Saturday, October 6, 2012

Greatest World Series Moments: The Most Controversial Moment

Denny Matthews had seen every game, every play, every pitch in the history of the Kansas City Royals and there may have been few innings where he felt more disappointed and sure of what was to come.  Since the Royals entered the league in 1969 Denny Matthews had been in the broadcast booth for every single game.  He had seen the Royals lose to the Yankees in the ALCS in 1977 and 1978.  Saw them lose to the Phillies in the World Series in  1980.  Saw them swept by the powerful Tigers in the ALCS the year before and now he prepared himself to watch the St. Louis Cardinals celebrate a World Series Championship in Royals Stadium.

"Well, for some of these guys it started on February 15th."  He said, settling behind the microphone for, likely, the last three outs of the season.  "Pitchers and Catchers reported for Spring Training in Fort Myers....and what started then boils down to one inning."  There was resigned acceptance in his voice, like he had been here before and he could see what was about to unfold in front of him.

There was still hope.  Miracles could happen in baseball.  This same team had come back from a 3 games to 1 deficit against the Toronto Blue Jays only ten days before.  The Cardinals led this series 3 games to 2 and led this game 1-0 on an 8th inning, pinch hit, bloop single by Brian Harper that scored Terry Pendleton from 3rd.

The Royals best chance to even the score had come in the bottom of the 8th inning.  Lonnie Smith started the inning with a strike out where he argued the third strike call that he had foul tipped the ball into Darrel Porter's glove. (He may have been right but regardless his checked swing was well past the plate and the pitch was likely a strike anyways.  Either way, Smith struck out). Willie Wilson walked and the crowd got on their feet.  Stepping to the plate was George Brett.  If anyone would keep this inning moving it was Brett.  He seemed to be a driving force in keeping this team in the series.  If the play he made sliding into the dugout to catch a foul ball and narrowly missing slamming his head on the concrete steps as he flew out of control didn't show his drive to win this thing, nothing ever would.  Yet, in baseball, even the greatest heroes of all time still fail 70% of the time.  Brett struck out swinging.  This was followed by a Frank White fly ball to center field and the Royals were down to their last chance.  The crowd went silent.

(George Brett, known mostly for his bat, made several amazing plays with his glove during the 1985 World Series)

The Cardinals did nothing in their part of the 9th.  Cue Denny Matthews.  The great thing about listening to old baseball radio or TV calls is that we know what the outcome is.  Denny Matthews had no idea how prophetic his reference to spring training would be.  The first images we see every year of Spring training is the most routine, mundane drill.  A line of pitchers stand at the mound and mock a pitch to the plate.  They immediately head toward first base and take a throw from the first baseman to retire the phantom runner coming down the line.  Every pitcher on every team does this for hours. It's simple. Head straight for the bag, catch the ball, touch the inside part of the bag with your foot. Runner's out. Simple.

The bottom of the 9th started with one of those mini baseball chess matches that casual baseball fans hate but sometimes lead to an amazing chain of events.  Dick Howser, Royals manager, sent Darryl Motley up to pinch hit.  Howser wanted a right handed batter to face the left handed pitcher Ken Dayley.  Whitey Herzog, Cardinals manager, did not want that match up and waited for the Public Address Announcer to officially announce Motley as the pinch hitter, then walked to the mound and brought in his closer, Todd Worrell.  As soon as Worrell was announced, Howser pulled back Motley and sent up Jorge Orta.  ABC went to commercial as Worrell threw his warm up pitches.  Casual fans across America yelled at their TV that they had just seen the "Where's the Beef?" commercial thirty seconds ago and asked why there were so many commercial breaks when nothing had happened since the last one.

(Darryl Motley, seen here in Game 7 of the 1985 World Series, was used as a pawn in Game 6 allowing Manager Dick Howser to get the match up he wanted.)
Worrell's year to this point was a roller coaster.  He started the year in the minor leagues as a starting pitcher.  Around July the AAA Louiseville team got a call from the big leagues.  They needed a relief pitcher and they needed him fast.  Get Worrell converted to a reliever, now.  The second call came in August and ready or not Todd Worrell was a big league closer.  He seemed ready.  From August through the playoffs he became a favorite of the national media.  Everyone was amazed how quickly he transitioned and excelled.  Just a few days ago in this same World Series he had set a record by striking out 6 straight batters in one game.  The roller coaster was on one of those long, calm climbs that lulls you into a sense of calm.  It was about to take one of those unforeseen, spiraling drops.  Like Space Mountain on steroids.

