Sunday, June 21, 2015

Oh, How Different Things Might Have Been: Lou Brock, Curt Flood and the 1968 Cardinals

History is fixed.  It is unchangeable.  Nothing can change the past.  You can watch Carlton Fisk hop down the line a million times and he will still waive the ball fair.  No matter how many times Todd Worrell touches that bag, Don Denkinger is still going to call Jorge Orta safe.  Bill Buckner is never going to field that little roller behind the bag and Mitch Williams will not look back over his shoulder to see Joe Carter's fly ball being caught.

The winners and losers in the history of the game will always be winners or losers.  But this series will explore some "what if's".  What if a player who missed the World Series hadn't gotten injured?  What if a play that turned a World Series had been completed differently?

We have already looked at  the 1905 Philadelphia Athletics , Johnny Evers and the impact he might have had on the 1910 World Series. Last week we reviewed the impact of Leo Durocher on the 1962 pennant race.  This week we look at how two plays turned the 1968 World Series for the Tigers:

Everything was on the line here. Everything.  So many emotions turned over this one little white ball.  As Julian Javier connected on the Mickey Lolich pitch a million emotions unfolded.

Relief.  It was a little looper to left.  Not particularly well hit and in left field, Willie Horton was playing fairly shallow.  Horton sprinted, in trying to catch up to the slowly falling ball.  It didn't fix all of their problems but it kept things from getting worse.

Panic.  Tiger fans saw Horton take his route to the ball.  As he moved towards his right before coming in.  There was a sudden fear that this could fall in there.  Horton came charging in and as he pulled up, just slightly to charge the ball on the bounce the home town fans held their breath.

Confidence.  The runner at second was the definition of speed on the base paths.  The Cardinals already led the series 3-1 and this game 3-2.  The Tigers had just cut into the lead the inning before.  Answering with another easy run would crush the Tigers.  The series would be all but over and with Lou Brock running, a man so terrifying on the base paths that National League catchers had given up trying to catch him, there seemed to be no chance he would not score.  For the Cardinals, this would be the run that capped their second straight World Series title.

Pride.  First, there was Mickey Lolich.  He knew he was the best pitcher on this staff but he was sick and tired of hearing that Denny McLain was the golden boy, the best pitcher in the AL.  Of course, if Lolich lost this, the public would say "well, you can't have McLain pitch every day."  Next there was the left fielder, Horton.  The home town boy.  He had grown up in the shadow of Tiger Stadium.  He went to High School in Detroit.  His friends and family were probably out there in left field suffering that panic attack as they saw him pull up in front of Javier's single.  He loved playing for the Tigers and loved what that old English D meant to the city he grew up in.  He was one of the leaders of this team.  Imagine how bad the pride of this man was hurt when he was removed from the game the day before and replaced for 'defensive purposes".

Anger.  "Is this the end of it?"  The baseball fans in Detroit were devastated by the way the Tigers had lost the 1967 pennant race.  Entering the last weekend of the season with a chance to at least force a tie for the AL pennant, it had all fallen apart.  McLain, this year's savior, was pinned with a big part of the blame when he missed the end of the 1967 season with a foot injury.  Some crazy story about injuring his foot, tripping over furniture while he was checking on a noise outside.  No one believed him. Of course baseball fans couldn't dwell on the lost 1967 pennant for very long.  They had a distraction that made baseball unimportant.  The city had torn itself apart in 1967.  Buildings were set on fire, riots erupted.  Police and citizens clashed.  Terror tore through downtown Detroit.  Lolich, a National Guard member.was called into service as the city burned.  He told a story of his surreal nervousness as his commander drove a military jeep around the smouldering, deserted, ghost town streets of Detroit and the commander was stopping at red lights.  Hearing sporadic gun shots in the distance Lolich suggested that the red lights may not apply in this situation.  The Tigers winning ways in 1968 had been a big way for the city to come together.  A communal focus.  A communal love.  A positive representation of their city to offset the hatred and destruction the country had seen a year ago.  But this was how it would end.  A lot of noise.  A long season.  The first 30 game winner since Dizzy Dean won 30 in 1934 and the first in the AL since Lefty Grove won 31 in 1931. All of this time and energy spent and this is how it will end.
Desperation.  Everything rode on this play.  On this little white ball with red stitches.  If Lou Brock scores the Cardinals go back up by 2.  With a runner still on first and 1 out, Lolich would likely be pulled from the game.  Everything rode on this play. Horton fielded the ball on the first hop.  It bounced right into his waiting glove.  He had not caught it on the fly but he had played the hop perfectly.  His fundamentals were sound.  Square your body to the ball.  Get in front of it.  Don't let it get past you.  As he felt the ball smack in the glove he took two steps for some momentum and he let it go.  He let everything go.  The relief, the panic, the pride, the anger, the desperation.  He just put it all into the throw.

As it all came streaking home, Brock hit third and turned the corner.  What is always overlooked in this play is something that is so seemingly insignificant, yet so intrical to the play.  Don Wert.  More than anything Don Wert made this play possible.  What did Don Wert do?  He raised his arm and turned his body.  It is the key, silent gesture in a play that turned a World Series.

