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Now that Bob Melvin has been fired as the skipper of the
Diamondbacks, the speculation can begin as to which team will be the next to
fire its field manager. The Cleveland Indians could be that team; with a record
of 13-22, the Indians have the worst record in the American League. That may
not bode well for the future of Eric Wedge, who has been on the hot seat ever
since the Indians started last season
Many observers have pointed to the Indians as first-class
underachievers, one of baseball’s biggest disappointments. Just two months ago,
the Indians were the fashionable pick to win the American League Central, a
balanced division ripe for the taking. Personally, I think that prediction was
a bit of a stretch, considering the departure of CC Sabathia, the regression of
Fausto Carmona, and the unsettled state of Cleveland’s outfield beyond superstar
Grady Sizemore. Still, there’s no question that the Indians have underachieved. They shouldn’t be
buried so many games below .500, just a couple of ticks ahead of the Washington
Nationals, the most dreadful team in either league. There’s just no excuse for
such a poor standing.
The Indians will probably give Wedge at least two to three
more weeks before making any kind of a change. If they do, they have two highly
logical candidates in place within their organization. First up is Joel
Skinner, currently their third base coach and now in his ninth year on the
staff. Skinner also has prior managerial experience. He served as the Indians’
interim skipper in 2002. Prior to that, Skinner managed for several years in
the Tribe’s farm system, developing a reputation for winning and developing
young talent. A former catcher, Skinner is very bright and familiar with the
organization from top to bottom. The other top candidate is Torey Lovullo,
currently the manager of the Columbus Clippers, who just so happen to be the
Indians’ Triple-A affiliate. Lovullo’s minor league managerial record is
spotless. He has won two International League titles, the highlight of a resume
that features a winning record every season he’s managed.
If none of those candidates are to your liking, then how
about this blast from the past? Mike Hargrove, who left the Mariners in
mid-season two years ago, is also available. He’s scheduled to manager a summer
league team of college prospects, but that contract could be broken in favor of
a return to the Midwest…
There’s an old axiom in baseball that says, “Every game you
watch, you’ll see something different, something you’ve never seen before.”
That’s an exaggeration, of course, but baseball is such an unpredictable game
of diverse outcomes that we often do come away seeing something new and without
precedent. That happened to me on Tuesday night, as I watched the game between
the Mets and Braves. In the top of the 10th inning, Mets utilityman
Alex Cora, who’s normally a middle infielder, took over at first base. (Cora
had played the position just once before, back in 2005 with the Red Sox.) After
warming up with a standard issue first baseman’s mitt, Cora decided he wasn’t
comfortable with it, ran to the dugout, and replaced it with a regular infielder’s
glove. As Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen commented that he had never seen that
before, I thought the same thing. I’ve never
seen a first baseman play the position without a first baseman’s mitt, just
like I’ve never seen a catcher go behind the plate without a standard catcher’s
mitt. It’s something that probably happened during baseball’s early history,
before gloves and mitts became so advanced and specialized. It might have even
happened sometime since World War II, but I just can’t recall it. Perhaps
someone out there has seen a first
baseman play without a mitt. If so, feel free to let us know…
Earlier this week, former big league right-hander Jack Billingham
visited the Hall of Fame here in Cooperstown.
As Billingham explained to a friend of mine, Hall senior researcher Bill
Francis, he and his wife Jolene, along with his sister and brother-in-law, have
been touring the country in RVs. Along the way, they’ve visited some of Jack’s
old stomping grounds, including Cincinnati (where he pitched most of his career
with the Reds) and Detroit (where he pitched for three seasons late in his
This was not Billingham’s first visit to Cooperstown.
Forty years ago, he came to town as part of a contingent with the Astros to
play in the annual Hall of Fame Game. He also has an indirect connection to the
Hall of Fame. Billingham is a distant cousin of Christy Mathewson, part of the
inaugural Hall of Fame Class in 1939.
“Cactus Jack,” as he’s sometimes called, remains one of the
most underrated members of Cincinnati’s
“Big Red Machine.” Too often Billingham is remembered for giving up Hank
Aaron’s record-tying 714th home run, and that’s just not fair. While
the Reds’ offensive stars, like Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and Tony
Perez, garnered most of the publicity, Billingham turned in workmanlike
performances for a reliable rotation that also included Gary Nolan, Don
Gullett, and Fredie Norman. Durable and consistent, Billingham used a
sinkerball to post consecutive 19-win seasons in 1973 and ’74, before winning a
total of 27 games during the two world championship seasons of 1975 and
’76. He raised his level of pitching in
World Series play, allowing only one earned run in just over 25 innings, and
still holds the record for lowest ERA in World Series history.
Yes, Cactus Jack was pretty good.
Where does one begin in handing out bouquets to the National League champion Rockies? Incredibly, the Rockies have become the first team since the 1976 Cincinnati Reds to win their first seven games of the postseason. Given that those Reds featured the Hall of Fame likes of Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and Joe Morgan and would-be Hall of Famer Pete Rose and won the LCS and the World Series with those seven games, the Rockies have taken their place next to some of baseball’s immortals.
The Rockies have played well in all facets in winning 21 of their last 22, but two areas have stood out in my eyes: their remarkable ability to hit with runners in scoring position their sensational defensive play. The third and fourth games of the series exemplified Colorado’s clutch hitting, as the Rockies twice mounted game-winning rallies with two outs. Defensively, the Rockies have shown almost no weakness, whether it comes to surehandedness, range, and athleticism. Other than Matt Holliday, who is a bit clunky in left field, the Rockies have no below-average defenders who play regularly. They also have several terrific fielders, including the rangy and power-armed Troy Tulowitzki, the fleet Willy Taveras (who is reminding me more and more of Garry Maddox), and the ever-reliable Todd Helton at first base.
