George Brett and the Amazing Summer of 1980

If you’re going to hit .400, or even have a shot, it helps to put together a summer like George Brett did in 1980.

The Royals third baseman got off to a slow start, hitting just .259 in the first month of the season. Brett was just starting to get hot in June when an ankle injury cost him 35 games. He didn’t return to the lineup until after the All-Star break and it was anybody’s guess as to how he’d do. He spent the layoff thinking about hitting, visualizing at-bats and pumping himself up.

“I just kept telling myself, ‘You’re hot, you haven’t been gone at all.'” he told the Associated Press.

Hitting a baseball at the big league level is among the toughest things in sports and timing is a huge part of hitting. Missing a month of action doesn’t help and neither do torn ankle ligaments. But none of that mattered to George Brett.

A Triumphant Return

Brett assumed his normal spot in the Royals batting order on July 10th and began a seven-week hitting spree the likes of which has rarely been seen in baseball history. In his first seven games, Brett went 17-29 with six doubles and a triple against Detroit, Baltimore and Boston. He also drew six walks during that span for a ridiculous seven game OB% of .636. Red Sox lefty John Tudor held him to an 0-4 evening at Fenway Park on July 17th, but it would be more than a month before Brett went hitless again.

The Streak

The hitting streak began at Yankee Stadium. In the three-game series against starting pitchers Rudy May, Doug Bird and Ron Guidry, Brett went 7-14 with a homer and nine RBI. After that was a 7-16 four-game set against the White Sox. By the end of July, Brett was batting .390 and riding a 13-game hitting streak. Over the next month, his batting average would go UP.

August began with a modest (by Brett standards) 4-13 performance against the White Sox followed by a three game series against Detroit at Tiger Stadium. In the second game, Brett homered off Detroit starter Milt Wilcox to extend his streak to 18 games. In his next at-bat, Wilcox knocked him down twice before getting him to fly out. On his way back to the dugout, Brett and Wilcox exchanged words and the benches emptied, resulting in a brawl that must have had Royals skipper Jim Frey extremely nervous.

“I thought about going after him the second time he knocked me down, but he was too big,” said Brett of the 6-2, 215 pound Tiger pitcher. “Then, after he was staring at me a bit I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something.’ It was a matter of honor.”

Brett escaped with just a scratch under his right eye and held no grudges.

“I’m not mad at Milt, that’s just baseball,” he said.

George Brett
George Brett stands at second after reaching .400

After the Dust Up in Detroit, Brett rapped out eight hits in seventeen at-bats in a four game series against the Blue Jays in Toronto, then returned to Kansas City and went 13-24 in a six-game homestand, including a 4-4 day against those same Blue Jays that boosted his average to .401.

“It was electrifying to stand at second base and see a standing ovation,” he said after the game. “That was really something. I was getting goose bumps out there.”

When he reached the magical .400 mark, the scrutiny and media attention increased dramatically. No one had finished a season above .400 since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. Rod Carew flirted with the mark in 1977, but he dropped under .400 on July 11th and never got back.

Brett’s quest had a different feel. First of all, he reached .400 on August 17th, some six weeks later than Carew. Secondly, George Brett was enjoying the season of a lifetime.

From the time he returned from the disabled list until the day he finally reached .400, Brett played in 37 games and recorded at least one hit in 36 of them. From July 10th through August 17th, he hit .473 and struck out a total of three times. His manager had no doubt Brett could deal with the pressure.

“You’re talking about a guy who can handle it better than almost anybody else,” said Jim Frey. “He’s one of those unusual guys who doesn’t spend any time thinking about what could go wrong.”

Over the next nine games hardly anything did. His hitting streak may have ended at 30 games, but his average continue to climb, culminated by a 5-5 effort against the Brewers on August 26th to bring his batting average to .407 with 36 games left in the season.

“I really feel no pressure because there’s such a long way to go,” Brett told the media. “I imagine I will feel more pressure if I’m at .395 or .400 with a week to go in the season, but not now. I just want to have fun playing baseball and fun to me is hitting and driving in runs.”

Late Season Struggles

Brett’s average stayed at or near .400 as late as September 19th, with just 14 games left in the season. Unfortunately, he experienced his first real slump over the next seven games, hitting just .148. He hit “just” .304 over the last two weeks of the season and finished at .390.

“It would have been better if we’d been playing games that meant something,” Brett said after the season. “That way they’d have to pitch to me and I’d also have had to be more selective. The way it was, those trips to Seattle and Minnesota two weeks before the season’s end were just awful.

“I knew I was running out of time, and I was swinging at bad pitches and I couldn’t do anything. I was just hacking and digging a hole for myself. There just wasn’t anything I could do.”

Hacking, digging holes for yourself, swinging at bad pitches and still hitting .390 is a good problem to have.

Baseball Returns to Buffalo with Real Power

Note: This is a guest post from Greg Lucas

After nearly an eight year hiatus, professional baseball returned to Buffalo in 1979.  The previous franchise in the AAA International League ran into heavy financial problems and even had to play some home games at nearby Niagara Falls towards the end.  But the Buffalo Bisons had some big fans in the city, led by Mayor James Griffin, and when a chance to get back into the game arose, the city was ready.

StadiumOh, War Memorial Stadium where they would have to play needed work.  Since the earlier Bisons and NFL Buffalo Bills had moved out it had been mostly empty except for some high school football games.  The place was in disrepair.

Prior to Opening Day in 1979 some paint was applied.  Some rotting seats were pulled out.  The media/press box overhanging home plate was cleaned up and groundskeepers put in new turf for a new field.

But the real story turned out to be team the Pirates put in place.  Twelve of the players who would wear a Buffalo uniform that season had or would have major league experience before their careers were over.  Catcher Tony Pena would accumulate 18 major league years,  Luis Salazar would play 13 seasons in the bigs while pitchers Fred Breining, Stew Cliburn and Dave Dravecky would have have multiple big league seasons.  Dravecky would win as many as 14 games one season.

LancelottiHowever, the superstar of the 1979 Bisons was an outfielder named Rick Lancellotti.  He would hit 41 home runs—just one off the all time Eastern League record.  The right-fielder took full advantage of War Memorial Stadium’s cozy right field.  It was only about 310 feet down the line and actually got closer as the wall curved toward center field.  It was as close as 290 feet at one point and the wall was less than ten feet high.

