Monday, September 29, 2014

Mays' Catch at 60; Top 10 Defensive Plays In Sports

September 29, 1954, 60 years ago today: Willie Mays makes The Catch.

It was Game 1 of the World Series. The New York Giants had won the National League Pennant, beating out their crosstown rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Cleveland Indians had won the American League Pennant, winning League record 111 games to beat out the Yankees, who had won the last 5 World Series. Indeed, the last 8 AL Pennants had been won by the Indians (1948 & '54) and the Yankees (1947, '49, '50, '51, '52 & '53).

Game 1 was played at the Polo Grounds in New York. The game was tied 2-2 in the top of the 8th, but the Indians got Larry Doby on 2nd base and Al Rosen on 1st with nobody out.

Giant manager Leo Durocher pulled starting pitcher Sal Maglie, and brought in Don Liddle, a lefthander, to face the lefty slugger Vic Wertz, and only Wertz. Somehow, this got into Joe Torre's head (despite being a native of Brooklyn, Torre says he grew up as a Giants fan) and into Joe Girardi's binder (Girardi wasn't even born for another 10 years).

Liddle pitched, and Wertz swung, and drove the ball out to center field. The Polo Grounds was shaped more like a football stadium, so its foul poles were incredibly close: 279 feet to left field and 257 to right. In addition, the upper deck overhung the field a little, so the distances were actually even closer. But if you didn't pull the ball, it was going to stay in play. Most of the center field fence was 425 feet from home plate. A recess in center field, leading to a blockhouse that served as both teams' clubhouses -- why they were in center field, instead of under the stands, connected to the dugouts, is a mystery a long-dead architect will have to answer -- was 483 feet away.

Mays, at this point in his career, was already a big star. Just 23 years old, he had won that season's NL batting title. He had been NL Rookie of the Year in 1951, but had missed most of the 1952 season and all of 1953 serving in the U.S. Army, having been drafted into service in the Korean War. He had become known for playing stickball in the streets of Harlem with local boys in the morning, and then going off to the Polo Grounds to play real baseball in the afternoon. This raised his profile, and made him an accessible figure to City kids. His cap flying off as he ran around the bases, his defensive wizardry, and his yelling of, "Say hey!" endeared him to Giant fans. (Note that, while he made the "basket catch" nationally popular, he didn't invent it. In fact, he wasn't even the first Giant to use it, as Bill Rigney, who would succeed Durocher as manager in 1956, was using it in the 1940s.)

Even so, the days when the Giants were the team in New York sports were long gone, this week's events notwithstanding. At this moment, Mays was, in the public consciousness, where Babe Ruth was in May 1920, where Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams were in May 1941, where Mickey Mantle was in May 1956, where Reggie Jackson was in September 1977, where Roger Clemens was in April 1986, where Derek Jeter was in September 1996, where David Ortiz was in September 2004: A star, well-known and popular, but not yet a legend.

Mays ran back to try to catch the ball. In mid-stride, he thumped his fist into his mitt. His teammates, who had seen this gesture before, knew that this meant that he thought he would catch it. But most fans didn't know this. Watching on television (NBC, Channel 4 in New York), they figured the ball would go over his head, scoring Doby and Rosen, and that Wertz, not exactly fleet of foot, had a chance at a triple, or even an inside-the-park home run.

Willie has said many times that he was already thinking of the throw back to the infield, hoping to hold Doby to only 3rd base.

With his back to the ball all the way, he caught the ball over his head, stopped, pivoted, and threw the ball back to the infield. Doby did get only to 3rd.

The announcers were Jack Brickhouse, who normally did the home games for both of Chicago's teams, the Cubs and the White Sox, but was the lead announcer for NBC in this Series; and Russ Hodges, the usual Giants announcer, made nationally famous 3 years earlier when Bobby Thomson's home run made him yell, "The Giants win the Pennant!" over and over again.

Brickhouse: "There's a long drive, way back in center field, way back, back, it is... Oh, what a catch by Mays! The runner on second, Doby, is able to tag and go to third. Willie Mays just brought this crowd to its feet with a catch which must have been an optical illusion to a lot of people. Boy! See where that 483 foot mark is in center field? The ball itself... Russ, you know this ballpark better than anyone else I know. Had to go about 460, didn't it?"

Hodges: "It certainly did, and I don't know how Willie did it, but he's been doing it all year."

It has been argued by many, including Bob Feller, the pitching legend sitting on the Indians' bench, that the reason so much is made of this catch, to the point where it is known as The Catch, capital T, Capital C, is that it was in New York, it was in the World Series, and it was on television. "It was far from the best catch I've ever seen," Feller said. Mays himself would say he'd made better catches. But none more consequential.

