Tag: Hall of Fame

Glimpse of Greatness

Of the primary team spectator sports in the United States–football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer–baseball’s generational roots and family rituals run the deepest.

Parents (and grandparents) bring their kids to Major League Baseball (MLB) games to pass along the shared experience of watching their favorite teams–and the stars of the moment–take the field.

I have no statistics to support my theory. Just sixty years of personal baseball anecdotes to draw from watching my favorite team–the St. Louis Cardinals–perform against an array of opponents in stadiums and cities (St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Phoenix) across the country.

My personal passion for baseball remains intact in 2022, despite escalating ticket and concession prices, MLB’s all-to-frequent owner/player labor strife, lingering steroid controversy and cheating scandals, frequent umpiring blunders, and often-long-and-laborious games that stretch well beyond three hours.

Yet the game endures. Fans keep coming back to relive their personal traditions and–if the stars align–perhaps catch lightning in a bottle and see something truly magical they didn’t anticipate.

On Saturday evening, August 20, that happened.

Tom and I drove west from our home in Scottsdale to Chase Field in downtown Phoenix to watch the St. Louis Cardinals play the Arizona Diamondbacks. (Tom is a Chicago Cubs fan. He was less interested in this particular game than his more-competitive, die-hard-fan husband.)

I should digress to tell you that the Diamondbacks are rebuilding in 2022, while the Cardinals have assembled an entertaining team of older stars, clutch hitters, crafty pitchers, fielding phenoms, and talented youngsters. They are now in first place in the Central Division of the National League and appear to have gelled at the right time.

The final score on Saturday night? Cardinals 16, Diamondbacks 7.

There was more action–on the field and in the stands–in this one game than you might find in 10 visits to the ballyard. Dazzling defensive plays. Five home runs. A triple that cleared the bases. A grand slam in the ninth inning. A large, raucous crowd (at least half were rooting for the visiting Redbirds) on Mexican Heritage Night in the Valley of the Sun.

One especially obnoxious and inappropriate Cardinal fan screamed non-stop for three hours several rows behind us. We were relieved when security finally arrived in the seventh or eighth inning to remove him.

But, for my money, the magic supplied by a future hall of famer superseded all of it.

Albert Pujols, the Cardinals designated hitter (DH) and long-time first baseman, crushed two long home runs–his 691st and 692nd–into the centerfield bleachers. The most prolific hitter of the twenty-first century, forty-two-year-old Pujols will retire at the end of this season.

Albert, who wears number 5 on the back of uniform, currently ranks number five on the list of the greatest home run hitters of all time.

Behind Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714) and Alex Rodriguez (696), Pujols hopes to pass Rodriguez and reach 700 homers before his last game in October.

As background, in 2022, Pujols returned to the Cardinals, the team he first starred with from 2001 through 2011, to tie a large red bow on his twenty-two-year career. He contributed repeatedly to two Cardinals World Series Championships in 2006 and 2011.

Many of us fans, who watched the game in the desert Saturday night, were in the stands to cheer for Albert in his final year.

When he approached home plate each time, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. A buzz filled the air; the atmosphere was electric.

I don’t think any of us dreamed he’d hit two home runs and two singles in this one game, becoming the oldest player since 1901 to go 4-4 in a major league game.

Tom and I absorbed it all from our seats in foul territory in the lower level of the right-field-corner (Section 109, Row 12, Seats 3 and 4) grandstand.

***

Albert Pujols had already hit his 691st home run in the second inning. Then, he came to the plate for the second time on Saturday night.

From the row in front of us, a boy no more than ten years old (wearing the jersey of another Cardinal great, shortstop Ozzie Smith, from the 1980s) stood beside his mom and dad.

From behind, it felt as if I could have been watching myself standing as the Cardinals played in the 1960s, or one of my sons rooting for the Redbirds at a game in the 1990s.

At any rate, I imagine the child hoped to capture a picture of Pujols, as the perennial all-star approached home plate to take his next at bat.

He snapped his photo. I snapped mine.

Seconds later, Pujols swung his bat. The baseball soared over the outfield wall.

We cheered, hollered, and high fived.

In that moment, I thought of the generations of baseball fans who’ve come and gone. They’ve attended games with their dads and moms, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, cousins and neighbors, and husbands and wives.

To root for their favorite players. To cheer for their teams. To spend their money in the bleachers and grandstands on steamy Midwestern days and hot desert nights.

Remarkably, win or lose, we fans keep coming back to remember the past and celebrate the present.

And, on the best of those days, we’re lucky when we catch lightning in a bottle, see a little history in the making, and get a glimpse of greatness.