(Todd Worrell had a roller coaster season.  He started the year in AAA Louiseville as a starter.  When the Cardinals needed a reliever he got the call and helped get the Cardinals to the World Series.)

Orta stepped in to face Worrell with a slow, almost defeated walk knowing the end was near.  After two quick strikes Al Michaels, Tim McCarver and Jim Palmer started to discuss the possibility of a record 7th consecutive strike out for Worrell, which would set a record.  The third pitch was fouled off into the crowd.

Then all hell broke loose.  Orta swung at the fourth pitch and made contact.  The ball hit in the dirt right in front of the plate and headed into that little area between first base and the mound.  It was spring training all over again.  Get to the bag.  Get the throw from first base, tag the inside part of the bag with your foot. 1 out.  Let's keep moving.

Another great thing about baseball is that the routine play still has to be executed properly by multiple players in order to get the out.  Orta sprinted down the line but he had seen this play a million times.  It was a simple out.  Just keep running and maybe something would happen.  It did.

Jack Clark, the first baseman, fielded the ball.  This was his tenth year in baseball.  He had made his third All Star game this year and was one of the driving forces in getting the Cardinals to this point, including a three run home run to clinch the NLCS against the Dodgers.  Of the ten years he played in the major leagues, nine of them were played as a right fielder.  This was his first year as a first baseman.  As he fielded the ball there was a split second hesitation. Replays show that he clearly had a slight problem with the transfer from the glove to the throwing hand.  It was the slightest of hesitations.  Clark flipped the ball to Worrell. 

Worrell was moving right.  The ball was moving towards Worrell's left and Orta was still sprinting down the line.  Worrell had to twist to catch the ball and as the ball smacked the glove on his left hand his left foot planted on top of the bag, not the inside corner like you practice, but it had worked.  As Worrell caught the ball, Orta made one last desperate stride, one of those long strides that is closer to a jump and almost never work.

(Todd Worrell takes the throw from Jack Clark (#22).  Replays from all angles show that Worrell beat Orta to the bag.)
As Orta's foot hit the bag, it landed on Worrell's foot, which was already on top of the bag, and Orta launched (or tripped) into a long jump past first base that would have made Jesse Owens proud.  1 out.  Let's keep moving.

Not so fast.  As Orta's foot came down on the bag, Don Denkinger, the first base umpire, threw his arms up and yelled safe.  The reaction was angry and immediate.  Four Cardinals players surrounded Denkinger and yelled.  Fortunately for Denkinger it was probably hard to hear four people yelling at one time so he may have missed some of the worst things that were screamed.  Herzog came out to argue but it did no good.

ABC showed the replay from three different angles while Herzog berated Denkinger, each replay angle confirmed what the live, full speed play had shown.  Orta was out by a full step.  It should not have been even a close call.  Cardinals fans will forever scream that this play stole the World Series victory from them (they have won two more since then so hopefully they can relax a little and move on).

Baseball is usually a calm, structured, organized game.  The greatest moments, the most exciting moments, always seem to happen when chaos takes over for a total of about thirty seconds.  The important thing is never what causes the chaos but how you react after the chaos has calmed.  Do you give into the chaos and panic?  Or do you settle down and execute the plays the way you have all year?

(Todd Worrell and Tommy Herr argue the disputed call with Don Denkinger.  Jorge Orta's helmet and cap can be seen on the ground.  Orta went sprawling as he hit the bag.)
The Cardinals seemed to panic.  Realistically the missed call was not that bad.  The Royals still needed one run to tie and two to win.  There was only a man on first and their closer, who one pitch before was being considered for the World Series MVP, was still on the mound.  Even better for the Cardinals, the middle and bottom of the order were due up.

