Character Counts – Remembering Stan the Man

The nickname was simple but effective.

Off the baseball field, he was humble and endearingly uncomplicated. On the diamond, though, Stan “The Man” Musial was fearsome. His unorthodox batting stance – knees together, back hunched, torso contorted so that his jersey number nearly faced the pitcher – unleashed a torrent of wickedness and produced some of the most impressive results in Major League history.

Stance

For 22 seasons, all with the St. Louis Cardinals, Musial terrorized big league pitchers – finishing his brilliant career with a .331 lifetime batting average, 475 home runs, three MVP awards, seven batting titles, and an eclectic brew of envy, respect, and dread from the men he bested.

He triumphed so often and so thoroughly from the batter’s box that opponents flinched at the thought of seeing him at the plate. After all, he was The Man – the player whose lethal skill sent shivers up spines with a game in the balance.  But that anxiety was tempered by Musial’s unfailing sportsmanship and grace in victory. He beat you, but he never gloated. His remarkable ability did all of the talking, and he was honorable enough to let that suffice.

Musial2

Because of that decency, Musial’s stunning accomplishments in the game left an even greater impression.

He certainly had every reason to be arrogant. His 3,630 career hits were the most in National League history when he retired and remained at that apex for 18 years until Pete Rose eclipsed the mark in 1981. His 6,134 total bases are still the second highest in Major League history behind only Hank Aaron. He played in 24 All-Star games and holds the record for most home runs in All-Star competition with six. He was also a three-time World Champion and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1969 with over 93% of the vote.

Still, he went through life with a smile rather than a self-important smirk.

He told corny jokes with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy and was known for playing a harmonica in public whenever the mood struck him.

Harmonica

After his playing days, he stayed in St. Louis and remained an approachable and happy presence in the community. The sun was always shining in Stan Musial’s world, and fans loved him as much for his joyous deposition as for his lofty position in the game’s history.

And for a franchise with a pedigree that includes icons like Rogers Hornsby, Bob Gibson, and Dizzy Dean, it was Stan the Man who came to embody the essence of the Cardinals – proud and earnest and respectful of the game and its rich history.

Statue

So, when Musial passed away on January 19 at the age of 92, a significant piece of one of baseball’s great teams and cities went with him. In an age where athletes are vilified for selfishness and ethical indifference and the media delights in holding a self-important stance over such exposés, the loss of a genuinely kind and gracious sports legend is all the more poignant.

Perhaps, the true legacy of Musial’s extraordinary life isn’t to be found in the eye-popping numbers he produced on the baseball diamond. Rather, his greatest impact has more to do with how he achieved all of those remarkable things – with undeniable charisma and humility. It is a lesson that present-day athletes and those who cover them would be wise to fully appreciate.

He had a simple nickname, but The Man did something that few others can ever claim. He reached true greatness without ever losing himself along the way.

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Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/m/musiast01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/allstar/leaders_bat.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/TB_career.shtml

Photos:

http://i.cdn.turner.com/si/multimedia/photo_gallery/0804/mlb.best.baseball.players.numbers.0-22/images/06.stan-musial.jpg

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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

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2012/10/30/sports/YSCORE/YSCORE-articleLarge.jpg

http://thepinetree.net/images/announce/SergioRomo_ri0afg4s_hxuqbozc.jpg

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http://i.cdn.turner.com/si/multimedia/photo_gallery/1010/mlb.unlikely.postseason.heroes/images/marco-scutaro.jpg

http://img.bleacherreport.net/img/images/photos/001/954/992/154682950_crop_exact.jpg?w=650&h=440&q=75

http://i2.cdn.turner.com/si/2012/baseball/mlb/10/26/world-series-giants-vogelsong.ap/ryan-vogelsong-p1.jpg

http://cmsimg.cincinnati.com/apps/pbcsi.dll/bilde?Site=AB&Date=20121011&Category=SPT04&ArtNo=310110247&Ref=AR&MaxW=640&Border=0&Buster-Posey-does-damage-against-Reds-Game-5

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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

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Videos:

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

Sitting in a Pumpkin at Midnight

Perhaps, pining for what was is not as difficult as longing for what never comes.

For fifty-two years, the St. Louis Browns and their fans sat in a pumpkin waiting for it to turn into a royal carriage, but it never happened.

Most Cinderella stories in sports regale that one moment of triumph, however fleeting – that one instant when the years of futility and disappointment are washed away with one perfect wave. Unfortunately, that glass slipper never found its way onto the foot of the chambermaid living in the grand shadow of Sportsman’s Park and of its perennially successful co-tenants, the Cardinals. And no one sat more patiently or deserved that splendid carriage ride more than the Browns’ greatest player, first baseman George Sisler.

However, such was the curse under which Sisler played baseball. Though there have been decades of hand wringing over the notion of billy goats and bambinos hexing franchises in Chicago and Boston, the St. Louis Browns had it worse. From 1902 to 1953 – the fifty-two seasons the Browns plied their trade in St. Louis – their supposed ill-fated brethren in Chicago and Boston captured sixteen pennants and seven World Series titles between them. In contrast, the Browns won precisely one pennant in all of that time and never sipped championship champagne.

Instead, they lost so consistently and so thoroughly the drumbeat of those defeats paced their movements on the field. They butchered the sport with the brutal consistency of men in leather smocks separating porterhouses from sirloins. Still, amongst all of that carnage on the diamond, George Sisler played beautifully. He was a top-tier superstar, a true jewel of the game, buried under an avalanche of misery.

Consider the 1920 season.

During that remarkable year, he batted .407 with a league-record 257 hits. He also lashed out 49 doubles, 18 triples, and 19 homers, drove in 122 runs, and stole 42 bases. The man they called “Sizzler” scorched that small patch of Missouri real estate like few others ever had or ever would. And Sisler’s record for hits was so stunning that it would last for another 84 seasons until Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki eclipsed it with the rather mind-boggling total of 262.