As well as the Rockies played in sweeping the National League Championship Series, that’s how badly–and stupidly–the Diamondbacks performed throughout the four games. The D-Backs committed a host of baserunning errors, from Miguel Montero making the final out of Game One at second base to Justin Upton’s forearm shiver of Kaz Matsui to Chris Young being picked off at the start of Game Four. Then there was Stephen Drew stepping off the base when he wasn’t sure if he had been called out and Eric “Captain America” Byrnes foolishly diving into first base, the latter bringing a fitting end to a series filled with mental mistakes and an inability to hit in the clutch. Putting aside Game One, the D-Backs lost the final three games by a total of six runs, giving Arizona fans plenty of “what-if” ammunition for the long winter ahead. If the D-backs had hit just a little bit better with runners in scoring position or run the bases appreciably better, then this series would be moving on to Game Five.
Fortunately for the Diamondbacks, they are a young team loaded with talented players and have every right to expect to contend in the NL West for the foreseeable future. If Drew, Young, and Upton fulfill even 75 per cent of their perceived potential, they will be playing in plenty of All-Star games over the next decade. Conor Jackson, Mark Reynolds, and the injured Carlos Quentin (remember him) also have chances to be very good players, giving the D-Backs a terrific core of everyday players. Then it’s just a matter of finding two young starters to supplement Brandon Webb in the rotation and adding one more bigtime arm to a bullpen that already features closer Jose Valverde and the Other Tony Pena. That could spell some long-term trouble for the Dodgers, Giants, and even the Rockies in what remains a balanced NL West.
Old school baseball lifer. I can’t think of four better words to describe longtime Phillies coach John Vukovich, who died on Thursday from the effects of a brain tumor.
As someone who has attended spring training about a dozen times, I had several opportunities to approach Vukovich and try to interview him. I never did. Why? With that grizzled face, hardcore mustache, and perpetual scowl, I was just too damn intimidated. Vukovich simply didn’t look approachable. I figured some other interview target would be easier, more accommodating. That was my mistake, my loss.
If I had done my own informal background check, I would have found out the real story with Vukovich. Unfortunately, I’m only realizing this now, after reading some of the tributes that have been written to him after his death. Although gruff on the exterior, Vukovich actually liked to talk to fans before games, both in spring training and during the regular season. He willingly signed autographs for fans, no matter their age or appearance. As tough as he appeared to be, he could be just as funny and kind, though he didn’t always show it. And he loved baseball so much that he worked in the game for 41 of his 59 years, including five as a minor league ballplayer, ten as a major league, and roughly 25 as a coach. Anybody who loved baseball that much would rank as OK with me. That’s someone I would have wanted to talk to.
There are a few other attributes of Vuk, as he was affectionately called, that I’ve come to admire. He took pride in wearing the uniform, believed that there was a proper way to wear it, and a proper way to behave while in it. He believed in playing hard and smart. Some would call all of that being old-fashioned; I would call it being proud and professional in the life work that you have chosen. If Vukovich saw a player doing something inappropriate, or making some kind of fundamental mistake, he didn’t run and complain about it to another coach or the manager. He told the player directly, usually with a scowl and a raised voice, that he had done something wrong. I’m sure that many of the players didn’t enjoy being on the receiving end of one of his stern lectures, but most of them must have appreciated being told face-to-face rather than behind-the-back.
For someone who didn’t have much physical talent, Vuk made the most of his career in baseball. A right-handed hitter with little power or speed, he batted .161 over the span of ten seasons with the Phillies, Brewers, and Reds. In fact, of any player eligible for election to the Hall of Fame, Vukovich had the lowest batting average in major league history. Just how did he manage to last for ten seasons? Well, he compensated for his lack of hitting by becoming a terrific defensive third basemen. As well as he played the hot corner, he willingly played anywhere the manager asked him, from third base to shortstop to first base to second base. He did what he was told, usually without question or complaint. He became a good guy to be around, and sometimes that became the tiebreaker between himself and another player who might have had a little more talent, but not the best attitude.
Vukovich lasted long enough in baseball to carve out a nice niche in baseball history. Let’s consider a few of his accomplishments. It’s not a typical list for a lifetime .161 hitter.
*In 1971, Vukovich played third base in Rick Wise’s no-hitter, the same game in which Wise clubbed two home runs. While Wise grabbed most of the glory, Vukovich made several standout plays at third base to preserve the no-hitter. Vuk also recorded the final out of the game, snaring a pop-up and then returning the ball to a grateful Wise.
*Vukovich started the 1975 season as the Opening Day third baseman for the Reds, who were about to win their first of two consecutive World Championships. Vukovich lasted only a few weeks as the starting third baseman; he struggled to hit, so much so that Sparky Anderson once pinch-hit for him during his first at-bat of the game. Anderson eventually benched Vukovich, and moved Pete Rose from the outfield to third base to make room for George Foster in left field. That switch would prove to be the clincher for the Big Red Machine. Still, Vukovich remained a subtle part of the team, filling a role as a jack-of-all trades, play-me-anywhere utility infielder, until the Reds traded him in mid-August. After the season, Vuk would receive a nice reward in the form of a World Series ring.