Remembering Bob Gibson: The Man on the Mound

Life is a mysterious mish mash of beginnings and endings, wins and losses. Lately, the losses have been more prominent and painful for me and many of you. Yet we do what we can to endure in 2020.

Last night, Bob Gibson–one of the greatest pitchers ever and undoubtedly the most dominant of the 1960s–died of cancer at age eighty-four. Serendipitously, his team–the St. Louis Cardinals–ended their frantic, COVID-19-filled 2020 season the same night with a 4-0 playoff loss to the San Diego Padres.

As a kid growing up in St. Louis in the sixties, I followed every angle of Gibson’s story. He was a local hero, a one-time player for the Harlem Globetrotters, a flame-throwing right hander who still holds the ERA (earned runs average) record in Major League Baseball–1.12 for the 1968 season. It’s a record that will likely never be broken.

But this versatile athlete and fierce competitor was also a gifted writer. I remember browsing the local library as a kid and reading From Ghetto to Glory, his story about growing up poor in Omaha, Nebraska, and fighting his way to the top. “Gibby” was an inspiration and role model.

Bob Gibson passed away less than a month after Lou Brock, the legendary base stealer, fellow Hall of Famer and his St. Louis Cardinals teammate. The duo of Bob and Lou dazzled a generation of St. Louis fans on the field and appeared in three World Series–winning in 1964 and 1967.

Ironically, Gibson died on October 2, 2020. Exactly fifty-two years after striking out seventeen batters in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series against the Detroit Tigers. To date, his record still stands.

If you enjoy reading stories about baseball, check out my book Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator. It includes a story about my dad and me watching Bob Gibson pitch on July 15, 1967 from the bleachers of Busch Memorial Stadium. That day, the crack of Roberto Clemente’s bat (another Hall of Famer), booming through my transistor radio, changed everything.

Get Well Soon, Bob Gibson

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Over the weekend, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Bob Gibson is battling pancreatic cancer. The flame-throwing, right-handed, Hall of Fame pitcher–who spent his entire seventeen-year career with the St. Louis Cardinals–is eighty-three years old. He is likely to begin chemotherapy this week. (This photo of the acrobatic and intimidating delivery of the Cardinals’ ace pitcher came from the cover of one of my 1960s scorecards.)

In 2017, as a tribute to the most dominant pitcher of the 1960s, I wrote and published the following story about “Gibby” and an historic, astounding moment my dad and I witnessed. The full piece, titled The Transistor Radio and the Crack of a Bat appears in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, a book of twenty-six true stories about my Missouri youth.

***

Many of my memories are forever embedded as sounds. Of course, there was “That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind”–that profound yet tinny phrase Neil Armstrong uttered on July 20, 1969, when he became the first person to step on the surface of the moon. That sound and a few sketchy images broke through our black-and-white TV.

But two years before Armstrong’s historic moon walk, there was another sound that echoed through my childhood. This one emanated from my portable, pocket-sized transistor radio. It was July 15,1967. Bob Gibson was on the mound pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals that day at Busch Memorial Stadium. He was facing the Pittsburgh Pirates. Dad and I were sitting in the right field bleachers. I had my baseball mitt on my left hand and my transistor radio in its tattered leather case blaring away in my right …

Together Dad and I had the good fortune of watching Gibson pitch at least twenty different times in my childhood. I’ll bet he won seventeen or eighteen of those games. But on this particular hot summer day, all of us in attendance were in store for something stunning, unimaginable, and apparently catastrophic–and the transistor radio would play a big role in a shocking St. Louis moment that is forever sealed in my memory.

Roberto Clemente, the Pirates’ legendary right fielder, stepped to the plate to face Gibson. I remember the crack of Clemente’s bat, booming across the field and through my transistor radio. (Harry Caray and Jack Buck–arguably the best baseball broadcast team ever–provided the color commentary on KMOX Radio.) Clemente had smacked a line drive off Gibson’s leg, just above his ankle.

In spite of the warm temperature, the fans went stone-cold silent. The Cardinals’ trainer rushed to the mound to attend to the perennial all-star pitcher. After the trainer applied a freezing agent to the area, Gibby took a few soft tosses from the mound and then waved off the trainer. He was ready to resume pitching. A collective exhale filtered through the crowd and my transistor radio.

But the relief was short lived. After walking Willie Stargell and retiring Bill Mazeroski on a pop up, Gibson swung into his pitching motion and delivered a 3-2 pitch to Donn Clendenon. That’s when he collapsed in a heap on the mound.