As if to punctuate his unshakeable hold over the baseball world that year, he even collected a save on the final day of the season by striking out a pair of batters without yielding a hit.

Yet, the Browns finished fourth in the American League, 21 ½ games behind the pennant-winning Cleveland Indians.

Through it all, Sisler played with disarming modesty and admirable effort, nobly unfazed by his circumstances and powered, almost entirely it would seem, by his devotion to the game and to his craft. Despite another lagging and morale draining finish in 1920, there was hope stirring in St. Louis, because help for the team’s resident superstar finally seemed to be on the way. And that hope hinged on a trio of outfielders who were finally making good.

Aside from an odd nickname, center fielder William “Baby Doll” Jacobson had surprising nuance to his game. At 6’3″ and 215 pounds, the burly Jacobson had the build of a power hitter but relied on punchy contact rather than the long ball to do his damage at the plate. And in 1920, he maximized that approach as never before, hitting .355 with 122 RBI’s.

Although right fielder Jack Tobin was the physical antithesis of Jacobson – at 5’8” and 145 pounds, a mere water bug – they both played remarkably alike. However, for Tobin, the approach fit his appearance like a glove. Pesky, slashing liners led to wild dashes on the bases, and his .341 average produced its share of scampering, along with 94 runs.

However, the left fielder ended up being the true catalyst of the bunch. He was a wiry, deceptively powerful hitter from Grants Pass, Oregon and an odd physical blend of his two outfield mates. At 6’0″ and 170 pounds, Ken Williams was taller and heavier than Tobin but not nearly as beefy as Jacobson. The three made for a strange baseball version of “The Ascent of Man.” However, Williams was the most evolved player of the three – power, speed, and high average, all in the same dangerous package. While he had a solid year in 1920, it took him two more seasons to become the snarling, fang-bearing slugger that George Sisler so desperately needed as a complement. And, in 1922, Williams howled at the moon all season long.

Batting a robust .332, the lanky Oregonian led the American League in homers with 39 and RBI’s with 155. He also stole 37 bases to become the charter member of what has become the exclusive marker of speed and power in the game, the “30-30 club.” In fact, Williams would remain the only player to record such a combination for another 34 years. And it took a true legend, Willie Mays – arguably, the greatest blend of power and speed to ever play – to finally join him in 1956.

With Jacobson and Tobin continuing to thrive and the emergence of 22-year-old second baseman Marty McManus as yet another offensive weapon, the Browns were, at last, taken seriously. They played magnificently in 1922, leading the American League in both batting average and runs scored. The moment finally seemed at hand for their pumpkin of a franchise to transform into something less gourd and more glory.

And Sisler, as always, made things go. In his finest season, amidst a string of stellar campaigns, he hit .420, drove in 105 runs, stole 51 bases, and was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player. That batting average is worth repeating, .420. It remains the seventh highest single-season average in Major League history and represents a 20-point markup over the gold standard for hitters everywhere.

From the very start of the season, St. Louis cut a swath of destruction through the American League with the fury and pent-up rage of the tormented finally able to turn the tables on their tormentors. By mid-June, they had claimed first place and started to take on the look of a ball club that believed in the substance of its success. However, the one team the Browns could not seem to shake, could not bludgeon away with their formidable offense, was the defending American League champs, the New York Yankees. And New York had this fellow named Ruth who, as the baseball world would come to discover, turned out to be one of the great equalizers in the game.

So, the Browns and Yankees stared each other down all summer long – paupers and princes warily sizing the other up, hoping to detect that one fatal, exploitable flaw. And it was a taut face-off, with only a game or two separating them nearly the entire time.

On July 25, St. Louis finally landed the one big punch they had waited weeks to slip through, beating the Yankees at home to take a 2 ½ game lead. After so many years of being vanquished and having to stare up at their conquerors, it must have been electrifying to finally have the opposite vantage point, if only for a moment.

However, the view didn’t last long. The next day, New York rose from the canvas – angrily. Ruth launched a pair of home runs in an 11-6 drubbing, and it didn’t stop there. Of the next nine games between the two, the Yankees won seven. After the Browns dropped three of four to New York in late August, they were sinking fast. And the sag to second was magnified even more by the circumstances – the season was fading quickly and the demotion had been administered directly by their unshakeable nemesis in front of a delighted enemy crowd.

However, Sisler and his teammates had come so far and were so close to redemption. They couldn’t let the opportunity simply evaporate, but their magical season was slipping away. Admirably, the Browns didn’t panic or wilt down the stretch. Instead, they reeled off six wins in their last seven games of the year and chased the Yankees with remarkable resolve all the way to the final out of the season.

In the end, they finished one game – perhaps a quirky hop or two of the ball – away from the American League pennant.

Still, their thrilling year had resonance. The idea of a Browns championship, laughable for nearly all of their lackluster history, now seemed starkly viable. And George Sisler’s lonely, unrequited baseball journey had finally taken a promising detour. If ever there was a time for the stars to align, 1923 was it.

However, the alignment of stars – or, more accurately, the mercurial blend of fate and fortune – is remarkably fragile, and the cold, hard truth of most of life’s events is not. So, a single incident can trump a multitude of harbingers.

For the Browns, the rosy outlook for the 1923 season gave way to just such a hard truth the day their best player literally could not see straight. Suffering from what was later believed to be a sinusitis – a severe nasal infection – George Sisler lost the one tool indispensable to a hitter, his perfect eyesight. The infection caused double vision and did not improve all year long.

So, St. Louis played without him. Of course, a team cannot subtract a .400 hitter from the heart of its lineup and expect a winning equation to stay intact. Baseball math simply doesn’t work that way. Subtracting a superstar from the roster requires the addition of an equivalent player to maintain mathematical equilibrium. However, finding a hitter of Sisler’s caliber throughout the history of the game would be difficult enough. Finding such a player among the Browns’ meager backups in 1923 proved impossible.

