You never forget your first time. For me it was October 21st, 1980; the night I had my first championship experience.
I was a few months into 8th grade at a small school in Oxford, OH. By small, I mean really small. My graduating class had about 25 people. I was a little anxious about beginning high school the following year but none of that mattered now. What mattered was that my Phillies were about to win their first World Series title.
Phillies phans in southwest Ohio were pretty rare in the Big Red Machine era, but I was one of them. Call me an outlier if you like, I prefer to think of myself as a member of a very select club. One that was accustomed to heartbreak.
For me, it began in 1976 when the Reds swept the Phillies in the NLCS. In all honesty, my memories of that season are pretty sketchy since I was only eight at the time but the soul-crushing defeats at the hands of the Dodgers over the next two seasons still resonate, especially 1977.
I grew up in a college town and used to walk home from school. One day on my journey from McGuffey Laboratory School to our house on Beech St., I recounted the events of the horrible 9th inning of Game Three to some unsuspecting Miami University student. He seemed amused; though I don’t remember if it was by the story or because a nine year-old was lamenting the fact that Vic Davalillo, at age 40, actually beat out a bunt. Don’t get me started on Manny Mota’s drive to left and the ensuing Greg Luzinski incident.
But that was in the past and twelve year-old me was ready to move on. After enduring a gut-wrenching NLCS, in which four of the five games went extra innings, and a back-and-forth World Series against George Brett and the Royals, I sat on the edge of my bed in the 9th inning of Game 6 while Tug McGraw was putting on his usual show of loading the bases and then trying to get out of it.
A Defining Moment
With the Phillies leading 4-1 McGraw struck out Amos Otis to lead off the inning, but walked Willie Aikens and then surrendered singles to John Wathan and Jose Cardenal. On the mound at The Vet, McGraw was summoning the energy to record two more outs. In Ohio, I was sitting on the edge of my bed wearing one of those plastic Phillies batting helmets and holding two different Phillies pennants. Tugger needed me at this moment and there was no way I was going to let him down.
What happened next was pure World Series magic. The infamous Frank White popup in foul territory that Bob Boone muffed but Pete Rose caught followed by McGraw striking out Willie Wilson to end the game. Pandemonium ensued both in Philadelphia and on Coulter Lane in Oxford as we all jumped for joy. It was nearly 11:30 at night on a Tuesday and I had school the next day. I can’t stay up that late anymore but I’m so glad I did then.
Years later, I met McGraw at an event and stupidly said something to the effect that I remembered that game, as if neither he nor anyone else there didn’t. I told him about sitting on the edge of my bed and how excited I was when he struck out Wilson.
Note: This is a guest post from Christopher Zantow
I grew up watching Sixto Lezcano patrol the outfield for the Milwaukee Brewers in the late 1970’s. My Dad started to take me to games at Milwaukee County Stadium in 1978 and liked to sit along the first base line, so we often got to see Sixto make a great defensive play close up. He quickly became my favorite player on a team of stars. I really wanted to meet him and get an autograph, but as a child it never happened, despite me trying to get into the front row of the box seats where he’d occasionally sign stuff before games.
My Dad took me to the concession stand at one of the games we attended and told me to pick out a souvenir. I really wanted a Sixto Lezcano poster, and that notion totally shocked Dad. I think he assumed I’d get either the Paul Molitor or Robin Yount poster. Sixto’s poster did have the pre-signed stamped autograph at the bottom, so it did look reasonably legit. He graced my wall for a few years until I got “too cool” for that sort of thing and rock band posters went up in his place.
Most kids try to imitate their baseball heroes at bat. I didn’t try to imitate Sixto at the plate. Instead, I did my best to play like him in the outfield. It was hard to hold a candle to his energy though. The one thing I could imitate was Brewers PA announcer Bob Betts when Sixto came to bat: “Right fielder Sixxxxxxtooooooo Lezcaaaannnnoooooooo!!!”
