diamond, the alibis of others for lesser dreams and self-limiting expectation seemed all the more hollow.

Thirty-seven years after Taylor threw his last big league pitch in 1908, outfielder Dick Sipek reached the majors with Cincinnati just four years after graduating from the Illinois School for the Deaf. His Illinois coach, Luther Taylor, couldn’t have been prouder.

And no one called Sipek “Dummy” when he stepped on the field.


Although Sipek only played that one season – 1945 – in the majors, he, too, left his mark on the game.

When Curtis Pride made his big league debut forty-eight years later, no one called him “Dummy,” either. By then, perception of a deaf player had progressed to the point where it was merit – and merit alone – that shaped opinions of his play and potential.

Had Taylor and Hoy been alive to witness the thunderous ovation in Montreal a deaf man received for his first big league hit, it would have been that much sweeter to feel the reward for their collective struggle in their bones.














The Rose and Thorns of Josh Hamilton’s Baseball Life

The whispers must be the worst part.

Of course, an addict experiences far more troubling and damaging things than the nasty buzz of disapproving tongues. Lives are often jeopardized, essential relationships ruined, and prison a possibility. However, no matter what an addict does to move past the addiction, to finally understand that the only choice left is to fight to separate from the drugs or follow the addiction to the grave; no matter how much an addict repairs the damage the addiction has caused or how much time has passed since the worst of it, the whispers remain – an unshakeable legacy of past sins.

More difficult still is to be a public figure carrying such a legacy.

Just ask Josh Hamiltion.

Hamilton, a five-time All Star and 2010 American League MVP, is one of Major League Baseball’s biggest stars. He is also a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. And the whispers have followed him every step of the way throughout his big league career.

Of course, the hard truth is that it is impossible to separate Hamilton’s tumultuous battle with addiction from his similarly dizzying baseball career. The two have become intertwined over the years like a great big rose atop a gnarled stem studded with thorns jagged enough to rip most anything to pieces.

But before that bittersweet dichotomy controlled his universe, he was an unwrinkled sheet of athletic potential – crisp, clean, and awaiting definition.

In 1999, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays made Hamilton, an 18-year-old high school outfielder from North Carolina, the first overall selection in that year’s Major League amateur draft. Nicknamed “Hammer,” he could throw a ball nearly 100 miles per hour but swung the bat with such natural fury that his future as a hitter easily trumped his considerable pitching promise.

A year later, he confirmed the choice by displaying such enviable power and speed at Tampa’s minor league affiliate in Charleston that USA Today named him The Minor League Player of the Year for 2000.

In 2001, Hamilton was primed to become the game’s next big thing, a 20-year-old phenom who hit prodigious home runs with as much ease as he tore around the bases. However, fate and Hamilton’s own demons intervened, sweeping his considerable promise wildly off-course.

On the way to their Spring Training home in Sarasota, Hamilton and his parents were blindsided by a dump truck that sped through a red light and roared into the their SUV. Although Hamilton escaped major injury, he hurt his back seriously enough to limit his playing time that season to just 43 games.

As it turned out, being away from the baseball diamond was the one of the worst things that could have happened to him that year. Still flush with the bonus money he received from his lofty draft status and untethered from the discipline of the game while he nursed his injured back, Hamilton was seduced – slowly, at first – by the thin, dark fingers of illicit indulgence.

He chased the very first drink of alcohol he’d ever had in his life with a line of cocaine. The ensuing dalliance led to guilt, which in turn, led to a stint in rehab – the first of eight such attempts he would eventually try. But the more playing time he missed the easier it was for him to retreat into the haze of cocaine and booze.

By 2003, he had surrendered his baseball future for the bottle and the baggy. His drinking and coke binging had grown to such opulence that there was little room for much else, let alone the painstaking training regimen of a professional athlete. So, after failing a drug test given by Major League Baseball, he simply refused to take any more of them and was suspended from the league indefinitely.