Nonetheless, Dutch Schliebner drew the short straw and, predictably, could not fill the void. Sisler’s absence left a crater, and trying to replace him with a 32-year-old rookie with modest ability only provided fractional back fill, if that. The remainder of that empty space became a vortex and pulled the rest of the lineup into it. Jacobson and Tobin both suffered sizable drop offs. Even Williams, whose stellar .357 average led the team, couldn’t match his output from the year before in virtually every other category.

Accordingly, the Browns dropped nineteen wins from the prior year, slid to fifth place, and finished a full two dozen games behind the three-time American League champion Yankees. All the while, Sisler had to stand by idly as his team and the optimism of 1922 disintegrated. He also had to witness this painful regression not knowing if or when his eyesight would clear enough to allow him back on the field, let alone return to his former glory. And, at the age of 30, he had already lost one of his prime seasons – just after he put together one of the greatest years in the history of the sport. The abrupt halt of momentum and the nagging questions of what might have been for him and his team in 1923 must have been maddening.

And those questions never went away.

In 1924, Sisler was back on the field, but the long layoff was telling. Although he again crested .300 that year, there was something missing in his game. The aura that he carried while annihilating pitching in near record proportions in 1920 and 1922 was gone. Whether it was the sinus infection that had robbed him of it or merely the vestiges of athletic aging that eroded it, he had been pushed past the razor thin line dividing good from great. And whatever faint hope the Browns had in recapturing the magic of their thrilling chase of the Yankees seemed to die the moment Sisler crossed that line.

He played another three years in St. Louis and put together seasons that would have looked good on just about anyone else’s stat sheet. However, within the context of Sisler’s career – particularly at his peak, they seemed slightly hallow, ringing with the echo of his brilliant past and the uncertainty of what his lost season had truly cost him.

In 1927, he hit .327 with 97 RBI’s, but the Browns inexplicably decided they had seen enough. Although he was just 34, Sisler was unceremoniously let go that off season, sold to the Washington Senators. There was no gold watch for meritorious service, just a tepid handshake and a rather firm shove out the door. Business was, after all, business. So, management placed a $25,000 price tag on the heart and soul of their franchise and called it good enough.

The Senators, in turn, wasted little time in reinforcing the ruthless pragmatism of the business of baseball. After just 20 games, Washington sold Sisler again. This time, he went to the lowly Boston Braves of the National League, another historically awful franchise. Between the Browns and Braves, the legendary first baseman toiled for some of the worst teams to ever take the field and must have wondered what he had ever done to be subject to such lousy baseball karma.

As with most of his days in St. Louis, his three seasons in Boston were personally successful but competitively barren. He hit over .300 each year while the team failed to finish higher than sixth. Sisler’s tremendous career ended after the 1930 season but lacked commensurate closure. During his fifteen Major League seasons, he carried a .340 lifetime batting average with 2,812 hits. And had it not been for 1923, the year everything was turned upside down, he would have easily finished with over 3,000 hits. That his big league playing days ended with little to no fanfare on an invisible team did not seem at all fitting. However, such is the hard reality of sports. Happy endings are forever conditional to the unyielding forces of athletic competition.

In St. Louis, the Browns, too, were deprived of a happy ending.

They drifted listlessly through the remainder of the 1920’s and the entirety of the 1930’s, losing more games than they won in all but two of those seasons. Star players would occasionally wander through the locker room, mostly on their way to bigger and better things. The majority of St. Louis’ rosters were filled with mediocre talent, little more than sacrificial lambs for the lions of the game in New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit. The likes of Ski Mellilo, Beauty McGowan, and Stubby Overmire – colorful names with pedestrian games – were routinely annihilated by Ruth and Gehrig, Foxx and Grove, and Cochrane and Greenberg.

When an American League pennant finally did come in 1944, there was a caveat. There had to be. The team’s troubled astrology practically required it.

In 1944, World War Two was still raging and most Major League rosters had been depleted to assist in the war effort. Since nearly all of the game’s greatest stars had traded in their jerseys for fatigues, the remaining big league talent pool turned into an odd stew of those either past military service age (and their baseball prime), designated 4-F and unfit for military duty, or not yet drafted or volunteered. This patchwork approach to putting teams together that season left a lingering residue on the results. Although the Browns parlayed one legitimate star, shortstop Vern Stephens, and stellar performances by pitchers Jack Kramer and Nels Potter to finish first, there were whispers over who they had not beaten to get there rather than who they had.

St. Louis edged out Detroit by one game to capture the American League pennant. However, the Tigers were without their great slugger Hank Greenberg, who was halfway across the world serving in the Air Force. And Detroit wasn’t alone. The third place Yankees were missing Joe Dimaggio, and the fourth place Boston Red Sox played without the great Ted Williams in the lineup. Fair or not, it was as if the Browns had waited for the elite talent to leave the stage and then ambushed the understudies for their first and only pennant.

In the World Series, the Browns faced off against their stadium roommates, the Cardinals. In contrast, the Redbirds left little doubt as to their dominance of the National League, finishing 14 ½ games ahead of their nearest competition. And the Cards didn’t have any whispers to quiet, because 1944 marked their third straight pennant.

With the Cardinals considered prohibitive favorites, the underdog Browns stunned everyone by taking two of the first three games of the Series. Baseball’s eternal long shot was just a few furlongs away from the roses. However, there was still a sizable chunk of the home stretch ahead, and the Browns could hear something gaining on them – fast.

In Game Four, Stan Musial, who batted .347 for the Cardinals during the regular season, hit a towering two-run homer in the first inning. That single crack of the bat changed everything. With the lead in hand, the Cardinals trailed only once over the next twenty-six innings, winning all three games. Harry Breechen, Mort Cooper, and Max Lanier all threw gems, holding the Browns to a lonely pair of runs for the remainder of the Series.

