Results tagged ‘ Cleon Jones ’

The Nine Smartest Plays In World Series History

Inspired by Johnny Damon’s double-stolen base in Game Four on Sunday, I thought it was time to salute a part of the game rarely acknowledged and even more rarely listed among its greatest appeals to the fan. What they once quaintly called “good brain-work”: the nine Smartest Plays in World Series History.

We’ll be doing this on television tonight, illustrated in large part with the kind help of the folks behind one of the most remarkable contributions ever made to baseball history, The Major League Baseball World Series Film Collection, which comes out officially next week, and which, as the name suggests, is a DVD set of all of the official “films” of the Series since  ex-player Lew Fonseca started them as a service to those in the military in 1943. The amount of baseball history and the quality of the presentation (the “box” is by itself, actually a gorgeous Series history book) are equally staggering.

We start, in ascending order, with a famous name indeed, and Jackie Robinson’s steal of home in the eighth inning of the first game of the 1955 World Series. It is perhaps the iconic image of the pioneer player of our society’s history, but it was also a statement in a time when the concept was new. Ironically, the Dodgers were losing 6 to 4 when Robinson got on, on an error, moved to second on a Don Zimmer bunt, aggressively tagged up on a sacrifice fly.

Robinson was at third, but up for the Dodgers was the weak-hitting Frank Kellert. And, after all but taunting pitcher Whitey Ford and catcher Yogi Berra of the Yankees, Jackie seized the day, and broke for the plate. No catcher has more emphatically argued a call, and no moment has better summed up a player, his influence, or the changes he would bring to the game.

Ironically, that was the last run the Dodgers would score and they would lose the game. But the steal set a tone for a different Brooklyn team than the one which had tried but failed to outslug the Yankees in their previous five World Series meetings. The Dodgers would win this one, in seven games.

The eighth play on the list is another moment of base-running exuberance. In a regular season game in 1946, Enos “Country” Slaughter, on first base, had been given the run-and-hit sign by his St. Louis Cardinals’ manager Eddie Dyer. Slaughter took off, the batter swung and laced one into the outfield. As Slaughter approached third base with home in his sights, he was held up by his third base coach Mike Gonzalez. Slaughter complained to his skipper. He knew better than Gonzalez, he told Dyer, whether or not he could beat a throw home. Dyer said fine. “If it happens again and you think you can make it, run on your own. I’ll back you up.”

It indeed happened again – and in the bottom of the eighth inning of the seventh game of the 1946 Series! The visiting Red Sox had just tied the score at three, but Slaughter led off the inning with a single. Manager Dyer again flashed the run-and-hit sign, and Harry “The Hat” Walker lined Bob Klinger’s pitch over shortstop for what looked to everybody like a long single.

Everybody but Slaughter. He never slowed down. He may never have even seen third base coach Gonzalez again giving him the stop sign. When Boston shortstop Johnny Pesky turned clockwise to take the relay throw from centerfielder Leon Culberson, and, thus oddly twisted, could get little on his throw to the plate – Slaughter scored, the Cardinals led, and, an inning later, were World Champions.

The Red Sox should’ve seen it coming. Long before Pete Rose, Slaughter ran everywhere on the field, to the dugout and from it, on walks, everywhere. He said he had learned to do it in the minor leagues, when as a 20-year old he walked back from the outfield only to hear his manager say “Hey, kid, if you’re tired, I’ll get you some help.”

That manager was Eddie Dyer – the same guy who a decade later would encourage Slaughter to run any and all red lights.

The particulars of the seventh smartest play in Series history are lost in the shrouds of time: the 1907 Fall Classic between the Tigers and Cubs. This was the Detroit team of the young and ferocious Ty Cobb, but its captain was a veteran light-hitting third baseman named Bill Coughlin. In the first inning of the second game, Cubs’ lead-off man Jimmy Slagle walked, then broke for second base. Catcher Fred Payne’s throw was wild and Slagle made it to third. Coughlin knew the Tigers were in trouble.