*One championship would not suffice. Vukovich moved on to the Phillies, where he became a backup on Dallas Green’s 1980 World Championship team. Buying into Green’s no-nonsense approach, Vukovich helped carry the torch as part of a productive Phillies bench that included Keith Moreland, Lonnie Smith, and Del Unser. This time, he stuck around long enough to be a part of the World Series roster. Not bad, two World Series rings for the .161 hitter.
*After his playing days, Vukovich remained in baseball as a coach. When Green became the head of the Cubs’ front office in 1982, he brought Vukovich to Chicago as one of his on-field lieutenants. By 1987, Green thought so much of Vukovich that he gave Vukovich the Cubs’ managerial job on an interim basis before offering him the position permanently. With the press release announcing Vukovich as manager already written, fate suddenly intervened. Green fought with team ownership and lost his job, thereby denying Vukovich of what would have been his first fulltime managerial gig. Vukovich could have remained a coach in Chicago, but he remained loyal to Green, and tendered his resignation.
*Having lost out on the Cubs’ managerial job through no fault of his own, Vukovich returned to Philadelphia the following season. He became a fulltime member of the community–and an institution at Veterans Stadium. Vuk emerged as a staple on the Phillies coaching staff, Philadelphia’s counterpart to longtime Yankee coaches like “Dick” Howser and Elston Howard. Remaining with the club as a coach through the 2004 season, Vukovich became the longest tenured coach in franchise history. Loyal to a fault, he worked for six different Phillies managers in 17 seasons. Along the way, he received another brief term at managing–another one of those interim gigs, this time for nine games–but more importantly established a reputation as a reliable third base coach and as one of the best bench coaches in either league.
*Vukovich could be colorful, too. He liked to play practical jokes and had a well-known temper. He once verbally accosted the Baltimore Bird mascot who had dared to dance on the Phillies dugout. Vuk tracked him down in his dressing room. That was classic Vukovich.
Given all that Vuk accomplished himself, I could just kick myself for not having had more courage to walk up to him and ask him a few questions. I would have been interested to hear some of his stories.
As with a lot of people in baseball today, that’s my loss.
This past week, major league general managers gathered in Dallas for the annual winter meetings, which produced 20 trades and 15 free agent signings. All in all, it was a fairly active session, but like most winter meetings, it paled in comparison to what happened during the winter meetings of 1971. For a few days that winter, baseball’s general managers turned the sport upside-down.
Shortly after the game’s 24 general managers landed in Phoenix, Arizona, during the final days of November in 1971, a flood of news conferences and announcements poured through hotel suites and lobbies. On November 29, no fewer than six teams involved themselves in a series of blockbuster trades, all involving prominent players with well-established reputations. In a swap of star pitchers and staff aces, the San Francisco Giants sent Gaylord Perry and touted shortstop Frank Duffy to the Cleveland Indians for Sam McDowell, one of the era’s hardest throwing pitchers. In another exchange, the Chicago Cubs dealt left-hander Ken Holtzman, the owner of two career no-hitters, to the Oakland A’s for outfielder Rick Monday, the first player taken in baseball’s initial amateur draft of 1965. Still, as big a ripple as both deals caused, they paled in comparison with the day’s biggest trade: the Cincinnati Reds’ swap of power-hitting first baseman Lee May and infielders Tommy Helms and Jimmy Stewart to the Houston Astros for second baseman Joe Morgan and four other players (infielder Denis Menke, outfielders Ed Armbrister and Cesar Geronimo, and pitcher Jack Billingham). The grand totals for the day? Six teams, three trades, 13 players, a half-dozen household names…Wow.
Still, there was more news to come, news that would dwarf the activity of November 29. Three days later, on December 2, major league teams engineered eight trades, involving a total of 30 players. The slate of activity included a three-player deal between Kansas City and Houston, in which the Royals acquired promising first baseman John Mayberry from the Astros for two young pitchers, Jim York and Lance Clemons. In the biggest deal of the day, the Baltimore Orioles sent star outfielder Frank Robinson (and hard-throwing reliever Pete Richert) to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a six-player swap that brought young right-hander Doyle Alexander and three minor leaguers to Baltimore. After acquiring Robinson, the Dodgers sent slugging first baseman Richie Allen–one of the era’s greatest and most controversial talents–to the Chicago White Sox for standout left-hander Tommy John and an obscure utility infielder named Steve Huntz.
By the time the winter meetings ended on December 3, major league teams had combined to make 15 trades, while swapping an unprecedented 53 players. The burst of off-season activity served two purposes. The series of blockbuster deals generated headlines in newspapers and sports weeklies, keeping baseball’s hot stove churning during the NFL’s post-season push. More significantly, the trades created a series of aftershocks that would affect the game’s landscape–both individually and from a team standpoint–for years to come.
At the time, the swap of the 33-year-old Gaylord Perry for the 29-year-old Sam McDowell seemed promising for the Giants. After all, they were acquiring the younger pitcher and the harder thrower, not to mention the guy who happened to be left-handed in the deal. Yet, the Giants didn’t realize the extent of McDowell’s drinking problems, and how they would derail his career, making him an ex-Giant by 1973 and a shell of a pitcher before his 30th birthday. In the meantime, Perry went on win a league-best 24 games for the Indians in 1972 and 21 more games in 1974, when he captured the American League’s Cy Young Award. Unfortunately, the Indians didn’t finish any higher than fourth in the AL East, but they couldn’t reasonably blame the future Hall of Famer for their poor place in the standings.