Durocher yanked Liddle, and brought in Marv Grissom. Upon reaching the Giant dugout, Liddle told his teammates, "Well, I got my man."

Yeah, Don. You got him.

Grissom walked Dale Mitchell to load the bases with only 1 out. But he struck out Dave Pope, and got Jim Hegan to fly out, to end the threat.

When the Giants got back to the dugout, they told Willie what a hard catch it was. He said, "You kiddin'? I had that one all the way."

The game went to extra innings. Future Hall-of-Famer Bob Lemon went the distance for the Tribe, but in the bottom of the 10th, he walked Mays, who stole 2nd. Then he intentionally walked Hank Thompson to set up an inning-ending double play. It didn't happen: Durocher sent Dusty Rhodes up to pinch-hit for left fielder Monte Irvin, and Rhodes hit the ball down the right-field line. It just sort of squeaked into the stands.

On the film, it looks a little like a fan reached out, and it bounced off his hand. A proto-Jeffrey Maier? To this day, no one has seriously argued that the call should be overturned.

The game was over: Giants 5, Indians 2. The Indians, heavily favored to win the Series, never recovered, and the Giants swept. The Series ended on October 2, tied with 1932 for the 2nd-earliest end to a World Series. (In 1918, the season was shortened due to World War I, and ended on September 11.)

Still alive from this game, 60 years later, are: From the Giants: Mays, Irvin, and shortstop Alvin Dark; from the Indians, Rosen, and his usual backup, a pinch-runner in this game, Rudy Regalado.

Victor Woodrow Wertz, a native of Reading, Pennsylvania, was a right fielder and 1st baseman. He made his name with the Detroit Tigers, hit 266 home runs in his career, had 5 100-plus RBI seasons, and made 4 All-Star Teams. He went 4-for-5 with 2 RBIs in this game. He should be remembered as more than a man who hit a 460-foot (or so) drive that was caught, while another guy in the same game hit a 260-foot drive that won the game as a home run. He died in 1983, aged only 58.

Willie Howard Mays Jr., a native of Fairfield, Alabama, outside Birmingham, became one of baseball's greatest legends. He hit 660 home runs, collected 3,283 hits, made 24 All-Star Games (there were 2 every season from 1959 to 1962), won a Gold Glove the 1st 12 seasons it was given out (1957 to 1968), won the 1954 and 1965 NL Most Valuable Player awards, and played on 4 Pennant winners -- but 1954 would be his only title.

The Giants, with whom he moved to San Francisco in 1958, retired his Number 24, dedicated a statue to him outside AT&T Park, and made its official address 24 Willie Mays Plaza. He played with the Giants until 1972, when he was traded to the Mets, going back to New York at age 41. He retired in 1973, and the Mets have rarely given out Number 24 since.

He was elected to the Hall of Fame in his 1st year of eligibility, 1979. In 1999, he was named to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team, and The Sporting News put him at Number 2 on its list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players -- 2nd only to the long-dead Babe Ruth, so Willie was tops among living players. No player has since come along to suggest otherwise -- not later Giant Barry Bonds, not Derek Jeter. Willie is 83 years old. Last week, the Giants held a pregame ceremony honoring the 60th Anniversary of The Catch, even though it happened all the way across the country from where they play now.


Top 10 Defensive Plays In Sports

Note that I am not including defensive miscues, however (in)famous. So, no Bill Buckner. And while I could include strikeouts as "defensive plays," I have chosen not to. So, no Grover Cleveland Alexander.

Also, I'm going for consequence here. The teams that benefited from the plays in question had to win. So, if you're a Met fan, looking for Endy Chavez in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS, which your team, of course, lost, forget it.

However, Met fans will want to see this:

Honorable Mention: October 14 and 15, 1969: Tommie Agee's 2 catches in Game 3 of the World Series, and Ron Swoboda's catch in Game 4. I couldn't say any of these catches was more consequential than the other 2, so I'm putting them in here collectively, as an Honorable Mention. While I'm at it...

Honorable Mention: October 10 to 15, 1970: Collectively, several plays made by Brooks Robinson at 3rd base for the Baltimore Orioles against the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. What Willie did for the outfield, Brooksie did for the infield: Reminded us of how important, and how fantastic, defense can be. Of course, as with Mays, Robinson's home fans saw what he could do all the time; it was the rest of the country, watching the World Series, who may not have seen him regularly and not known how great he was.