It is the answer to this great question:  how did Lou Brock, the speedster who was running all over the base paths freely, get thrown out at the plate?  He was out because he didn't slide.  Why didn't he slide?  He didn't slide because Don Wert raised his arm and turned his body.  What is seldom seen when watching a game at home is the on deck batter coaching the runner coming home.  He can be the difference.  By Wert simulating an attempt to cut off the throw from Horton, the Cardinals were tricked into believing Brock would score easily.  After all, why would the Tigers let that throw come through? Who would try to get Brock at the plate and risk turning an obvious RBI single into an RBI double.

The Tigers would.  They discussed it before the series and they felt that Brock had been conceded some bases on the base paths by his National League competition and had gotten a feeling of complacency.  They would challenge Brock with their throws and force him to beat them full speed.  Wert's fake of cutting off the throw fed the Cardinal's belief that no team would try to catch Brock and no one signaled for Brock to slide.

Brock and the ball arrived at the same time.  Standing in Brock's way was Bill Freehan with the ball.  As Brock seemingly stamped his foot on the plate he collided with Freehan and was called out.  The Cardinals argued but the call was right.  Brock never touched the plate.  Freehan had held him off.    It was the play that saved the series for Detroit.

Let's not get this wrong. It wasn't an immediate flip of the switch.  The Tigers still struggled.  They were retired easily in the 5th and left the bases loaded in the 6th.  It was in the 8th that they finally roared loudly.  After Wert struck out looking, Lolich singled. Cardinal Relief Pitcher Joe Boever gave up a single to Dick McAuliffe and walked Mickey Stanley.  When Al Kaline singled to score 2 and Norm Cash followed with a single scoring one, the Tigers took a 5-3 lead. Lolich made it interesting in the 9th by giving up singles to Tim McCarver and Ed Speizio putting two on with Roger Maris, the Home Run king from 1961 at the plate.  Fortunately for the Tigers this wasn't 1961 and Maris struck out.  The Tigers held off elimination for one more day.

The series returned to St.Louis for the last two games.  The Cardinals needed just one win in the last two at home to take the World Series and with Bob Gibson set to pitch the 7th game (if it went that far) it would be a tough, some said impossible, job for the Tigers.  Detroit made it clear early in Game 6 that they would make Gibson necessary.  With two runs already in, the Tigers came up for the top of the 3rd facing starter Ray Washburn.  It was a nightmare inning for St. Louis.  It went like this: Walk, single, RBI single by Kaline, Relief pitcher.  RBI single by Cash, Walk, Grand Slam by Jim Northrup, Relief Pitcher.  Walk, Hit by Pitch, Sacrifice bunt (out number 1), intentional walk, Ground out (out number 2), 2 run single by Kaline, Relief pitcher, RBI single by Cash, RBI Single by Horton, Flyball out (Out number three).  When the inning was over the Tigers had scored 10 runs, sent, 15 men to the plate, had seven hits (two by Cash and two by Kaline) and the Tigers had given their 30 game winner a 12-0 lead.  Kaline would add a solo Home Run in the 5th and the Tigers crusied to a 13-0 win.  Kaline's day was the stuff of legends.

Yet, if the Tigers were going to win this World Series, they would have to beat a living legend in Bob Gibson in St. Louis in Game 7.  His opponent for the day was Mickey Lolich.  Although some, including Lolich himself,  considered Lolich the Tigers’ best pitcher, McLain had won 30 games that year.  If you were a betting man it was almost impossible to go against the Cardinals. 

Gibson did what you would expect.  He dominated the Tigers.  The same man who had struck out 17 Tigers in his first start of the series, kept the Tigers off the bases until the 4th.  Mickey Stanley broke the pattern with a one out single but Gibson got the next two batters to leave Stanley at first base in the 4th, then retired another 8 straight batters.  That means that Gibson retired 21 of the first 22 batters he faced and the one runner he allowed never advanced past first.  That is damn near perfect.
Lolich, on the other hand, seemed to always be in trouble.  Just one pitch from blowing the whole thing.  In the first, the Cardinals put two on with two out but Mike Shannon flew out to end the threat.  In the second he walked Tim McCarver to lead off the inning but got out of it with a double play.  McCarver singled to start the 5th but Lolich got the next three batters.

Scoreless after 5 ½ the Cardinals looked like they would get their big inning in the bottom of the 6th.  Lou Brock led off with a single.  Looking to get a jump on Lolich, Brock left too early and the Tigers picked him off the hard way. (Lolich to Cash to Stanley).  Lolich got Julian Javier for the second out but the speedy Curt Flood followed with a single and Orlando Cepeda stepped in to bat. 
Flood was a great base runner in his time, but playing in the shadow of Lou Brock, he often was overlooked.  The Tigers were just as concerned about Flood on the base paths as they were Brock, especially with Cepeda at the plate.  A ball in the gap could score Flood from first and send the Cardinals to the world title.  If Brock was picked off the hard way, then Flood’s was the master level.  Like Brock, Flood took off early trying to get a jump on a ball hit by Cepeda or to get into scoring position with a  steal.  Lolich caught him leaning and threw to Cash.  Cash threw down to Dick McAuliffe.  Flood stopped and turned back to first, trying to avoid a repeat of Brock’s blunder.  Lolich had come over to cover first so McAuliffe threw to Lolich.  Flood reversed again.  Lolich threw down to Stanley at second base and Flood was out.  Lolich had allowed two of the game's best base runners to reach base in the same inning of a scoreless, season deciding game and escaped unharmed.  The Tigers still had to do the impossible.  They had to get to Bob Gibson.

