Going for the sweep

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The Cubs don’t really need to win today against the Pirates at Wrigley Field. They’ve already won the series, and have a commanding 11 and a half game lead in the division on Father’s Day. But a lifetime of waiting for this has also made this Cubs fan greedy.

Today we’ll find out if the NBA’s Golden State Warriors can follow up the winningest regular season in history with a league title. If LeBron James  and his teammates can take it away from them, the Warriors’ season will be judged a failure, and rightly so. Winning a title is what matters most, as Vince Lombardi once said.

So a win today by the Cubs may end up being meaningless, because it appears they’re going to win their division easily. But Cubs fans will hopefully be forgiven for our gluttony. It’s been a long time, and an especially difficult road these past few years. So let’s go Cubs!

In the Midnight hour

Thanks to a night game at Wrigley Field, and a very long rain delay, today I had the rare opportunity to have a baseball experience late at night. So late that it was technically the next day.

Here’s the story of this experience, which appeared today on ThroughTheFenceBaseball.com. I hope it gives even the slightest sense of  what being in the shadows of Wrigley Field in the early morning hours felt like. It was an experience worth writing about, at least in my book.

Link to a piece on ThroughTheFenceBaseball

Photo from Wrigleywax

Yesterday was the anniversary of the day that I became a Cubs fan. My Cubs birthday, in a manner of speaking. The circumstances surrounding it were somewhat bizarre, and so I wrote about it in a piece that was published on ThroughtheFenceBaseball.com today. I hope you enjoy it.

A no-no-no

The Cubs managed just one hit tonight against A.J. Burnett of the Pirates. Burnett had a no-hitter into the 8th inning of tonight’s game, and only a single by rookie Adrian Cardenas stood between Burnett and an historic feat. As the saying goes, close but no cigar.

Most people are aware that the last time the Cubs suffered the indignity of being no-hit was in September of 1965, when Sandy Koufax threw a perfect game against them in Dodger Stadium. The fact that it hasn’t been done against the Cubs since, a span of nearly 47 years, is fairly impressive. Many of baseball’s franchises today haven’t even been around that long to begin with. But there’s more to the story than just that.

The Cubs have been on the receiving end of no-hitters just twice in their current ballpark. In 1917, they lost the famous double-no hitter game, which was played in what was then called Weeghman Park. I’m sure we’ll never see another game like that one. Decades then went by before the Cubs were no-hit in their own ballpark, as they nearly were by A.J. Burnett this evening. In fact, the only other time that the Cubs were held hitless in front of their home fans happened in August of 1965.

Yes, 1965. The year that the Rolling Stones recorded “Satisfaction” and changed rock and roll forever. There was indeed something that the 1965 Cubs weren’t able to get, and that was hits against the other team’s starting pitcher. On August 19 of that year, they were no-hit at home by Jim Maloney of the Cincinnati Reds, losing that game 1-0 in 10 innings. Yes, the Cubs endured a ten-inning no-hitter that afternoon. Then, after playing 19 games in which they weren’t no-hit, they ran into an unhittable Koufax on September 9 in Los Angeles. Koufax’ perfect game was the second time in three weeks that the Cubs had made 27 outs without registering a single base hit.

I’m wondering if any other team in baseball history has suffered two no-hitters in the same season. It may have happened, but I would be stunned if it had ever happened to the same team twice within a single month. That brand of futility seems to be something that only the Cubs could accomplish.

I’m glad the Cubs managed at least one hit tonight, to keep their no no-hitters streak going. But I’m also glad to discover and present a story with the world about the 1965 Cubs, who were possibly the most unsatisfied team in big-league history.

A fleeting Cub’s story

It’s Opening Day, 1973 at Wrigley Field. Baseball has returned from a long winter’s nap, but it’s still in a daze. During the offseason, one of its brightest stars, Roberto Clemente, was lost in a plane crash in Puerto Rico. The Pirates came within three outs of the 1972 World Series, but that seems less than important when matters of life and death are involved.

The Cubs are coming off a winning season in 1972, and a distant second-place finish to the Pirates. But hope springs eternal, particularly on the North side of Chicago, and 40,000+ fans have come out to Wrigley Field to see if Whitey Lockman’s team can do something that Leo Durocher’s teams never could: win the division title and make it to the the postseason.