Honorable Mention: October 13, 1978: Collectively, several plays made by Graig Nettles at 3rd base for the Yankees against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 3 of the World Series. The Yankees were down 2 games to none, and ace Ron Guidry didn't have his good stuff. Nettles bailed him out with 5 amazing plays, and the Yankees won, 5-1.

Honorable Mention: June 7, 1970: Gordon Banks, the goalkeeper who helped England win the World Cup on home soil 4 years earlier, stops Brazil superstar Pele with a seemingly impossible dive to his right. Both men said they thought it would go in, but Banks stopped it.

Because Brazil won the game anyway, I can't put this in the Top 10, even if it is the most talked-about save in soccer history. The other iconic moment of this game came at the end, when Pele and England Captain Bobby Moore swapped shirts: A bare-chested white man who might have been the greatest defender the game had ever known, and a bare-chested black man who might have been the greatest attacker the game had ever known, showing their mutual respect for one another.

10. May 18, 1971: Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals at Chicago Stadium. Before the '71 Playoffs began, Ken Dryden, a law student from the Toronto suburbs who'd starred on the hockey team at Cornell University, had played a grand total of 6 NHL games, all for the Montreal Canadiens. But Rogie Vachon got hurt, and, rather than use Phil Myre, who'd started 30 gaes, head coach Al MacNeil saw enough in those 6 games to make Dryden his starting goaltender in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Canadiens upset the highly-favored defending Champion Boston Bruins on the way into the Finals against the Chicago Blackhawks, a team loaded with talent including Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito -- who, like Rogie Vachon was about to become, was a goalie who won the Stanley Cup as a Montreal backup before having to go because he couldn't break through at the Forum, and became a Hall-of-Famer elsewhere, but never won the Cup again.

The Habs trails the Hawks 3 games to 2. The Habs won Game 6, but had to beat the Hawks in Game 7 in Chicago. In mid-game, Jim Pappin had a seemingly easy shot that would have put the Cup in Chicago's hands. But Dryden made a fantastic kick-save to prevent it.

It wasn't the greatest save in hockey history, but it may have been the most consequential, especially considering the English-French linguistic strife in Montreal over the past year: The city had already won so many Cups, but it needed this one. With Henri Richard scoring the equalizer and the winner, the Canadiens won it. They would win 5 more Cups with Dryden in the net, while Chicago would have to wait until 2010 to win it again.

Dryden was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy. The next year, he was awarded the Calder Trophy. He remains the only player in the history of major league sports in North America to be named Most Valuable Player of the postseason and then Rookie of the Year the next season. (Todd Worrell of the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals came close, though.)

9. January 1, 1979: The Sugar Bowl at the Superdome in New Orleans. Usually, the old system did not produce a definitive National Championship Game. This time, it did: Penn State came in ranked Number 1, and Alabama was Number 2.

In the 4th quarter, Alabama led 14-7. Penn State reached 1st & goal on Alabama's 8-yard line. A run made it 2nd & 6. A pass play got to the 1-yard line. Don McNeal, later to star for the Miami Dolphins, seemed to come out of nowhere to stop Scott Fitzkee, who had scored Penn State's touchdown earlier. As great a play as it was, that's not the play that makes this list.

On 3rd down, future Chicago Bears running back Matt Suhey tried to get over the goal line, but couldn't. Penn State's quarterback was Chuck Fusina, who would later lead the Philadelphia (then Baltimore) Stars to 2 USFL titles, but was a bust in the NFL.

Fusina was looking for the ball, and asked out loud where it was, hoping a teammate would answer. Instead, the answer came from Marty Lyons, an Alabama linebacker, who would star at defensive end for the Jets: "About a foot. You better pass." Lyons was so confident in the Crimson Tide's ability to hold the Nittany Lions on that 12 or so inches if they ran the football that he actually gave them a tip. There was about 6 minutes left on the clock, so if Penn State didn't get it done here, chances are, they would get the ball only 1 more time -- as would Alabama, who could have tacked on a score as well.

Fusina and head coach Joe Paterno didn't listen: On 4th & about a foot, Fusina handed off to Mike Guman. Barry Krauss and Murray Legg hit him, and he didn't make it over.

Penn State held Alabama to three-and-out on the next series, but covered the punt with 12 men, and got caught, which gave Alabama a new life, and they nearly ran out the clock. The Lions' last-ditch drive fell short, and the Tide were National Champions, thanks largely to the most famous goal-line stand in football history.

