Was that the greatest World Series game ever played?
For games in which a team, having put itself on the precipice of elimination because of managerial and/or strategic incompetence, then stumbles all over itself in all the fundamentals for eight innings, and still manages to prevail? Yes – Game Six, Rangers-Cardinals, was the greatest World Series Game of all-time. I’ve never seen a team overcome itself like that.
But the Cardinals’ disastrous defense (and other failures) probably disqualifies it from the top five all-time Series Games, simply because it eliminates the excellence requisite to knock somebody else off the list. Mike Napoli’s pickoff of Matt Holliday was epic, and the homers of Josh Hamilton and David Freese were titanic and memorable. But history will probably judge the rest of the game’s turning points (Freese’s error, Holliday’s error, Holliday’s end of the pickoff, Darren Oliver pitching in that situation, the Rangers’ stranded runners, Nelson Cruz’s handling of the game-tying triple, the failures of both teams’ closers) pretty harshly.
For contrast, in chronological order here are five Series Games that I think exceed last night’s thriller in terms of overall grading.
1912 Game Eight: That’s right, Game Eight (there had been, in those pre-lights days at Fenway Park, a tie). The pitching matchup was merely Christy Mathewson (373 career wins) versus Hugh Bedient (rookie 20-game winner) followed in relief by Smoky Joe Wood (who won merely 37 games that year, three in the Series). Mathewson shut out the Red Sox into the seventh, and the game was still tied 1-1 in the tenth when Fred Merkle singled home Red Murray and then went to second an error. But the Giants stranded the insurance run, and in the Bottom of the 10th, as darkness descended on Fenway (the first year it was open) there unfolded the damnedest Series inning anybody would see until 1986. Pinch-hitter Clyde Engle lofted the easiest flyball imaginable to centerfielder Fred Snodgrass – who dropped it. Hall of Famer Harry Hooper immediately lofted the hardest flyball imaginable to Snodgrass, who made an almost unbelievable running catch to keep the tying run from scoring and the winning run from getting at least to second or third. Mathewson, who had in the previous 339 innings walked just 38 men, then walked the obscure Steve Yerkes. But Matty bore down to get the immortal Tris Speaker to pop up in foul territory between the plate and first, and he seemed to have gotten out of the jam. Like the fly Holliday muffed last night, the thing was in the air forever, and was clearly the play of the inward rushing first baseman Merkle. Inexplicably, Mathewson called Merkle off, shouting “Chief, Chief!” at his lumbering catcher Chief Myers. The ball dropped untouched. Witnesses said Speaker told Mathewson “that’s going to cost you the Series, Matty” and then promptly singled to bring home the tying run and put the winner at third, whence Larry Gardner ransomed it with a sacrifice fly.
1960 Game Seven: The magnificence of this game is better appreciated now that we’ve found the game film. And yes, the madness of Casey Stengel is evident: he had eventual losing pitcher Ralph Terry warming up almost continuously throughout the contest. But consider this: the Hal Smith three-run homer for Pittsburgh would’ve been one of baseball’s immortal moments, until it was trumped in the top of the 9th by the Yankee rally featuring Mickey Mantle’s seeming series-saving dive back into first base ahead of Rocky Nelson’s tag, until it was trumped in the bottom of the 9th by Mazeroski’s homer. There were 19 runs scored, 24 hits made, the lead was lost, the game re-tied, and the Series decided in a matter of the last three consecutive half-innings, and there was neither an error nor a strikeout in the entire contest.
1975 Game Six: Fisk’s homer has taken on a life of its own thanks to the famous Fenway Scoreboard Rat who caused the cameraman in there to keep his instrument trained on Fisk as he hopped down the line with his incomparable attempt to influence the flight of the ball. But consider: each team had overcome a three-run deficit just to get the game into extras, there was an impossible pinch-hit three-run homer by ex-Red Bernie Carbo against his old team, the extraordinary George Foster play to cut down Denny Doyle at the plate with the winning run in the bottom of the 9th, and Sparky Anderson managed to use eight of his nine pitchers and still nearly win the damn thing – and have enough left to still win the Series.