Just like that, the long shot’s brief flirtation with winning was over. The Cardinals celebrated in the winner’s circle, and the Browns retreated back to the paddock, wondering how things went so wrong so close to the finish line.

And they never got that close to a championship again.

The following year their spiral out of contention was punctuated by an exclamation point that only the St. Louis Browns could have dotted.

All Pete Gray wanted to do was play baseball. And he did it well enough in 1944 to be named the Most Valuable Player of the minor league Southern Association. He should have been precisely the kind of player big league teams wanted when they skimmed the minors for talent during the war years. However, it wasn’t how well he played the game that anyone cared about. It was that he played the game at all that caused jaws to drop and scared them all away from giving him a chance, except the Browns.

A horrific childhood accident had required his right arm to be amputated above the elbow. So, he played the game – and conducted the entirety of his adult life – with one arm. To many, Gray’s mere presence in the Major Leagues represented triumph, an undeniable victory of the human spirit. The rare skill required to play the game well enough to succeed at any professional level was already impressive. That Grey was able to do so facing the monumental challenges mandated by his physical condition was athletically heroic.

Unfortunately, there was also an unsettling air of exploitation surrounding his presence on the roster – a one-armed ballplayer on a perennial doormat with chronic attendance issues. The only thing missing was the din of carnival barkers.

And Gray hated it. He had hoped that he could define his big league identity through his playing ability alone. That naivete quickly gave way to the realization that his one big chance, his dream opportunity, to play Major League baseball had only arrived because a flailing team in a talent-depleted environment needed a human curiosity piece to draw in fans. And the crowds watched him relentlessly, amazed that he could swing a bat with proficiency and field a ball smoothly. Routine things other players did on the field – the ambient noise of the game – were suddenly focal points when Gray performed them. And when the fans were unable to come to him, newsreel cameras brought him to the fans.

Some of his teammates resented the unwanted spotlight as well, and Gray’s taciturn demeanor didn’t help. For all of their struggles in the standings and for professional respect over the years, they still carried the pride of being in the big leagues. And Gray cheapened that. To them, he appeared little more than a walking publicity stunt who was given a shortcut to the privilege they had worked so hard to earn.

What they hadn’t realized was that Gray paid a penance as well. With every lingering stare and excitable whisper, each slight – intended or not – chipped away at his trust and his self-esteem. However, the further such things drove him into social exile the more he channeled that fury into the game. And if such a tumultuous exchange could be considered a shortcut, it would seem unimaginable that anyone would deliberately choose it or feel like a beneficiary because of it.

On the field, despite early difficulty adjusting to the speed and power of the Major Leagues, Gray was hitting over .250 by June, and his defensive play in center field was exemplary. Under the circumstances, it was a remarkable debut. However, the merciless nature of sport is predicated on finding weaknesses. Once found, those vulnerabilities are pressed and exploited until the weakened either correct them or can no longer protect themselves. Evolve or die.

Unfortunately, Gray knew what his greatest baseball weakness was but had no way to correct it. He could time his intricate one-armed swing to catch up to a fastball and could even hit an occasional breaking pitch. However, once he started his swing it was etched in stone. Other hitters could check their swings or make timing adjustments in the middle of them, using both hands to stop or alter those hacks. Ultimately, that difference doomed Gray.

Breaking pitches became the bane of his existence. His inability to check or change his swing ended any hope of a lasting stint with the Browns. He finished the year hitting .218 in 77 games and when the cadre of players returned from the military late in the 1945 season Gray’s Major League career was finished.

Just when it seemed like things couldn’t get any stranger in St. Louis, Bill Veeck bought the team in 1951 and they did.

Veeck, of course, was baseball’s greatest maverick, seemingly living for moments when he could turn baseball convention on its ear. Not surprisingly, he also had a penchant for showmanship. So, in many ways, the blank canvas that was afforded by owning the Browns was a perfect fit for a free spirit like Veeck. After all, dreamers dream big, and there was no more sizable aspiration in baseball than to turn St. Louis’ loveable losers into winners. But he had to increase the gate to provide the capital necessary to field a winning team.

So, Veeck did what he always did when he needed publicity. He opted for spectacle over substance, hoping that his brand of bread and circuses would be enough to feed the masses. And leave it to Veeck to find the smallest player in the history of baseball to cause one of its biggest uproars.

In August, 1951, he signed 3-foot, 7-inch entertainer Eddie Gaedel, and, before the league could void the contract, sent him into a game as a pinch-hitter against Detroit. Wearing a jersey with the fraction “1/8” on the back, Gaedel stepped up to the plate, and – depending on which side of the purist line one is on – drew the most famous – or infamous – walk in baseball history.

Veeck, of course, was delighted. The crowd roared its approval, and Gaedel stopped twice along the way to first base to take bows. After he was removed from the game for a pinch-runner, the little man with the unusual uniform number received a standing ovation.

Even the Tigers were good-natured about the whole thing. Pitcher Bob Cain merely chuckled. Really, there was little else he could do. After all, trying to throw a pitch in Gaedel’s microscopic strike zone was like trying to fit a baseball into a shot glass from sixty feet away. However, Detroit had the last laugh winning the game, 6-2.

American League president Will Harridge found no humor in the incident, though, and voided Gaedel’s contract the next day. As befitting a curmudgeon of his magnitude, he also attempted to have the diminutive player’s appearance removed from the official records altogether, as if Harridge believed he could actually unring a bell.

Ultimately, though, there was only so much Veeck could do to disguise how poorly the Browns played. They finished last in 1951 and next to last in 1952. No matter how much promotional makeup he applied, the simple truth remained that they were a bad team with a largely uninteresting roster. By 1953, time and money had run out on them.