By most measures, his story – at least his story as a public figure – should have ended there, a failed phenom who allowed the visceral temptation of the shadows to hasten his self-destruction.

But it didn’t.

Instead, he fell even further – disintegrating into rampant crack cocaine abuse – before he was saved, by his grandmother and his faith. Late in 2005, Hamilton showed up at his grandmother Mary’s house, financially broke and spiritually broken. And she took him in, demanding only that he not break her heart anymore.

With a newfound respect for religion and the tough love of family, Hamilton slowly made his way back from the edge of the abyss. Although baseball was hardly on his immediate radar, his natural ability for the game had survived his recklessness. While he tried to repair the more important and personal things he’d managed to disassemble, he still dreamt of a return to the sport one day because he knew he still had the instincts and reflexes of a ballplayer. The drugs hadn’t taken that.

After more than a year of sobriety, endless hours of retraining his body to play again, and a successful trial in the low minors, he was reinstated by Major League Baseball in 2007. Tampa understandably no longer had the stomach to take any more chances on him and traded him to the Cincinnati Reds.

At the age of 26, eight years after he was chosen as the first pick in all of baseball, Josh Hamilton finally made his big league debut and quickly showed why so many had such buoyant hopes for him years before. In 90 games with the Reds, he hit .292 with 19 home runs and played defensive with the easy, loping strides that had impressed all of those scouts before his life went haywire.

Hamilton was finally back on the baseball map, but the whispers of his drug-addicted past lingered. Perhaps wanting to take advantage of his newfound value and not wanting to risk losing him to a relapse, Cincinnati traded Hamilton to the Texas Rangers for a pair of promising young pitchers – without any baggage from their pasts.

With the Rangers, Hamilton was spectacular. In 2008, his first year with the club, he made the All-Star team. And as part of the All-Star Game festivities at New York’s Yankee Stadium – one of the great cathedrals of the game – Hamilton launched 35 home runs in the Home Run Derby contest, a record for the event. For the year, he hit .304 and led the American League in RBI’s with 139.

However, he missed 62 games in 2009 with an assortment of injuries. Worse still, it was revealed that he had briefly relapsed with alcohol earlier in the year, publicly binging at an Arizona bar one night. There were anonymous rumblings that another descent could be waiting to happen. After all, addicts are forever just a bad moment or two away from giving away all of the progress they have made.

Instead, Hamilton thrived in 2010. He led the league in batting with a .359 average, hit 32 homers, won the American League MVP, and carried the Rangers to their first World Series appearance in franchise history. The rumors of his demise, it turned out, were greatly exaggerated.

The following season, he again played a key role in leading Texas back into the World Series but missed another 41 games during the regular season due to injury. This time, the whispers hinted at his fragility. Perhaps, the past drug and alcohol abuse had taken such a physical toll that he would always be vulnerable to his body breaking down during the long season.

However, he seemed to answer his murmuring critics again by playing in 148 games in 2012 and swatting 43 home runs for the Rangers, who made the post season for the third year in a row. Yet, Hamilton’s thorny past haunted him when news of another alcohol-related evening of relapse during the season went public.

So, despite, a batting crown, a league MVP award, five straight All-Star appearances, and key roles on three playoff teams, Hamilton became a free agent after the 2012 season and is not expected to receive an offer from the Rangers.

Ordinarily, a player of Hamilton’s ability, accomplishments, and age – he turned 31 in May – would be welcomed back by his current team, in the form of a long-term, big money contract. However, Hamilton and his baseball journey are not in the least bit ordinary.

So, as speculation swirls as to where Josh Hamilton will wind up for the upcoming season, discrete mention of his “off the field” issues invariably play a significant part in the discussion.

Those whispers do, indeed, remain – no matter how long or how far an addict has come from a troubled past.


















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.





























A Hero’s Life – Baseball’s First Casualty of War, Eddie Grant

Battlefield cemeteries all have the same heartbreaking landscape.