Hitting grand slams on Opening Day is the stuff of legend, and Sixto did it in 1978 and 1980 to set a major league record. He had already hit a homer earlier in the 1980 opener before he delivered the walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning. The image of him on TV circling the bases with his arms outstretched over his head is etched forever in my mind. I often think of that moment when I hear today’s players brag about how hard they play the game. It just seemed like a natural thing for Sixto Lezcano, and not something he talked about too much. If you don’t remember how good he could be, go back and look at his 1979 stats when he finished in the top ten of a lot of offensive categories and won a gold glove. Hard to argue with 28 homers, 101 RBI’s, and a .321 batting average.
Naturally I was bummed when Sixto was traded after the 1980 season, but couldn’t complain when the package brought Ted Simmons, Pete Vuckovich, and Rollie Fingers to Milwaukee. Sixto became one of the few ex-Brewers that I followed and continued to root for throughout his career. Unfortunately, the injuries that started up in Milwaukee before he was traded continued to plague him for the remainder of his time in the big leagues. After his playing days ended I lost track of him (it was the pre-internet age) but always figured he’d make a good coach. Later on when I had internet and could look him up, I found out he had in fact gone into coaching. But I never gave meeting him a second thought – at least until 2007 when he came to Miller Park for “Cerveceros Day.”
The Brewers had started the special Hispanic heritage day a couple seasons earlier, and usually brought a former player to Miller Park that could be part of the celebration. The team wears their alternate Cerveceros (Brewers in Spanish) jerseys for the game and there is often a promotional giveaway. It just so happened to be a Chorizo (racing sausage) Bobblehead giveaway to tie in with the heritage day. By chance I had tickets for the game that I purchased well before the promotional schedule came out. I actually didn’t find out Sixto was the guest of honor until the day of the game, so I had no time to get his poster out of storage (yup – still have it to this day!) and try to get a “real” signature on it.
I made sure to be there in time to see Sixto participate in the pre-game ceremony on the field. He was available in the lower level concourse after that for free autographs through the end of the first inning. I saw the line earlier when I headed to my seat and decided to wait it out and watch the first half inning, hoping the line would go down.
By the time I got out to the autograph table the line had really gone down – and most of the inning had been played. Some of the security people were trying to move things along and were prompting Sixto to wrap things up. I had a ball for him to sign but instead wound up with a player card, which was fine and still made my day. I at least got to tell Sixto thanks for a lot of great memories and snapped a photo of him before one of the security people blocked me out. The person behind me got the last autograph. Security led Sixto away and headed upstairs. I assumed he was going to spend the second inning on the air with Bob Uecker – which is pretty much a given anytime an old school player returns to Milwaukee.
Despite the themed day, the Chorizo did not win the sausage race. The Brew Crew won the game by a 4-3 score and had a 51-40 record after the victory. The pennant race was heating up and the Brewers found themselves in first place at that point of the season. All of that was secondary to me as I finally got to meet the first baseball player I really looked up to – Sixto Lezcano.
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 eventsthat 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.
That’s what the 1980 pennant race came down to in the National League. The American League race produced some drama, but the NL pennant race was outstanding and it doesn’t get its due. It had everything, including two divisions that came down to the final weekend. Here are seven reasons the 1980 pennant race was fantastic.
The Pirates Fade
The Pirates were the defending World Series champs and a consensus pick to repeat. They had their core back and held a 5 game lead in the NL East in May. By the morning of September 1st that lead was down to just a half game and they were in a tailspin.
From August 25th through September 9, the Pirates lost 13 of 15 games and were basically out of the race. The Buccos went 10-17 in September, enduring a five game losing streak at beginning of month and a six game skid to end the month, turning half game lead into an eight game deficit by the end of September.
“This is the first time in my 10 years as a big league manager that a club I managed didn’t have a good September,” said Pirates Manager Chuck Tanner. “That has been the big difference. We haven’t won like we used to in September.”
The Astros Inner Turmoil
The 1980 Houston Astros had an extremely talented roster, including one of the top pitching staffs in baseball. Then J.R. Richard went down.
That certainly would be enough to torpedo a lot of teams, but not this Astros team. There was another situation brewing under the surface, however, and it threatened to rip the team apart.
In his book, Joe Morgan – A Life in Baseball, Morgan recounts how he called a players-only meeting in August after a series against the Padres in San Diego. He challenged his teammates to be less selfish and he singled people out. It worked.