Another major American League award would be won by one of the other superstars involved in the winter tradefest of 1971. For much of his career, Richie Allen had sparred with managers, first in Philadelphia and then in Los Angeles. Thanks to the trade that sent him to the White Sox, Allen would find his ideal manager in the Windy City. “The way I see it,” White Sox skipper Chuck Tanner told longtime Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman, “he ought to help us win at least 20 games with his bat.” An exaggeration to be sure, but not by as much as some skeptics would have thought. Motivated by the always-encouraging Tanner, Allen led all AL batters in slugging percentage, RBIs and walks in 1972, while carrying the Sox to within a five-and-a-half-game finish of the far more talented Oakland A’s. It was arguably Allen’s best season ever–and would earn him the league’s MVP Award.
By the winter of 1971, the Kansas City Royals had played three full seasons as an American League expansion team. Although they were hardly ready for contention in the AL West, the addition of the 22-year-old John Mayberry gave their offense a foundation from which to build. By the time the Royals became a sanctioned playoff team (i.e. 1976), Mayberry had developed into a legitimate cleanup hitter. With Mayberry, George Brett, Hal McRae, and Amos Otis forming the nucleus of the Royal offense, Kansas City won back-to-back division titles in ’76 and ’77.
Other trades played even larger roles in affecting outcomes across the major leagues. Few would benefit as much as the game’s budding dynasty, the one taking root in Oakland. The addition of Ken Holtzman, who had clashed with an unyielding Leo Durocher in Chicago, gave the A’s a third top-drawer starter after Jim “Catfish” Hunter and Vida Blue. Given the chronically injured throwing arms of Chuck Dobson and John “Blue Moon” Odom, the A’s needed another reliable starter even more badly. With Holtzman in tow and their pitching staff a notch deeper, the A’s became a more formidable foe in the post-season. From 1972 to 1974, Holtzman won four of five World Series decisions while posting an ERA of 2.55. During that same span, the stylish left-hander pitched even more effectively in the American League Championship Series, forging a miniscule ERA of 1.55, with two wins in three decisions. Without Holtzman’s clutch post-season pitching, not to mention his nearly 20 wins per season from 1972 to 1974, the A’s might not have been fortunate enough to garner three consecutive World Championships.
In contrast, no trade had more of a negative impact on any one team than the Orioles’ decision to trade Frank Robinson, their best all-round player and most forceful presence in the clubhouse, where he ruled Baltimore’s famed “Kangaroo Court.” Although an aging player at 36, Robinson’s departure accelerated the Orioles’ fall from grace. The touted Merv Rettenmund–a .318 hitter as a kind of super utility outfielder in 1971–proved inadequate as Robinson’s replacement in right field, while fellow outfielders Paul Blair and Don Buford slipped badly, causing the defending American League champions to fall to third place in 1972. The Orioles bounced back to win the AL East the next two seasons, but lost both of their Championship Series matchups to the eventual World Champion A’s. Although Robinson’s presence certainly wouldn’t have guaranteed a victory over the A’s, the Orioles probably would have preferred him over Doyle Alexander, who was ineffective in his one post-season start against Oakland. As for Rettenmund, he also continued to struggle, prompting his trade to the Reds in the winter of ’73.
Although the Orioles clearly missed F. Robby’s presence, he actually proved a disappointment in Los Angeles. Clashing with venerable skipper Walter Alston, Robinson lasted only one injury-plagued season at Chavez Ravine before being dispatched to the California Angels, where he revived himself in 1973. As for the ’72 Dodgers, they did finish a respectable third in the National League West, but that still left them a full 10 and a half games off the pace of the Reds.
Ah the Reds. No team enjoyed a greater benefit from the ripples of activity at the 1971 winter meetings than the budding “Big Red Machine,” which renovated its infield at three of four positions with one fell swoop. In dispatching with Lee May as part of the trade with the Astros, the Reds cleared out first base for Tony Perez, who had been playing a less-than-ideal third base. The quality of their infield took another step upward with the addition of Joe Morgan, a very good but not yet hallmark player during his days in Houston, who replaced the more limited Tommy Helms at second base. Most importantly, the theft of Morgan provided The Machine with the missing link to its offense, which lacked speed, left-handed hitting, and Morgan’s ability to reach base. When asked about “Little Joe’s” .256 batting average, manager Sparky Anderson dismissed the number and revealed himself as an ahead-of-his-time baseball thinker. “Here’s a guy who gets on base an awful lot of times,” Anderson told Cincinnati sportswriter Earl Lawson. “His on-base ratio is unbelievable, like last year–149 hits and 88 walks.” And Morgan would get better. Enjoying a career breakthrough in 1972, Morgan led the National League with 115 walks and a .419 on-base percentage and batted a career-high .292, helping the Reds win the pennant and come within one game of the World Championship. Three years later, the future Hall of Famer spearheaded the Reds to their first World Series victory of the Anderson era, batting a career-high .327 and leading the league with a .471 on-base percentage on the way to winning the NL’s MVP Award. Morgan repeated as league MVP the following season, compiling a league-best .576 slugging percentage, as the Reds easily defended their title.
Thanks to a swap meet that saw over 50 players change uniforms, baseball throughout the 1970s underwent a drastic and undeniable facelift. Within a span of five winter days in 1971, major league general managers had made a series of decisions that would affect the following fortunes: the crowning of one Cy Young and three Most Valuable Player awards, the beginnings of a Royal foundation, the derailing of Baltimore’s American League championship run, the pitching puzzle of Oakland’s “Swingin’ A’s,” and the clockwork of the Big Red Machine. Now those were some winter meetings to remember.