The day’s opponent is the Montreal Expos, who send Mike Torrez to the mound to face off against Ferguson Jenkins. The game starts off with a bang, with the Expos scoring two in the first, and the Cubs answering with a run of their own in the bottom of the inning. It looks as though the season will begin with a fair amount of offense.

But the starters find their respective grooves, and nobody else crosses the plate until the ninth inning. The Cubs are coming up to bat, needing one run to tie and two to send their fans home happy. Torrez again takes the mound, in this pre-closer era of baseball. There’s just three more outs that  he needs to get.

The Cubs’ Joe Pepitone leads off the ninth with a single, which brings Ron Santo to the plate as the winning run. Santo is 2-for-3 and has the Cubs’ only RBI on the day, so there’s reason to like the Cubs’ chances. But when Santo hits the ball to Ron Hunt at second base, it creates a moment of anxiety for the Cubs faithful, until Hunt boots the ball and gives the Cubs a new lease on life.

Cleo Jones had already come in to run for Pepitone, and Lockman sends in a pinch runner for Santo, as well. The Cubs are going for the win to open up their season. Torrez then walks Glenn Beckert, and is lifted from the game in favor of Mike Marshall. Marshall has emerged as one of the best “firemen” in the game by 1973. With the bases loaded and no outs, and the home team batting, things look very bleak for the Expos. But relievers are supposed to put out the fire, right?

Marshall walks Randy Hundley to force in the tying run, to the delight of the home crowd. Now there there’s no margin for error, as the winning run is at third base. Marshall then retires the next two Cubs batters. Now there are two outs, and Marshall only needs to get a ground ball at somebody, or a fly ball that stays  in the ball park, or a strikeout in order to escape the threat. But he walks Rick Monday instead, which allows the Cubs to start off  the new  season with a walk-off win, in a literal sense.

I doubt that anyone in the ballpark that day thought to snap a picture of the Cubs’ winning runner as he was making his way around the bases, entirely on the basis of charity from the Expos’ pitchers. The fans in the park that day had no way of knowing that it would be the only game he would ever appear in a Cubs uniform, or that he would never again appear in any major league game. He was sent down to the minors for the remainder of the season, and continued to bounce around until he retired as a player in 1977.

If you or I were the player who scored the winning run on Opening Day some thirty-nine years ago, we might consider that to be a career-making accomplishment, a story worth telling to anyone who wanted to hear it, and a moment that every little kid dreams about. But if you’re Tony LaRussa, I doubt that one run scored in 1973 registers very high on the career highlight reel. He certainly went on to bigger and better things after that day.

His place in history

Paul Reuschel

A week ago, when the baseball season hadn’t yet started, and the Cubs weren’t off to their “This will be a long year, won’t it?” start of 1-4 after five games, I scanned a card highlighting long-ago Cubs pitcher Rick Reuschel. Today, in the interest of equal time–and to keep me from going off on this year’s team too much–I’m going to spend some time recounting the career of Rick’s brother, Paul Reuschel.

Paul Reuschel, like Bill Plummer, just turned 65 this year. He’s two years older than his brother Rick, but made his big league debut in the 1975 season, fully three years after Rick had made his. There’s always a sibling rivalry going on, especially when one brother is in the majors and the other (older) one isn’t, but they appear to have gotten along reasonably well, if this photo is any indication.

I came across this card when I was digging through a box of baseball cards the other day. The pose that Reuschel is in, as with Bruce Sutter’s card from that year, is something that was common for Topps cards in that era. Sutter was about to have the breakout season that launched a Hall of Fame career, while Paul Reuschel’s pitching career wouldn’t survive into the 1980s. Same team, same pose, different career arcs. Such is life.

But the thing I wanted to say about Paul Reuschel is that his place in Major League history is secure. In the long history of professional baseball, he can say something that no other pitcher can. And it stems from a relief appearance at the end of a game during his rookie season of 1975.

