La Russa’s Miracle
I was sad to hear that Tony LaRussa is retiring. As an old White Sox fan, I remember with fondness that this summer’s miraculous comeback by LaRussa’s Cardinals from 10 ½ games back in August was not the first time he pulled that rabbit out of his hat.
In 1983, Tony LaRussa was still a young manager in his first managerial post with the struggling White Sox. They had acquired veterans Greg Luzinski and Carlton Fisk the year before to join Harold Baines, and had elevated two rookie power hitters from the Pacific Coast League that Spring, Ron Kittle and Greg Walker, but they just weren’t playing very well. The Sox were 28-32, and 5 ½ games out of first place in the AL West, on June 15th. Then, that day they completed a straight-up exchange of Secondbasemen with the Seattle Mariners—Tony Bernazard of the Sox was traded for Julio Cruz of the Mariners.
From that day forward through the first game of the American League Championship Series between the White Sox and the Orioles, the White Sox ran the table on the American League. They went 72-31—a .700 winning percentage—that is a pace that would have led to 112 wins over a full season, and scored just under 5 runs per game and almost a full-run per game more than their opponents. Those “Winning Ugly” White Sox finished with the most wins of any Sox team since 1917 (since matched only by the 2005 World Championship team), its leading pitcher, Lamar Hoyt, would win the Cy Young Award, and Ron Kittle would be named Rookie of the Year. Unfortunately, that first miracle team didn’t pull-off what the Cardinals just accomplished, as they stopped hitting and lost 3 out of 4 games in the best-of-five series, which allowed the Orioles to advance and win the World Series.
I am glad for LaRussa that he got a second-chance to live through such an incredible season, and that this time it had a happy ending.
Berkman gets a Championship
Really, that heading sums it up. One of the nicest men and fiercest competitors in the game, who gave our hometown so many wonderful performances over so many years, finally got his Championship. And not only did he get it, he got it in style—he hit over .400 for the Series and played a key role in the miracle Game 6. Lance, congratulations! I think I’m not the only Houstonian who was rooting for you as the playoffs proceeded. Puma, we’re proud of you. To us, you’ll always be a Killer B and an Astro.
Stan the Man and the Splendid Splinter
I was conflicted about which team to root for during the World Series until just a few moments before Game 6 began. Then a golf cart came onto the field at Busch Stadium carrying Stan Musial. When I commented about the fact that “Stan the Man” was there, my youngest daughter said “who’s that.” As I answered her, I knew that my heart was with the Cardinals in this Series—for a lot of reasons.
To understand my conflict and my sentiment last week, let me reminisce for a moment.
One of my earliest memories of Baseball on TV was seeing an interview at the end of a ballgame at the end of the 1963 season after I had just turned 5 years old. The ballplayer being interviewed was talking about how the game that had just ended was his last and how he would miss the game, but that it was time to retire. The ballplayer looked vaguely familiar. When I asked my dad who that was, he told me it was Stan Musial—the National League’s equivalent of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio from 1941 to 1963. Every kid had heard the name of Stan Musial—even a five-year-old. Over the next few years, although Musial had retired, Stan the Man was a big influence on me and a lot of boys my age who were learning how to play ball.
One day my mother brought home a new LP record (the kind that gas stations and grocery stores used to give away as promotions, like Firestone’s old Christmas albums) of Stan the Man teaching the art of hitting. The record came with a printed booklet, and my brother and I spent many hours listening to that album and trying to follow the instructions in that book—which wasn’t all that easy when you consider that the record player was inside a console cabinet in our living room and my mother wouldn’t allow us to play ball in the house. So, we spent a lot of time playing ball, then listening and reading, then playing more ball. Musial was our teacher.
But I was never a Cardinal fan. Growing up around Chicago, you were either a Sox or Cubs fan. Then, we moved to the middle of Illinois (called “Central Illinois”), and found ourselves in a foreign baseball land—Cardinal territory. And we just happened to land in Cardinal territory in the fall of 1967 during in the middle of the run in which the Cards made the World Series 3 out of 5 years and won two Championships. These were the Cardinals of Gibson, Carlton, McCarver, Cepeda, Brock, Flood and Maris, of Red Schoendienst, and of Harry Caray and Jack Buck. Forget the ongoing American League race that fall in which the White Sox were tied with 3 other teams for first place going into the last week of the season—the only concern in this land was who the Cards would have to beat and how many games it would take to beat them.
It was still during these summers of the late ‘60s that Sports Illustrated published Ted Williams’ The Science of Hitting in serial format. For weeks during the summer of 1968, my brother and I, and every kid we played baseball with, waited breathlessly for the mail each week that would deliver the next installment of the book. We carried those magazines around and read them and memorized them. Ted Williams—the Splendid Splinter—made it seem so simple; he was a genius! He drew a rectangle depicting the Strike Zone and then showed the location of where pitches would come into the Strike Zone. Inside each ball was written the batting average a hitter would achieve if he only swung at balls in that spot. Now we knew the secret to being a .400 hitter—only swing at pitches in a certain spot! Unfortunately, I was in Little League at the time, and there just weren’t a lot of pitchers who put the ball in that spot—and there weren’t a lot more of them as I got older, either.
But, by the late ‘60s Stan the Man and the Splendid Splinter had become my mentors, and I absorbed everything they wrote or that was written about them. Then, Williams was named manager of the Washington Senators—the genius would now lead this wayward team to greatness! So, along with following the White Sox, I read the box scores every morning of two other teams—the Oakland A’s, because they had Reggie Jackson and the coolest uniforms in Baseball, and the Washington Senators, because they had Williams. When the Senators moved to Texas and became the Rangers, I continued to follow them. That is, until they fired the genius.
Once Williams left the Rangers, I rarely thought about them again—even when they’d be playing the White Sox. They just weren’t a team anybody thought about much during the 1970s. But in 1980 I moved to Dallas to attend law school and in the Spring of 1981, the old Arlington Stadium became a kind of oasis from studying, and several of my classmates and I would go to the park to enjoy a game as a study break. For three Springs, we would go to the old park—the evenings were cool enough tolerate watching Baseball outdoors and you could find a seat legitimately very close to the field. In fact, it was in that stadium, rather than at Comiskey Park, that I was able to see those 1983 White Sox play that Spring and Summer. To watch Baseball in that old park was like watching Major League Baseball on a high-school field. It was fun, and I developed a fondness for the Rangers during those years.
Now back to last week …
So, when it came time to root for a team during this year’s Series, it was really hard. Would I root for that hapless team from Arlington, that I had forgiven for letting Williams go and become fond of many years ago, and that was now a very good team; or would I root for that colossus from my youth, the team of Musial and now Berkman, and the team of LaRussa and another amazing comeback. Until Musial showed-up I had just enjoyed the games and not taken sides (except to root for Berkman when he batted); but, when Stan the Man showed-up, I couldn’t hold back any longer. I had to root for those Cards and for the hope that Musial could see his boys take this miracle season all the way to its end. He deserved that gift for all that he had given to us little boys all those years ago.
What a great ending. I can’t wait until April, and for it all to start again.