Immediately following the meeting, Houston went on a tear and gained a three game lead in the NL West. Everyone was happy according to Morgan except manager Bill Virdon, who felt Morgan had overstepped his bounds. Their relationship changed after that. As the team started winning, players would talk about how much of an influence Morgan was which made the problem worse.
Virdon began benching Morgan late in games and the players noticed. It was a situation that would come back to bite them later on.
The Expos went 19-9 in September, thanks in large part to outstanding pitching. The Montreal staff threw six shutouts in September and allowed a major league low 78 runs. Staff ace Steve Rogers made six starts in 24 days, going 4-2 with four complete games.
Another key for the Expos was taking two of three from Pittsburgh in mid-September. After splitting the first two, Montreal won the crucial third game to grab a one game lead in the division while pushing Pittsburgh down to third place.
“I don’t think the Pirates will give us any more trouble,” Jerry White told the media after the 4-0 win. “Philadelphia is now the team we’ve got to worry about.”
The Phillies Surge
While Expos were surging, so were the Phillies. Six games back on August 11th, they managed to crawl back into a first place tie by the end of play on September 1st. Mike Schmidt took over from there. From September 1st through the end of the season, Schmidt hit .298 with 13 homers and 28 RBI. His hot bat helped the Phillies go 19-10 in September.
On the mound, they got a big big contribution from an unexpected source. Marty Bystom came to the Phillies an an amateur free-agent in 1976. After winning 6- games in 14 starts at AAA Oklahoma City, Bystrom went 5-0 in September of 1980 pitching some of the most important innings in franchise history. His 1.50 ERA earned him NL Pitcher of the Month honors.
“How good is Marty?” Phillies manager Dallas Green asked the media after his final win of the month. “Pressure doesn’t bother Marty. He has that look in his eye. A look of confidence.”
The Expos/Phillies Showdown
Great months by both the Phillies and the Expos set up a showdown in Montreal on the final weekend of the season. There was a tie at the top of the division and whoever won two of three in the series would be off the the NLCS.
“They’ll have to take it away from us in our own park,” said Andre Dawson. “We’re loose and confident and we’d just as soon get it over in the first two days of the series.”
The Phillies sent 16-game winner Dick Ruthven to the mound while the Expos countered with their own 16-game winner, Scott Sanderson. Not surprisingly, Pete Rose got things started for the Phillies by singling to lead off the game. He advanced to 3rd on a Bake McBride double and scored on a Schmidt sac fly to give the Phillies a 1-0 lead.
In the top of the 6th, Schmidt again provided the heroics, this time with a solo home run. Dawson’s sac fly in the bottom of the inning cut the Phillies lead to one, but Tug McGraw came on in the 8th inning and struck out five of the six batters he faced to notch his 20th save and give the Phillies a one game lead in the division.
“Now it’s our advantage,” Schmidt said. “The pressure stays on us but they must be feeling a bit of it themselves.”
“It’s very simple now,” said Expos manager Dick Williams. “We win tomorrow or we have to face the winter with the knowledge that we’re only a second place ballclub.”
Montreal grabbed an early lead in game two and was clinging to a 4-3 advantage in the top of the 9th when Bob Boone‘s two-out single off Woody Fryman scored Bake McBride to tie the game.
McGraw shut out the Expos in the 9th and 10th innings and in the top of the 11th, Mike Schmidt faced Stan Bahnsen with one out and Rose on second.
Schmidt delivered perhaps the biggest home run in Phillies history since Dick Sisler‘s shot on the final day of 1950. The 2-run homer won the game for the Phillies and sent them to the NLCS.
“This will give me a heckuva lot more character for future pressure baseball,” Schmidt said. “We have a bigger hill to climb ahead of us. I’ve yet to prove myself in a playoff and World Series.”
The Astros Meltdown
So the Phillies were in but they still didn’t know who they would play. The Astros held a three game advantage over the Dodgers heading into the final weekend of the season and the two faced off in Los Angeles for a three game series. All Houston had to do was win one game and they would qualify for their first ever post-season appearance.