On September 16, 1975, history was made at Wrigley Field in Chicago. And not the type of history a team might want to make, in their own ballpark and in front of fewer than 5,000 fans in the stands, with a few thousand more watching on cable TV. Baseball’s Game of the Week was on back then, but beyond that ballgames generally weren’t shown on TV. It was a different time.

Rick Reuschel was the starter against the Pittsburgh Pirates that day, but he was pounded in the first inning. In fact, by the time three Pirates had been retired, Rick Reuchel was done for the day, having allowed 8 runs (all of them earned) on 6 hits and a walk. Reuschel was followed by a series of Cubs pitchers, who proved to be unable to stop the Pirate juggernaut. By the end of the seventh inning, the score stood at 22-0, which was to be the most lopsided shutout of the entire 20th century. And this was being done to the home team, no less.

The outcome of the game had long been decided, but there were still two innings left to be played. How many of the 4,900 fans who attended the game remained in the ballpark at this point is anyone’s guess, but a number somewhere in the three digits wouldn’t surprise me too much. Who would stay to watch such a beatdown? Not me.

Rookie pitcher Paul Reuschel was sent in to absorb his share of abuse from Pirate hitters in the eighth. He retired the first two hitters in order, when up came Rennie Stennett, the Pirates’ leadoff hitter. Stennett had already racked up six hits on the day, and he proceeded to put the exclamation point on his day by driving the ball into right field.

As Stennett was  pulling into third base, standing up, I turned on a Cubs game for the first time in my life. I had a broken leg at the time, and would have rather been outside running around with the other neighborhood kids, but my cast and crutches made that all but impossible. A graphic was put up on the screen –a rare thing in those days–informing the viewer that Rennie Stennett had gone 7-for-7 in a nine inning game, and was the first player in big league history to accomplish this feat. The seven-year old that I was found this factoid most intriguing.

Reuschel retired the next hitter, to end the inning. He also finished the ninth without giving up a run, and became the only Cubs pitcher that day who wasn’t scored upon. You could say he had a decent outing that day, certainly a much better one than his little brother had to start the game. But Reuschel also carved his name into the history books by becoming the first, and so far the only, pitcher to give up a seventh hit to a batter in one game.

Just as Rennie Stennett made history by getting that hit, so too did Paul Reuschel make history by surrendering it. This was an otherwise meaningless game at the end of the regular season, and it’s an admittedly obscure baseball record, so nobody’s going to remember the name Rennie Stennett, much less Paul Reuschel. But, at the same time, this at-bat and its historic result was enough to reel me in as a Cubs fan, and set me on a path that has stretched out for 37 years since then.

If Paul Reuschel had retired Sennett, and made that TV graphic unnecessary, perhaps I’m not so intrigued by a baseball game on TV that afternoon. Maybe then I stay true to my Cardinals upbringing, complete with the World Series titles and an overall level of success that I can’t relate to as a Cubs fan.  Who knows for certain? But I can say that Paul Reuschel and Rennie Stennett essentially set my baseball course in motion, all those many years ago.

A baseball tradition that you’ve never heard about

Today’s story is a bit ribald. Some people would probably rather not have it told, but that rarely stops me from doing anything. So read on if you’re intrigued, and go find something else to do if you’re easily offended.

On Belmont Avenue in Chicago, just west of Lake Shore Drive, there’s a statue of Civil War general Philip Sheridan. It was scuplted by Gutzon Borglum, nearly 20 years before he began working on Mount Rushmore. It’s located near the beginning of Sheridan Road, which runs along the shores of Lake Michigan northward to Wisconsin. If you live on Chicago’s North Side or on the North Shore, you know about Sheridan Road.

Sheridan essentially cornered Lee’s army in 1865, which forced the surrender to Grant at Appomattox. He was praised by General Grant, and had a long and distinguished career in the military after the war ended. So it’s only fitting that he should be honored by statues and roads being named for him.

So where does the ribaldry come in? Just stay with me for a few more paragraphs.

General Sheridan and his horse are located roughly a mile away from Wrigley Field. If you were coming to Wrigley from downtown, and taking Lake Shore Drive northbound, you would get off at Belmont, which would take you right past the General’s likeness. So somebody riding on a team bus must have had an inspiration one day, and thus was born one of the stranger baseball traditions you’ll ever hear about.