The Bisons hit 198 home runs in the 140 game schedule.  While the lefty hitting Lancellotti let the way, he was far from alone.  Switch-hitting first baseman Chick Valley added 25 homers, but the big story was what two right-handed hitters did by going the other way.

PenaTony Pena hit 34 home runs, drove in 97 and batted .313 that magical season.  Later after Tony had been in the major leagues for years and I had a chance to chat with him he admitted he learned how to hit in Buffalo.  Before, he had been a typical pull hitter.  He had done well enough the season before at Salem with 19 home runs and a .276 average, but he felt by consciously looking to go the other way at Buffalo in 1979 he made himself into a good hitter.

That was demonstrated in a major league career that saw his average among the leaders for catchers until age, injury and part time duty cut into it later in his career.  Tony never came close to hitting 34 home runs in a major league season, but he topped out at 15 twice and was in double figures six times.

The other player that may have “made” himself in Buffalo was Salazar.  He hit the first home run I ever called on radio in a professional game when he won the home opener with a walk off shot to right center field.  Salazar wasn’t even supposed to be in the game.  He had been slotted as an “extra” outfielder by Pittsburgh brass that season, but when the “prospect” ahead of him pulled up lame Luis got the start and never looked back.  The “prospect” never made the major leagues, but Salazar hung around for 13 seasons mostly with San Diego, the White Sox and the Cubs.  In eight of his seasons he played in more than 100 games.

As mentioned above Lancellotti who would later appear in just 36 games over three major league seasons, but star in Japan, hitting 58 homers over two seasons and 198 games, was amazing. For his career he hit 276 minor league homers, 58 in Japan and two in the major leagues. In addition to his 41 home runs in ’79 he also drove in 107 runs and batted .287.  He led the Eastern League with 13 sacrifice flies.

ValleyBefore remembering some of the pitchers one multi-use player has to be remembered.  His name was Charles “Chick” Valley.  He never played a minute in a major league game, but in 1979 in Buffalo he was not only a crowd favorite, but a real and versatile star.

As a player he was a switch-hitting first baseman.  He knew how to pull the ball batting left handed over the right field wall.  His 25 home runs that season were the most he would ever hit in a single season.  Add 98 RBIs, a .269 average to a superb .380 on base percentage and it was easy to see Chick’s value.

But he could also pitch.

Manager Steve Demeter needed him to help out midway through the season.  Valley had pitched in college at San Diego State so the mound wasn’t new to him.  He showed he had multiple pitches and good control even if his fastball was lucky to touch 85 mph.  In ten appearances he recorded a 2-0 record with a 2.16 earned run average in 25 innings.  He allowed only 17 hits while striking out 19 and walking only nine.  Valley looked as though he might have something to fall back on should he not be able to hit his way to the majors.

The Pirates were not convinced, and by the next season he was out of the organization.  He spent his last three years in professional baseball as a pitcher.  His biggest season was in the Milwaukee system at AA El Paso in 1981 when he was 10-5 with a 2.79 ERA as a reliever.  After 1983 he was out of baseball.  But Chick Valley had two seasons to remember:  1979 as a 25 homer hitting first baseman in Buffalo and 1981 as a ten game winning pitcher at El Paso.

BreiningAs far as the regular pitchers on the 1979 Bisons were concerned the “Golden Boy” at the outset of the season was Fred Breining.  He proved worthy of that status, but when he became the object of the Giants eye he would be part of a deal with San Francisco that netted the Pirates Bill Madlock.   In twelve starts for the Bisons, Fred was 5-4 with a 2.63 ERA and 73 strikeouts in just 82 innings pitched.  Stew Cliburn was almost as highly regarded.  He made 15 starts and was 6-6 with a 3.23 ERA in 103 innings.  Both would later put in a few years in major league uniforms.

The Pirates were pushing for Ben Wiltback to start as much as possible.  He had the livest arm of anyone on the team, but rarely knew where his fastball was going.  He did start eleven games with poor results.  He was 1-6 with an earned run average of more than 10! (10.05)  He had his chances but manager Demeter had to take him out usually well before he had pitched as many as five innings.  All told he threw 43 innings, giving up 70 hits and 48 walks.    Needless to say Ben Wiltbank never made it.

DraveckyBut Dave Dravecky did.  And no one thought he was anything more than another staff short inning reliever when 1979 began. Dravecky would appear in 35 games that season, but only 13 as a starter.  His numbers were not eye opening, but his look on the mound was.  His numbers showed a 6-7 record and 4.26 ERA.  The latter wasn’t outstanding, but was still nearly a full half run a game lower than the team’s overall 4.72 ERA.

The Pirates saw something in Dravecky, but so did other clubs.  Dave had his greatest success in San Diego and San Francisco before cancer and ultimately weakened bone structure cost him his pitching arm.

Others from the 1979 Bisons that saw big league time included outfielders Jose de la Rosa and Alberto Lois along with pitchers Santo Alcala and Bob Long. Manny Alexander was also part of the ’79 Bisons for a while.  He and infielder Tom McMillan had actually seen major league time before Buffalo, and Alexander would see more.  Manny was a speedy utility outfielder who played 32 games for the Bisons, hit .313 and was a perfect 13-13 as a base thief.

As a full team the Bisons weren’t the best.  They finished the season at only 72-67.  But they were a thrill a minute at War Memorial Stadium.  No opposing lead was safe from that power-laden lineup.  Of more importance; baseball was back in a real baseball city and that would lead to a new state-of-the-art ballpark downtown only a few years later.

War Memorial Stadium is no more.  It will live forever as the home field for the fictitious New York Knights in the classic baseball movie, “The Natural”.  It was a great place to bring baseball back to Buffalo with a memorable team.

About Greg Lucas:

GregGreg Lucas has been behind a mic since 1965. In addition to calling Bisons games, he’s done games for the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros, where he called a no-hitter, a perfect game and a ball bouncing of an outfielder’s head. He also spent more than 20 years working in the NBA for four different teams. So far, he’s called more than 3,000 games in 25 + sports and counting.