After a miserable 100-loss, last place finish, Veeck sold the team to a group who moved them to Baltimore, where they were renamed “the Orioles.”  In typical Browns’ fashion, the new team essentially disowned its Missouri roots. To make matters worse, it took the Orioles less than fifteen years in their new home to win the World Series. As further salt in the wounds, Baltimore won six pennants and three world championships from 1966-1983. Earl Weaver, Jim Palmer, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, and Cal Ripken Jr. all achieved greatness for the O’s.

All the while, those who followed the Browns and suffered through the decades of struggle and mediocrity had to watch this embarrassment of riches from afar, knowing that all of those star players and those championship seasons could have been theirs.

Still, for all of the disappointment and historically bizarre moments, the St. Louis Browns did have one rare chapter of lasting greatness in an otherwise pedestrian chronology.  They had George Sisler in his prime, smashing the rest of the league to pieces. 

And that’s not a bad legacy to carry, even if there never was a championship carriage ride for them.

Sources:

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

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/s/sislege01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/w/willike01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/j/jacobba01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/t/tobinja01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/SLB/1922.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/AL/1922.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/SLB/1922-schedule-scores.shtml

http://www.docstoc.com/docs/51138164/Recent-Advances-in-Brain-MR-Imaging

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/SLB/1938.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/SLB/1944.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/postseason/1944_WS.shtml

http://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-15

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/SLB/1945-schedule-scores.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/graype01.shtml

http://espn.go.com/page2/tvlistings/show73transcript.html

 Photos:

http://cf.juggle-images.com/matte/white/280×280/st-louis-browns-primary-logo-8-primary.jpg

http://www.baseballdigest.com/wp-content/uploads/George-Sisler.jpg

http://blog.prorumors.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Ichiro-Suzuki.jpg

http://static.howstuffworks.com/gif/george-sisler-hof.jpg

http://img.fanbase.com/media.fanbase.com/8/15326/35fca0bc9a9b36333e1122674c090c561e04899b.jpg?x=175&y=250&sig=a85c40aef05ba12a8f0510df6686e4c1

http://www.baseball-reference.com/bpv/images/thumb/8/84/34847r_jack_tobin.jpg/250px-34847r_jack_tobin.jpg

http://www.oregonsportshall.org/images/kenwilliams.jpg

http://www.ballparktour.com/Babe_Yankee_Stadium.jpg

http://www.raykolp.com/resources/1922browns.jpg

http://img.fanbase.com/media.fanbase.com/8/15326/6153eb44f999daaf6e412a5ab2d86110afef93ff.jpg?x=175&y=250&sig=41fe1c6d0b09f10168a44fa30de0ce7c

http://theoutfieldivy.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/Stan-Musial-300×233.jpg

http://www.grandstandsports.com/images/10982.jpg

http://www.nypost.com/rw/nypost/2011/06/09/sports/web_photos/eddie_gaedel–300×300.jpg

http://www.palmbeachpost.com/multimedia/dynamic/00716/Brooks_Robinson_716082e.jpg

http://www.famouswhy.com/pictures/people/george_sisler.jpg

 Videos:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1UG6bxkq5L4

Head Games – The Tragic Consequences of Pitches that Got Away

Home plate on a baseball diamond measures precisely seventeen inches in width, and pitchers and hitters have been fighting over every single speck of it for more than a century. It is the eternal struggle in baseball and the most direct confrontation in all of sports. And it all happens in a fraction of a second.

Hitters have only the instant from the time the ball leaves a pitcher’s hand to when it arrives at the plate to do a myriad of things. Balance, speed, the proper timing of the hands, the correct angle of the bat, knowing a pitcher and what pitches he throws at what speed and with what degree of movement, considering the count and game situation and how that might effect pitch selection – a hitter needs all of that all at once, all in the time it takes to blink.

Although pitchers can be more deliberate – working with catchers via hand signals and other physical cues – to determine pitch type and location, their key contribution to the game action, the pitch itself, is just a flash. However, pitchers know the inner and outer sections of the plate provide the most difficult angles for hitters to squarely drive a ball. In order to maximize life on the edges, pitchers also know that each edge has a symmetrical relationship to the other. That is, even for a pitch to one side of the plate, the other side remains important, because pitchers necessarily need to convince hitters that any pitch in any batting sequence can be thrown to either edge.

So, while pitchers seek to create pitching angles, hitters naturally look to cut them down, to flatten them out as much as possible. And the closer a batter sets up to the plate the clearer the intent to try to block the inner corner, push pitch selection out toward the middle and opposite edge of the strike zone, and improve his reach to outside pitches.

In its most basic form, the pitcher-hitter showdown is territorial. However, such a standoff is more than just a simple property dispute. This simultaneous claim of ownership – with the very public success or failure of heated rivals at stake – brims with emotion. Add a dense leather sphere traveling at potentially lethal velocity into the equation, and the conflict over who holds the deed to the most valuable foot-and-a-half in the sport can turn deathly serious in an instant. In the time it takes one pitch thrown with angry intent to reach a hitter, a career can be jeopardized – or worse.

Fortunately, most encounters between pitchers and hitters do not remotely involve such dire circumstances. While there is commonly the uneasy hum of competitive tension bubbling beneath the surface on nearly every pitch, most throws that do go astray, by design or accident, result in little more than frayed tempers or dull pain and nasty bruises. However, improbability does not diminish the depth of consequence when something awful does occur.

In recent years, Major League Baseball has tried to minimize the risk of potential calamities at the plate by siding with hitters and regulating the intent of pitchers throwing too far inside. A system of warnings and ejections for perceived willful throws directly at batters is designed to blunt the motivation for such deliberate miscues.

