Wednesday, July 14, 2004

The Greatest Game Never Seen

How is this for a change of pace?

One of the greatest games ever played and very few people claim they were there. As a matter of fact, even fewer people knew it took place.

To hear them tell it, at least two or three million people must have been in the stands at the Polo Grounds that day in 1954 when Willie Mays robbed Vic Wertz. Hundreds of thousands of fans at the very least were present in 1988 when Kirk Gibson limped around the bases at Chavez Ravine.

But no more than seven or eight thousand people, if that many, would have been at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore on a muggy night in late August, 1983, when the Orioles took on the Toronto Blue Jays in a crucial game, and hardly any of those could later be identified.

This particular game has never been accorded its proper place in baseball lore. By any standards, it was a genuine classic possessing all the necessary ingredients to qualify for such stature; a dramatic, bizarre and ultimately crucial regular-season game in the midst of a tight pennant race.

I wasn’t there that night either, having moved from Baltimore years earlier, but I listened to the Orioles on the radio, as was my habit, and talked baseball with my Dad often. I hadn’t listened to my normal quota of broadcasts that year owing to other commitments, but returning home in Philadelphia late one evening I tuned in the finale of this key three-game set.

The pennant race was heating up and I felt certain that my listening to this game would help the Orioles chances. Radio, with its reliance on mental images, inspires a unique set of superstitions.

At the time the Orioles were in first place but only three and a half games separated the top five teams in the division. I was worried about the Orioles fortunes. The night before they had been shellacked (a quaint expression my father and his generation used) at home, 9-3, losing for the second times in as many games. Worse, they lost in the same sloppy fashion that characterized much of their play that summer. By late August the Orioles had already swooned through two seven-game losing streaks. Now matters threatened to deteriorate further. Injuries to several pitchers, a season-long lack of clutch hitting, and persistent problems at third base were conspiring to undo the O’s.

With the exception of their powerful teams of late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, the Orioles always struggled for their base hits, but pitching and third base were the hallmarks of the franchise. The ’83 edition of the club was loaded with veteran players who had been through numerous pennant races, but I had begun to doubt whether this team could hold onto its lead or put together one of those patented September finishes of the great Orioles teams of the past.

As I tuned in the game the Blue Jays had just made their last out in the top of the ninth. The Orioles Scott MacGregor had gone the distance allowing three runs on eight hits, but his Toronto counterpart, Jim Clancy, had been better, limiting the Birds to just one run on two hits. I had no other information on what had transpired up to that point, but I am unlikely to forget what happened next.

John Lowenstein led off the bottom of the ninth for the Orioles and flied out. Rookie John Shelby followed. Shelby had been struggling through a terrible “two for August” slump according to Oriole announcers Jon Miller and Tom Mawr. Miller went on to say that in desperation Shelby had taken extra bunting practice before the game. Apparently, Shelby was going to get on base by any means. And he did, beating out a bunt single without drawing a throw. Nice bit of commentary, Jon, I said to myself.

Next up, Gary Roenicke, who had good power, pinch-hit for light-hitting Rich Dauer. Roenicke struck out. Len Sakata, another pinch hitter, drew a walk. Catcher Joe Nolan, a left-handed batter, was due up next. Earlier, Nolan had replaced starting catcher Rick Dempsey. Now the managerial wheels began turning furiously in both dugouts. Left hander Jay Geisel was summoned to relieve Clancy.

Down to his last out, Oriole manager Joe Altobelli countered Toronto’s pitching change with right-handed batter Benny Ayala. With both Dempsey and Nolan now gone, Jon Miller began speculating who would catch for the Orioles if the game were to go into extra innings. Good announcers, like good managers, should always be thinking an inning or two ahead.

Ayala singled up the middle scoring Shelby and cutting Toronto’s lead to one run. Al Bumbry, a left-handed batter, was due up next, and because no other right-handed batters were available (Tod Cruz and Ken Singleton had already been spent apparently), Bumbry batted, as they say, “for himself.”

Bumbry singled off the third baseman’s glove scoring Sakata and tying the game. Benny Ayala took third base on the play. His lead gone, Toronto manager Bobby Cox brought in Joey McLaughlin to replace Geisel. Bumbry promptly stole second base to stay out of an inning-end force. The Blue Jays, for their part, ignored Bumbry, only being concerned with Ayala, the potential winning run. Dan Ford resolved all this strategy by meekly striking out to end the inning. A reprieve granted, I got something to drink between innings and rushed back to the radio.

Now things got really interesting. The Orioles had used so many players prior to and during the previous inning, they opened the tenth with an unusual defensive lineup, to say the least. As Miller dutifully informed the listeners of the changes, I moaned audibly.

Outfielder John Lowenstein was at second base. Jeez, I thought, they’d better let him take the entire infield’s allotment of warm-up throws to first base; but I discarded that notion as soon as Miller announced the new third baseman, outfielder Gary Roenicke. At least Lowenstein, a veteran of more than ten seasons, had played a little infield in the big leagues, starting seventy games at shortstop, Miller pointed out, not second. Roenicke, another veteran, had never played third base in the majors. As I listened in dismay one more surprise awaited me: utility infielder Len Sakata was making his major league debut…behind the plate! Boy, I thought, Altobelli sure managed himself into a corner. (He did that a lot and was gone the next season.)

This makeshift lineup brought to mind another late-season game a few years earlier. Again, the opponent was Toronto, but on that occasion the manager was the brilliant Earl Weaver. Getting clobbered on a cold, rainy day in Canada, and with several key games including a makeup doubleheader looming, Weaver decided to save his pitchers and outrage baseball purists in the process by bringing in reserve catcher Elrod Hendricks for a relief stint on the mound.