His book, “Baseball-Its More than Just a Game”, is available on Amazon and he has two other books in the works. He can also be found on Twitter.

 

George Brett: The Pine Tar Game

Note: This is a guest post from Rocco Constantino

July 24, 1983

The old baseball cliché is that you see something new at the ballpark every time you go to a game. It could be something as simple as a player recording his first major-league hit or achieving a team record; however, sometimes something so crazy will happen that it will be talked about in baseball circles for decades.

On July 24, 1983, fans undoubtedly witnessed the latter. The Yankees and Royals had one of the game’s best rivalries in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The teams met in the postseason in the 1976, 1977, 1978, and 1980 ALCS, and the main cast of characters was similar in each series. The Royals were led by George Brett, Frank White, Hal McRae, and Willie Wilson, among others. The Yankees featured Graig Nettles, Reggie Jackson, Ron Guidry, and Goose Gossage during that time.

The Background

By 1983, the Yankees were starting to get old but still had some fight in them. The Orioles and Tigers were the up-and-coming teams and would finish ahead of the Yanks in the AL East standings. The Royals finished second that year but were never really in the race, ending the season 20 games out of first. With Wilson, White, and McRae still in their prime, the Royals lineup was tough to negotiate for any pitcher. But Brett remained the focal point of the offense and was an incredibly difficult out for pitchers. “Brett was the toughest hitter I faced in my career,” said Don August, a starter for the Brewers whom Brett went 5-for-11 against. “I remember him standing way off the plate when I faced him, so I put a fastball on the outside corner. He hit it off the center-field wall. Next time up, I tried to come inside, and he turned on it and ripped it into the corner. How do you get Brett out? I guess throw it down the middle and hope he hits it at someone.”

The Yankees had taken two of the first three games in this four-game set and faced off against the Royals in a Sunday afternoon game at Yankee Stadium on July 24. Bud Black and Shane Rawley were the starting pitchers for the Royals and Yankees, respectively, but they would be long gone by the time the events that made this game famous happened.

The Game

The first inning went by without incident, and the Royals were the first to get on the board when John Wathan scored on a groundout by White in the second. The Yankees quickly tied the game up when Dave Winfield homered off Black. The Royals regained the lead in the fourth when White again drove home Wathan, this time with an infield hit. Black settled in after the Winfield homer, only allowing singles to Bert Campaneris and Roy Smalley as the game remained 2–1 through five. In the sixth, the Royals scored again on a triple to center by Don Slaught. The Yankees, however, would finally get to Black in the sixth. Campaneris led off the frame with an infield hit, and Lou Piniella followed with a one-out single to center. Don Baylor tripled to center to tie the game, and Winfield singled to left to give the Yanks a 4–3 lead.

The game stayed that way until the top of the ninth. Despite having Gossage, the Hall of Fame closer, available in the bullpen, manager Billy Martin stuck with Dale Murray, who had retired all eight batters he faced to that point. Slaught grounded out to lead off the top of the ninth, and Pat Sheridan popped up to first for a second out. However, U. L. Washington singled to center, and with Brett due up next, Martin opted to bring in Gossage. Brett launched a long home run to right off Gossage for what was apparently the go-ahead hit. He circled the bases, touched home, and took a seat in the Royals dugout next to Sheridan and McRae. What happened was iconic ’80s baseball.

In a game in 1975, Nettles was involved in a play in which a similar illegal bat was used. According to an archaic rule stating that no substance could be applied to a bat beyond 18 inches from the knob. The Yankees were facing the Twins on July 19, 1975.  In the game, Twins manager Frank Quilici asked umpires to check Thurman Munson’s bat after he hit an RBI single.  The umpires ruled that Munson’s pine tar exceeded 18 inches and called him out.  The rule allegedly was put into place because players were applying pine tar toward the barrel of the bat and then using it to get a better grip. While the application of pine tar was not illegal, rules were changed to limit the application to 18 inches above the knob because too many batted balls were coming in contact with the pine tar and causing otherwise perfectly good baseballs to be thrown out of play because they were stained.

Nettles had approached Martin earlier in the year when he noticed that Brett’s bat had pine tar that was obviously well past the 18-inch limit. The Yankees manager decided to wait until the right time to appeal Brett’s bat to the umpire. The Yanks had played the Royals earlier that year, but Brett didn’t have any big hits in the previous series, so Martin declined to call him on it. The home run he hit on July 24, 1983, was the perfect time.

George Brett Pine TarMartin approached home plate umpire Tim McClelland with his concerns. The umpires convened, and third-base umpire Nick Bremigan suggested that crew chief Joe Brinkman measure the bat against home plate, which is 17 inches wide. It was estimated that the pine tar stretched more than 25 inches past the bat handle, clearly past the limit. The problem that ensued was that there was no specific penalty listed for someone who had applied material past the 18-inch mark. Martin was ready for this and suggested the umpires invoke a rule stating that the umpires have the right to make any decision on any penalties not specifically listed in the rule book.

Slaught was sitting near Brett in the dugout during all of this: “I was sitting right near George, still in my equipment,” said Slaught. “Someone said, ‘Hey I think they’re gonna call you out.’ George said, ‘If they call me out, I’ll kill them.’” At about the same time, McClelland took a few steps toward the Royals dugout, with Brett’s bat in hand. McClelland raised his right hand, pointed at Brett with the bat, and called him out. After that, pure insanity erupted.

George Brett Pine TarBrett jumped off the dugout bench and sprinted at McClelland, arms flailing and furiously screaming at the umpire, who stood 6’6″. Brinkman grabbed Brett with a choke hold, and Brett began screaming and struggling to get loose as the entire Royals bench emptied onto the field. Almost as mad as Brett was Royals manager Dick Howser, who furiously protested the call. In the fracas, Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry grabbed the bat from McClelland and handed it down in a relay to a Royals batboy, who went toward the clubhouse. Yankee Stadium security noticed this and, along with the umpires, sprinted down the runway after the illegal bat.

“It was wild,” said Slaught. “Steve Renko and some of the guys were running around the hallways looking for the bat, and security was running right behind them through the halls.” Eventually, the bat was confiscated by the umpires and sent to American League president Lee MacPhail for investigation.