Predictably, there has been resistance to the new process. Many purists of the game – and nearly all pitchers, of course – have taken umbrage at the idea of artificially policing what has seemingly been an organic part of the game, especially when that policing heavily favors one primary group of players over the rest. To such opposition, limiting a pitcher’s ability to fully protect the plate unnecessarily restrains a crucial part of the core activity in baseball. For decades, the tug of war between pitchers and hitters over creating and shutting off pitching angles to the plate has involved an uninterrupted procession of hissing inside pitches, hit batsmen, defiant hitters, and glowering pitchers, with little more than psychological warfare and thankfully few physical casualties as by products.

Perhaps, the mastery of the inside pitch as the ultimate tool of intimidation without the wreckage of shattered careers or serious injury was best embodied by a pair of extraordinary pitchers who ruled the mound in the 1960’s with the authority of despots.

St. Louis Cardinal ace Bob Gibson’s ferocity on the mound was only matched by his unshakeable resolve. In his eyes, every inch of the plate belonged to him. Gibson considered hitters who encroached on the inner edge – or even hinted at it – as trespassers. And he dealt with the unwanted intruders swiftly and severely. Whether the ball actually struck a batter or sent him sprawling in retreat, the missive was the same – back down or get down. It made little difference to him which, so long as he was free to operate on both sides of the plate. That hitters were made uneasy by the tactic was just an added bonus. And because his pitch command was so precise, he could send such messages without a hint of ambiguity.

Like Gibson, Don Drysdale had a mean streak. There was menace behind his pitching, and he had no qualms about directing that venom toward the men standing at the plate to protect his stake in it. As proof, the long time Los Angeles Dodger stalwart led the National League in hit batsmen five times and finished his 14-year big league career with 154 of them. His fearless, and ruthless, demeanor earned him a reputation as an enforcer, as willing to hit opposing players if his teammates had been thrown at as he was to spin the enemy off the plate for crowding it. When Drysdale was on the mound, hitters knew he could turn the stitches on a ball into teeth and had little trouble sending it howling at them ready to take a bite.

So, it’s no surprise that Gibson and Drysdale have typically been the first names brought up in defending the strong armed tactics of pitchers chasing hitters off the plate. However, those pining for the “good old days” of self-policing, unfettered intimidation, and everything else that came with the distorted form of frontier justice practiced by the pitchers of yesteryear may do well to remember the destructive force a baseball carries when traveling the 20 yards from mound to plate at the velocity generated by a major league pitcher. They may also do well to remember that Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale were both Hall of Fame talents with the rare ability to place a pitch precisely where they wanted.

However, most pitchers do not have that exquisite level of control, and the chaos of a pitched ball gone amok is frighteningly indiscriminate. Any batter who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time can have his baseball world turned upside down in a heartbeat – great, not so great, grass green rookies – it doesn’t matter. Once the ball leaves a pitcher’s hand and veers wildly off course, fate bows to the law of physics. A fast moving projectile will be halted by a solid mass. That such an abrupt and violent collision can happen by accident only underscores the risk of deliberately throwing a pitch astray even without the intent to harm in any way.

An eventual Hall of Famer, a superstar in waiting, and a rookie stepping into a big league batter’s box for the first time all experienced those hellish consequences first hand.

Mickey Cochrane was a natural leader. His white-hot temperament and insatiable hunger for success simply wouldn’t allow any other way. As a catcher on Connie Mack’s great Philadelphia Athletics of the 1920’s and 30’s, he was the granite foundation for the burgeoning dynasty. Although Philadelphia’s rosters were loaded with stars during that span – including Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Lefty Grove (Hall of Famers, all), Cochrane deferred to none of them. His combativeness and commitment demanded attention and simultaneously ignited and challenged the competitive fire of his teammates. That Mack entrusted his catcher to prod, cajole, and browbeat his own hand-picked roster into a winning mindset spoke volumes about Cochrane’s leadership effect on a team.

However, Mack’s Philadelphia franchise was in perpetual financial difficulty due to lagging attendance. So, he was often forced to trade his star players to avoid hefty salary demands and garner additional cash in return. Cochrane’s turn came in 1934 when he was sent to Detroit.

However, no sooner had he arrived in Michigan than he was named skipper of the club and became one of the youngest player-managers in league history at the age of 31. Leading the Tigers to consecutive pennants in 1934 and 1935, Cochrane cemented his reputation as a star on the field and in the dugout. In fact, as icing, he capped that magnificent 1935 season by scoring the winning run to bring Detroit its first World Series title. By 1937, Cochrane had entrenched himself as a local sports icon in the Motor City and was still considered one of the best catchers in the game. Through late May of that year, he was hitting .306 with nearly half of his hits going for extra bases and appeared to be headed for another stellar year at and behind the plate. In a game against the Yankees on May 25, he hit a third inning home run and looked to follow that up with another damaging blow to the New Yorkers in the fifth. He ran the count to 3-1 and, without warning, the walls of his great career caved in.

The pitcher, Irving “Bump” Hadley, threw a fastball that momentarily seemed to be swallowed by the late afternoon sun and then just as suddenly came roaring from the glare, careening out of control and directly toward Cochrane’s head. The one device that would have spared him, the batting helmet, was still 15 years away from regular use. So, when the ball struck him in the head, he had only his wool ball cap between his skull and the horrific impact.

Teammate Charlie Gehringer was on deck and later said Cochrane looked like he’d been struck by an axe as he toppled helplessly to the ground. For the next 48 hours, Cochrane’s life was still in jeopardy as he drifted in and out of consciousness. Meanwhile, Hadley was clearly jarred – adamant that the pitch unintentionally went off course and troubled by the considerable damage it had done to Detroit’s great leader.

After ten agonizing days in the hospital, Cochrane steadily improved but his Hall of Fame career was over. In 13 seasons, he hit .320, won two MVP awards, and played on three World Championship teams. However, his final official big league at-bat illustrated how devastating a single baseball can be under the darkest of circumstances.