In game one, Houston had a one-run lead in the bottom of the 9th and their closer Dave Smith ready in the bullpen, but Virdon stayed with Ken Forsch instead. The Dodgers tied it with 2-outs in the 9th and won it on Joe Ferguson‘s walk-off homer off Forsch in the 10th. A young Fernando Valenzuela pitched two scoreless innings in relief to get the win for L.A.
Game two featured Jerry Reuss against Nolan Ryan and again the Dodgers prevailed by a single run. The game was tied at one when Steve Garvey homered off Ryan. It held up and the Dodgers won 2-1.
“He started me with a curve and then came with the fastball,” Garvey told the press after the game. “I was sure it was gone when I hit it.”
That set up a Sunday showdown. A Houston win meant they won the division. A Dodgers win would force a one game playoff.
“Sunday can’t be any tougher than facing Reuss,” said Virdon. “We’re not worried about numbers or statistics. We just need one more win.”
Houston again took a lead in the third game and again the Dodgers fought back in the late innings. Ron Cey’s 8th inning, 2-run homer proved to be the difference. Don Sutton, who started the first game of the series, got the last out and earned his first save of the season.
“We don’t have the killer instinct sometimes,’ said Morgan. “We got ahead 3-0 the same way we have all year, by slapping singles, stealing bases and bunting, but then we sat back and expected our pitchers to hold them. You can’t do that.”
One of the main reasons Morgan was in Houston was to provide veteran leadership, the kind Houston was lacking. This was his biggest test.
“This team is going to grow up a lot in the next day,” he said. “It will be strong or it will die.”
The Astros/Dodgers Playoff
More than 50,000 people packed Dodger Stadium on Monday, October 6th for the one-game playoff to determine the NL West champion.
The Astros sent 19-game winner Joe Niekro to the mound, while the Dodgers countered with Dave Goltz, signed as a free-agent in the 1979 off-season. Goltz recorded double-digit wins for six straight seasons in Minnesota but his first season in Dodger Blue was a disappointment. He entered the most important game of the season with a 7-10 record.
Houston took Morgan’s words to heart and scored two runs in the first inning on two singles, a stolen base and two ground outs. Art Howe hit a two-run homer in the 3rd and the Astros plated three more in the 4th to take a 7-0 lead.
Seven runs were plenty for Niekro as he allowed just six hits en route to a complete game 7-1 final.
“I was confident. I was relaxed,” said Niekro after winning his 20th game. “After the first two innings I found I had a good knuckleball.”
As the champagne flowed in the visitors clubhouse at Dodger Stadium, Virdon finally let his guard down.
“I’m probably as relaxed right now as I’ve been in the last four days,” he said.
Like the regular season race, the 1980 ALCS was a bit anticlimactic, but the NLCS continued the regular season excitement. The Phillies beat the Astros in five thrilling games with the last four going to extra innings. In the end, the Phillies prevailed and went on to win their first ever World Series championship.
Mike Parrott was a first-round draft choice of the Baltimore Orioles in 1973. He worked his way up to AAA two years later and won 15 games with the Rochester Red Wings in 1977.
“The guy is a major league pitcher,” said his AAA manager Ken Boyer, who spent 15 seasons in the big leagues as a player.
“Poise, character, relaxation, concentration, movement on the ball, velocity – when you break him down in all those areas he’s been outstanding.”
Those traits made him the 1977 International League Most Valuable Pitcher and earned him a September call up at the end of the year. But at the Winter Meetings, the Baltimore traded Parrott to Seattle. What looked like a career setback proved to be the break he needed and he became the ace of the Mariners pitching staff. By 1979, his 14 wins lead the team and as the 1980 season dawned Mike Parrott had his sights set on winning 20 games.
Parrott was the Opening Day starter and despite giving up two home runs to John Mayberry, he picked up the win against the Toronto Blue Jays. But at the end of April his season took a turn for the worse.
On April 30th, Parrott was facing Roy Smalley in the bottom of the 5th inning in Minnesota. The Twins’ shortstop sent a hot shot back up the middle and Parrott was unable to defend himself. The ball hit him squarely in groin. He wasn’t wearing a cup. Parrott collapsed on the mound and was eventually taken off the field on a stretcher. Newspaper reports called the injury as a “severe bruise.”