In researching this piece, I went to the statue this afternoon and discovered that the horse is, should we say, anatomically correct. Which makes sense, given the next part of this post. Teams that visit Chicago sometimes leave their mark on the North side by painting their team’s colors onto General Sheridan’s horse. And not the entire horse, just the parts that a gelding has removed. They probably have a ball doing it, too. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist)

I’ve heard that it’s a rookie hazing thing, and that makes sense. The veterans may not want to get involved with defacing public property, and the eager-to-please rookies are probably put up to doing it instead. After all, nothing says “I’m in the majors now” like climbing up to a horse statue’s manly parts.

The one time that I’ve most noticed this–and if it’s done right, it can be seen from Lake Shore Drive–was with the bright yellow color of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The color I saw today (and yes, I did look) was a darker shade of red. For some reason I thought of the Phillies, instead of the Cardinals or the Reds or even the Diamondbacks. But any of them could have been the culprits. I doubt that an American League team would get in on this, since they only play one series in Wrigley every few years. This is more of a National League thing, I would think.

I’m not sure how often this sort of thing transpires, and I no longer live close enough to the statue to keep tabs on it, but I have to imagine that the General’s horse is due for a fresh coat or two once the season begins.

A dramatic win for the Cubs

September 28 marks the end of another lost season for the Cubs. They never did make any noise on the field, except to scare away the seagulls that were flocking to the outfield early in the season. The post-mortem reports of what went wrong, and what’s needed in the offseason to rebuild the team, will have to be written by someone else. I’d rather tell the tale of the most dramatic moment in the  history of the Cubs’ franchise, which happened seventy-three years ago.

Hang on a second there, old timer. Isn’t that a bit far back in the past?

I admit that it is, but if you’ve ever heard of Babe Ruth’s “called shot” (which was almost 79 years ago) or Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak (which started 86 years ago) or the introduction of night baseball to the major leagues (a mere 76 years ago), you can tolerate this story. If you’re a Cubs fan, you don’t have anything similar to compare it to, either.

I wrote an earlier piece about Cubs great and baseball Hall of Famer “Gabby” Hartnett here. But I also promised to come back and look at his greatest moment another time, and now I’m making good on that pledge. This event deserves its own piece, anyway.

In 1938, when the house I’m living in was still considered new, the Cubs found themselves making a managerial change in late July. Hartnett became the player-manager of the team, and he guided the Cubs to a 19-5 record in September, cutting the lead of the front-running Pittsburgh Pirates all the way down to a half game. Wouldn’t it be nice to see something like that today, Cubs fans?

There were two games left at Wrigley between the teams, and a final series in St. Louis would end the regular season. Since there were no divisions, and thus no playoffs, the Cubs had to overtake the Pirates, or spend the off season wondering about what might have been. Game 2 of the series was critical, since it could either thrust the Cubs into the National League lead, or leave them in the position of needing to win the rest of their games on the road.

As everyone knows, Wrigley Field did not have lights in those days (they would come almost fifty years later), and the days are much shorter in late September. After eight innings, the umpires announced there would be one more inning played. If the game remained tied (and the score was 5-5 at the time), the game would be made up in its entirety the next day. Victory was within either team’s grasp, but the Cubs had the advantage of hitting last.

The Cubs brought Charley Root on to pitch the ninth inning. Root is best remembered for serving up Babe Ruth’s “called shot” in 1932, but he is also the Cubs franchise record holder with 201 wins. Root allowed no his and walked one Pirate batter, but Hartnett threw him out trying to steal second base. Then it was the Cubs’ turn to try and win the game.

The Pirates brought on All-Star pitcher Mace Brown to hold off the Cubs. He retired the first two hitters he faced, and up to the plate came Gabby Hartnett. Cubs first baseman Ripper Collins (a name I’ve never heard before) was on deck, and he was 3-for-4 on the day, so pitching to Hartnett probably seemed like a good idea.

The count on Hartnett went to 0-2. The Pirates were one strike away from maintaining their lead and holding off the Cubs for another day. But Hartnett got a hold of Brown’s next pitch, and hit it into the bleachers in left-center field. And then pandemonium broke out. As Harnett crosses the plate in the picture above, some delirious fans are to his right. There must have been many others on the field, as well. It gives me no great joy to point out that this is the closest thing to a victory celebration Wrigley Field has ever seen.