While few players have had to endure the anguish of a lone at-bat bringing an immediate end to their careers, an unfortunate handful have had their athletic promise irrevocably damaged in a single moment. Perhaps, that lost potential is even more heartbreaking than the abrupt end of a realized career because of the unanswered questions left in its wake. Crueler still are instances where enough promise is taken away to scuttle greatness but the remaining residue fuels false hope.

Tony Conigliaro was ready to take his place among the pantheon of great Boston sports heroes. Williams. Russell. Cousy. Yaz. They were all going to have to move a little closer together to make room for a young slugger who was bunching up home runs with impressive density at Fenway Park. His name was already written in pencil on the pages of legend, waiting only for his inevitable accomplishments to fill those letters in with permanent ink. But in one instant on one perfectly placid summer afternoon in 1967, it ended. In the time it takes to blink, his name simply vanished from the pages of history.

On one pitch in one game of the long baseball season, Tony Conigliaro’s magical run with the Boston Red Sox ended. California’s Jack Hamilton threw a fastball that sailed high and tight, and Conigliaro never had a chance. The ball struck him nearly flush on the left eye, scrambling his flawless eyesight like a beaten egg. Though he would eventually recover from the beaning, his eyesight would never be the same and his chances at baseball immortality went with it.

And so it was. Tony C, the local kid from Revere, Massachusetts who made good, the right-handed hitting phenom who hit 24 homers in 1964 at the age of 19, and the All-Star right fielder who was supposed to bookend with Carl Yastrzemski for the next decade and give the Sox the most feared lefty-righty punch in the league was essentially done before his 23rd birthday.

He did make it back to the big leagues in 1969 and hit 20 homers. He followed that up with 36 more the following season, a true triumph considering the toll it must have taken on his psyche to step back into the batter’s box and face his greatest demon – the pitched ball. However, the baseball gods simply wouldn’t give him a break, his eyesight, which had cleared enough to allow him back into the big leagues, went for good in 1971. Another comeback in 1975 ended disastrously and at 30 years old, the game had dispatched Tony C for good.

Sometimes, a baseball doesn’t even wait for a player’s big league clock to really start ticking.

A hitter’s first Major League at-bat is the Holy Grail of his professional career. After all, scores of hopefuls seek it, few find it, and fewer still build longevity and legend from it. However, those who do reach that apex never forget it, because that first official big league moment is the culmination of arduous labor and a lifelong love, the joyful intersection of toil and talent. Imagine, though, the cruelty of having that anticipation, built on years of dreams and evolution, evaporate in a noisy, dizzying moment of bedlam.

Adam Greenberg understood, above all else, the value of maximizing his resources. There were more naturally gifted prospects in the Chicago Cubs’ minor league system in 2005. However, few of them gave more effort or utilized their baseball strengths as constructively as the 24-year-old outfielder.

On July 9, the stars guiding Greenberg’s baseball future rose over Miami. He had been promoted from Double-A West Tennessee a day earlier and was in the Chicago dugout that evening wearing a crisp new big league uniform, awaiting a chance – the moment he’d been preparing for his entire life – to step onto a Major League diamond and etch his name into baseball’s most exclusive roll call. As befitting the pomp of a commencement, Greenberg’s family had flown in to attend the game.

In the ninth inning against Florida with the Cubs leading 4-2, Adam Greenberg graduated. He entered the game as a pinch-hitter and surveyed the scene – one out, flame throwing lefty Valerio de los Santos on the mound, and home plate beckoning dreamlike but as real as the crackling dirt under his cleats. As he sunk his feet into the batter’s box – a Major League batter’s box, the thought must have surely entered his mind that his chance to do something great with that first big league pitch was nearly at hand.

It probably seemed like an optical illusion at first. The ball appeared to be chasing him. Rather than focusing on the natural litany of items to hit a baseball, Greenberg had to convert aggression to evasion in an instant. And it was like trying to outrun a runaway train – everywhere and overwhelming to the senses, all at once – giving way to the horrible realization that a collision was inevitable. As the blur of white leather and red stitching ominously zeroed in on him, Greenberg managed to turn his head at the last moment and the ball glanced off of the back of his helmet and struck him fiercely on the neck.

He later recalled gripping his head as tightly as possible, because he thought it was about to split open.

The force of the blow knocked his helmet – the piece of material salvation unavailable to Mickey Cochrane seventy years earlier – off, and the rookie wilted to the soil. A horrible stillness settled into the venue. The pitcher, Santos, was mortified. He had no desire or reason to knock down the young hitter, let alone cause serious injury. Greenberg’s family was inconsolable, their moment of shared happiness turned so profoundly ugly. And Greenberg, himself, was trying to quiet the thunder clap rippling through his central nervous system and summon the courage to get back on his feet.

Fortunately, the pain was temporary. However, dizziness and headaches lingered, unwelcome souvenirs of his sour debut. Within a couple of weeks, though, he was back on the ball field again. In West Tennessee.

To date, he has yet to play in another Major League game. So, his lone experience as a big leaguer is an uneasy dichotomy of the best and worst things to ever happen to him in the game and a constant reminder of the chasm between what might have been and what was.

However, the blackest day in baseball history occurred in 1920 when a perfect storm formed over the 60 feet between the pitcher’s mound and the plate at the Polo Grounds in New York. Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman was in the eye of that maelstrom.

Chapman was a genial sort, well-liked by his peers, beloved by his teammates, and respected by all for his hard nosed play and his devotion to his team. He was also a productive player, batting .300 or better in two of the three years leading up to the 1920 campaign and, at 29, had several more useful seasons ahead of him. His ballclub, the Cleveland Indians, were one of the better collectives in the American League, finishing second in 1919 and again vying for the pennant in 1920.