Hendricks, a veteran near the end of his career who spent most of his time warming up pitchers in the bullpen and, presumably, working on his slider, did a reasonable job of halting the carnage. But in the next inning outfielder Larry Harlow took the mound for the Orioles. Harlow, a complete novice hurler as far as I could determine, possessed a rifle arm. The Blue Jays didn’t seem too impressed. They roughed him up pretty well, prompting genuine full-time pitcher Mike Flanagan to remark after the game, “This just goes to show you can’t pitch with seven years between starts.”

As I sat there now trying to visualize this current makeshift lineup I imagined some fan my age listening to the radio in Toronto and smacking his lips. I leaned forward and adjusted the dial slightly. Then I raised the volume.

The new Oriole pitcher in the top of the tenth was hard-throwing Tim Stoddard. Stoddard, a huge specimen nicknamed “Big Foot,” had played on one of North Carolina’s NCAA championship basketball teams, a fact announcers were fond of pointing out. (That they were still pointing this out years after he’d been in baseball was not an altogether encouraging commentary on his success on the diamond.) This night neither Miller nor Mawr said anything about Carolina, however.

Stoddard had been unreliable all season. Worse, he had this nasty habit of walking the first man he faced. Not this time, however. Toronto’s Cliff Johnson hit Stoddard’s first pitch over the Orioles bullpen behind the left-center field fence.

“Nice pitch, Timmy boy,” I said out loud. I reached for the dial on my radio in disgust. I cannot explain why I hesitated. I could hear the crowd booing Stoddard and, no doubt, I wanted to linger and soak in that sound. I stayed tuned in.

The next batter, Barry Bonnell, lined a single to center. “Atta boy, Timmy,” I said out loud. Two pitches, two hits, and suddenly it occurred to me that Len Sakata’s debut as a “receiver” was still on hold. I’d heard enough and, mercifully, Altobelli had seen enough. He summoned left-hander Tippy Martinez, his bullpen ace.

The Blue Jays weren’t finished yet. As soon as Martinez was announced they sent up pinch hitter Dave Collins, a speedster and switch hitter. Collins immediately shocked everyone by batting left-handed against the southpaw Martinez. Jon Miller, who called his usual brilliant game, was apparently alone among the unshocked. Collins was batting left-handed, Miller observed, to block Sakata’s view of Bonnell’s lead off first base. Miller concluded that the Blue Jays couldn’t wait to run on Sakata and were already mentally totaling up their stolen bases. Collins was defying all batting orthodoxy in order to further stack the deck against the out-manned Orioles.

Martinez, however, was not one to ruffle easily. A fascinating specimen, he was short, stocky, and very bowlegged, hardly the menacing figure of, say, Goose Gossage. But in his prime Martinez had a wicked curve and was, for a few seasons, a great reliever. Now Tippy came to the set position, glanced at Bonnell, and picked him off first base! I leaped up and pumped a clenched first in the air. Collins, meanwhile, turned around to bat right-handed, thereby confirming both Miller’s analysis and baseball tradition.

I sat down again. Collins worked Martinez for a walk. “C’mon, Tippy,” I pleaded to the radio. I imagined Martinez toeing the rubber, his bowed legs forming a wide opening. Martinez lobbed a few throws over to Eddy Murray to hold the runner. Then, he picked off Collins! Jon Miller was beside himself. “Unbelievable,” I muttered. “Unbelieeeeeeable!”

The next batter, Willie Upshaw, hit a bouncer over the mound. Lowenstein (Lowenstein!! The script could not be this good.) ranged to his right and made the pickup but had no chance to catch the fleet Upshaw. I couldn’t stand it. I wanted to run to the refrigerator for another soda but thought better of it. Not enough time. Can’t miss anything.

Again Martinez threw over to first to hold the runner. Next, he came to the set position, wheeled towards first, and picked off Upshaw! Miller was going nuts on the radio. I was going nuts in Philadelphia,. The fans were going nuts in Memorial Stadium. Martinez picked off the side.

He picked off the side, I said to myself over and over. He picked off the side. I slumped back into the chair. I wondered whether anyone else was listening to this game. I looked at my watch. It was nearly eleven o’clock. I thought maybe I should call someone to let them in on this game, but I didn’t dare tear myself away from the radio.

Martinez had picked off the side, I said again. Had anyone ever done that before? I would have given anything for a peek inside the Blue Jays dugout. Miller was thinking the same thing, but regrettably the angle between the radio booth and visiting dugout at Memorial Stadium was too severe to give him a good look. But that didn’t stop him form speculating for his listening audience I, on the other hand, had no problem imagining the scene in the Orioles dugout. In this wild half inning Martinez never retired a batter (no Oriole pitcher did), got credit for an inning pitched, and, as I listened in further disbelief a few minutes later, got the win. Whatever injustices the Orioles had suffered in the past – the 1969 World Series always leaped to mind – were momentarily righted this evening.

The Orioles still trailed by a run in the bottom of the tenth, but Cal Ripken led off the inning with a home run, tying the game again. Eddie Murray was walked, not intentionally but with utmost discretion. Lowenstein followed and ground out to first, Murray taking second on the play. Shelby was walked very intentionally to set up the force.

Randy Moffit came on in relief of McLaughlin. The first batter he faced, Gary Roenicke, stuck out. Gary always struck out. Next up was “catcher” Len Sakata. Sakata, a journeyman infielder with limited range at his natural position, not much power, but apparently a lot of guts, strode to the plate and calmly hit a three-run homer to left. The game was over. Miller kept shouting, “The Orioles win! The Orioles win!” in the background. I sat motionless for a few moments, completely drained. I could not have imagined a more unlikely ending to a ballgame.

Then I felt I had to speak with someone, to share this moment with another Orioles fan. I picked up the phone and called my father in Baltimore.