The walk-off homer, which is now known as the “Homer in the gloamin,” put the Cubs ahead of the Pirates in the standings, and seemed to give the Cubs a psychological edge for the next day’s game, too. The Cubs won that game 10-1, and the Pirates then faded in their last road series of the year. The Cubs had won their fifteenth pennant in franchise history, but were swept by the Yankees in the World Series thereafter.

Hartnett’s homer was not recorded, which may explain why it is not remembered more in history. Most Cubs fans have at least heard the term “Homer in the gloamin,” but few could tell you what that means. Except for those who read this piece, of course.

Same old, same old for the Pirates

Is it fair to say that Jerry Meals cost the Pirates a chance at a winning season? Probably not. But can a case be made that his blown call didn’t help? Absolutely. And if instant replay ever does find its way into the game on a widespread basis, it should be called the Jerry Meals rule to commemorate his role in bringing it about.

Chances are, you already know the details surrounding this one fateful play, but let’s go into them for just a moment. For starters, Pittsburgh hasn’t has a winning baseball team since Sid Bream scored from second base to end the 1992 season. That’s 19 consecutive years of sub-.500 baseball. No professional sports team on this continent has been losing for so long. I’m used to losing as a Cubs fan, but this one is beyond anything that  I can imagine.

But things were different this year. The team was rolling along, and found itself battling with both the Cardinals and the Brewers for the division lead into July. After the All-Star break, even. Things were looking good for the Bucs, and they had reason to like their chances in the second half of the season. A winning record probably seemed like an afterthought to the Pirates and their long-suffering fans.

On July 25, the Pirates beat the Braves to open a four-game series in Atlanta. They stood at 53-47, tied with St. Louis for the divisional lead. In the second game of the series, they jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead, before the Braves plated 3 to tie the game in the third inning. And then both offenses went cold. After fifteen more innings of scoreless baseball, the game was still tied.

But baseball is the only team sport that does not use a clock, and there are no shootouts, or penalty kicks, or anything that might send all the players and fans home  with a quick final result. Somebody was going to have to push one across in order to end this game.

The Pirates went 1-2-3 in the top of the 19th, but a walk and a single by the Braves put runners on second and third with two outs. Conventional wisdom dictates that the next batter should be intentionally walked to load the bases and set up a force at any base. But there were two factors at play with that decision, the first being that pitcher Scott Proctor was due up next. Intentionally walking a pitcher is almost unheard of, and the Braves had no relievers left to bring in. Proctor was definitely going to take that at-bat.

But there was a second factor for Pirates manager Clint Hurdle to consider. If he walked Proctor, the next hitter would be Martin Prado, who sported a respectable .268 average but was 0-for-9 in the game so far. If the baseball cliche “due for a hit” has any meaning at all, it applied to Martin Prado at that moment. So Hurdle went ahead and pitched to Proctor.

Everyone knew right away that Meals missed the call at the plate. But had the bases been loaded on the play, the catcher would not have needed to apply the tag at all, since the runner would have been forced out at home instead. The need to apply the tag, and Meals’ inability to see the tag as it was applied, is what caused that sorry scene to unfold in the first place.

But back to the Pirates for a moment. Including that loss, they have gone 14-35 since Meals blew the call. Their winning percentage of .285 over that period would translate to 46-116, if it were spread across an entire season. That’s not possible, of course, but it is a pretty strong indicator of the terminal tailspin that the Pirates have been in since that early morning in Atlanta.

If Meals got that call right, there’s no guarantee that the Pirates would have won the game. But the way that they lost was so jarring, so bewildering, so completely nonsensical that it must have had an impact on their collective spirit. There’s no other way to explain how the bottom has fallen out for them since that moment.

So next year, the Pirates will go back to work and see if they can avoid extending their record to 20 straight seasons. Hurdle will be back as manager next year, and if the gains they have made this year are any indication of their future, the Pirates’ long nightmare will be over one day soon. But it’s a shame that it didn’t happen this season.