8. June 7, 1994: Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver. The New York Rangers led the Vancouver Canucks 2 games to 1. A penalty shot, very rare in the Playoffs, was given to Vancouver after Pavel Bure was improperly stopped on a breakaway. The Russian Rocket fired on Ranger goalie Mike Richter, but was stopped.

This sparked a Ranger comeback from 2-0 down, and the Rangers won 4-2, to take a 3-games-to-1 lead. The Canucks won Games 5 and 6, though, to make Ranger fans squirm just a little longer, before the Rangers won Game 7 at Madison Square Garden to finally end their drought after 54 years.

This Richter save wasn't as late as Dryden's in 1971, but it is better remembered (probably because he played for a New York team), and is shown in highlights a lot more often.

7. January 30, 2000: Super Bowl XXXIV at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. The St. Louis Rams were hanging on to a 23-16 lead over the Tennessee Titans, as the clock showed just 6 seconds -- time for just 1 more play.

The Rams, previously in St. Louis, hadn't won an NFL Championship since December 1951 -- 48 years. The Titans, previously the Houston Oilers, had not gone as far as the rules of the time had allowed them to go since winning the 1961 AFL Championship -- 38 years. Something had to give.

Titans quarterback Steve McNair passed to his right, to Kevin Dyson, the beneficiary of the Music City Miracle play that beat the Buffalo Bills 4 weeks earlier. Rams linebacker Mike Jones saw it, and wrapped his arms around Dyson's legs. But as he was going down, Dyson realized he could still reach out, and have the ball cross the plane of the goal line. He tried, but he came less than a foot short. The game was over, and the Rams were champions. The play becomes known as The Tackle and The Longest Yard.

6. May 5, 1973: FA Cup Final at the old Wembley Stadium. Leeds United, the Yorkshire giants, had won the Cup the year before. From the 1967-68 season to 1973-74, they would win 6 major trophies in 7 seasons. They were overwhelming favorites to defeat Sunderland, the North-East club then in England's Football League Division Two.

If Sunderland were to win, they would become the 1st team ever to win the Cup (a tournament that celebrated its Centenary the season before) with no senior internationals. (Meaning none of their players had ever played an international match for his country beyond youth level. Some of them would later.) Think of the University of Miami -- and that's a reflection of the swagger and the dirty style of play of the Hurricanes and Leeds, as well as their ability to win -- facing a Mid-American Conference team for the National Championship.

Someone forgot to tell Sunderland, though. The Mackems went ahead on Ian Porterfield's goal off a corner in the 31st minute, and their defense held the rest of the way. Midway through the 2nd half, Sunderland goalkeeper Jim Montgomery dived (in English soccer, "dived" is correct, not "dove") to knock away a header from Trevor Cherry. But it rebounded right to the deadly Peter Lorimer, 10 yards away, and he shot.

Both David Coleman on BBC Radio and Brian Moore on ITV were sure it had gone in. But Montgomery completed the sensational double save by deflecting the ball so that it hit the crossbar and came down outside the goal.

Sunderland held on to win, and manager Bob Stokoe ran around the field in celebration -- shades of Jim Valvano of North Carolina State 10 years later, with the teams even wearing the same colors, red and white. It remains the last major trophy Sunderland have won, and, aside from West Ham United in 1980, no team outside Division One/The Premier League has won the Cup since.

5. May 26, 1987: Game 5 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals at the Boston Garden. The defending World Champion Boston Celtics and the Detroit Pistons are tied at 2 games apiece, and the Pistons led 107-106 late in Game 5, and had the ball with just a few seconds left. It looked like the rising team, not yet known as the Motor City Bad Boys, were going to go back to the Silverdome to clinch in Game 6 and pull one of the biggest upsets in NBA Playoff history.

But as Isiah Thomas tried to inbound the ball to Bill Laimbeer, Larry Bird stole it, and passed to Dennis Johnson for a game-winning layup. Celtics 108, Pistons 107. Announcer Johnny Most, known for his gravelly voice and his Celtic homerism that made John Sterling and Phil Rizzuto sound objective by comparison, had the call:

"And... now, there's a steal by Bird! Underneath to DJ, who lays it in! Right at one second left! What a play by Bird! Bird stole the inbounding pass, laid it up to DJ, and DJ laid it up and in, and Boston has a one-point lead with one second left! Oh my, this place is going crazy!"

It is the signature play of Bird's storied career, and while the Pistons did win Game 6, the Celtics won Game 7 to reach the NBA Finals for the 4th straight season and the 5th in 7 years. But the Los Angeles Lakers won the title, and the Celtics wouldn't reach the Finals again for 21 years.