The Aftermath

The Royals filed a formal protest against the ruling and waited for a final decision to be made by MacPhail. MacPhail ruled in favor of the protest, citing the rule’s archaic nature, the fact that the pine tar did nothing to enhance the ball’s contact off the bat, and an incorrect penalty by the umpires. MacPhail stated that the way he read the rules, the umpires should’ve just removed the bat and continued play from there. The bat was eventually returned to Brett. He removed the excess pine tar, drew a line with a red marker around the 18-inch mark, and continued to use it in games. But Perry advised Brett that the incident was so unique that his bat was a baseball artifact and he shouldn’t risk breaking it. Brett agreed and eventually sold the bat for $25,000; however, Brett rethought the transaction and bought the bat back for the same amount. To this day, the bat is still on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

As for the game itself, MacPhail ruled that the remaining four outs would be played as part of a makeup on August 18. Martin and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, always the competitors, were livid at the reversal. On August 18, the Royals returned to Yankee Stadium to finish the game. Howser, Brett, Perry, and Royals coach Rocky Colavito were ejected from the original game due to their actions in the melee that ensued during the initial ruling.

“It may have been the most nervous I was for a game in my career, even including the postseason,” said Slaught, who was in his second season in the bigs and went 3-for-4 in the game. “There were more reporters there than any postseason game that I played in. It was a weird, weird game. Gaylord Perry even had T-shirts made up for us and then tried to make us all buy them from him.”

The Conclusion

As the game was about to start, Martin appealed the fact that Brett actually touched every base. He contested that since it was an entirely different umpire crew, they would have no way of knowing that he indeed touched every base. But the umpires anticipated Martin might do this and had a sworn affidavit from the original crew stating that Brett did touch every base. Martin then informed the umpires that he was playing this game under his own protest.

When the action finally started, Martin made some lineup changes. Jerry Mumphrey, the original center fielder in the game, had been traded in the ensuing weeks and so was unavailable to continue. Martin decided to send his ace pitcher, Ron Guidry, out to center. He also inserted rookie Don Mattingly at second base. Mattingly, a lefty first baseman, became the first lefty to play a middle-infield position since Indians pitcher Sam McDowell in 1970. No lefty has played a middle-infield position since. Asked for his reasoning behind the moves, Martin said the resumption of the game was a mockery and he would play it like one.

With George Frazier pitching in relief for the Yanks, the game resumed. McRae, who was the on-deck batter when Brett homered, struck out to end the ninth. Royals closer Dan Quisenberry came on for the save and retired Mattingly, Smalley, and Oscar Gamble in order to finally give the Royals the 5–4 win in front of the 1,200 fans who showed up for the final four outs. Brett flying out of the dugout is something that will live on in the annals of baseball history. Brett, Martin, Perry, and Nettles were some of the most colorful characters in baseball, making the incident even more memorable.

The game itself brought the Royals to within one game of first place, but they went into a midseason slump, and that would be the closest they got to first place for the rest of the year. In the years after, all parties involved looked back on the incident with a sense of humor, accepting their place in baseball history and laughing about the events surrounding the end of the game. Brett went on to have one of the greatest careers in baseball history. He finished the 1983 season with a .310 batting average and went on to record 3,154 hits in his career. He maintained his reputation as an intense player who was willing to do anything he could to play the game and play it well. “Brett was just a regular guy, but incredibly talented,” said Andy McGaffigan, who was Brett’s teammate between 1990 and 1991. “He showed up and played hard and played hurt. He would DH, play third, play first, whatever it took to be in the lineup that day. He had no pride or ego, and that was contagious. It’s what made him a great leader.” Another of Brett’s teammates agreed with that assessment: “He was the best pure hitter I ever played with,” said Jim Wohlford, who played with Brett the first four years of his major-league career. “You just knew the special talent was there, even as a 20-year-old kid.” Slaught also reflected on Brett’s greatness: “George always seemed to hit what we needed,” said Slaught. “It was unbelievable. If we needed single or double, that’s what he seemed to hit. Look at the pine tar game; we needed a homer and that’s what he hit. He was the guy that did that the best of anyone I played with.” There are so many reasons George Brett is considered one of the greatest players in the history of the game. His clutch performance in the game and wild outburst after he was called out were two iconic moments in one of the most colorful and productive careers in baseball history.

About Rocco Constantino

515LKDSOtIL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_Rocco Constantino is the author of 50 Moments that Defined Major League Baseball (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and a writer for www.baseballhotcorner.com.  Released in June of 2016, 50 Moments that Defined Major League Baseball examines 50 unique moments from the past 100 years that helped define the sport that we love.  In addition, it also features exclusive interviews with over 40 players who played in each decade from the 1950’s through the 2010’s.  With input from players like Fred Lynn, Rod Carew and Jeff Montgomery, readers get a perspective on these special games directly from the players.  50 Moments that Defined Major League Baseball is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble’s online store.  Rocco Constantino is represented by P.S. Literary.  Follow him on Twitter @MLB100years.

Reflections on Riverfront Stadium

I didn’t grow up going to Wrigley Field or Fenway Park. I cut my teeth as a baseball fan at the concrete monolith known as Riverfront Stadium.

I attended my first big league game there in 1975 when the Reds hosted the Astros. Over the years there were lots of memories, some shenanigans and a beer or two (OK, more than two.)

Riverfront Stadium was where I first saw my favorite team, the Philadelphia Phillies, in person. I stood just a few feet from Steve Carlton while he warmed up in the bullpen and it was absolutely amazing to be that close to a guy I regularly watched on TV. Over the years I saw some great moments in Reds/Phillies history in that ballpark. It didn’t have charisma, charm or beauty; in fact is was kinda soulless. Damn, I miss that place.

“Straight A” Tickets

The Reds had a program where students getting good grades were able to get free tickets to certain games. On the surface, it was a very nice goodwill gesture. Reward the youngsters for their hard work in the classroom! In reality, it was a great way for the Reds to sell tickets to games against crappy teams that didn’t draw well.