Following Orta to the plate was Steve Balboni.  The poster boy of the "all or nothing" player.  His job was to bash home runs.  This job comes with the common draw back.  If you swing for the fences and miss, you strikeout.  Balboni struck out 166 times in 1985, the most in the league, and he had not had an extra base hit all Series long.  This was the perfect situation for the Cardinals.  Their strikeout pitcher on the mound and the strikeout king at the plate.
But panic and chaos raged through Royals Stadium. Balboni swung at the first pitch and popped a ball foul towards the home dugout.  Clark moved over towards the dugout.  It was a high pop and he had time to get there.  He got there.  He waited.  He heard footsteps and looked up to see Darrell Porter, the Catcher, coming over to the dugout to back him up.  Clark stopped.  Looked up again to find the ball.  Took two steps in toward the dugout.  The ball seemed like it would be up there forever.  He looked down again to make sure he was not going to fall head first into the concrete dugout.  He took two more steps in then as he looked up he saw it.  That damn ball was finally coming his left.  He tried to recover, stumbled to the left two steps and the ball fell to the ground.  Less than five feet away.  Balboni was still alive.  He made them pay by sending a single to left field two pitches later.

(Jack Clark moved from Right Field to First Base in his tenth year in the majors.  His three run home run in the NLCS was the reason the Cardinals were in the World Series but several misplays in Game 6 led to the defeat.)
The Cardinals were still OK if they could calm down and make the plays they needed to make.  Jim Sundberg was next up to hit.  With runners on first and second with no one out, Sundberg's job was to move the runners up without hitting into a double play.  Sundberg squared around to bunt.  Ball one, well outside.  Sundberg squared around again.  Even farther outside.  Ball two.  Sundberg popped the third pitch foul but Porter couldn't track it down.  Finally, Sundberg laid one down the line.  Clark, charging from first, froze.  Let it roll foul.  It was amazing.  The Royals were trying to give these guys outs and they weren't taking them.  Sundberg bunted the next pitch right back to Worrell who turned and threw to third base and caught Orta on a close play.  After all that, one out.  They still had the lead and would hopefully settle down.

Except that they didn't.  Hal McRae came to the plate and the crowd was getting louder.  The first pitch was a ball.  The second pitch was a passed ball.  Plain and simple.  Porter just missed it.  The ball bounced off his glove to the right and the runners moved up.  As bad as the call had been at first base, what seemed like an hour ago (but was only about five minutes), the Cardinals had completely unravelled.  McRae was walked intentionally to load the bases.

The Cardinals were still OK.  A double play and they were World Champions.  Just two outs away from the ultimate goal.

This brought up Dane Iorg.  That's right.  The guy's last name was Iorg.  He was the last man anyone on the Cardinals wanted to see. They all knew how dangerous he was.  Iorg had played for St. Louis in the 1982 World Series and hit over .500 including four doubles and a triple.  His job now was to beat his old team.

Iorg hit a small blooper into right field and it was obvious the game was tied as the runner scored from third.  What was not clear was how this would end.  It took 4.5 seconds to find out.  Sundberg, not a great runner, came screaming around third.  Andy Van Slyke, with one of the strongest arms in the league,  fielded the ball on one hop and immediately was ready to throw home. It was clear this would be close.

The noise was deafening.

The throw was perfect.  It came in on the fly, no bounces.  It was on line.  Porter was in a position to field it and swipe the tag.

(Andy Van Slyke, seen here in his best years with Pittsburgh, made a strong throw home on the winning run.  Van Slyke was a key part of the strong Pirates teams of the early 90's.  He is currently a coach for the Detroit Tigers and his son is playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers.)
Sundberg dove for the plate.  Literally.  He launched himself from about 5-10 feet out.

Porter swung his glove around behind him.  Sundberg kicked up a cloud of dirt as his momentum carried him straight for the plate.

Porter's glove hit Sundberg on the back of the upper leg about a tenth of a second after Sundberg's hand touched the plate.

Royals Stadium erupted.  The Royals bench emptied.  Iorg got punched in the face by one of his own teammates during the celebration and had a bloody nose during the post game interviews.  The Cardinals were stunned.

