Reconstructing an old memory

As a kid who wore glasses from an early age, I identified with ballplayers who wore them, too. One of the most prominently spectacled players was Jeff Burroughs, who had a long career in the majors, with most of it spent in the American League. For some reason, though, I have a partial memory of him from my childhood. The memory goes like this:

It’s a Saturday afternoon, and I’m in my parents living room watching a Cubs game on WGN. I’m dressed for church, because we would sometimes go to mass at 4 PM on Saturday to fulfill our weekly obligation. And that’s all it ever was in my family; we went to mass once a week for school, and once on the weekend. And we went on the holy days too. But it was never something we wanted to do, and I always saw it as a pointless exercise. That must explain why I haven’t been a Catholic for thirty years.

But all that is beside the point. I remembered having a Cubs game on, and the game ended in the bottom of the ninth when Jeff Burroughs let a routine ground ball go through his legs in left field. I remember thinking that I could have made that play, but somehow he missed it. I then turned off the TV, and we went to mass like we had done a hundred times before, and would continue to do until I went away to college and stopped going altogether.

With just that sketchy bit of information–Jeff Burroughs, left field, and a game at Wrigley that ended on an error, I wanted to see if I could reconstruct the game to find out exactly how old I was at the time. And as it turns out, it took less than 5 minutes to accomplish this.

I started off by using baseball-reference.com to determine which seasons Burroughs played in the National League, which turned out to be 1977 through 1980. The only National League team he played for was the Braves, so I was already able to establish the Cubs’ opponent on that day.

From there, I was able to eliminate 1977 as a possibility, since he played in right field only that year. In 1978, he was moved over to left field, where he played for the remainder of his time in Atlanta. The next step was to look for one run games in Chicago that ended in the Cubs’ favor, which eliminated all games from 1978. I was getting closer.

From there, I was able to identify the date of the game as Saturday, July 21, 1979. Jackpot. I was eleven years old at the time. From there, it was a simple matter of pulling up the retrosheet boxscore for the game, and filling in the early-40s me on what the eleven-year old me had witnessed and largely forgotten about.

The Cubs went into the ninth inning of that game behind 2-1. Mike Lum, who would one day come to the Cubs for the final season of his career in 1981, hit a pinch hit home run off of Mike Krukow to break a 1-1 tie and provide the  slimmest of all margins to Braves’ reliever Gene Garber. Garber had pitched the 8th inning already, and was in line for the win if he could get the final three outs.

In modern baseball, the ninth-inning closer would have been ready to go out and get the last three outs to save the win for Garber. But that practice didn’t begin until Tony LaRussa, Dennis Eckersley and the Oakland A’s of the late 1980s. Garber was already in the game, and it was his game to finish out.

The Cubs pushed the tying run across in the bottom of the ninth, when Dave Kingman came through with a pinch single to score Miguel Dilone. The words “Kingman” and “single” don’t always get used in the same sentence, but this was clearly an exceptional day at Wrigley Field. The Cubs’ next batter was Scot Thompson.

My neighbor across the street at that time was also named Scott, but his name had two t’s at the end, as did every other Scott I had ever met or heard about, with the exception of Scot Thompson of the Cubs. If you ever get stuck for a word in Scrabble, “scot” with one t means a form of taxation. It’s where the term “scot-free” comes from.  So don’t say you didn’t learn anything today.

Scot Thompson delivered a single into left field, the ball rolled through Burroughs’ legs, Kingman came around to score, and the game came to a happy end for the 28,000 in attendance that day. Every game the Cubs won was a “thriller” to Jack Brickhouse, but this one legitimately fit the bill. And I have to believe that the ending of the game made mass more tolerable that evening, too.

The internet helped me to fill in some of the blanks about that game, turning a vague memory into something a bit more clear. The time or effort that it would have taken me to research this game in the pre-internet age would have probably prevented me from taking any action about this. And the results, now that I know them, wouldn’t have justified the time expenditures, either. But the internet is a great thing, isn’t it?

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