There are two ways to do what Coughlin did next; we don’t know which he used. Later third basemen like Matt Williams were known to ask runners to step off the base so he could clean the dirt off it. Others, through nonchalance or downright misdirection, would convince the runner that they no longer had the ball. Which one Coughlin did, we don’t know. The Spalding Base Ball Guide for 1908 simply described it as “Coughlin working that ancient and decrepit trick of the ‘hidden ball,’ got ‘Rabbit’ Slagle as he stepped off the third sack. What the sleep of Slagle cost was shown the next minute when Chance singled over second.”

Coughlin snagged Slagle with what is believed to be the only successful hidden ball trick in the history of the Series.

 
Sixth among the smartest plays is another we will not likely see again. The New York Mets led the Baltimore Orioles three games to one as they played the fifth game of the 1969 World Series. But the favored Birds led that game 3-zip going into the bottom of the sixth. Then, Dave McNally bounced a breaking pitch at the feet of Cleon Jones of the Mets. Jones claimed he’d been hit by the pitch, but umpire Lou DiMuro disagreed – until Mets’ skipper Gil Hodges came out of the dugout to show DiMuro the baseball, and the smudge of shoe polish from where it had supposedly hit Jones. DiMuro changed his mind, Jones was awarded first, Donn Clendenon followed with a two-run homer, Al Weis hit one in the seventh to tie, and the Mets scored two more in the eighth to win the game and the Series.

But there were questions, most of them voiced in Baltimore, about the provenance of that baseball. Was it really the one that McNally had thrown? A nearly identical play in 1957 with Milwaukee’s Nippy Jones had helped to decide that Series. And years later an unnamed Met said that ever since, it had always been considered good planning to have a baseball in the dugout with shoe polish on it, just in case.

Today, of course, players’ shoes don’t get shined.

Hall of Fame pitcher, Hall of Fame batter, Hall of Fame manager, all involved in the fifth smartest play. But only two of them were smart in it. Reds 1, A’s nothing, one out, top of the eighth, runners on second and third, third game of the ’72 Series, and Oakland reliever Rollie Fingers struggles to a 3-2 count on Cincinnati’s legendary Johnny Bench. With great theatrics and evident anxiety, the A’s battery and manager Dick Williams agree to go ahead and throw the next pitch deliberately wide — an intentional walk.

Which is when Oakland catcher Gene Tenace jumps back behind the plate to catch the third strike that slides right past a forever-embarrassed Bench. As if to rub it in, the A’s then walked Tony Perez intentionally. For real.

Another all-time great was central to the fourth smartest play in Series history. With Mickey Mantle, you tend to think brawn, not brain, but in the seventh game of the epic 1960 Series, he was, for a moment, the smartest man in America. Mantle had just singled home a run that cut Pittsburgh’s lead over the Yankees to 9-to-8.  

With one out and Gil McDougald as the tying run at third, Yogi Berra hit a ground rocket to Pirate first baseman Rocky Nelson. Nelson, having barely moved from where he was holding Mantle on, stepped on the bag to retire Berra for the second out. Mantle, on his way into no man’s land between first and second, about to be tagged hi
mself for the final out of the Series, stopped, faded slightly towards the outfield, faked his way around Nelson, got back safely to first, and took enough time to do it, that in the process, McDougald could score the tying run.

Mantle’s quick thinking and base-running alacrity would have been one of the game’s all-time greatest plays – if only, minutes later, the 9-to-9 tie he had created, had not been erased by Bill Mazeroski’s unforgettable Series-Winning Home Run to lead off the bottom of the ninth.

 

Like the Mantle example, the gut and not the cerebellum is associated with the third smartest play in Series history. It’s Kirk Gibson’s epic home run to win the opening game of the 1988 classic. The story is well-known to this day; Gibson, aching, knees swollen, limping, somehow creeps to the batter’s box and then takes a 3-2 pitch from another hall of fame Oakland reliever, Dennis Eckersley, and turns it into the most improbable of game-winning home runs.