4. October 13, 2001: Game 3 of the American League Division Series at the Oakland Coliseum. The Oakland Athletics had beaten the Yankees in Games 1 and 2, and Game 3 and, if necessary, Game 4 would be in Oakland. The Yankees looked finished.

But Mike Mussina held the A's scoreless until the bottom of the 7th inning, and the Yankees gave hi a precarious 1-0 lead. Terrence Long hit a drive down the right-field line. Shane Spencer, filling in for the injured Paul O'Neill, threw the ball in, but his throw was well off the line.

Jeremy Giambi, even slower than his brother Jason, was going to score with ease, and he didn't try to slide. What was the point? No one was going to make the play. It's not like someone was going to dash across the infield to grab the ball and throw it to catcher Jorge Posada.

Derek Jeter disagreed. He rushed in from shortstop, grabbed the ball with his bare hand, and, in a single motion, flipped it to Posada, who made a tag every bit as good as the flip, just in time to tag Giambi before his foot hit home plate. If Giambi had slid...

But he didn't. The Flip preserved the Yankees' 1-0 win, and they went on to come back and win the series, and then beat the Seattle Mariners (who had broken the '54 Indians' AL record with 116 wins) for the Pennant, before losing the World Series to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

As they would say in English soccer, "One Derek Jeter, there's only one Derek Jeter."

3. November 20, 1960: There have been some hard hits in NFL history, but this one is the most legendary. From 1956 to 1963, the New York Giants won the NFL Eastern Conference title 6 times in 8 years. They were hosting their geographic rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles, in a key late-season game at the original Yankee Stadium. The winner was likely to win the East, and face the Green Bay Packers in the NFL Championship Game (which, under the rotating system of the time, would be at the East champion's home field).

Don Heinrich, filling in at quarterback for Charlie passed to Frank Gifford, the biggest star the Giants would ever have until Lawrence Taylor, and one of the NFL's biggest glamour boys. Chuck Bednarik, who played both center and linebacker for the Eagles, the last of the 60-minute men, clobbered him.

This being November, the field at Yankee Stadium was cold and hard. Football helmets being what they were, the protection wasn't very good. Gifford's head slammed on the ground, and he was knocked out. He fumbled, and the Eagles recovered.

On the film, the hit doesn't look as bad as its legend would suggest. Bednarik can be seen clapping to celebrate the fumble, which sealed the Eagles' win. He then pumped his fist, and said, loud enough for players on both teams to hear, "This fuckin' game is over!" The photo from the game, showing the fist-pump, made it look like he had just celebrated killing Gifford. Indeed, there was a report that Gifford had died -- but it was confusion, because a security guard had suffered a heart attack during the game, and was wheeled out on a stretcher covered in a white sheet.

Gifford did, however, miss the rest of the season, and retired. The Eagles went on to beat the Packers for the title -- and haven't won an NFL Championship since. Gifford came back in 1962, and played 3 more seasons. Despite the incident, Gifford is still alive today, age 84. So is Bednarik, 89.

2. April 15, 1965: Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals at the Boston Garden. The Celtics led the Philadelphia 76ers 110-109, but a rare mistake by Bill Russell gave the Sixers the ball with just a few seconds left on the clock. If the Sixers could score, they would end the Celtic dynasty, and head to the NBA Finals against the Lakers. Hal Greer was getting ready to inbound the ball, and if the Sixers could get it to Wilt Chamberlain, that would probably be it.

John Havlicek had other ideas. Johnny Most, 23 years before Larry Bird's steal, and 19 years before Gerald Henderson's steal against the Lakers in the 1984 Finals, had the call:

"Greer is putting the ball in play. He gets it out deep, and Havlicek steals it! Over to Sam Jones! Havlicek stole the ball! It's all over! It's all over! Johnny Havlicek is being mobbed by the fans! It's all over! Johnny Havlicek stole the ball! Oh my, what a play by Havlicek at the end of this ball game!"

The Celtics went on to beat the Lakers in the Finals. All 3 legendary Celtic Playoff steals -- Havlicek in 1965, Gerald Henderson in 1984 and Bird in 1987 -- happened at the Boston Garden. "The Luck of the Leprechaun"?

1. September 29, 1954: Willie Mays, The Catch. Maybe it isn't the greatest defensive play ever, or even Mays' greatest catch. But it is the most talked-about defensive play in the history of sports, and, for reminding us that defense is important, just as Brooks Robinson did in the 1970 World Series, we owe The Say Hey Kid our thanks.

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