Leading off the 7th in a still scoreless game, Stanley struck out looking and Kaline grounded out for the second out.  That brought up Norm Cash.  Cash was an enigma to Tigers fans.  When he flashed the signs of greatness that everyone knew he had he was the crowd’s favorite Tiger.  Although the Detroit press often portrayed him as lazy, indifferent and clownish and he had been booed often at home.  The Tigers had used Eddie Matthews, the aging Milwaukee legend, as a way to push Cash and put some fear in him about the safety of his job but Matthews was injured and Cash cruised along.  You couldn’t say Cash didn’t have  a sense of humor.  While the Tigers were being no-hit by Nolan Ryan (it would be Ryan’s second no hitter) Cash walked to the plate with a table leg, thinking the larger lumber would give him a better chance at hitting. Unfortunately, some took his humor as a lack of focus and the fans laughed, but shook their head.

Cash stepped to the plate with two outs and connected for a single to right field.  It was a clean base hit, you couldn’t quite call it a blooper but it wasn’t a hard line drive hit. It was only the second base runner Gibson had allowed and there was little concern for St. Louis.  Cardinals fans were still more upset over the missed opportunities of Brock and Flood getting picked off the inning before.  The focus changed when Willie Horton connected on the very next pitch.  It looked like an easy ground ball but it found it’s way between short and third for a base hit.  Two out, two on and neither of the hits were particularly impressive. 

Gibson loved to work fast but now it seemed like he was slowing, tiring.  McCarver went out to talk to him before they faced Jim Northrup.  Gibson hated the mound visits.  McCarver would tell him "runners on first and second..." and before McCarver could finish Gibson would snap "I know they're there.  I put them there."

Northrup followed Horton’s example and went after Gibson’s first pitch.  It was a fly ball to center field where Curt Flood, a seven time Gold Glove winner, was as sure a fielder as anyone.  Flood took off at the crack of the bat but the shadows played tricks on him.  On first reaction it looked like Flood had a beat on the ball and the great Gibson had performed one last escape trick.  Cardinals fans reacted with a collective stunned silence as they saw Flood stumble, just a bit, then recover and sprint in the opposite direction.  The ball fell just over his head and as Flood tore after the ball, Cash, Horton and Northrup tore around the bases.  It was a two run triple.

Just a few days before, as Brock had headed home for an insurance run, the Cardinals were sure they were World Champs.  Now, after a few great plays by the Tigers and some help from the shadows, the Tigers had the upper paw.

Bill Freehan kept the pressure on when he followed with an RBI double.  Suddenly, the curtain had been pulled back from the great and powerful Gibson.  Baseball fans had come to expect a Cardinals victory when Gibson took the mound in the World Series but now, he was human.

Gibson and Lolich would both finish the game.  The Tigers added another run on a Don Wert RBI single in the 9th and the Cardinals avoided the shut out with a solo Home Run by Mike Shannon in the bottom of the 9th but the Cardinals had blown a 3 games to 1 lead and the Tigers were World Champs.

The St, Louis Cardinals have appeared in 15 World Series in their history and the Detroit Tigers have played in 11.  How many times have they played each other in the Fall Classic?

Answer to Last Week's Question:
Leo Durocher was elected to the Hall of Fame as a manager in 1994 by the Veterans' Committe.  In 24 years as manager he won 2008 games, 3 National League Titles and 1 World Series title.  He is best remembered as manager of the Dodgers and Giants.

He was, to put it mildly, a polarizing figure.  People either loved him or despised him.  After being fired by the Dodgers after the 1962 debacle, Durocher did get a chance to manage again.  He was hired by the Cubs in 1966 and he got the Cubs out to a big division lead in 1969, the first year of division play, although the team collapsed and lost to the Miracle Mets.  He held the Cubs managerial post from 1966 through most of the 1972 season.  

At 46-44 in 1972 he was let go by the Cubs.  The team was in 3rd place, 10 games behind the Pirates.  Before the 1972 season ended he was hired by the Astros.  The Astros were surprisingly in second place.  Durocher led them to a 16-15 record to finish the year in second place, 10 1/2 games behind the Reds.

Durocher's final year of managing was in 1973.  He led the Astros to an 82-80 record and a 4th place finish.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Have questions about something in this or a former post? Have a suggestion for a future post? Want more information on a specific team, player, season or game? I welcome the feedback, so feel free to leave a comment in the box or email me at baseballeras (at) gmail (dot) com.