Tuesday, May 4, 2010

That Night, They Were Men

Recently I was showing the photo album of my bar mitzvah to some long-lost cousins who only vaguely remembered attending it. Even with the help of the photos, I don't remember all that much about it myself. I do know that it was the last time I ever spoke--much less chanted--in Hebrew. I ate, danced, hung out with friends, saw some relatives I never saw again, and made a little money. Not a bad deal, but not that big a deal either. "Today I am a man," I said, following tradition, but I knew better.

That night--April 18, 1964--my parents hosted a party for their friends who hadn't had enough to drink during the afternoon. I hung around for awhile before retreating to my room to enjoy the event I'd been looking forward to all day: listening to my two favorite pitchers square off at Dodger Stadium. It was fitting that Sandy Koufax--already the star of a "Great Jewish Athletes" book I had after winning the 1963 Cy Young Award--pitched the night of my bar mitzvah. He was opposed by my other favorite childhood pitcher, Jim Maloney of the Reds, one of the few guys who threw as hard as Koufax, though not always with the same accuracy.

The game began sometime after 10PM New Jersey time and lasted just over two hours, during which I was glued to the radio except when summoned downstairs to say hello or goodbye to some friend of my parents. It was an extraordinary game in which the teams combined for just five hits as both of my guys were on their games. Neither one gave up a hit in the first three innings; Koufax retired nine Reds in a row, while Maloney walked two. That was business as usual for Koufax, who had opened the season (four days earlier, on my birthday) by shutting out the Cardinals.

That changed in the top of the fourth, when Pete Rose led off with a walk. He was thrown out trying to go to third on a Chico Ruiz single, but after Vada Pinson made the second out, Ruiz stole second. That prompted Dodgers manager Walter Alston to order Koufax to walk Frank Robinson intentionally to get to Deron Johnson. Johnson was just emerging as a big run-producer, though he was a year away from leading the league in RBI. Somehow he got hold of a Koufax curve and lofted it into the box seats in left field for a three-run home run.

Tommy Harper followed with a single, which I mention only because it was the last hit the Reds got off Koufax. Sandy lasted five more innings, surrendering only a walk to Pinson. It was up to Maloney to hold onto that 3-0 lead. He continued to mow down the Dodgers as I listened intently to that radio signal miraculously bringing me greatness from 3,000 miles away. In the fifth inning, Maloney walked John Werhas, and that was the only offense the Dodgers mustered through the sixth inning. But something happened to Maloney as he retired Tommy Davis to end the sixth. He strained a muscle above his right hip, and wasn't able to answer the bell for the seventh inning.

I remember my anguish when I returned from another farewell downstairs and heard Waite Hoyt say that John Tsitouris was pitching for the Reds. I didn't know until later that Maloney had been injured. In those days, announcers wouldn't jinx a no-hitter by mentioning it directly, and it took me awhile to figure out that even with the lesser Tsitouris on the mound, the Dodgers still hadn't gotten a hit. When I realized that, there was no prying me loose from the vicinity of the radio.

Tsitouris, forgotten today, was a decent pitcher for a few years. In 1963, he went 12-8 with a 3.16 ERA in 191 innings for the Reds, and he started 24 games in 1964. He had good stuff on this night. He walked the first hitter he faced but got mammoth Frank Howard to ground into a double play and retired John Roseboro. In the eighth, he walked one hitter but got a couple of strikeouts and preserved the no-hitter.

As the ninth inning unfolded, I could hardly believe it. "They're gonna no-hit the Dodgers on my bar mitzvah!" I kept thinking. Tsitouris got Willie Davis on a popup for the first out. Up came Tommy Davis, the two-time defending NL batting champion and the biggest threat to what was then a rarity, a no-hitter tossed by more than one pitcher. No problem. He lifted an easy fly ball to Robinson in right field for the second out.

Next up was Ron Fairly, and I held my breath on every pitch, waiting for Waite to tell me Tsitouris had recorded that final out. The at-bat went on forever, it seemed, going to a full count before Fairly drew a walk. I re-gathered myself as Howard came to bat and Hoyt coyly suggested that Tsitouris was still on the verge of something special.

Swing and a miss, strike one! Then a ball, and ball two. Swing and a miss, strike two! For the second batter in a row, Tsitouris was one strike away from a piece of immortality. What happened next was best described by Frank Finch of the Los Angeles Times: "Howard sent a bouncer through the middle. Shortstop Leo Cardenas smothered the ball, but in doing so fell flat on his back and was unable to make a force play on Fairly." And that was that. Base hit, a no-no no more. Roseboro fanned to end the game, but it didn't matter. In an instant, I had gone from Tsitouris to tsouris.

My bankroll and ego may have been inflated in the afternoon, but that night my spirit was deflated by that infield hit. I didn't feel like a man yet, not compared to Maloney and Koufax and Tsitouris and the others who had given me my biggest thrill of the day. The gelt I got that day is long gone, but the thrill lives on.

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