But the backstory involves a Dodger special assignment scout named Mel Didier. When the count reached 3-and-2, Gibson says he stepped out of the batter’s box and could hear the scouting report on Eckersley that Didier had recited to the Dodgers, in his distinctive Mississippi accent, before the Series began. On a 3-2 count, against a left-handed power hitter, you could be absolutely certain that Eckersley would throw a backdoor slider. He always did it. And as Gibson once joked, “I was a left-handed power hitter.”

So Gibson’s home run wasn’t just mind over matter. It was also mind. And it was also Mel Didier.

The second smartest play in Series history came in perhaps the greatest seventh game in modern Series history. The Braves and Twins were locked in their remorseless battle of 1991, scoreless into the eighth inning. Veteran Lonnie Smith led off the top of the frame with a single. Just like Enos Slaughter in 1946, he then got the signal to run with the pitch, and just like Harry Walker in 1946, his teammate Terry Pendleton connected.

But something was amiss at second base. Minnesota Shortstop Greg Gagne and second baseman Chuck Knoblauch were either completing a double-play, or they had decided they were the Harlem Globetrotters playing pantomime ball. Smith, at least momentarily startled by the infielders pretending to make a play on him at second, hesitated just long enough that he could not score from first as Enos Slaughter once had. He would later claim the Twins’ infielders hadn’t fooled him at all with their phantom double play – that he was just waiting to make sure the ball wasn’t caught.

But he never scored a run, nor did the Braves. The game, and the Series, ended 1-0 Minnesota, in the 10th inning on a pinch-hit single by Gene Larkin from — appropriately enough for the subject — Columbia University.
 
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All-stars and cup of coffee guys; fielders and hitters and baserunners and pitchers and even a scout, and stretching over a span of 102 years of Series history. And yet the smartest play is: from this past Sunday. Johnny Damon not only worked his way back from down 0-2 to a line single on the ninth pitch of the at bat against Brad Lidge, but he quickly gauged the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with which the Phillies had seemingly presented him. Few teams employ a defensive shift towards the left side or the right when there’s a runner on base. This is largely because if there is a play to be made at second or third, the fielders who would normally handle the ball are elsewhere. With Mark Teixeira up, the Phillies had shifted their infield, right.

So Damon realized.

If he tried to steal, the throw and tag would probably be the responsibility of third baseman Pedro Feliz. Feliz is superb at third base, fine at first, has experience in both outfield corners, and even caught a game for part of an inning. But his major league games up the middle total to less than 30 and this just isn’t his job. Even if Feliz didn’t botch the throw or the tag, his meager experience in the middle infield slightly increased the odds in Damon’s favor. The question really was, what would happen immediately afterwards, if Damon stole successfully: Where would Feliz go, and who would cover third base?

Damon chose a pop-up slide so he could keep running. Feliz took the throw cleanly, but did not stop his own momentum and continued to run slightly towards the center of the diamond. And nobody covered third base. All Damon needed was daylight between himself and Feliz, and Feliz would have no chance of outrunning him to third, and nobody to throw to at third.     

And all of that went through Johnny Damon’s mind, in a matter of seconds. Before anybody else could truly gauge what had happened, he had stolen two bases on one play without as much as a bad throw, let alone an error, involved. It is a play few if any have seen before, and it is unimaginable that any manager will let us ever see it again!

Thereafter, in a matter of minutes, the Yankees had turned a tie game, with them down to their last strike of the ninth inning, into a three-run rally that put them within one win of the World’s Championship. And all thanks to the Smartest Play in World Series History.

The Washington Natinals

So that “Natinals” thing across Adam Dunn’s Washington uniform this past week?

