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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

November 3, 2009 at 2:21 PM

My 10 most memorable postseason moments (and one that I missed)

clemensbat.jpg

There’s a chance that the next two games (and I’m hoping there will be two; there’s absolutely nothing better than a World Series Game 7) will produce an indelible moment of glory for a member of the Phillies or Yankees. Someone is poised to be the next Bill Mazeroski or Joe Carter or Edgar Renteria. OK, I should have stopped at Carter.

In that spirit, I thought I’d rank the top 10 post-season moments I have witnessed — and one huge one that I missed, to my ever-lasting regret and embarrassment.

Here’s the list — and note that I was not in Seattle in 1995 during all that madness; I was covering the National League playoffs that year:

1. The Jack Morris-John Smoltz Game 7 duel, Twins vs. Braves, 1991 World Series. First of all, it had been a tremendous World Series up to that point, and the tension in Game 7 was almost unbearable. Think of it — a scoreless tie through nine innings! And with numerous thwarted scoring opportunities by both teams.The Twins finally pulled it out in the 10th on an RBI single by Gene Larkin — a name that has been largely lost to posterity except for hard-core Twins’ fans. Morris pitched the guttiest big game I’ve ever seen; he went all 10 innings, firing a seven-hitter. I just checked Baseball Reference, and Morris threw 126 pitches — fewer than I would have guessed. Just an amazing game.

2. The Joe Carter game, Blue Jays vs. Phillies, 1993 World Series. I was in the press box pounding out my story about how the Series was now set up for a dramatic Game 7, and analyzing the potential pitching matchup, when Carter launched his shot — a scant few minutes before deadline. I remember having two thoughts, almost simultaneously: 1) This is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen; and 2) I’m screwed. After soaking in the drama for a few seconds, I commenced to furiously re-writing my story for the first edition, then ran downstairs to the clubhouse to get quotes. I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of something I’ve written, just because of the crazy circumstances. One thing I’ll always remember and admire: Mitch Williams sitting at his locker and answering every single question.

3. Francisco Cabrera’s pinch-hit single that scored two, including Sid Bream beating Barry Bonds’ throw for the game winner, to give the Braves the National League pennant over Pittsburgh in 1992. That was the last gasp for the Pirates, who had won their third straight division title but lost in the NLCS for the third year in a row. By 1993, Bonds would be in San Francisco, and the Pirates would never be the same. In fact, they haven’t had a winning season since 1992, which is just staggering. My over-riding memory is walking in the tunnel toward the interview room after the game, and seeing a hunched-over, stunned Jim Leyland shuffling all by himself to the interview room. The man was in absolute misery. The Pirates had entered the ninth with a 2-0 lead, and closer Stan Belinda couldn’t hold it (he should have left in Doug Drabek, to revive a 17-year-old second-guess). Francisco Cabrera — or Frankie Pennant, as my colleague Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle dubbed him — is still a folk hero in Atlanta. That’s a classic example of how a journeyman who would otherwise have been long forgotten can immortalize himself on the postseason stage.

4, 1989 World Series, Game 3, Oakland vs. San Francisco. This was the “Earthquake Series,” and it’s getting a lot of attention this year because of the 20-year anniversary. Talk about surreal — the whole aftermath of the earthquake, which happened right before the scheduled start of Game 3 at Candlestick Park, is like a blur to me. The press box swayed pretty dramatically, but afterward I remember thinking, “OK, that was pretty scary, but we survived. Let’s get the game started.” But it wasn’t long before word filtered back about the severity of the quake — someone blurted out that the Bay Bridge had collapsed; it was hard to knew what exactly was true, the reports and rumors were flying so fast and furious — and then the game obviously became irrelevant. I wrote my story sitting in a car with a coal-miner’s flashlight strapped around my head (I can’t to this day remember how I got the flashlight; I think my colleague at the paper, Bob Padecky, begged it from someone in the parking lot) and then drove around the city trying to find a phone that worked so I could sent the story to my newspaper, which then was the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. The next challenge was getting back to my home in Oakland, and finding out if it was still standing. My wife, knowing that I would be immersed in the World Series, had gone to visit family in Washington with our then-3-year-old daughter, so I had no idea what awaited me. But other than toppled bookcases and broken dishes, the house was more or less intact. It was heartbreaking to hear of the people killed in the collapse of the Cypress freeway, which I drove almost every day, and all the other casualties of that quake. The Series eventually resumed, but all the excitement and joy had drained out of it, and the A’s sweep was truly anti-climactic.

5, Game 7, 2004 ALCS, Red Sox vs. Yankees. The game itself, a 10-3 Red Sox victory in which they led 8-1 after four innings, wasn’t particularly memorable. But the circumstances — the Red Sox coming back from three down to win a series for the first time in baseball history, and finishing it off at Yankee Stadium — made the scene almost surreal. You just knew there was no way the Red Sox were going to blow it this time, and that the elusive World Series title was imminent.

6. Game 7, 2001 World Series, Yankees vs. Diamondbacks. What a wild finish, with Mariano Rivera blowing the save in the ninth inning as the Diamondbacks came back from a 2-1 deficit to win 3-2. It had the added drama of Randy Johnson, who had worked seven innings the night before, coming on in relief in the eighth inning to get the victory. The Yankees had been on the verge of winning their fourth straight World Series and establishing themselves as one of the great teams of all time. That Series was also memorable for the Yankees’ series of dramatic comeback victories at Yankee Stadium (mostly at the expense of Byung-Hyun Kim), and for the fact that it was close on the heels of 9-11. Remember, the season had been shut down for a week, and the nation was still mourning, and everyone was on edge. That was one of the few times the Yankees were sentimental favorites, but they couldn’t quite pull it off.

