Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Game That Brought Me Home

Last night, I watched the first inning of the greatest baseball game I never saw. That's all, just the first inning. The rest of the game can wait, because it was the baseball equivalent of the proverbial 40-pound bag of Oreos. You wouldn't want to devour it as soon as you open it, and you couldn't handle the whole thing all at once anyway. It's on the TiVo, recorded from the MLB Network, and I'll savor it a little bit at a time over the next week. I've waited more than 30 years to see it, not even knowing the video still existed, and I'm going to take my time with it. 

Two weeks into 1979, I escaped snow-covered Pennsylvania and headed for Europe, where I'd spent a semester in college eight years earlier. This time I planned to take as long as I could to explore it. I began with five weeks in Rome (on $10 a day, just like the book said), then spent more than two months criss-crossing the continent on a Eurailpass (about $300 for unlimited first-class train travel). I saw everything and gathered a lifetime's worth of memories. In mid-April, I landed in London, where I planned to stay as far into the summer as I could. I was in no hurry to leave; when I got back, I'd help my parents run their store in a little resort town in the Poconos that hadn't offered me much in the last half of 1978. There was no lure for me there when I could linger in London and bask in Culture. 

When the baseball season began, I found the daily scores in the International Herald Tribune, though not much more. The Tribune carried the line scores, listing pitchers and home runs, plus a short paragraph on each game. It was just enough to keep me contented that I wasn't neglecting my game, that I was keeping up with the essential events despite spending my afternoons in Hyde Park rather than a ballpark. 

I knew my Reds were off to a slow start and that my favorite player, Pete Rose, was getting his share of hits--making his share of the newsy snippets of the Tribune--with his new team, the Phillies. In early May, while I filled in my schedule with plays to be named at a later date, Rose had a succession of multi-hit games which enabled me to follow his daily progress the way I had during his sixteen seasons with the Reds. I started thinking that maybe I should start thinking about perhaps getting back to the Poconos, where I could catch Rose and the first-place Phillies continuing their early-season run on radio and television. 

It was tempting, but I put the thought on hold as a couple of friends from Colorado joined me for a week of theater-filled fun. By the time they left, it was mid-May and I'd been in London for a month. I thought maybe another month or two would satisfy my wanderlust, despite persistent daydreams of a whole summer in Scandinavia with its cooler climate and hotter blondes. 

Then I picked up the Tribune on May 18 and saw the line score of The Game. The Phillies played at Wrigley Field the day before, and clearly the wind had been blowing out. I couldn't believe what I saw: the score was 7-6 after one inning, 15-6 Phillies by the third, 21-9 halfway through the game--and it went extra innings! 

I gawked at the score, 23-22, counted up the eleven home runs, and tried to imagine what the game looked like, found myself wishing I could at least have listened to it. Not just wishing. Soon it grew into regret. What was I missing? Everything! The baseball season was unfolding in my absence, and I couldn't bear to miss any more of it. That was the end of Europe for me. I was on a plane home three days later. 

About a dozen years down the road, I bought a radio broadcast of the game, on three cassettes. I was living in Las Vegas, and the four-hour broadcast was exactly the same length as the drive between Vegas and Los Angeles. I listened to it enough to know all the hits and runs by heart. It was the Phillies broadcast, featuring future Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn, who was absolutely beside himself as the onslaught went on and on and on. After the first inning, he predicted a 19-13 final score and probably thought he was being outlandish, though he underestimated the final carnage by 40%. His reactions were hilarious. 

Many things about the game were amazing, most of all the Phillies' inability to hold a 12-run lead. It evaporated quickly after they went ahead 21-9 in the top of the fifth inning. Tug McGraw came in and gave up seven runs in the blink of an eye. Somehow the Phillies' offense faltered, scoring only one run in four innings, while the Cubs kept pounding away and tied the game, 22-22, with a three-run eighth inning. Leading the way were Bill Buckner, who drove in seven runs, and Dave Kingman, who blasted three mammoth home runs, each one longer than the previous one. The third one came on the first pitch, and Ashburn was still gushing about the previous two when this one was launched. "Ooohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" was Ashburn's prolonged cry after Kingman made contact, like a little kid at the circus witnessing some unimaginable aerial feat. 