That wasn’t a misspelling. That was an alias.
Membership on the Washington National League team right now would make any player try to pretend otherwise. Firsthand exposure to the Nats shows that ex-General Manager Jim Bowden has left another franchise in tatters, at least in the short-term. The outfield is a defensive mess, the infield wobbly, and the ace of the pitching staff makes his second major league start tomorrow.
Elijah Dukes nearly got himself killed on David Wright’s first-inning fly ball at CitiField this afternoon. Sunglasses still perched atop his cap, Dukes missed catching the ball by about three inches, and missed getting conked in the noggin by the same measurement. The presumed good news is that if Lastings Milledge was still playing center for Washington, the ball would’ve landed 40 feet behind him.
Dukes’ glasses were down in time for him to see, but not catch, Daniel Murphy’s fading fly in the sixth. Dukes slid, and the ball hit him in the glove. Murphy was credited with a single, presumably because, given how he plays the outfield, Dukes’ glove is considered part of the field of play, and not an actual piece of equipment.
Even Nick Johnson threw away a Mike Pelfrey sacrifice bunt in the third, and just for good measure back-up catcher Wil Nieves tried to gun down David Wright by throwing the ball to Dukes in the sixth. Starter Daniel Cabrera gave up five runs – only one earned, though the six hits and four walks were his problem.
This is not to say the Nationals are hopeless. No one who has seen him doubts Jordan Zimmermann is the real thing, and even with only Dunn to protect him, Ryan Zimmerman went 2-for-5 and was robbed of a third hit only by a Daniel Murphy slide that actually worked. Jesus Flores is one of the game’s most unsung two-way receivers, and Joel Hanrahan may have straightened himself out.
One of the intriguing questions facing new GM Mike Rizzo and the able and somehow-still-sane manager Manny Acta is whether or not to offload some of their supply of generic, identical outfielders (the A) Austin Kearns, Josh Willingham kind, and the b) Dukes, Lastings Milledge kind) and give Justin Maxwell a serious look in center. The recuperating former top prospect smoked a Brian Stokes fastball in the ninth off the top of the wall in right-center (in any other park it would have been an easy and a frightening homer). On the off-chance that Dukes might be convinced to pay attention and handle leftfield, and accepting Dunn as a necessity in the line-up, why not try Maxwell in center, and see if anybody wants any of the others.
The current Nats are going nowhere, and as the stories of Flores, Zimmerman, Zimmermann, and Hanrahan suggest, Acta and his coaching staff seem to be able to draw quick results out of younger, more focused players.
THERE’S BEEN A WILBUR HUCKLE SIGHTING

Well, not really, but his name came up on the field before the Mets and Nats played, and it permits me to address the dumbest of my Dumb Obsessions, and solicit your help.
Huckle was one of the two earliest products of the Met farm system to be summoned to the majors, from the low minors, in September, 1963. The other, Cleon Jones, was absolutely overmatched (.133 in six games). But Huckle fared far worse. A shortstop, he didn’t get into a single game, and never got another chance. His remaining claim to fame would be as Tom Seaver’s first professional roomate (Seaver said he never saw him awake, not once in any hotel room they shared – Huckle was an early riser who was dedicated to long walks at dawn).
I had heard of Huckle, but never of his fruitless cameo, until today. Photographer Steve Moore insists he was at several Mets’ games (and has the scorecards to prove it) with Huckle listed on the roster. Huckle would thus becomes the 51st member of the Bill Sharman Society, my list of players who can be proved to have been on major league rosters, but who never played in a major league game. The Elias Sports Bureau calls them “Zombies” but that doesn’t quite capture their sad fates. Sharman, of course, is the basketball Hall of Famer who originally doubled as a top outfield prospect for the Brooklyn Dodgers. After a stellar season in the minors, he was summoned to Ebbets Field in September, 1951, and spent the rest of the year on the Dodger roster. He never got a moment’s action – although one of the games he didn’t play in was that featuring Bobby Thomson’s famous homer.
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Wilbur Huckle, in spring training with the Mets in 1964 (no, there wasn’t an ion storm – age has withered the negative and thus my only copy of the print).
In any event, if you have any nominations for the Sharman Society, put them in the comments and I’ll be happy and grateful to research them.
NO REASON FOR YOU TO CARE DEPARTMENT:

But there are flaws in every new ballpark and I suspect the Mets will address this one, eventually. This is the view from what would otherwise be about fifteen of the best seats in the press box.
Again, not a complaint, just a laugh. And a possible explanation if a reporter tells his office he really didn’t see the pitch. Or the batter. Or the umpire.
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