1986 Game Six: This is well-chronicled, so, briefly: this exceeds last night’s game because while the Cardinals twice survived two-out, last-strike scenarios in separate innings to tie the Rangers in the 9th and 10th, the Met season-saving rally began with two outs and two strikes on Gary Carter in the bottom of the 10th. The Cards had the runs already aboard in each of their rallies. The Red Sox were one wide strike zone away from none of that ever happening.
1991 Game Seven: I’ll have to admit I didn’t think this belonged on the list, but as pitching has changed to the time when finishing 11 starts in a season provides the nickname “Complete Game James” Shields, what Jack Morris did that night in the 1-0 thriller makes this a Top 5 game.
There are many other nominees — the Kirk Gibson home run game in ’88, the A’s epic rally on the Cubs in ’29, Grover Cleveland Alexander’s hungover relief job in 1926, plus all the individual achievement games like Larsen’s perfecto and the Mickey Owen dropped third strike contest — and upon reflection I might be able to make a case to knock last night’s off the Top 10. But I’m comfortable saying it will probably remain. We tend to overrate what’s just happened (a kind of temporal myopia) but then again perspective often enhances an event’s stature rather than diminishing it. Let’s just appreciate the game for what it was: heart-stopping back-and-forth World Series baseball.
I first told this story last fall as Jose Bautista crossed the 50-home run plateau and was victimized by assumptions about PED’s or corked bats or, I don’t know, deals with the devils. With the Jays’ slugger now having crossed the 20-home run plateau before the first of June I think I should tell it again.
I used to run into Jeff “Mickey” Manto all the time when he was the journeyman infielder (he played in 11 major league seasons and changed teams 10 times; he once went from Boston to Seattle and back to Boston in one season; he played for 15 minor league teams). Manto averaged 26 games per stint in his big league career, so whenever I’d see him on a field somewhere one of us would say “uh-oh – about to change uniforms again.”
So on March 3, 2007, I stepped off a flight from New York and went directly to the Pirates-Yankees exhibition game in Tampa and who’s the first person I see? Pirates batting coach Jeff Manto (naturally, it was his last year on the job). I asked him what he could tell me about his Pirate hitters that I didn’t know; who I should watch for; who might surprise me.
He pointed at the guy in the batting cage. “If we can get him to replicate his swing three days in a row, Jose Bautista could hit 25 homers a year. In fact, I think he could hit 40. He is just so easily frustrated when it doesn’t go right that he blames himself and forgets what he’s learned. Or ignores it. But of all these guys I have, if you want one of them who will eventually do something special in this game, I’d pick him. I wouldn’t be very surprised.”
Bautista had 569 at bats last year in Toronto and ended at 54-124-.260. If you took his rates of production during his first four full seasons and gave him 569 at bats each year, he’d have averaged 20-73-.238 – so the power was there; this was not Brady Anderson coming out of nowhere. As I noted last year, until George Foster suddenly hit 52 homers for the 1977 Reds, his career high for blasts was 29 – and he was already in his seventh season in the National League. Cecil Fielder spent four years unable to crack the line-up of the Blue Jays, topped out at 14 homers, went to Japan for one year, and came back to hit 51 for the 1990 Tigers.
It is a rare thing to see a slugger grow from good to great – but it’s not impossible. So lay off Bautista. And if you see Jeff Manto (now the minor league hitting instructor for the White Sox) say hi for me, and congratulate him on his prescience (oh and the other kid he really liked back when he was his first manager in the minors, some guy named Ryan Howard), and tell him the Pirates shouldn’t have dumped him as battng coach, nor should they have dealt Bautista for catcher Robinzon Diaz.
Virtually with each home run he hit this year, Jose Bautista surprised somebody.