In the first inning, Kingman batted with the Cubs trailing 7-1 and two men on base. The MBL Network video is from the Cubs broadcast, with Jack Brickhouse at the microphone. He went nuts when Kingman took a waist-high fastball over the outside corner and yanked it way over the left field fence and across the street, where it bounced off the building which subsequently became the home of makeshift bleachers on the roof. That day, two men stood there, and the astonished Brickhouse gasped, "that guy was ready to catch it!" I can't wait to hear what he says for Kingman's other two blasts, which needed no help from the 17mph wind to sail onto Waveland Avenue. 

Yes, it's going to be fun listening the Brickhouse, one of the most unabashed "homers" in broadcasting history, as the Cubs fight back from that 12-run deficit. "The game is four days old and the Cubs haven't even batted yet," he moaned as the Phillies went ahead, 7-0, in the top of the first. The mayhem had begun already. After three-run homers by Mike Schmidt and Bob Boone, Phillies starter Randy Lerch sliced a line drive to left-center that just cleared the wall. "Oh come on!" Brickhouse yelped, like a little kid whose older brother keeps pounding the Wiffle ball and not letting him get his turn to hit. 

Lerch didn't make it through the bottom of the first (the two starters--Dennis Lamp took his lumps for the Cubs--combined to record two outs while surrendering eleven runs), which was punctuated when reliever Donnie Moore crashed a triple which made the score 7-6. That's the kind of game it was. The eleven combined home runs still shares a piece of the National League record. The teams smashed 50 hits, only two shy of the record for an extra-inning game, and the 45 runs was the most in a game since the Cubs edged the Phillies, 26-23, in 1922. I'm really sorry I missed out on that one! 

Eleven pitchers marched to the mound that day at Wrigley Field (by the way, the folks at the MLB Network began the telecast with a graphic stating that the ballpark was originally built for the Chicago Whales of the Federal League, but managed to bungle the name, calling it "Weegham" instead of "Weeghman"), no doubt feeling like Christians being led to the lions. Two of them survived without giving up a run. Ironically, it was the only future Hall of Fame pitcher in the game, Bruce Sutter, who gave up the game-winning hit, a 10th-inning home run by the game's other future Hall of Famer, Mike Schmidt. 

I think the first-place Phillies must have been worn out--or perhaps spoiled--by all that scoring, since they lost 16 of their next 21 games en route to a fourth-place finish. Then there was home plate umpire Dick Cavenaugh. The 1979 season began with the umpires on strike, and local sandlot umps were recruited for the first six weeks of the season. This game was the next-to-last of Cavenaugh's major league "career," and his third behind the plate. Watching the first inning, I noticed that he squeezed the plate on several pitches that looked like clear strikes. That no doubt contributed to the mayhem. In his previous game behind the plate, also at Wrigley Field, the score was 14-13 (the Cubs won that one). So he had a front-row seat for a parade of 72 runs across the plate in two games. One more game after this one, and off to the rocking chair for him. 

It might be the rocking chair for me, too, as I settle down this evening with my high-powered sack of Oreos. I know I'll get through at least the top of the third inning, in which the Phillies will score eight runs off Donnie Moore and Willie Hernandez to go ahead 15-6. I wonder whether Brickhouse will plummet into despair or whether he'll sense that his Cubbies still have marvelous circus feats of their own to perform. Like him, I know I'll be amazed to see what happens next, even though I've been replaying it in my mind ever since I saw that line score in the Tribune nearly 31 years ago.

1 comment:

Robin said...

As a younger fan, I was amazed to see this game on TV yesterday. I happend to be flipping through and saw an old Phillies game (my home team) and figured what the heck, I'll watch, not even aware of what I was about to watch. I quickly realized that this is a game that the broadcast crew still references any time the scores start to get high early. Last season, the Phils put up 10 runs in the first inning of a game, and Chris Wheeler joked how he hoped we wouldn't be playing another 23-22 game after that inning.

Great game, enjoy it. Not often you see so many runs for both teams.