Game Six

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.

rose-backs-up-bob-booneWhat 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.

“Ah, Willie Wilson,” Tugger said. “My favorite baseball player.”

It was perfect and so are my memories of that season and that moment. You never forget your first time.

That Time I Met Sixto Lezcano

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.

Lezcano and Cooper
Sixto won a Gold Glove in 1979

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.

Sixto Lezcano
Lezcano spent his first 7 years in the big leagues with the Brewers

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.

Sixto Lezcano autographBy 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 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