Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Unlikely Heroes Are Likely In the World Series

Tonight could be the night. Who could be the one?

The World Series has a history filled with unlikely heroes. Particularly Yankees.

1920: The Cleveland Indians had Tris Speaker, one of the greatest players ever, as both center fielder and manager. But it was Elmer Smith who hit the first Series grand slam, Jim Bagby who became the 1st pitcher to hit a Series homer, and 2nd baseman Bill Wambsganss who turned the only Series triple play, unassissted no less -- and all 3 did it in the same game! The Indians beat the Brooklyn Dodgers.

1931: The Philadelphia Athletics won 107 games due to big boomers like Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Mickey Cochrane, and had already beaten the St. Louis Cardinals in the previous year's Series. But it was 3rd baseman John "Pepper" Martin who got 12 hits to lead the Cards to victory.

1942: The Cardinals had Enos Slaughter, Marty Marion, Terry Moore, Harry Walker, and a rookie who went on to a fair career, kid name of Stan Musial. But it was another of their 3rd basemen, Whitey Kurowski, who hit a 9th-inning home run to win a game and send the Cards to the Series win.

1943: This time, Kurowski was the victim of an unlikely hero. With most of the Yankees' stars except for Bill Dickey (who was soon to join them) off to war, it was Johnny Lindell who slid into 3rd base, knocking the ball out of Kurowski's glove, that led to a key run that won the key game of the Series.

1947: Floyd Bevens of the Yankees nearly became an unlikely hero by coming within 1 out of the 1st World Series no-hitter, against the Dodgers. But Cookie Lavagetto -- by this point washed up, so that made him somewhat unlikely -- doubled to send home the tying and winning runs that Bevens had let on base with walks. Two games later, Al Gionfriddo made a great catch to rob Joe DiMaggio of at least a double. But the Yankees won the Series anyway, due to a really unlikely hero, who became far likelier as his career went on: A funny-looking backup catcher and outfielder named Larry Berra (as Yogi was still signing his name at that point).

1948: Gene Bearden may have won 20 games, including the Playoff for the Pennant, for the Indians, but the lefty knuckleballer was still 30 and had never done much before (and never would again). But he still won the clincher over the Boston Braves.

1952: The Dodgers were threatening in the 7th in Game 7, had the bases loaded, when Jackie Robinson hit a popup that nobody could see. At the last second, Billy Martin rushed in from 2nd base to get it, and save at least the lead for the Yankees. Bob Kuzava, who had closed out the 1951 Series against the Giants, was still sort of unlikely himself, but he pitched another 2 innings of solid relief for the win.

1953: Billy the Brat strikes again. He's so well-known as a manager now that it's easy to forget his playing heroics. In the regular season, he was ordinary, but in World Series play, he was every bit as dangerous as his teammates Berra and Mickey Mantle. Billy tied what was then the Series record with 12 hits, the last of which drove home Hank Bauer with the winning run in the clinching Game 6 against the Dodgers.

1954: We all know about Willie Mays making The Catch to shock the Cleveland Indians. When Willie was the hero for the Giants, nobody was surprised. What was surprising was James "Dusty" Rhodes hitting a pinch-hit home run to win Game 1 (with Willie, 2 innings past The Catch, on first base), and getting another pinch-hit in Game 2 and staying in the game to hit another homer. The Indians won 111 games in the regular season, but the Giants swept them.

1955: Johnny Podres was a young guy, not expected to be the Dodger pitching hero the way Don Newcombe or Carl Erskine were. But he shut the Yankees out in Game 7, largely thanks to the unlikeliest position of all, if you knew the Dodgers' history: Left field. Sandy Amoros' catch of a Yogi Berra drive near the left-field pole, starting a double play, snuffed out the Yanks' last real rally, and the Dodgers had their first World Series win -- their only one in Brooklyn.

1956: He may have been 11-5 that season, but it's hard to find a less likely hero than the erratic, hard-drinking, poor-driving, already-roughed-up-in-Game-2 Don Larsen. But he's the one who threw what remains the only no-hitter in the history of postseason play. A perfect game. In the World Series. Against the Brooklyn Dodgers.

1959: The Dodgers, now in Los Angeles, had Don Drysdale, Roger Craig, and a young, somewhat wild but very talented guy named Sandy Koufax on their pitching staff. But it was Larry Sherry -- whose brother Norm, a catcher, would later straighten Koufax out and turn him into the defining pitcher of the 1960s -- who came up large for the Bums against the Chicago White Sox.

1960: You would expect Bill Mazeroski to make great fielding plays for the Pittsburgh Pirates. But a home run to win the World Series? Roberto Clemente, perhaps, but not Maz. But Maz it was. Hal Smith's homer making it possible was also pretty unlikely.

1962: Bobby Richardson got 12 RBIs for the Yankees in 1960, and set a new Series record with 13 hits in 1964. But both were losing efforts. This time, against the now-San Francisco Giants, his catch of Willie McCovey's line drive for the last out of the Series made him a hero in a winning cause.

1964: This time, the Cardinals had a likely hero at 3rd base, Ken Boyer, whose grand slam provided the margin of victory in Game 4 against the Yankees. But it was Tim McCarver -- yes, kids, the broadcaster -- who hit one out in the top of the 10th to win Game 5 that made as much of the difference as Boyer.