It may have been the greatest game in baseball history. And it happened thirty years ago. It is remembered, quite simply, as Game Six.
Joe Mooney’s ground crew restored Fenway’s Park’s dirt and grass to playadaily ble condition, allowing Game Six to begin amidst surprisingly warm 64-degree temperatures. After retiring the first two batters he faced, Nolan surrendered back-to-back singles to Carl Yastrzemski and Carlton Fisk, followed by a three-run homer to the previously slumping Fred Lynn. With that home run, Nolan tied one of the most undesirable of World Series records. Lynn’s blast was the eighth that Nolan had allowed in World Series play, drawing him even with Hall of Famers Don Drysdale and Whitey Ford. Of course, no one wanted to tell Nolan that Drysdale had allowed that many over the span of five World Series and that Ford had done so in 11 visits to the Fall Classic. Nolan, in stark contrast, was pitching in only his third World Series. Nolan narrowly avoided allowing a ninth career home run when Rico Petrocelli lofted a deep drive that seemed earmarked for territory beyond “The Wall” in left, only to fall into the waiting glove of Cincinnati’s center fielder.
In contrast to Nolan’s pratfalls, Tiant successfully battled his cold–although he disputed reports that his back bothered him–and kept the Reds scoreless over the first four innings before showing signs of weakness in the fifth. Tiant found fortune in retiring his first batter, Cesar Geronimo, who lined directly at Dwight Evans in right field. Sparky Anderson now called on Ed Armbrister–oh no, not him again!–to bat in the pitcher’s spot. The pesky Armbrister waited out a walk and then moved up to third on Pete Rose’s single to center field. With the tying run now at the plate, Ken Griffey stroked an opposite-field drive that chased Fred Lynn toward the outer regions of left-center field, right near the 379-foot sign. Lynn leapt up and into The Wall, but his courageous attempt fell short. As the ball bounded back toward the field of play, Armbrister and Rose scored, Griffey steamed into third, and Lynn collapsed in a heap at the base of the wall. He lay there motionless for several moments, drawing the attention of Carl Yastrzemski, who scurried over to check on his fallen teammate. “I hit the corner of the wall and fell,” Lynn told Joe Giulotti of the Boston Herald American. “The base of my spine struck a pipe which extends a few feet out of the ground and I had no feeling above my waist.” His legs paralyzed, Lynn felt frightened. “I always heard that if you suffer spinal injury [you should] remain still. That’s why I didn’t move. It was several seconds, but it seemed like minutes before I got feeling back in my legs.”
After the momentary scare, Yastrzemski and the rest of the Red Sox realized that Lynn was all right–at least physically. The disappointment that came with failing to make a spectacularly important catch had left Lynn drained emotionally, but relatively uninjured–an amazing result given the awkward way he had collided with the wall. Lynn would remain in the game in spite of a sore and stiff back that would require several bags of ice in the post-game clubhouse.
Once Lynn returned to his station in center field, Tiant had to face the middle of the “Big Red Machine” order–Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench. When Morgan lifted a harmless pop-up to Rico Petrocelli at third base, Tiant appeared to have recovered, only to falter again when Bench lined one of his pitches off the ever-present left field wall. The unusual single–unusual for any park other than Fenway, that is–scored Griffey with the game-tying run. Tiant finally ended the rally when he struck out Tony Perez, the home run hero of Game Five.
Tiant ran into more trouble in the sixth, before escaping a precarious two-out, two-runner jam. Just as in Game Four, Tiant was pitching nowhere near his level of peak efficiency. His breaking pitches lacked movement, and his fastball, one of his saving graces in the fourth game, seemed to have departed him. Even Tiant’s repertoire of pace-changing wind-ups did little to confuse the Reds’ batters. With his pitch count now climbing at an alarming rate, Tiant started the seventh by allowing back-to-back singles to Ken Griffey and Joe Morgan. Darrell Johnson stubbornly maintained the status quo, opting not to replace Tiant’s dragging right arm with a fresher one. The next batter, Johnny Bench, followed with another hard-hit ball, but it landed squarely in the glove of Carl Yastrzemski in left field. Tiant now faced Tony Perez, whom he had struck out to end the fifth inning. This time, Perez made contact, but only managed a fly-out to Dwight Evans in right field. Griffey moved up from second to third on the medium-depth fly ball, while Morgan held his ground at first. A tiring Tiant was just one out away from ending the threat. In spite of warm-up activity in the bullpen, Johnson once again decided to stick with his ace. Perhaps viewing the outcome of the inning with overly optimistic eyes, Johnson felt that Tiant could handle the formidable right-handed bat of George Foster. Having expounded so much energy in the fifth and sixth innings, Tiant couldn’t put Foster away. Foster propelled a line drive to the deepest part of Fenway’s outfield expanse. The ball crashed off the center field wall before caroming back onto the outfield grass. By the time Fred Lynn retrieved the pinball shot that had dented the wall, both Griffey and Morgan had scored. The two-out, two-run double by Foster had given the Reds a 5-3 lead.