Rows of clean, white headstones fan out like an endless string of piano keys, and each key has its own resonance – tapping out the story of an honorable life ended abruptly. Collectively, they echo with a tragic but noble hymn, filled with all of the things that happen in wartime – unthinkable carnage, remarkable heroism and loyalty, and the kind of horrible clarity that only comes when the fleeting nature of life and the hard permanence of death occupy the same razor-thin edge.

One such headstone marking one such honorable life sets on a perfectly placid bit of green just outside the small town of Romagne in Southern France. The present-day tranquility of the spot belies the chaotic, ear-splitting violence that took place there nearly a century before, just as the simple engraving on the stone fails to capture the extraordinary breadth of the life it is meant to honor – Edward L. Grant, Capt. 307 Inf. 77 Div, New York, Oct. 9, 1918.

There’s no mention of his rich tapestry with threads that ran from Harvard Law School to Major League Baseball to a storybook marriage marred by sadness and, finally, to one moment of profound bravery half a world away from everything he knew.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

As a native New Englander, Eddie Grant had likely been inching his way toward Harvard since he was a child. When he matured into a young man with an appetite for education and the refinement necessary for Ivy League acceptance, he reached Cambridge and the exponentially widening opportunities that Harvard admission provided.

But he was an atypical Crimson student, because his professional blueprint not only included plans to become a lawyer – very Harvard-esque – but also to reach the big leagues as a professional baseball player – decidedly un-Harvard like. Simply put, Grant wanted his high-brow professional cake with a bit of decadence and whimsy as icing. Not only that, he wished to devour the entire thing, all at once.

On August 4, 1905, he got the chance to do so.

Playing for a semipro team in nearby Lynn during his summer break from Cambridge, he was – as they say in entertainment and athletic lexicons – discovered.

The Cleveland Naps were in Boston to play the Americans – the Red Sox moniker was still three years away – but were short a player due to a nasty spate of injuries. They needed a capable body, and they needed him quickly and cheaply.

So, they went on a hastily arranged talent search. Call it serendipity or plain old blind luck, but Eddie Grant just happened to be in the right place at the right time when the Naps arrived in Lynn with their collective hat out.

He played in two games for Cleveland and collected three hits in his Major League debut before the team’s regular second baseman, Hall of Famer Napoleon Lajoie, returned to the lineup. When the circus left town, Grant stayed behind and watched the colorful caravan of itchy wool uniforms, tobacco-stained bats, and profane characters fade into the distance.

That brief taste of decadent and whimsical frosting was not nearly enough. So, Grant returned to school with the full intent of collecting his degree as quickly as possible before running away to rejoin the circus.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

By 1907, he had his Harvard diploma in hand and a big league jersey draped over his shoulders. In fact, Grant led a double life of sorts, spending his spring and summer with the Philadelphia Phillies and the fall and winter back in Cambridge working his way through Harvard’s rigorous but prestigious law school.

In an age when most Major Leaguers played to escape agrarian or industrial misery, he was an anomaly – a ballplayer with life options. While his fellow big league peers grimly held onto their jobs to keep from falling off the edge of the world, Grant played for sheer personal enrichment, knowing he would have a law practice waiting for him as soon as he was done with the game.

He played hard and, befitting his Ivy League pedigree, with intelligence. He just didn’t play with quite enough skill to distinguish himself. Still, he was good enough to be ordinary and – considering the milieu – that was an achievement in and of itself.

And there were scattered pockets when he shined. In one spectacular afternoon in New York, he had seven straight hits against Hall Fame pitchers Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard. On other afternoons, he placed bunts down with such dexterity that it was as if he put them on the turf by hand. In fact, he was proficient enough at the task to be among the league leaders in sacrifices two of the three years he started for Philadelphia.

However, his greatest moment in the game had nothing to do with the sport itself.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Baseball brought him to Philadelphia. And because it did, he walked into a random drugstore on errands in 1910 and met a pretty Sunday school teacher named Irene Soest.

