Victory in an Instant
by Robert Nishihara
There will be 2,430 baseball games played during the 2002 regular season (discounting rainouts, cancellations, one-game tiebreakers, etc.). Among those contests will be a number of eagerly anticipated matchups, games whose results will be significant in determining various pennant races. Of course, those highly important ballgames will be outnumbered (overwhelmingly) by games where the stakes involve little more than personal and professional pride for the participants.
The beauty of baseball, however, is that even in games of little consequence memorable things can still happen. Greater still, is the fact that those memories can be as unique as individual fans see fit to make them.
Case in point, one of my favorite baseball moments had little to do with witnessing anything historic and had only marginal implications on a pennant race that year.
The year was 1978, and after four seasons of numbing mediocrity (and occasional bouts with painful incompetence), the San Francisco Giants had unexpectedly gotten off to a fast start in the NL West. Fueled by newly acquired pitcher Vida Blue (via a trade with the Oakland A's in which the Giants sent the A's seven players for Vida!), an emerging young slugger in Jack Clark, and a remarkable pinch hitting hero named Mike Ivie, San Francisco raced out to the NL West lead in 1978, stunning the division favorite Dodgers.
In mid-May, the St. Louis Cardinals came to town for a four-game series that included a Sunday doubleheader (yes, they actually used to schedule doubleheaders). Or to be more precise, the Cardinals limped into town en route to a disappointing 69-93 record. Despite their dismal record, St. Louis still fielded a respectable lineup, including Ted Simmons, Keith Hernandez, Gary Templeton, and HOF'er Lou Brock (albeit limping on his last professional legs).
I was lucky enough to score a ticket to the Sunday doubleheader and, with the improbable start to the Giants' 1978 season, I was hoping to see the local team continue to defy the odds that day.
I wasn't disappointed.
(BTW, I was 12 years old in 1978, and the idea that the law of averages and mediocrity eventually intersect in baseball hadn't occurred to me. Thus, when this convergence eventually, and inevitably, happened to the Giants that season I was taken completely by surprise when they finished third.)
The Cardinals took a 4-2 lead in the first game into the 8th inning. However, the Giants managed to scratch out a couple of runs to tie the score. Neither team scored in the 10th. Or the 11th.
In the bottom 12th, St. Louis reliever Mark Littell was beginning his 2nd inning of work. Littell was in the process of putting together a pretty good season in 1978 and was a real workhorse in the Cardinal pen.
Littell retired the first two Giants' batters quickly, bringing RF Terry Whitfield up to the plate. Whitfield, a scrappy OF with a touch of power, was a fan favorite. His visible enthusiasm and hustle endeared him to the home crowd and his numbers, while hardly spectacular, were serviceable and consistent (his OPS varied by no more than 29 points during his four seasons in San Francisco, '77-'80).
Littell's first pitch to Whitfield was a fastball that caught a little too much of the plate. Whitfield turned on the belt-high pitch and hit a rocket into RF. More on a straight-line trajectory than anything resembling an arc, the ball smacked into the empty retractable grandstand seats (pulled out and used for football) in right field, careening around the empty seats like a pinball.
The crowd went nuts, the Cardinals walked off the field, and Whitfield, almost literally, danced around the bases. And for that moment, I truly felt like I was witnessing what the magic of baseball was all about.
It is 24 years later, but I can still see Whitfield motoring around the bases, fists pumping. His big, loping strides cutting across the basepaths while 35,000 fans rose and cheered.
Of course, if you just reduce that moment down to its statistical base, it looks like this:
AB R H RBI Whitfield, rf 1 1 1 1
It's just not the same.
Albeit, I was 12 at the time and these types of things tend to make heavier impressions when you're young. It was also the first "walk-off" homer I'd ever seen in person. But still, there really is something special about seeing the home team grab victory in an instant and being part of a crowd that is, almost involuntarily, brought to its feet when that happens. And the really special thing about it is that it can happen even if the home team is playing for little more than pride.
While statistics are wonderful components essential to any meaningful analysis of the game (and baseball has the richest, most complete set of stats of any sport), there are a whole host of memories and experiences that go along with those stats that can be equally valuable when reviewed heartily. It is this rather remarkable marriage of cold, hard facts (statistics that detail every facet of the game) and emotional memory (we still lionize the central figures in certain key events even decades after the fact) that makes baseball such an extraordinary experience for its fans.
So, remember that the next time you go to the ballpark. You just might see something that will stick with you for a while...like a long forgotten homer in 1978 by a long retired player in a wind swept stadium that no longer hosts baseball games.
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