1965: The Minnesota Twins stunned first Drysdale, then Koufax. But Claude Osteen turned in a terrific performance to turn the Series around, as Drysdale won Game 4, and Koufax Games 5 and, on just 2 days rest, 7 with a complete-game shutout. Koufax was likely, Osteen was not.

1969: The Miracle Mets had plenty of unlikely heroes, from Ron Swoboda's catch to Donn Clendenon and Al Weis hitting Game 5 homers.

1975: That Carlton Fisk hit the homer that won Game 6 isn't a huge surprise. That Bernie Carbo hit the homer that sent the game into extra innings is.

1978: Bucky Dent had already drifted into unlikely hero territory with his Playoff homer against the Boston Red Sox. But he batted .417 in this Series to be named MVP. Even less likely was Brian Doyle, batting .438 in place of the injured Willie Randolph at 2nd base.

1986: Does Mookie Wilson count as an "unlikely hero" if he was more the benefit of the goat? (Whether you think it was Bob Stanley or Bill Buckner doesn't especially matter... in this case.) Bob Ojeda was definitely an unlikely hero, after first Ron Darling and then Dwight Gooden were beaten. And Sid Fernandez, saving Darling's bacon in Game 7 to give the Mets a chance to finish it off, definitely counts.

1990: Billy Hatcher didn't get the press coming in that Barry Larkin and Chris Sabo got for the Cincinnati Reds, and none of them got the press that the Oakland Athletics' "Bash Brothers," Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire got. But the Reds swept the Series, led by Hatcher putting up batting numbers that hadn't been seen since the Ruth-Gehrig era.

1991: Jack Morris pitched a superhuman 10-inning shutout in Game 7, but it was Gene Larkin who singled home the winning run. Larkin had gone to Columbia University, where he broke most of Lou Gehrig's school records. No relation to the aforementioned Barry Larkin, Barry, who is black, had lots of good moments in his career; Gene, who is white, has this one.

1996: Despite hitting a walkoff homer in the previous year's Division Series against the Seattle Mariners, Jim Leyritz was not exactly the easy pick for heroism against the Atlanta Braves. (And his post-playing DWI makes him considerably less than heroic.) But his homer tied up Game 4, completing a 6-run comeback for the Yankees, and they never looked back, winning the Series.

1997: Craig Counsell drove in the tying run for the Florida Marlins in the bottom of the 9th of Game 7, then scored the winning run on a single by the nearly as unlikely Edgar Renteria in the 11th, and the Marlins beat the Indians.

1998: Trevor Hoffman, meet Scott Brosius.

1999: Mike Remlinger, meet Chad Curtis.

2000: Turk Wendell, meet Jose Vizcaino. (Actually, they'd already met, as they had been teammates on the Chicago Cubs.) Al Leiter, meet Luis Sojo.

2002: Ed Speizio had hit the 1st home run in San Diego Padres history, 33 years before. His son Scott Speizio hit the most important home run in Anaheim Angels history, to complete a 5-run comeback that beat the Giants.

2005: Scott Podsednik was a good player, but he wasn't known as a home run hitter. But, I guess, when you're facing Brad Lidge, and it's not 2008, good things happen, especially in the postseason. His walkoff home run in the bottom of the 9th of Game 2, following the White Sox blowing a 5-4 in the top of the inning, turned a 6-5 deficit into a 7-6 win over the Houston Astros. Game 3 went to 14 innings, tying the Series record, and it was the longest Series game ever by time, 5 hours and 41 minute. Geoff Blum homered in the top of the 14th to win it.

2006: The winning pitcher for the Cardinals over the Detroit Tigers in the clinching Game 5 was Jeff Weaver. You can't get any less likely than that.

2009: The Yankees can clinch tonight. Who will be the hero? Andy Pettitte on the mound? Derek Jeter? Alex Rodriguez? Jorge Posada? Mark Teixeira? (It's about time he started hitting like one.) Or...

I have a suspicion. Melky Cabrera's injury means that Brett Gardner has to play center field. Not known as a good hitter, mainly as a great runner and a great fielder. Not originally intended to start. Didn't start much all year long. Steps in due to injury. Not really on anybody's radar. Hmmmm...

As Doris Kearns Goodwin, a professional historian who so often ignored the history of her favorite team -- the Brooklyn Dodgers as a child, the Boston Red Sox as an adult -- and rooted for them anyway, likes to say, "There's always these omens in baseball." Is Brett Gardner's entrance into this Series an omen?

"Your attention please, ladies and gentlemen, batting for the Yankees, Number 666, Damien Thorn. Number 666."

But then, I root for a hockey team called the Devils. Who play at Washington tonight, with the Capitals' star Alexander Ovechkin unavailable. I wonder if I'll even notice the score of that one?

Tonight's the night. Let's finish it off. 27 for 27. Come on, Andy. Unload the lumber, Bronx Bombers. Smack Pedro the Punk around. Do it. We play today, we win today, that's it. Let's Go Yankees.

UPDATE: The hero turned out to be Hideki Matsui. Not particularly unlikely.

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