7. The Roger Clemens/Mike Piazza broken bat incident, 2000 World Series, Yankees vs. Mets. I probably should have this one higher, because for pure theater, absolutely nothing tops this — not even Pedro Martinez throwing down Don Zimmer in 2003. What made it so compelling was that anticipation of the Piazza-Clemens confrontation was already at a fever pitch because Clemens had beaned Piazza earlier in the year. And so what happens in their first World Series encounter? Piazza shatters his bat, and Clemens fires the bat fragment at him — or so it seemed to me, despite his claims otherwise. Bizarre, but highly memorable, stuff.

8. 1987 NLCS, Giants vs. Cardinals. This might not mean much to anyone else, but it was the first postseason series I ever covered, and the whole experience was tremendously exciting to me. The Giants took a 3-2 lead back to St. Louis but lost both games, including a 6-0 defeat in Game 7. This was the Jeffrey Leonard “One-Flap Down” series, you might recall. In fact, Leonard was the MVP from the losing team with a .417 average and four homers (Jeffrey Leonard is worth a whole post of his own; I promise I’ll write it one day). The decisive game swung on a three-run homer by Jose Oquendo off Atlee Hammaker in the second inning; to this day, Jose Oquendo is known as “Jose F’in Oquendo” by Giants fans.

9, Game 7, 1997 World Series, Marlins vs. Indians. This is the one Mike Hargrove will take to his grave, muttering all the way. His Indians were oh so close to the title, but Jose Mesa couldn’t hold a 2-1 lead in the ninth. The Marlins eventually won it, 3-2, in the 11th on a game-winning hit by Edgar Renteria off Charles Nagy in the 11th. My prevailing memory of the aftermath of that game is the single most out-of-control clubhouse I’ve ever seen. The Marlins let family and friends of the players pour into the clubhouse after the game, and it was absolute and utter chaos. It was the only time I’ve actually been afraid for my safety in a clubhouse. I truly thought there was a chance that I would get suffocated or crushed, because MLB and Marlins security had lost control of the situation. Getting interviews was extremely difficult, as you can imagine. But I survived — and baseball tightened up its post-title clubhouse policy the next year.

10, Game 2, 2001 ALCS, Mariners vs. Yankees. I was standing outside the Mariners clubhouse after the Mariners’ tough 3-2 loss at Safeco put them down two games to none. All of a sudden, Lou Piniella burst out of the door, heading for his appearance in the interview room. He was in full Piniella anger mode, which was always a trip. He stopped and addressed the group of writers standing in line to get into the clubhouse, something I’ve never seen before or since. Basically, he guaranteed that the Mariners, who were heading off for the middle three games at Yankee Stadium, would bring the series back to Safeco. That would have required winning at least two in New York. It was a nice sentiment — and it made for a fun story — but the Mariners, after winning the first one in New York, 14-3, dropped the next two. Their magical 116-win season was over — and they never got back to Safeco, despite Piniella’s guarantee.

Now, about that moment I missed: The Kirk Gibson home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series at Dodger Stadium, only one of the most memorable moments in baseball history.

I was there, covering the game at Dodger Stadium that night. In fact, it was the first World Series game I ever attended, as a fan or reporter. What happened that night taught me a lesson I’ve remembered the rest of my career.

I was working for the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat in the Bay Area, and we were following the Oakland A’s. In those days, when newspapers were actually healthy and thriving, a huge contingent of reporters were on hand at Dodger Stadium and filling the press box to capacity. I got assigned a spot in the auxiliary press box, which was actually just a sections of the stands with plywood tables clumsily attached, located way up at the top of the ballpark, between first and home.

As the ninth inning unfolded, with deadline rapidly approaching, we were all furiously typing our stories on whatever rudimentary computer we were using in those days — a Radio Shack TS 80, if I recall — on the anticipation of an Oakland victory. After all, they took a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth, with the nearly inpenetrable Dennis Eckersley taking the hill.

As the ninth inning started, I noticed a large contingent of reporters with me in the “Aux Box” (as the auxiliary box was dubbed) get up and head for the exits. Puzzled, I asked a veteran scribe what was going on. He explained that you had to leave now to get to the clubhouse, or else you’d get tangled up with the exiting fans and never make it in time. And besides, he said, Eck is going to make fast work of the Dodgers, so we’d better hurry. Being a rookie, I shrugged, and followed the madding crowd toward the elevator. There were so many of us that we had to wait through several elevator trips before we got on board. It let us off in the bowels of Dodger Stadium, in a waiting area between the two clubhouses. It was there, waiting for the game to end, trying in vain to stick my head out of a tunnel that led onto the field to catch a glimpse of the action, that I heard the huge, throbbing roar emanate from the crowd. And that was how I “covered” the Kirk Gibson homer.

I eventually saw a replay — several replays — on the TV in the interview room, so I was able to write my story with some authority (and I talked to both Gibson and Eckersley, who like Mitch Williams answered every question). But I have always regretted that I did not truly witness Gibson’s homer, and get to savor all the drama of the moment.

I did, however, learn an invaluable lesson that I have carried with me to this day: Never, ever leave my seat until the game is over. It’s better to be late to the clubhouse than miss any bit of the action.

When Joe Carter hit his homer five years later at SkyDome, many reporters had already headed down to the clubhouse. I never budged.

Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/ALLSPORT)

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