Herzog complained long and loud about the horrible call at first base and blamed Denkinger for the loss, completely ignoring the missed pop fly, the passed ball and the inability of his team to settle in and focus.

Amazingly, as I was preparing this article I turned on TBS and saw bottles and cans raining down on Turner Field in Atlanta.  The delay lasted for what seemed like forever and it was ugly.  Why?  Because the fans now blame an umpire for calling an infield fly rule on a ball that was well into left field.  Many of you won't agree but the umpire called this right.  The rule is that an infield fly can be called if any infielder can clearly demonstrate the ability to easily catch a fly ball with runners on first and second or second and third.  Watch the replay again and notice when the umpire calls the infield fly.  When the infielder (although now in short left) calls to the outfielder that the ball is his, turns square to the plate and has demonstrated that he can clearly make the catch the umpire indicates the infield fly rule. 

So the Braves fans will now ignore the three errors that led to three earned runs.  They will ignore the fact that they still had a chance to win in the ninth on a blown call in their favor.  Worst of all, they will ignore the fact that after the long delay, they loaded the bases and had a chance to win in that same inning, but Michael Bourne struck out with the bases loaded.

(The Braves field crew cleans up cans and bottles thrown by angry Braves fans over the disputed Infield Fly Rule call on Friday night.)

It is never important what causes the chaos.  The important thing is what you do after the chaos has calmed.


  1. I forget: is there instant replay in baseball or not? If there is, was it around back then? If it was, do you think it could've been used to fix the call or is it a done deal once the call is made?

    Also, as an extremely casual baseball "fan", I welcome the chaos. It makes the games more exciting. :)

    1. Thanks, as always, for reading Hope. There is limited replay in baseball now, however, it is only used for Home Run calls to determine if a ball was actually fair or foul and a few other very limited uses. Replay did not come into baseball until 2008 and regardless, replay would not allow for review of this type of play.

  2. In my opinion, this is the best post you've written so far Mike. I'm partial to newer era baseball stories. And I love hearing World Series this post was fantastic.

    There's just something about fall. The weather starts to change, back to school time, and playoff baseball. I've always had fond memories of watching the playoffs and the Series.

    To be honest, I only really pay close attention to baseball once October begins. I'm looking forward to the day when Elliott is old enough to watch the World Series with us.

    keep up the good work,

    1. Thanks for continuing to read. I appreciate the support. I was actually thinking of you when I wrote this because I know you were a Royals fan back in the day.

      Baseball is a great game. It's even greater when the playoffs start. The tension gets so much more intense and every pitch is stressful It's great.

      I also can't wait to go to some games with my niece and nephew and hopefully with you and Elliott as well.

      If you like the more recent era stories you'll love the one next week. Greatest World Series Moments: The Most Heartbreaking Moment

  3. Great article as usual. Can't think of any other controversial calls in the world series although I'm sure there are. The one play that I remember in the playoffs that goes to your theme is the Bartman play in Wrigley Field. Yes, he stuck his hand over the railing and the shortstop probably would have caught the ball. But as I recall the shortstop then either made an error or the Cubs didn't turn a double play. I feel Bartman's life was tainted because he did something as natural as a fan reaching for a foul ball and the real problem was the Cubs not playing good baseball. Bartman didn't lose the game, the Cubs did. Looking forward to next week's article.

    1. Thanks for the positive feedback. The Bartman game was definitely a similar situation and I had originally worked that into this article. I'll get back to that one some time. The Cubs failure to overcome the chaos was definitely the reason for the Marlins win and Bartman did not effect the outcome. In fact there was only one out when that happened. Here's what followed: walk, Wild Pitch, RBI Single, Error on the double play ball, 2 RBI double, RBI Sac Fly (2 out), Intentional Walk, 3 RBI double, RBI single and a pop up to second (3 out).

      There are always controversial plays in the playoffs but I limited this (and the next few weeks of greatest moments) strictly to the World Series and not the Playoffs.

      Keep reading and enjoying and I always appreciate the feedback.


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