The Reds tacked another run onto their lead in the eighth, when Cesar Geronimo hooked a Tiant pitch down the right field line, just inside Fenway’s oddly situated foul pole. The home run, the shortest possible at the misshapen ballpark, put the Red Sox’ deficit at three runs, finally convincing Darrell Johnson to make a change. Tiant, who had claimed both of Boston’s victories and was attempting to become the first pitcher since Mickey Lolich in 1968 to win three games in a Series, would not have a chance at a third. Johnson called on left-hander Roger Moret to replace Tiant and face the bottom rung of the Reds’ order, which was currently represented by relief pitcher Pedro Borbon. Moret induced a ground out from Borbon, and then did the same with Pete Rose to end the inning. With a comfortable lead of three runs, the Reds had placed themselves within six outs of the world championship. Sparky Anderson hoped that Borbon could acquire three of the outs in the eighth and that Rawly Eastwick could do the same in the ninth.
Speaking of Eastwick, he quickly became the topic of conversation in the Fenway Park press box. A group of writers who had been entrusted with the duty of conducting a vote for Series MVP elected to cast their ballots on the spot. The writers decided that Eastwick, who had won two games and saved a third game, deserved the MVP–and the new car that went along with it. In the meantime, the rest of those in attendance at Fenway set their sights on Borbon and Fred Lynn, the first batter to face him in the bottom of the eighth. Lynn banged a line drive that clipped the Cincinnati right-hander in the leg. Borbon could not recover the ball in time, allowing Lynn to reach on an infield single. Borbon then walked Rico Petrocelli, putting runners on first and second and bringing the tying run to the plate. With the power-hitting Dwight Evans scheduled to bat, Anderson strode to the mound and called for Eastwick, who had just been voted MVP in a ballot that had not yet been publicly announced. Eastwick and Evans had met before, most recently in Game Three, when “Dewey” clubbed a game-tying two-run home run in the ninth inning.
This time around, Eastwick gained the upper hand. Using his trademark moving fastball, he struck out Evans. Next up came Rick Burleson, who lined to George Foster at left. The Red Sox’ rally, which seemed so promising only moments ago, appeared to be flickering. With Roger Moret scheduled to bat, Darrell Johnson decided to call on one of his pinch-hitters. Preferring one with power, Johnson instructed reserve outfielder Bernie Carbo to pick up a bat. Although Carbo had previously annoyed his manager by questioning his decision not to start him in the World Series, Johnson knew this was no time to institute a grudge. Carbo offered him his best chance of coming through in the pinch, just as he had done with a home run in Game Three. As a veteran of the 1970 World Series with the Reds, Carbo was familiar with the experience of playing in the game’s ultimate pressure situations. He was also familiar with Eastwick’s repertoire: rising fastballs, an occasional breaking pitch, and more fastballs. When Eastwick was at his best, his riding fastball bordered on the unhittable. Eastwick and Carbo tangled evenly for the first four pitches, working themselves to a count of 2-and-2. Rather than attempt to put Carbo away with a fastball, Eastwick threw a devious forkball, which moved down and away from the batter’s box. Carbo swung weakly–the “swing of a little leaguer,” as described by coach Johnny Pesky, or “the worst swing I ever saw,” in the words of an observant Carlton Fisk, — but somehow managed to tip the ball with a fractional segment of his bat. The count remained 2-and-2, and Carbo remained breathing. “I only wanted to keep the inning alive,” Carbo told Jim Regan of the Springfield Daily News after the game. “I was thinking, ‘Don’t make the final out.’ Billy Williams of the A’s says the worst thing you can do is make the last out of a game or the last out to end a rally.”
Carbo wanted nothing to do with the latter possibility. With his next pitch, Eastwick decided to throw Carbo his best pitch–a riding fastball–which he left over the middle of the plate. It was a pitch that Eastwick wanted to ride in on Carbo’s hands, but one that stayed out over the plate, a “terrible pitch” in Eastwick’s words. Using a level and compact swing, Carbo merely wanted to make contact. “I was telling myself not to strike out,” Carbo told Joe Durso of The New York Times. “With four days off because of the rain, I was just trying to put the ball in play someplace.” That someplace was in the direction of straightaway center field. The line drive carried, and to Carbo’s surprise, carried some more. From the grass in the Fenway outfield, Cesar Geronimo stared at the ball as it cleared the center field wall. Three-run homer. Tie game. And so much for the selection of a Series MVP. Carbo clapped his hands furiously as he rounded the bases. Several times, he interrupted his home run trot with periodic leaps in the air. By the time he reached home plate, Red Sox players had already emptied the dugout and encircled the area near Reds catcher Johnny Bench and home plate umpire Satch Davidson. Carbo, who had just tied Chuck Essegian’s record of two pinch-hit homers in one Series, stepped on home plate before melting into the friendly mass of grateful teammates. “It’s funny,” Carbo told The New York Times afterward, “but my first hit in the big leagues was a home run for the Reds, and two years later my first hit in a World Series was a home run for the Reds. And now this, against the Reds.”
One of the players who scored ahead of Carbo was Boston’s longtime infielder, Rico Petrocelli. “I was on first base. I came around; I was right in the middle of the pile,” recalls Petrocelli. “That was so exciting. You get the chills. I remember getting the chills when that ball was hit; it looked like it had a chance. You had to wait, and then all of a sudden, it goes in the center field bleachers. I think my hair was standing on end when we rounded the bases.” Petrocelli also remembers a dazed reaction on the part of Carbo, who was known for his rather offbeat states of mind. “Of course, Bernie at that time, he was kind of spacey,” says Petrocelli, “and he didn’t even know where he was; he was so excited.”