You see, earning good grades didn’t get you tickets to a Reds/Dodgers game in September; it got you tickets to a Reds/Padres game in June. On a Tuesday. In the upper deck. I got Straight A tickets a few times, though I’m not sure how, and also tagged along with friends who were more studious than myself. It was a win/win. At least for me and my friends because we didn’t have to pay for the extra tickets the Reds made it so easy to order.

The Coveted Blue Seats

The best seats in the house were the Blue Seats. They were field level and you had to go through a huge tunnel to get to them. My friends and I would scout out the tunnel, hoping to sneak down but there was always an usher checking tickets. Sometimes we could sneak past with a large group but those occasions were rare. As we got older, taller and more daring/stupid we came up with a devious plan.

Hop over the railing, evade security and you're good to go
Hop over the railing, evade security and you’re good to go

The Green Seats butted up against the Blue Seats and were accessible to anyone with a ticket anywhere in the ballpark. My friends and I would find an aisle with no usher and casually walk down towards the field. Then we would leap over the railing into the Blue Seats and run down the aisle and under the stands. I remember being yelled at a few times but it didn’t matter. It was the baseball equivalent of yelling, “Stop, thief!” We would scurry down and resurface in another part of the Blue Seats and enjoy the rest of the game feeling like real outlaws.

The World Series

It was also at Riverfront Stadium that I saw my first and only World Series game in person. Game Two of the 1990 Fall Classic pitted the Reds against the Oakland A’s and we had seats in the upper rows of left field. One of the “features” of Riverfront was that the upper decks had so many seats that the further you went up, the less of the field you could see. You also couldn’t see the scoreboard.

everready1
I bought Rayovacs. Turned out to be a bad move

Being a Riverfront veteran by this time I devised a plan. I had a portable black and white television that ran on batteries. I figured I would bring it with me so me and my buddy could see the entire field and watch replays when necessary. The only problem was the tiny television required nine D-Cell batteries. I was a senior in college and nine D-Cells represented a pretty serious investment so I skimped and bought Rayovacs because they were the cheapest ones I could find.

Turned out not to be a wise choice as they died in about the 7th inning and the game went into extras. But not all was lost as I got to see Billy Bates dash home on Joe Oliver‘s double down the line to give the Reds a 2-0 lead in the series. Unfortunately it’s also the last time the Reds won a World Series game at home.

Memories Galore

A Riverfront staple
A Riverfront staple

My trips to Riverfront included bearing witness to Tony Perez becoming the oldest player to hit a Grand Slam, when he hit one against the Phillies in 1985. I was there when Robby Thompson set a major league record by being thrown out stealing four times in one game. I saw Larry Bowa hit an inside the park homer and I saw Eric Davis, Barry Larkin and Terry Francona hit Opening Day dingers against the Expos in 1987.

By 1995, I was living in Clearwater, Fl, some 938 miles away from Riverfront Stadium, when I got engaged. My wife and I went back to Ohio in July of 1996 to get married and my best man asked me what I wanted to do for my bachelor party. Shunning tradition, I replied that I lived in Florida where there was a strip club approximately every 137 yards  but that we didn’t have Major League Baseball. So it was settled. My bachelor party was a Reds/Pirates game at good old Riverfront Stadium.

I didn’t grow up going to Wrigley Field or Fenway Park. I cut my teeth as a baseball fan at the concrete monolith known as Riverfront Stadium.  And that’s just fine with me.

Reggie Jackson Cheated Death in 1980… Twice

Reggie Jackson had a pretty good year in 1980. He hit .300 for the only time in his career, led the AL in homers, including the 400th of his Hall of Fame career, finished 2nd in the MVP balloting and led his team to the playoffs. He also almost died. Twice.

Nothing Good Happens After Midnight

On May 31st, Jackson stepped to the plate against Toronto’s Joey McLaughlin in the bottom of 11th inning of a tie game. With Lou Piniella aboard, Jackson hit a walk-off homer to give the Yankees an 8-6 win. Out on the town that evening, Jackson exchanged words with two men in a car that was blocking his way. The other car parked and 25 year-old Angel Viera got out and started throwing things at Jackson.

Two other man recognized Jackson and came to his aid and began to chase Viera, who then turned and fired three shots into the air. Police found three bullet holes in a nearby awning and charged Viera with attempted murder among other things.

“Nothing surprises me in New York, especially at 2 am,” said Yankees manager Dick Howser. “I’m just glad he wasn’t hurt.”

History Repeats Itself

About two months later, Reggie Jackson hit another big home run. This one happened to be the 400th of his career. The blast, along with a tw-run shot by newly acquired Aurelio Rodriguez gave the Yankees a 3-1 win over the White Sox and enabled them to hold off the hard-charging Baltimore Orioles who won their 10th straight game on the same evening.

Becoming just the 19th player in history to reach the 400 homer mark calls for a celebration and once again, Reggie went out to sample the New York night life. Shortly before 2 am, Jackson exited the Jim McMullen bar in Manhattan when he was approached by a young kid with a large gun.

“It was the biggest gun I ever saw,” Jackson told the New York police. “He was pointing the gun at my head. I thought he was going to shoot me.”

The assailant lowered the gun to reach into Reggie’s Rolls Royce and grab the keys. Jackson seized the opportunity to smack the kid with the door of the luxury car, causing him to run away.

“Have you ever had a guy point a gun at your head and thought he was going to shoot you?” Jackson asked. “Let me tell you it’s some trip.”

 

 

That Time I Met Robin Yount

Note: This is a guest post from Christopher Zantow

I feel fortunate to have grown up in what many consider to be the greatest era of Milwaukee Brewers baseball:  1978-82.  My Dad first started taking me to games in 1978 and loved to sit along the first base side of Milwaukee County Stadium in the lower box seats.  From there I could try to rush to the front of the railing in an attempt to get autographs before the games.

In the late 70’s Ray Fosse and Jerry Augustine signed baseballs for me.  Unfortunately both autographs have been lost to time, having been signed with a blue pen!  I pretty much freaked out when I met Fosse and Augie on the railing, not knowing what to say.  I just remember blurting out, “Thanks Mister Fosse!  Thanks Mister Augustine!”  At least I was polite.