In Rochseter, former teammate Ed Farmer advised Parrott that he should get used to wearing a cup because big league hitters are much better at hitting the ball up the middle than minor leaguers are. Parrott wore a cup once and pitched poorly.
“It wasn’t comfortable,” he told the Associated Press after the injury. “But I’m superstitious and I wanted to go back to the old way. Let’s just say I learned a lesson. A very good lesson.”
The injury kept Parrott out of action for a month. It would be tough for your season to get much worse after an incident like that, but for Parrott that’s exactly what happened.
He returned to the mound at the end of May to face the Brewers and didn’t last long. Milwaukee scored six runs on seven hits in just two innings and Parrott’s day was over. On top of that, Cecil Cooper hit a line drive up the middle that nearly hit him.
His next start came against the Cleveland Indians. Parrott allowed five runs in 4.1 innings but only two were earned. Unfortunately the unearned runs came as a result of his own throwing error. By the end of May Parrott’s record stood at 1-6.
Bad Pitching & Bad Luck
His June starts were maddening both for him and the Mariners. The Boston Red Sox knocked him out after just one inning on June 9th. On the 19th, he pitched well enough to win, but Bob Stanley shut out Seattle and Parrott was the losing pitcher. Six days later he gave up two first-inning runs against the Rangers, but then held them scoreless for four innings. Again the Mariners offense didn’t produce, and again Parrott got the loss. Five days after that, he was perfect through two innings but gave up six runs in the top of the third.
“It’s got me down,” he said. “In the first two innings I had better stuff than I had all year. Then six runs. It’s hard on me and it’s hard on the team. This is the worst stretch of my career.”
In two July starts he lasted just 3.2 innings, giving up seven earned runs on ten hits. By the end of the month he was seeking help from a hypnotist.
“I went to see… if he could change my thought train,” he told the L.A. Times. “The hypnotist told me to reach back for something positive. I told him I couldn’t, that it had been so long I just couldn’t think of anything positive.”
The Mariners were also at a loss as to what to do with their Opening Day starter and sent him back to AAA Spokane. The move seemed to work as he gave up just two runs in 22 innings of work in the Pacific Coast League.
The Beat Goes On
He returned in September, made three starts and lost them all, allowing 13 earned runs in 21.1 innings. A move to the bullpen netted him three saves in four appearances but there was more misery to come.
On the final day of the season, Parrott entered the Mariners game against the Rangers with a one run lead and a runner on second. He got Billy Sample to hit a ground ball to 3rd, but Jim Anderson made a throwing error which allowed Bump wills to score to tie the game. Three innings later, Johnny Grubb‘s walkoff double won it for Texas and Parrott’s season from hell was over.
Mike Parrott was the Mariners ace heading into the 1980 season. He started on Opening Day and got the win. From then on he lost 16 straight decisions and got hit in the groin with a one hopper that caused him to miss a month. He finished the year with a 1-16 record and a robust 7.28 E.R.A. American League hitters batted .348 against him.
“I think I’ll know how to handle adversity in the future,” he joked after the season was over. “I had enough this year, didn’t I?”
It was September 17th, 1980 and the Oakland A’s were up two in the 9th inning with two outs. But Rusty Staub‘s 2-run homer in the inning was followed by a Bump Wills single and a Jim Sundberg walk. Langford was in a jam and Martin felt he didn’t have a choice.
“I went with him as long as I could,” Martin told the media after the game.
Reliever Bob Lacey got Buddy Bell to ground out and it was over; both the game and one of the most remarkable streaks in recent baseball memory. For the first time in four months, Rick Langford hadn’t finished a game he started.
An Odd Beginning
Langford was the Opening Day starter for Billy Martin and the A’s but it didn’t go well. Facing the Minnesota Twins, he surrendered five runs in just three and two-thirds innings and was one of five pitchers Martin used that day. He came out of the bullpen in back-to-back games later in the month but nearly three weeks would go by before he got another start. On April 28th, Langford got the ball and went the distance against the California Angels.