Not wanting to lose the clutch bat of Boston’s new hero, while strategically pushing the pitcher’s spot one slot further back in the batting order, Darrell Johnson decided to keep Carbo in the game when the Reds came to bat in the ninth. He placed Carbo in left field, where he was greeted with a standing ovation from an appreciative Fenway. Johnson moved Carl Yastrzemski to first base and removed the slumping Cecil Cooper, who was just 1-for-18 in the Series, from the top of the lineup. The new alignment left the Red Sox a bit weakened defensively, but it hardly mattered in the top of the ninth. Dick Drago, the new Red Sox’ pitcher, retired the Reds in order on two pop-ups and a ground out. Only one run–scored any which way–separated the Red Sox from a victory that would even the Series at three games apiece. And for the first time in the World Series, the Sox felt confident that they could break through against the previously impenetrable Rawly Eastwick. Denny Doyle, with hits in every game of the Series, led off the bottom of the ninth. The mercurial Doyle didn’t get a hit this time, but managed to work out a walk against the faltering Eastwick. With Yastrzemski batting next, Darrell Johnson now faced an important decision. Should he let Yaz hit away, or ask him to bunt, something he rarely did? Third base coach Don Zimmer gave Yaz a clear sign: forget about squaring to bunt, swing the bat. Yastrzemski did just that, lining an Eastwick pitch into right field. Running hard all the way, Denny Doyle rounded second and headed for third. With no one out, the Red Sox had put the potential game-winning run on third base with no one out.
Having seen enough of Eastwick, Sparky Anderson called on Will McEnaney and instructed him to intentionally walk Carlton Fisk, loading the bases. McEnaney, a flaky left-hander featuring a devastating curve ball that hampered most southpaw batters, now faced rookie sensation Fred Lynn. Swinging defensively, Lynn lofted a short fly down the left field line. George Foster, who was shaded toward the line, tracked the ball down in very shallow left field, at what seemed like only a handful of yards beyond the third base bag. As Foster made the catch on the 200-foot fly ball, third base coach Don Zimmer shouted his instructions to Doyle. Wisely choosing to hold Doyle, Zimmer yelled, “You can’t go. No, no, no!” Unfortunately for the Red Sox and the their fans, the message did not get through. Listening to Zimmer against the backdrop of a gasping crowd, Doyle thought his coach had said, “Go, go, go!” Noticing Doyle’s surprising break from third, Foster fired home. Johnny Bench, at first blocking the plate with his powerful legs, picked the ball up on one long, comfortable hop and applied a swipe tag to Doyle. Out No. 2! A mix-up in communications, caused in part by a raucous World Series atmosphere, had resulted in the most unlikely of double plays. For the mistake-prone Red Sox, it was a nasty case of déjà vu. Earlier in the Series, the Red Sox had short-circuited a rally under eerily similar circumstances. In the first inning of Game One, Dwight Evans believed he had heard Zimmer shout “Go!” when the coach had actually yelled “No!” on an infield hit by Fred Lynn. Evans rounded third and ran for home, only to be cut down by Dave Concepcion’s accurate throw to the plate.
A Red Sox’ win, which had seemed like a foregone conclusion only seconds ago, now figured to be more problematic. Although Yastrzemski had alertly moved up to third on Foster’s throw to the plate, he could no longer score on an out, since there were now two men down. A base hit, or a Cincinnati error of some kind, would have to occur in order to end the game in Boston’s favor. Rico Petrocelli, hitless in the game though productive in the Series, stepped in against McEnaney, who remained in the game. Petrocelli hit a medium-speed grounder toward third base. Pete Rose picked the ball up off the infield dirt, which remained surprisingly firm in spite of three days of rainstorms, and threw to Tony Perez at first. The Red Sox’ rally, which had appeared destined to end the game, was over.
It was on to the 10th inning. And then the 11th inning. When Pete Rose stepped to the plate to lead off the inning for the Reds, he decided to say something to Carlton Fisk, who was about to crouch behind the plate. “This is some kind of game, isn’t it?” Rose said in wonderment to his opponent, who couldn’t believe the words he was hearing. “Pete Rose said that to me,” a shocked Fisk informed Sports Illustrated afterwards. It was not the kind of thing that a player, certainly not a competitive one like Rose, usually said to another player on the opposing team. Yet, this was not a game of usual circumstances.
A few moments later, Rose reached first when he was hit by a pitch, but was soon forced out when Fisk deftly fielded an attempted sacrifice bunt and pinpointed a strong throw to second. It was an especially nifty play by Fisk, given the pain and soreness he had combated throughout an injury-plagued season. But the Red Sox still had to deal with the middle of the Cincinnati order. With the fleet-footed Ken Griffey now on first, Joe Morgan launched a high fly ball toward the deepest regions of right field. At first sight, the ball appeared to have home run distance, causing Griffey to make a hard run toward second. Dwight Evans, employing a series of long, graceful strides, gave chase to Morgan’s blast. The ball not only had the necessary footage to elude Evans and score Griffey, but it had seemed to have enough length to reach the wall, maybe even exceed it. Then, without warning, Evans stabbed the air with his glove hand. Amazingly, the ball stuck in his glove–a remarkable catch. Evans wasn’t done. Although his momentum pushed him into the fence and brushed him up against the fans (who graciously moved back to accommodate him), Evans stopped himself quickly, re-gained his balance, and unfurled a strong but inaccurate throw wide of first base. Carl Yastrzemski flagged the ball down and relayed to Rick Burleson at second base, doubling Griffey off the bases and erasing what might have been the go-ahead run.