As time went on and the team got better and ultimately wound up in the ’82 World Series, the more difficult it became to meet any players along the railing.  Crowds were huge and kids had a harder time getting around adults that shoved their way to the front.  I was left simply dreaming of meeting my favorite players such as Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Gorman Thomas, Rollie Fingers, Pete Vuckovich, Cecil Cooper, Jim Gantner, Don Sutton, and Ben Oglivie (and pretty much the rest of the team).

I grew up and little by little all those players retired from the game.  I’d occasionally see a public appearance listed somewhere, but most of the time something got in the way of me attending the event.  Somehow I managed to miss finding out about the 1982 25th anniversary player meet and greet in Milwaukee until it was too late.  Argh!

Time Goes By

In early 2009 I was dating my now wife and she lived close to the Wisconsin/Illinois border.  There is a huge mall in northern Illinois called Gurnee Mills.  We were there shopping and I found out about an upcoming appearance by Robin Yount.   A sports memorabilia shop called Legends of the Field was hosting the event, so it was buy a ticket based on the amount of the souvenir you wanted Robin to sign.  I’ve never been one to go that route but thought I should go for it because other opportunities to meet him had been slim.

It was a winter event and of course in the Midwest that means not much thought is given to baseball.  The line was long and I remember being split into levels of how much money you spent on the souvenir.  I had a hard time deciding what to buy but chose the Sports Illustrated cover with Robin on it from the 1982 World Series.  It was another piece of baseball history that I once owned that had since been lost to time – probably misplaced during one of several moves in my adult life.

Rockin Robin

Robin came out looking fit as ever, and probably could have suited up for the Brew Crew that season.  He was in his mid-50’s at the time, but you’d never have known it.  Robin’s “The Kid” nickname was still appropriate as he still flashed the big grin and had the gleam in his eyes from his playing days.

Robin Yount and Christopher Zantow
Robin Yount looks like he could still go 3-4

Even though my future wife wasn’t getting anything signed, the Legends staff was nice enough to let her go through the line with me and snap a photo of me shaking Robin’s hand.  When it was my turn with “The Kid” I kept it pretty simple, and just thanked him for a lot of baseball memories while I was growing up.  I asked for a photo and he said he’d love to do that, so we shook hands across the table.  He was even nice enough to ask afterward if the photo turned out or if we needed to take another one.   I managed to keep my composure and didn’t blurt out “Thanks Mister Yount” like I was a kid again.

1982 All Over Again

But where I was a kid again was in that moment, as it took me back to when I just turned 14 and the Brewers were driving to the World Series.  Meeting Robin Yount was a special time that helped bring all those childhood memories back for me.  Rockin’ Robin was kind and cordial just like everyone always claimed.

Robin Yount autographGetting a certificate of authenticity afterward was nice, but I don’t really need it.  This autograph won’t be lost to time like the others, plus I now have a great memory of meeting the guy who brought so much happiness to thousands of Brewers fans.  I grinned just like “The Kid” for days after meeting him.

Have you met one of your baseball heroes from the 1980s? I want to hear about it! Click here for details and tell me your story.

 

ABOUT CHRISTOPHER ZANTOW: By day, Chris is a writer of training and resource materials.  By night he’s finishing edits on a historical book about the Milwaukee Brewers. The book covers the backstory of events that led to the Braves moving to Atlanta, and Bud Selig’s fight to bring baseball back to Milwaukee through numerous setbacks and disappointments and the early years of the new Milwaukee franchise. He blogs about the Brewers and can also be found on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

Doug Ault’s Cleveland Laser Show

Early August in a nearly empty stadium with two bad teams going head-to-head isn’t exactly the setting you’d expect for a memorable performance. But Doug Ault provided it anyway.

When the Toronto Blue Jays came to Cleveland to face the Indians for a mid-week series on August 4th, 1980, the two teams were a combined 32 games out of first place. Doug Ault was in the last year of an unremarkable career but he still had something left.

Ault Rakes by the Lake

Doug AultAult entered the series hitting .196 in limited action; In 25 games, he had amassed ten hits and ten strikeouts. The Jays were losing 11-3 in the 8th inning when he stepped in with a man aboard against Sid Monge. Ault took a pitch over the boards in left field for his first home run of the season. It made the score 11-5 and that’s how it ended. A meaningless homer to everyone but Ault.

Two days later he was the starting first baseman in the 3rd game of the series, and in the 7th inning he homered again. This shot was off Rick Waits with the Jays trailing 2-0 and Barry Bonnell on first. After a 10-52 start to the season, Ault was now two for his last three with two dingers and he wasn’t finished yet.

The next day he faced Monge again. With a man on again. In the late innings again. He smoked a two-run homer to left again. In the four game series, he was 3-4 with three homers and six RBI. He wouldn’t hit another home run in his career.

Not the First Time

Ault made home run history once before in an Jays uniform. In the first inning of Toronto’s home opener in 1977, Doug Ault hit the first home run in Blue Jays history. The shot came off Ken Brett, and as an encore he took Brett deep again in his next at-bat.

jays-home-opener-1977.jpg.size.custom.crop.1086x720It wasn’t quite ideal baseball weather that April day in Toronto. Temps were in the 30s and there was snow falling, but Ault didn’t care. “It was like winning the World Series,” Ault told the Toronto Globe and Mail later. “I tell you, if it had been snowing all year, I might have hit 50 home runs.”

 

Ault retired after the 1980 season and spent time in the Jays organization as a minor league manager. Beset with personal problems, he committed suicide in 2004. He was just 54 years old.

The 1980s were a Rough Decade for the Yankees

Note: This is a guest post from Eric Kabakoff

I first started following baseball in 1985, shortly after that year’s midseason players’ strike. My father was a lifelong Yankees fan who’d grown up watching Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford and their teammates dominate baseball for years, and I settled in to watching games with him. For the next few years, if WPIX wasn’t carrying the game as announced by Phil Rizzuto and Bill White, then I put on WABC radio to hear Hank Greenwald and Tommy Hutton tell me how my team was doing. On weekends, I’d often watch games myself and rush out to give my father updates as he trimmed the lawn or did whatever it was he did out there. The Yankees teams of the latter half of the 1980’s were a special mix of coulda, shoulda, and didn’t.