His next two starts were complete games against Detroit and Toronto, the latter of which featured a bench-clearing brawl after Langford hit the Blue Jays’ Al Woods in the back with a pitch. Two more starts followed in which he was pulled after seven and four and two-thirds innings respectively.
The Streak Begins
On Friday, May 23rd, Langford faced Fergie Jenkins and the Texas Rangers at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. The Rangers won the game 3-1, but Langford went the distance. His next start came against the Kansas City Royals and again, Rick Langford went the distance.
In six June starts, Langford posted an 0-6 record with six complete games. Things turned around in July, when he posted a 6-0 record with, again, six complete games, including a 14-inning affair against the Indians on July 20th. Up 5-0 in the top of the 9th inning, Langford surrendered five runs, including a Toby Harrrah Grand Slam to tie it before the .196-hitting Dave McCay singled home Mitchell Page to end the game in the 14th inning. Had the game gone to the 15th, Langford would likely have gone back out.
Still Going Strong
August came and went. Langford made five starts and finished all five of them, going 4-1. The streak hit 19 on August 27th when Langford beat the Yankees 3-1. New York scored their only run in the first inning on a Reggie Jackson single but didn’t mount much of a threat for the rest of the game.
”I just went power to them in the ninth,” Langford told the media. ”I didn’t want to walk anybody. Sometimes that can get a rally started and wind up hurting you more than a home run.”
The streak reached 21 on September 6th against the Orioles, and established a modern day record, surpassing Robin Roberts, who threw 20 straight for the 1953 Phillies. Often described as a “sinker/slider pitcher,” Langford didn’t walk a lot of batters and he didn’t strike a lot of people out, which kept his pitch count down. Billy Martin also didn’t have a lot of faith in his bullpen, which was a major factor in Oakland’s pitchers throwing as many complete games as they did.
Just one day earlier, the A’s bullpen allowed six runs in the final two innings of a loss to the Orioles and Martin wasn’t about to let it happen again.
“I wouldn’t have taken Langford out of the game tonight if he had put seven guys on base in the ninth,” Martin said. “Not after last night, I wouldn’t.”
By this point, the A’s had played 245.2 innings in Langford’s starts. He was on the mound for 234 of them.
“I never think about complete games,” he told the media after his 21st straight. “I take it one pitch, one batter, one inning at a time. I know I’ll come out of the game sometime, but when I do I’ll walk off the mound with my head high.”
Six days later, he allowed 14 hits, but picked up the win, and another complete game when the A’s beat the Royals 9-5 in Oakland.
The Streak Ends
Langford’s next start came against the Texas Rangers, that team against whom the streak began. Martin stayed with his starter as long as he felt comfortable, but with the game on the line, he had to make a move.
“The only reason I went with him as long as I did was the streak,” Martin said. “I’ve seen him pitch better.”
In his streak-snapping start, Rick Langford went eight and two-thirds innings, allowed four runs on eleven hits, and got the win.
“I didn’t ask him to leave me in,” Langford said of his manager. “He makes the decisions on this club and he’s done a fantastic job.”
He would make four more starts and finish all four, including a 10-inning CG on two-days rest on the season’s final day because Martin wanted to give him a shot at winning 20. He came up short, but still established a season the likes of which will probably never be matched.
In 1980, Rick Langford went 19-12 in 33 starts. He threw 28 complete games, including 22 in a row. The 28 CGs were more than the combined total of eight different teams. Not too bad for a guy who lead the league in losses just three years earlier.
The runners were tense at the starting line. The 1960 Summer Olympics were about a year away, but there was still a lot at stake in this race. On the line were bragging rights and the opportunity to affect someone’s life forever; someone who would be a big part of their lives forever.
The children took off, arms and legs pumping.
Catherine Hazewood had just given birth to her ninth child, a baby boy. He didn’t have a name yet but that would soon change. Her children were racing to the hospital and the winner would have the honor of naming her son.
Catherine’s son Aubrey was the winner and decided to name his baby brother Drungo in honor of his friend’s last name.
Ask anyone in the Orioles organization who the top prospect was at the end of the 1970s and, despite the presence of future Hal-of-Famer Cal Ripken Jr., the answer would probably be Drungo Hazewood.