A palpable hush blanketed the ballpark. It echoed and hung in the smoky bleacher air as vendors–suspended in slow motion–passed peanuts, beer, and hot dogs into waiting hands. Overriding the silence, the only sounds I can recall were the concerned voices of Buck and Caray cascading through my transistor and those of countless other fans muttering around their squawk boxes throughout the ballpark. After the Cardinals’ medical team removed Gibson from the field on a stretcher, we soon learned he had suffered a compound fracture. Caray and Buck told us through our transistor radios. It was devastating news.

As you would expect, Bob Gibson was sidelined for much of the year, but a young, unproven right-handed pitcher named Nelson Briles took his place in the rotation for the remainder of the regular season. Briles led the National League that year with a .737 win-loss percentage and a 14-5 record. His performance silenced the skeptics, who insisted the Cardinals wouldn’t recover from Gibson’s debilitating mid-season injury.

Remarkably, Gibson returned to the Cardinals in time to face Carl Yastrzemski and the Boston Red Sox in the 1967 World Series. According to the 20th Century Baseball Chronicle, “In the end, Gibson was clearly the difference, winning three complete games 2-1, 6-0, and 7-2 while striking out twenty-six and walking only five.” That included the deciding game 7.

Though Dad and I weren’t in the crowd to see any of the 1967 World Series games in St. Louis, we were there to hear the crack of Clemente’s bat reverberate throughout Busch Memorial Stadium. We witnessed an unlikely moment shared by two of major league baseball’s future Hall of Famers.

Ironically, four years later on August 14, 1971, Bob Gibson was on the mound against the Pirates again. This time the tables were turned. On this night, pitching at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Gibson achieved something that had escaped him previously. He recorded the only no-hitter of his illustrious career. I wasn’t in Pittsburgh that night to witness Gibson’s historic moment in person, but I listened intently from my bedroom in south suburban St. Louis. Propped up on my elbow, I heard exuberant Jack Buck exclaim, “Gibson’s thrown a no-hitter!” Best of all, I heard the man do it. I heard every pitch on my trusty transistor radio.

***

Ironic postscript: this evening–exactly fifty-two years since the Gibson-Clemente moment–the Cardinals and Pirates will renew their long-standing rivalry. It will the first of a three-game series at Busch Stadium (the Cardinals’ current home, which opened in downtown St. Louis in 2006).

In the off chance that Gibby reads this, there’s only one more thing to say. Get well soon, Bob Gibson. Just as I did in 1967, I’m rooting for your speedy recovery.

 

 

 

Land of the Giants

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I’ve been a baseball fan all my life. I should rephrase that. I’m a St. Louis Cardinals fan, because I grew up in St. Louis and have fond memories of watching the Redbirds with my dad. I still root for the Cardinals, but now I live in Scottsdale, Arizona, in the land of the Giants. You see, Old Town Scottsdale is the springtime home of the San Francisco Giants.

In March, the Valley of the Sun becomes the Valley of the Snowbirds. Primarily because baseball fans flock here to watch their favorite teams play in Cactus League baseball games. All the restaurants and streets in Old Town are filled with baseball revelers, who are grateful to be away from the cold and cloudy skies where they typically live (and are generally willing to disregard the cooler-than-normal March we’re experiencing this year).

My husband and I work out three or four times a week at Club SAR. It’s a fitness center that’s connected to one of the Giants’ practice facilities a few miles north of our home. As we were leaving the gym just before noon on Monday, I passed an imposing figure in a San Francisco Giants uniform. He was seated on a park bench. I smiled and said “Good morning.” He returned the favor as I  continued on my way.

That’s when I realized the man I had acknowledged was Lee Smith, baseball pitching legend. Lee was a real closer, a relief specialist, a true baseball giant. He’s third on the all time “saves” list and was elected to the Hall of Fame last December. Lee is now a minor league pitching coach for the San Francisco Giants.

If Lee’s personal success as a pitcher is any indication–a dominating figure and flame-thrower who played a combined eighteen years for the Cubs, Red Sox, Cardinals, Yankees and four other teams–the Giants will be thankful they have him on the field guiding their young pitching staff in the coming 2019 baseball season.

Previously in my life, I would have turned around and possibly run back for a chance of a photo with Lee. Or at least asked for his autograph. But he seemed quite content sitting there in the shady entryway to the gym. I didn’t want to disturb him.

Now that I’m sixty-one-years old, I couldn’t see the upside of hassling a Hall of Famer. He’s certainly earned the respect and any rest he can get. I was simply satisfied with my brush with greatness on a Monday morning, living here in the land of the Giants.