Cleveland was an efficient team, they hummed with solidarity. Befitting their leader, Tris Speaker – one of the greatest combinations of speed, batting, and defense to ever take the field – they all understood the importance of outsmarting and outplaying their opponents. And, perhaps none of them grasped the concept better than the Indians’ versatile shortstop. Bunting is one of the least glamorous activities in the sport, but Cleveland’s game plan required it, lots of it. In 1920, they would go on to lead the majors in runs scored, chiefly because they also led the big leagues in sacrifices and walks. Put runners on, move them over, and allow the heart of the order to drive them home. It is a simple, time-honored philosophy but few have the patience and will to execute it.

So, Chapman, the reigning American League leader in sacrifices and the pace setter for the 1920 season, was the point man for arranging Cleveland’s chess pieces on the board to their liking. He was one of the most skilled bunters in the game and could place them virtually anywhere on the field that he wished, moving runners along or bunting for hits himself with impressive ease.

However, Chapman’s vocation also carried risk. He liked to practically hover over the plate during his at-bats to see the ball better and give him the best bunting angle possible. So, he had to rely heavily on his wits and reflexes to avoid danger at the plate because of that batting stance.

In mid-August, the Indians traveled to New York to open a crucial three-game series against the Yankees. Cleveland was tied for first with the White Sox and both held a precarious half-game lead over the third place Yankees. The three teams were separated by an eyelash and, on any given day, that eyelash could rest gently with one club only to have flit mercurially to another the next.

On August 16, the Yankees sent their best pitcher, Carl Mays, to the mound for the series opener. Mays, who was on his way to 26 wins in 1920, was something of an enigma. Where Ray Chapman was always ready with a smile and a warm handshake, Mays was taciturn and distant. He could also be prone to fits of rage on the mound if things went poorly and had little patience with teammates who did not measure up to his standards. However, there was no questioning his pitching ability. He had developed a devastating side armed delivery and practically brushed his pitching hand on the ground just prior to releasing the ball. The unusual arm angle also created an unpredictable break on the ball as it snapped toward the plate.

The miserly ways of baseball owners of the time, however, were sadly predictable. Baseballs cost money, umpires had the discretion to determine whether or not to keep them in play, and umpires were employed by the league. With impressive economic pragmatism, owners wasted little time in stringing the three elements together. Umpires were, therefore, instructed to remove as few baseballs as possible from play. Discoloration and/or blemished surfaces were not sufficient reasons for retirement. That such imperfections made the ball harder to see and more difficult to track were trumped by its manufacturing cost.

While clouds began to gather over the Polo Grounds, no one realized what awful fury they carried inside.

The Indians wasted little time in pressuring Mays and his teammates, scoring in the second and again in the fourth to open a 3-0 lead. Leading off the top of the fifth inning, Chapman stepped into the batter’s box and likely didn’t notice how thick the air was with bad omens.

It was, indeed, the perfect storm and a horrible, horrible thing to behold – a hitter standing on top of the plate, a pitcher with an unorthodox delivery and a brooding demeanor, and a darkening ball in the fading afternoon light all amid a heated pennant race with its soupy tension simmering to a slow boil.

Like Cochrane after him, Chapman failed to pick up the flight of the ball and, because of the times, had no protective headgear to deflect the imminent blow. The horrific impact was so great that the ball deflected all the way back to Mays, who fielded it and threw to first, assuming that the pitch had struck Chapman’s bat rather than his head.

Chapman steadied himself for a moment before sinking to the ground like an untethered marionette. While the injured player lay prone in the batter’s box, Mays opted to confront the umpire by brazenly offering the fielded ball as evidence that it been roughened, the scuffed cover causing the errant arc of the pitch. The cause had clearly superseded the unnerving effect for the New York pitcher.

And the effect was dire. Chapman never recovered and became the first and only player in Major League history to die as a result of being hit by a pitch. For his part, Mays always insisted it was an accident, but the label stuck with him – the man who threw the only fatal pitch in the big leagues.

Cleveland somehow carried on, despite the heartbreak and anger. They went on to outlast both Chicago and the Yankees for the pennant and completed their mission by taking the World Series. However, the unimaginable cost of their beloved comrade forever marred the triumph. The struggle of sport paled to the hard truth of mortality.

Yet, even after these cautionary tales – Cochrane, Conigliaro, Greenberg, and especially the awful episode that took Chapman’s life – hitters and pitchers still skirmish over that prized pentagon with the intensity of a blood feud. Unfortunately, blood has been spilt and, because the key active element in the exchange – a baseball traveling at high-speed – will always carry destructive kinetic energy, that terrible potential still exists.

However, the pitcher-hitter dynamic is a complicated one. Because pitchers have such a finite area in which to ply their trade, it is understandable that they absolutely refuse to concede any amount of that precious space to the group that is in direct competitive confrontation with them. And it is equally justifiable that hitters, in turn, cannot tacitly accept a practice, regardless of intent, that carries the possibility of ending careers – or lives – merely in the name of sport. So, it remains a standoff with little chance of a resolution that would keep the delicate balance of the game intact.

One can only hope that the participants fully understand and respect the danger within the confines of this standoff and that the vagaries of chance do not happen upon another perfect storm on the diamond. More than anything, the forces of competition should never obscure the importance of valuing people over the games they play. Ray Chapman’s memory and the lesson of that tragic August afternoon deserve at least that much.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/gibsobo01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/d/drysddo01.shtml

Charlie Bevis (1998). Mickey Cochrane: The Life of a Baseball Hall of Fame Catcher. Macfarlane.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/cochrmi01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/c/conigto01.shtml

http://espn.go.com/classic/s/moment010818-conigliaro-beaned.html

http:www.nytimes.com/2005/08/22/sports/baseball/22adam.htm

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/chapmra01.shtml

Mike Sowell (1989). The Pitch That Killed. New York, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/MLB/1920.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA192008160.shtml

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