As it turned out, that meeting – bursting with serendipity – blossomed into the great love each hoped would find its way into their lives. In fact, the connection proved to be so deep that the courtship lasted less than a year.

On February 28, 1911, they were married in the same church where Irene taught.

Subsequently, Eddie immersed himself into married life. As part of their future plans, he decided to leave baseball after the 1911 season and concentrate on his legal career. After all, a ballplayer’s meager salary would not provide for the kind of life he thought his beautiful bride deserved. Besides, professional baseball required a nomadic lifestyle. Away games involved travel, not to mention the uprooting imposed by trades.

In fact, Grant had been traded from Philadelphia to Cincinnati that offseason, just as the courtship of his future wife transformed into an engagement. And his year with the Reds went poorly, as he hit just .223 and the team limped to sixth.

He had had enough of the baseball circus and now wanted to spend as much time with Irene as he could.

However, Irene’s physiology held a tragic secret. She had suffered a serious case of typhoid as a child but seemingly recovered fully. Outwardly, she looked fine – vivacious and healthy – but, internally, she wasn’t. Her heart had been significantly damaged by the disease.

And one morning in November, 1911, that dormant condition reached an awful conclusion. She felt severe chest pain and suddenly – shockingly – died in Eddie’s arms before he could get help.

The wondrous journey – their magnificent union – was supposed to last for decades. That it ended so abruptly and horribly devastated Grant. It was as if they had been on a beautiful train ride intended to glide along indefinitely. But he had stepped off – just for an instant – to stretch his legs, and the train had pulled away without him, taking Irene with it. So, he was left standing, dazed and heartbroken, on an abandoned platform with no hope of that train ever coming back.

Without Irene, he scrapped the plan to leave the game. A nomadic life would do until he could piece together an alternate future. It would also allow some time for his head to comprehend and his heart to heal. The former took an arduous path, but relief from the latter never happened.

After all, that train was gone forever.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

After Irene’s death, Grant drifted. His baseball career stalled in Cincinnati. By June of the 1913 season, his batting average ebbed to a career-low .213.

He already had a foot out the door when John McGraw and the New York Giants – a perennial National League powerhouse – saved his baseball life. The Giants made a trade for him and provided a novel opportunity – a chance to play for a legitimate championship contender.

Although he rarely did play for his new team – utilized mostly as a pinch-hitter and a substitute on the bases, the real motive behind the trade became apparent. McGraw valued Grant’s knowledge of the game so much that the man they called “Harvard Eddie” acted as a de facto bench coach, providing the Giants’ legendary manager with strategic insight during games.

Grant’s time with McGraw and the New Yorkers seemed to steady his ship. Being around and contributing to a winning team restored some of his vitality and determination. So, when the time came for him to leave the game after the 1915 season, he walked away with few regrets.

His legal career beckoned and the blueprint for his post-baseball life unfurled with promise.

Then, war came for America, and everything changed.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Since 1914, the Great War had screamed through Europe at a terrifying rate.

However, the United States had clung doggedly to neutrality. The staggering conflict across the Atlantic was largely born of interlocking treaties and the military obligations that bound various forces in the region to flash its arms as protection for its allies.

Without such ironclad obligation, America was free to steer clear of the inferno burning everything in its path halfway across the globe.

However, in 1917, the flames finally reached across the ocean and the U.S. felt compelled to pick a side and start sending men and machines into the fray.

Although he was 33 and not subject to any mandatory enlistment, Grant volunteered immediately. Whatever part of him that died when he lost Irene had not touched his idealism. The grand, romantic notion of shouldering a gun and fighting for his country and the principle of democracy was ultimately irresistible to him.

So, he trained to be an officer and was dispatched to the front as a Captain in the 307th Infantry out of New York.

