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.
“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.