Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Figgy, Thiggy, Michael Jack and Rags

Back in July, I wrote about the one no-hitter and two near perfect games I've seen in person and offered my opinion as to why being there for a no-hitter is much better than witnessing a milestone.

I suppose it's possible I'd think otherwise if I'd been in Atlanta for Hank Aaron's 715th home run—I'm not one of those folks who claims Barry Bonds is not the all-time home run leader, I just think Aaron's moment seemed more special—or Pete Rose's 4192nd hit (even though, in hindsight, he had broken Ty Cobb's hits record with his 4190th hit).

But, that's a moot point, so I can't possibly know for sure what it felt like to be there for those moments. But, I do know how it felt to be present for these, my personal top five baseball milestones/moments:

5. September 30, 1978: Ed Figueroa becomes the first (and only) Puerto Rican born pitcher to win 20 games in a season.

I've always thought adding this to a list of milestones is a bit of a stretch, that it only qualifies because I don't have anything better to replace it. But, thinking about it further, Figueroa is the only player from his native land to ever win 20 games in a season. And, it's not like he's from Sweden either. Puerto Rico has produced the fifth highest total of major leaguers, behind only the United States, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Canada. On the other hand, it's never really been much of a pitcher factory, as Javier Vazquez is the country's all-time wins leader.

Figueroa is tied for fifth with Juan Guzman on that list, trailing Juan Pizarro, Jaime Navarro and Joel Pineiro, in addition to Vazquez.

I was pretty young at the time, so all I really remember is we sat on the lower level, just beyond first base, and I was aware of the history—insignificant or otherwise—I was witnessing, unlike a couple of the moments that follow. Oh, and I missed CCD to go to the game, and my classmates were envious...even while they were being taught not to be. 

4. September 15, 1990: Bobby Thigpen becomes the first pitcher to save 50 games in a season.

My buddy Joe and I road-tripped to Chicago to see old Comiskey Park in its final season. Joe drove from Hartford to Syracuse to pick me up, and the next morning I drove almost the entire distance from Syracuse to Dubuque, Iowa. You see, this adventure included a little side trip to the Field of Dreams, during which Joe and I had a catch in the outfield, then wrote our names on the baseball and chucked it into the cornfield.

We also got robbed in Chicago when we naively handed a $20 bill to some street kid we thought was a parking attendant. When he literally ran to get us change, we knew we'd been had.

The interesting thing about this milestone is we knew Thigpen had 49 saves and had already broken Dave Righetti's all-time record (for what that's worth) going into the game. But, we weren't fully aware of one of the three rules of save eligibility: the one that awards a reliever a save for pitching one inning with a lead of three runs or less. I was under the impression, at the time, that the rule which requires the tying run to be in the on-deck circle applied to such a situation—meaning the lead would have to be one or two runs—but I was wrong. My recollection is Joe had it wrong too, but I really can't speak for him 22 years after the fact.

3. May 28, 1989: Mike Schmidt's final game

Two of my college pals and I embarked on a cross-country trip immediately following graduation. In hindsight, I'm disappointed to say we only hit two ballparks on that 3 1/2-week long trip: Wrigley Field, on our way out west, and Candlestick Park. We were going to hit Anaheim as well, but we never made it, although I can't remember why.

My friends were both Phillies fans, so it worked out well that we got to see them play the Giants in San Francisco.

Mike Schmidt was closing in on his 40th birthday and struggling, especially by his Hall of Fame standards, as his batting average barely hovered above .200 and he wasn't making up for it with his usual power (6 HR in 41 games).

Schmidt had a rough game that day (0-for-3 with an error in the field, his 8th on the season), but honestly my most lasting memory was of how cold Candlestick was. We had just come from seeing a game in Chicago, of course, but I was convinced they should call San Francisco the windy city.

The next day, we were watching ESPN in our motel room, which is how we learned Schmidt made the decision to hang it up after the game. No farewell tour, no final goodbye to the hometown fans. This was it. He'd played his final game, and we learned after the fact we were there to witness it.

2. April 18, 1987: Mike Schmidt's 500th homer

I went to college at Penn State. There used to be a time when people asked me if the school was in Philadelphia, but as a result of recent events, everybody pretty much now knows that it's in the middle of nowhere. The exact geographic center of Pennsylvania, in fact: 2 1/2 hours from Pittsburgh and almost four hours from the city of brotherly love.

I'm going to stereotype a bit here, but the folks I met from "the city of brotherly love" didn't generally treat their western Pennsylvania brethren like siblings. There was definitely a rivalry between natives of the state's two largest cities and I have to say folks from Philly I knew were generally more insulting and, therefore, annoying about it. I'm sure that statement won't be controversial among baseball fans who've interacted with fans from both cities.

But, I digress. The point here is I had friends who were Pirates fans and friends who were Phillies fans. So, it made sense that when we planned to road trip to a game, it was to a Phillies-Pirates game. This particular time it was my first visit to Three Rivers Stadium.

Schmidt began 1997 at 495 home runs, five short of the milestone, so when we purchased the tickets, we knew there was a chance we could witness his 500th. But, the game was the Phillies' 11th of the season, so it seemed unlikely he'd get off to that fast a start.

He hit his first and second homers of the year on April 10 and 11, in games three and four, providing us a glimmer of hope. But, he hit just one in the next six games and was sitting at 498 with just the Friday night game to play before our Saturday trip to the park.

Of course you know what's coming. It's not like there's any way I could build any suspense around this story. We woke up from our drunken haze on Saturday morning to learn Schmidt had belted #499 the night before. So, there was definitely some excitement in the air that afternoon, and as you know, Michael Jack delivered:

1. July 4, 1983: Dave Righetti's no-hitter

[The following is excerpted from the post I wrote back in July, which essentially inspired this one.]

Early summer after my high school sophomore year, my best friend and next door neighbor's dad offered to take us on the 1 1/2 hour trip from our Dutchess County, New York neighborhood to the South Bronx. My dad was also invited, but he declined, so it was just the three of us.

We had pretty mediocre seats down the left field line, but it didn't matter, of course. We were at Yankee Stadium, and pretty soon the excitement of just being there was surpassed by the suspense of a chance for what certainly seemed like, and probably was, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I don't remember if we talked about the fact a potential no-hitter was in progress. I suspect we did, as we were two teenage boys and an adult who wasn't quite fanatical enough to buy into the superstition that we could actually jinx the thing.

What I do remember is that the buildup to the game's ultimate moment was just as suspenseful and exciting as game seven of just about any World Series I've seen, and that the final out—Dave Righetti's second strikeout of Wade Boggs on the day—was surreal.

Looking back at the box score, I realized Righetti walked Jim Rice twice in three at bats. Looking further, I also noticed Tony Armas didn't provide much protection for Rice in the order. On the day, he struck out and grounded into a double play in three at bats. More importantly, he was in the midst of a frustrating first season in Boston, in which he would hit 36 homers and drive in 107 runs, but with a .218 batting average and a paltry .254 OBP.

Upon returning home, I wondered if my dad realized what he'd missed. He hadn't watched the game on television so he didn't know, but honestly didn't seem as disappointed as I expected. You see, dad grew up only a subway ride away from Yankee Stadium and, in fact, had previously witnessed one of Allie Reynolds's two no-hitters in pinstripes.

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