Donnie Baseball

Don Mattingly
Don Mattingly was a shining light on some bad ’80s Yankees teams

The 1986 Yankees, whose Opening Day was recapped for us by a classmate on the playground who had a transistor radio, were the first team to be managed by Lou Piniella. A fiery guy in his own right, he learned to manage from the great Billy Martin, who could have been remembered as far greater had he not been so sadly self-destructive. Lou managed the team to 90 wins but finished second behind the Boston Red Sox. Don Mattingly was at the peak of his powers then. Arguably the game’s best player, he was coming off his 1985 MVP season with a .352 batting average (238 hits!) to go with 31 home runs, 113 RBI, and an absurd .967 OPS. Oh, and boy could that man field. The Gold Glove Award could easily have been renamed the Don Mattingly award for his defensive prowess at that time.

Mattingly’s teammates that year included Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, whose fifth straight season of 100+ RBI wasn’t nearly enough to make owner George Steinbrenner like him for any reason, and Hall of Famer and all-time great Rickey Henderson, who scored 130 runs and stole a mere 87 bases. Mattingly batted behind the criminally underrated Willie Randolph and had third baseman Mike Pagliarulo follow him, a man who my father called “Pagliaro.” However, despite the high-octane offense and the closer Dave Righetti racking up a then-record 46 saves, they just didn’t have enough to catch the Red Sox and their young ace Roger Clemens. Clemens went 24-4 that year and won the Cy Young Award, the AL MVP and quite possibly an election or two that we’ve forgotten about. There was just no stopping him that year. The Red Sox also had Hall of Famer Wade Boggs and his .357 batting average, which wasn’t helpful to the Yankees’ cause. The Yankees did have a young pitcher named Doug Drabek. They realized how good he would become, so they traded him to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Rick Rhoden. Ron Guidry was in the waning days of his career and the Yankees brought in Tommy John, who won 13 games for them at age 43. At that point, as for nearly every point up until the 2016 season, the Yankees only thought of the present.

The 1987 season dawned and the pitching staff, led by Rick Rhoden, Dennis Rasmussen (until he was traded for Bill Gullickson) and Tommy John, once again couldn’t support the great team offense. The Bronx Bombers finished in 4th place, well behind the division-winning Detroit Tigers (back in the old two-division, 26-team format), Don Mattingly hit a record-tying six Grand Slams that season (remarkably, the only six he ever hit), and also hit home runs in a record-tying eight consecutive games. I heard the 8th one live on my grandparents’ state-of-the-art hi-fi living room radio. Mattingly also batted .327, no biggie. Rickey Henderson was injured for much of the year but still had a .927 OPS, and Dave Winfield drove in 97 runs. The Yankees did promote to the majors a young prospect named Al Leiter, and he showed promise for the team until being traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for Jesse Barfield a few years later.

Tomorrow Isn’t Guaranteed

 What the hell did you trade Jay Buhner for?
What the hell did you trade Jay Buhner for?

The Yankees headed into the 1988 season by doubling down on offense, adding St. Louis Cardinals slugger Jack Clark as their Designated Hitter. My friends and I got giddy talking about all the runs the team would score that year. Billy Martin was back for part of the year too, managing the final 68 games of his career in his 5th stint as the team’s manager. Tommy John and Rick Rhoden didn’t have stellar seasons, though, and newcomer John Candelaria wasn’t much help. The team floundered to a 5th place finish. They did have a promising young outfielder named Jay Buhner, so they traded him to the Seattle Mariners for veteran Ken Phelps. The trade proved to be such a disaster in hindsight that later on it literally became a joke on Seinfeld. The Yankees were still focusing on the present, which was becoming increasingly lackluster.

The years of trading off prospects for veterans, which had also included trading away players like Willie McGee and Fred McGriff earlier in the decade, finally caught up to them in 1989. The decade closed with Dallas Green managing to start the season but not finishing it as Bucky Dent replaced him. It’s hard to remember now with the team having had two managers in the past twenty years, but George Steinbrenner was as patient with his managers as he was with his prospects, and Green became just the latest casualty on that front. Dent himself was replaced the following season by Stump Merrill.

Losses Set the Stage for Dominance

Andy Hawkins
Andy Hawkins made history for the wrong reason

The 1989 team shipped out Jack Clark and Rick Rhoden and brought in Steve Sax, Andy Hawkins and Mel Hall. Sax played pretty well for the team, though Hawkins is best remembered for later pitching a no-hitter that he lost 4-0 (since stricken from the record books). Mel Hall is currently spending life in prison as a serial sex offender. Don Mattingly had his final season as an elite player, batting .303 with 23 homers and 113 RBI, before an old back injury sapped his power and effectiveness. Dave Winfield missed the entire season with a back injury. He’d be traded to the California Angels the following season for pitcher Mike Witt. George Steinbrenner’s hatred for his star outfielder escalated to the point that he was suspended for life a year later for conspiring with a gambler to get dirt on Winfield. Or something. In any case, his suspension was lifted two years later. Rickey Henderson was traded in midseason for Luis Polonia, Greg Cadaret and Eric Plunk, none of whom can get into the Hall of Fame without a ticket. Mike Pagliarulo, John Candelaria, and Ken Phelps were all traded too, and Tommy John was released in May. The window of these latter-half 1980’s Yankees was now closed.

The team was awful in the early 1990’s as a hangover from all the bad moves they’d made, but that enabled them to draft well. George Steinbrenner’s brief “lifetime suspension” enabled them to hold on to these new prospects until they all came up in the mid-1990’s and heralded a new era of Yankees baseball.

 

Eric KabakoffEric Kabakoff has visited every major league baseball park (35 total) and wrote about the trips in his book “Rally Caps, Rain Delays and Racing Sausages.” He’s done numerous radio and TV interviews about ballparks and has given several speeches on the topic, including at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. He lives with his wife and son in New York City and currently writes for the website Baseball Essential.

 

Missed it by that Much – The Britt Burns story

“If that kid’s not Rookie of the Year, there’s no such thing,” said White Sox skipper Tony La Russa after Britt Burns made his final start of 1980.