What he likely wasn’t ready for – what few of them were ready for – was the brutality of the conflict. This war was conducted in that appalling place where military strategy had not yet caught up to the destructive technology of the weapons. So, commanders insisted on deploying men and structuring plans of attack based on the way enemies used to fight rather than their present capacity for wholesale slaughter.

Still, soldiers kept summoning the courage to attempt the impossible. They charged directly at fortified machine gun nests. They held steady in muddy trenches as artillery shells rained all around them. And they climbed up rickety ladders to desolate fields of barbed wire, fallen men, and enemy snipers.

Mostly, they died – by the hundreds or the thousands on single bloody mornings and afternoons. But they somehow found the resolve – whether motivated by the greater cause or the unbreakable connection to their brothers in arms – to keep doing what they were told despite the dreadful odds.

Such was the case when Grant heard that a battalion led by one of his former law school classmates and a close friend, Major Charles Whittlesey, had been cornered behind enemy lines.

Whittlesey’s battalion made an advance into the Argonne Forest in Southern France against ferocious German fire.  Unfortunately, they advanced too far, too quickly and outdistanced their support on both flanks. The Germans pinched in around them – taking the high ground – and made a relentless assault. Cut off from support and trapped by enemy fire, Whittlesey and his men were picked off mercilessly as they scrambled for cover.

Grant, who was leading Company H after all of his senior officers were either wounded or killed in battle, received orders to find and free the trapped battalion. Although he was utterly exhausted from days of marching and fighting and could barely bring his morning coffee to his lips, he never wavered in readying himself and his men for the perilous rescue mission.

With lives to be saved, Eddie Grant willingly ran headlong into the abyss.

As he mounted a charge towards the German encirclement, an enemy artillery shell came whistling through the trees and exploded nearby. A fragment of shrapnel tore through his side, killing him instantly.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

At the time of his death, there were many tributes paid and much fanfare made of his sacrifice. In 1921, the New York Giants honored Grant by placing a plaque in remembrance at the Polo Grounds, the team’s venerable home field. After the franchise left Gotham for California after the 1957 season, Grant’s plaque stayed behind. Just as it happened so many years before, Eddie Grant – or at least his bronze-plated surrogate – had to watch the circus leave town without him.

Although there were tales of theft and vandalism that persisted for decades after the Polo Grounds were demolished and its remnants scattered to the winds, the plaque eventually resurfaced in 1999 as part of a private collection – still separated from a Major League home.

Perhaps as recompense for years of neglect, Grant’s old team, the Giants, subsequently put up a replica plaque in the team’s new stadium in San Francisco in 2006. So, Eddie Grant was finally able to rejoin his beloved circus a final time.

However, as fans stream into the ballpark to watch multi-millionaires in rented uniforms cavort on a pristine field for a billion dollar industry, few likely notice or care about the modest wall-hanging honoring a player from long ago who fought and fell in a faraway war – a war now only vaguely referenced in yellowing books in the quietest aisles of the library.

Unfortunately, time has a way of dulling the edges of memory. Cobwebs form, shadows are cast, and ruminations are lost to time.

Still, when Americans take a moment to remember and honor those who have served and fallen for this country, it would be nice to know that Captain Edward Leslie Grant hasn’t been lost to the shadows of history and that heroism no matter how much it has aged is still worthy of our collective acknowledgement and respect.

After all, a hero’s memory shouldn’t have an expiration date.


Coyne, Kevin, “Ultimate Sacrifice,” Smithsonian Magazine, October, 2004.

http://i.ebayimg.com/t/Cleveland-Naps-1905-8×10-B-W-Team-Photo-/00/s/MTIxOVgxNjAw/$(KGrHqF,!qEE9d9LigOPBPZIhJPqig~~60_57.JPG http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-0qKW3Fsfqzs/Td6B62ecNjI/AAAAAAAASMA/92Okv8JKE0c/s1600/eddie+grant+%25283%2529.jpg

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.





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











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.