Although many observers had concluded that Morgan’s drive was destined for extra bases, Evans felt otherwise. “I knew I had a chance. The ball was hit fairly low,” Evans told the Springfield Daily News. “I stuck up my glove and the next thing I know I was wheeling and throwing the ball in the location of first.” Evans’ play didn’t just save one run; it prevented two runs from scoring. “It would have been a homer because the fence is only three feet high there.”
Bill Plummer, a backup catcher for the Reds who was watching the play from the bullpen, confirmed Evans’ diagnosis. Plummer said that the ball would have landed two or three rows into the outfield seats. Evans’ play drew the ultimate level of respect from opposing manager Sparky Anderson. “You will never see any better [catch] than that one,” Sparky told Gerry Finn of the Springfield Union. “At least, I don’t think I will.” Keep in mind that Anderson had also witnessed Joe Rudi’s outfield robbery against his Reds in the ’72 Series.
The next inning, Cincinnati tried to mount another rally against Boston’s suddenly stubborn and stingy combination of defense and pitching. The Reds put two more runners on base, but veteran Rick Wise, a one-time ace now nearing the end of a long career, retired Dave Concepcion on a fly-out and Cesar Geronimo on strikes.
The sixth game of the World Series, seemingly as long as the string of rainouts that had preceded it, moved to the bottom of the 12th inning. By now, Sparky Anderson had used up three of his regular starting pitchers and four of his best relievers, leaving him with an obscure rookie right-hander named Pat Darcy on the mound. As Cincinnati’s eighth pitcher of the night, Darcy represented a piece of baseball history. No team had ever used as many hurlers in a World Series game. More pertinently, Darcy had retired all six of the Red Sox’ batters he had faced in the 10th and 11th innings. In reality, Darcy represented Anderson’s last viable pitching option of the night. Anderson had only two other pitchers on his entire staff who had not seen action during the marathon. One was Don Gullett, who was scheduled to start Game Seven, and the other was Clay Kirby, the only man on the staff who had yet to make an appearance in the World Series. Even though Darcy was about to embark on his third inning of work, Sparky simply couldn’t use Gullett, and he didn’t want to use Kirby. So Darcy it was.
The 25-year-old right-hander now prepared to face Carlton Fisk, the first batter for the Red Sox in the 12th inning. Darcy and Fisk had faced each other one time before in the Series, with Fisk drawing a walk in Game Three. Darcy didn’t want to walk Fisk this time, not with Fisk being the leadoff man in extra innings of a tie game, not with him representing the potential game-winning run. Darcy wanted to maintain an aggressive approach. Go after Fisk, get him out, and then pitch more carefully to the left-handed hitting Fred Lynn, waiting in the on-deck circle. In the meantime, Carlton Fisk had a contrasting thought on his mind. “It’s funny you know, that recollection–some of it is really fuzzy,” says Fisk. “We’re standing on the on-deck circle. As the warm-up pitches conclude, “I say, ‘Fred, I’m gonna hit one off the wall. Drive me in.’ He looks at me with that little smirky smile, [as if to say] ‘Oh, that sounds good to me.’ It was just one of those feelings that you just know–you just had a feeling that something good was going to happen that inning.”
Darcy missed with his first pitch, a fastball that sailed too high. Darcy now faced even more pressure to put his next pitch within the strike zone. With the clock now reading 33 minutes past the midnight hour, Darcy delivered his second pitch. He threw a sinking fastball, one that ran down and in on Fisk. A pretty good pitch–to most hitters, at least. But not to Fisk, in this at-bat, in this ballpark. “I don’t think about it every day,” Fisk says of what followed, a hooking, high-arching drive that seemed to float as it traversed the left field line, before nesting in the screen attached to the foul pole, having met the minimum requirements of a home run at Fenway Park. “It’s not something that I forget; it’s just something that I don’t think about every day. It happened so early in my career–the third or fourth year of my career, and I played 20 years after that–that it almost seems like it happened to a different player. Like I’m looking at someone else doing that dance, or hitting that ball and having it hit the screen.” Fisk’s dance, which consisted of an act of overt body English, fully replete with sets of jumping and waving, was uncharacteristic of a player who usually reacted to success with a more reserved demeanor. “That was the only time [I did something like that], in probably the only game that I’ve ever played that has ever meant that much. It happened to be a situation that was totally spontaneous. I don’t remember doing things like that. Not that I played the game unemotionally. I always thought it was the player’s right to be somewhat animated for doing well. Pitchers do it when they strike out hitters. Infielders do it, outfielders do it, when they make great plays. Hitters do it, and sometimes take it to an extreme, which offends a lot of people. But [you should] do it in a respectful way–I think everybody ought to be happy about doing well.” A star player, often a stoic, now showing his human side. “A lot of people who viewed that game realized we’re all people and we run the full gamut of emotions, maybe even more intensely than the fans.”
Once Fisk ceased his repeated motions of body English, he turned his attention to the most basic of home run rituals. “I made sure I touched every one of those sweet white bases,” Fisk told Maury Allen of the New York Post. “The fans jumped on the field, but I would score even if I had to stiff-arm them.” For Fisk, the home run represented the culmination of one of the most memorable games in the history of professional baseball. “There was a certain alignment of the stars that evening,” Fisk says. “I always think that game sort of defined both our teams in a lot of different ways.” Two terrific teams playing the game at its highest level of professional competition.
An incredible game had exhausted its participants, including the managers. “The way I hurt all over,” Sparky Anderson told United Press International, “it was probably as good a ballgame as I’ve ever seen.”