“I think (Joe) Charboneau, (Dave) Stapleton and (Damaso) Garcia… had fine rookie years,” he continued. “But there’s no way anyone had a better year than Burns.”

Unfortunately for La Russa, voters didn’t agree as Burns finished 5th in the R.O.Y. voting, but that did nothing to diminish the fantastic season he had. In his first full season, Britt Burns won 15 games with a 2.84 ERA. He was a 6’5″ lefty and he was destined for stardom.

Early Dominance

Burns grew up in Alabama and established his dominance at an early age. He was a standout in Little League, owing in part to his tremendous size. A growth spurt resulted in him shooting up from 5’10 to 6’2 in less than 6 months. But spurt also caused problems. Growing so quickly resulted in damaged cartilage in his hips. The damage was severe enough that his femur would actually slip out of the socket. The problem eventually required surgery on both hips in which pins were inserted to stabilize the joints. Between the two surgeries he spent nearly a year on crutches and missed a year of school ball when he was 13.

When he finally returned to the diamond he didn’t miss a beat. He threw a no-hitter as a Freshman and he was so impressive that his high school his coach advised him to transfer to a bigger school where he would face better competition. His father worked for Allstate and was able to arrange a transfer to Birmingham so Burns could switch schools. He ended up at Huffman High School, a baseball factory. In the mid-1970s, the school was using videotape for pitchers to break down their deliveries. Burns thrived.

At Huffman he threw four no-hitters, struck out nearly 300 batters in 139 innings and allowed just two earned runs over a two year period. Scouts noticed. The White Sox chose selected him in the 3rd round of the 1978 draft and after 31 innings with Appleton in the Midwest League he made his big league debut. He got pounded. In two starts, he lasted a total of seven and a third innings and surrendered 11 earned runs.

Standout Rookie

Britt Burns
With Burns, Trout and Baumgarten, the Sox were seemingly set

After another brief stint in the big leagues in 1979, Burns made the team out of spring training in 1980 and quickly became a force. In three April starts, Burns allowed just one run while facing the Yankees twice and the Boston Red Sox. He flirted with a no-hitter against Seattle in mid-May and while the Mariners did scratch out four hits, Burns threw his first career shutout and ran his record to 5-2. A six start winless streak may have cost him Rookie of the Year honors. From July 21st through August 7th, Burns went 0-5 but still posted a respectable 3.40 ERA. The offense did him no favors during the stretch, scoring just nine runs.

While he didn’t win Rookie of the Year, Burns was named AL Rookie Pitcher of the Year, an award that was made more special because votes were cast by his fellow players.

“That’s a real honor to be voted by my peers,” he said. “But I’m not going to be satisfied with what I’ve done. I want to get better. This is going to give me incentive to work a little harder and pitch a little better.”

Injuries and Tragedy

Over the next four seasons, injuries to his shoulder, recurring hip problems and the 1981 death of his father in an auto accident plagued the talented lefty. He hit bottom in 1984 when he endured a disastrous 4-12 season. In 1985 he finally broke through, winning 18 games with 172 strikeouts in 227 innings. In December he was dealt to the Yankees in a deal that brought the Sox Ron Hassey and Joe Cowley.

With Burns and Ron Guidry, the 1986 Yankees had two lefties who put up a combined 40 wins the previous season and were thinking pennant. But then Burns’ hip problems flared up again. In two spring outings he posted a 10.80 ERA and his season was over before it began.

”The condition of Britt’s hip is such that it would do him an injustice to ask him to pitch this year inasmuch as it could have a serious effect on his ability to lead a normal life later on,” Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said in a press release. “We don’t want Britt walking around as a cripple later on in life.”

Burns underwent a procedure in which his femur was cut in half and re-positioned in order to fit correctly into his hip socket. A year later he was still hoping to return but the pain in his hip was too great. At 27 years-old he was finished.

It’s hard enough to play the game. It’s even more difficult when your body betrays you.

That Time I Met Johnny Bench (Twice)

If you were a kid in southwestern Ohio in the 1970s and you could eat anywhere you wanted,  the answer was clear: Johnny Bench‘s Home Plate.

Bench owned two restaurants in the Cincinnati area at the time and one of them was near the Northgate Mall, which was about 40 minutes from my house. I don’t remember a whole lot about the restaurant except that there was a HUGE catcher’s mitt chair in the lobby. At my age it could easily swallow me up and it was a must-do each time we visited.

Johnny Bench's Homeplate
A Baseball Fan’s Nirvana

I frequently asked to go there for my birthday and it often worked because my father liked their steaks. Worked for me, too. On one occasion we were there for dinner when in strolls Johnny himself.  I was in awe. Unfortunately I didn’t have anything with me for him to sign, but my mother was a college professor and was thus equipped with a piece of paper and a fountain pen. That’s right: A fountain pen. Johnny inked my piece of paper.

So Mr. Bench, We Meet Again

Years later, I worked at WCET-TV (PBS) in Cincinnati. The building had a large studio that we would rent occasionally. Parts of Rain Man and Little Man Tate were shot there. I came to work one day and was informed that Fifth Third Bank would be shooting a commercial in the studio and that Bench would be in the house. Johnny had been working with Fifth Third since the early ’70s and had done lots of commercials and print ads. Someone from our staff needed to be there in case the ad agency needed anything and since I was the resident baseball freak, they gave me the plum assignment. Basically my job was to sit there, watch the show and tell people where the bathroom was.

Once again I didn’t have anything for Bench to sign, but I did have a car. When the crew broke for lunch, I headed straight to Koch’s Sporting Goods in downtown Cincinnati and bought a baseball. When everyone came back I asked Johnny to sign it.

He was hesitant, probably it was a pretty serious breach of etiquette on my part to ask for an autograph while we were both working. I think he also figured I would sell it. Damage done on the first count, but not the second. He asked me my name and signed the ball to me, which worked out great.

A Treasured Keepsake

My Johnny Bench Autograph
My Johnny Bench Autograph

The ball now sits proudly on a shelf with others signed by Hall-of-Famers. Thanks, J.B!

Have you met one of your baseball heroes from the 1980s? I want to hear about it! Click here for details and tell me your story.