Hazewood stood 6’3”, weighed 210 pounds and was a former first round draft choice. His decision to play baseball was a tough one since he had also signed a letter of intent to play tailback at USC where he would have had a shot to take over for Heisman Trophy winner Charles White. Playing football for John Robinson and baseball for Rod Dedeaux was tough to turn down. Not many people have a chance to win a National Championship in football AND baseball during their collegiate careers, but Drungo Hazewood did. He said no.
“In high school I was considered a better football player than a baseball player,” Hazewood said later. “But the money did it. Plus I always wanted to play in the major leagues and I didn’t know if that chance would come again.”
Entering 1980, his decision to go with baseball seemed to be paying off. Had he gone to USC, he would have earned a Rose Bowl ring by virtue of the Trojans 17-16 win over Ohio State. But six weeks after the Rose Bowl, Drungo Hazewood was in spring training with the Orioles. He hit just .231 at AA Charlotte in 1979. But the tools…
“(He’ll) be a big league player someday, of that I have no doubt,” said Jimmy Williams, his manager in Charlotte. “His main problem is that he still chases the curveball, but he’ll get over that. I think he has a chance to go the farthest (of all the Orioles prospects) and stay the longest.”
That assessment looked to be correct after his performance in the spring of 1980. In twelve at-bats, Hazewood collected seven hits. Interestingly enough, all five of his outs came via strikeout. A performance like that, especially from a first round draft pick, could be enough to make a lot of teams. But the Orioles were the defending AL champs, and already had a veteran outfield, so manager Earl Weaver had the odd job of sending a .583 hitter back to the minor leagues.
“He was making the rest of us look bad with that average,” Weaver joked. With depth at the major league level and Hazewood’s lack of AAA experience, it was the right decision. A bit more seasoning in the minor leagues and he could come to Baltimore to stay.
THE SHOW BECKONS
Back in Charlotte, Hazewood teamed with Ripken to terrorize Southern League pitching staffs. Ripken hit .276 with 25 homers and 78 RBI, while Hazewood batted .261 with 28 homers and 80 RBI while adding 29 stolen bases.
The Charlotte O’s finished 72-72 but it wasn’t for lack of offense. They scored 605 runs, but unfortunately the pitching staff gave up 607 and they finished five games behind the Savannah Braves.
Hazewood had earned his shot. But the Orioles were in the middle of a pennant race and Weaver didn’t have the luxury of giving an inexperience 21 year-old outfielder a chance to get his feet wet on the major league level.
Drungo Hazewood made his major league debut as a pinch runner in the 9th inning of a game against the Toronto Blue Jays on September 19th, 1980. He would appear in three more games before getting his first at-bat.
It wasn’t until the Orioles were officially eliminated from the AL East division that Hazewood stepped to the plate in a major league game. In the bottom of the 11th inning on October 4th, Hazewood pinch hit for Mark Belanger and flew out to center field against Bob Owchinko in the first game of a double-header. In game two, he was the starting right fielder and faced Cleveland’s Rick Waits four times. He struck out all four times. He would never appear in another major league game.
Hazewood returned to Charlotte in 1981 and continued to be a fan favorite. Stories abound about his power, his speed, his arm and his raw strength. In his 1997 autobiography, “The Only Way I Know,” Ripken tells a story of Drungo being so upset after a fight with the Memphis Chicks that he broke a bat with his bare hands.
“He … stopped in front of a display of two bats mounted on hooks on the wall. He grabbed one and snapped it like a toothpick. … Drungo didn’t snap this bat across anything, and he didn’t hit it against anything. He just twisted and snapped it like a toothpick.”
Hazewood retired after the 1983 season to care for his mother, who was battling breast cancer. He took a job driving a delivery truck and settled into life after baseball. There were rumors if his being disenchanted with the way things turned out, but those closest to him deny that was the case.
In 2011, Hazewood himself was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away in July of 2013. He was just 53 years-old.
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 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.
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.
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.
Oh, 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.
However, 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.
Tony 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.
Before 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.
As 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.
But 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:
Greg 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.
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.
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 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.
Martin 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.
Brett 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 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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.