IT'S 1968 DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN
[October 20th] -- And so now we know -- it's the St. Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers in this year's World Series. Though I've lived in both cities, I don't particularly have a dog in this hunt this year (for those of you who don't speak "Dr. Phil," that means I don't care who wins). But I like this year's pairing because both teams bring interesting story lines into the series.
The Tigers are what the Nationals hope to soon become. Having lost 119 games just three years ago, Detroit built a winner the proper way, with just the right blend of veterans, rookies and free-agents. When they lost the pennant to the Twins on the last day of the season (talk about a near record-setting collapse!), everyone gave them up for dead. After losing the first game of the LDS to the Yankees, they won the next seven games they played to reach the Fall Classic.
The St. Louis Cardinals came into this season missing two very important pieces of last season's puzzle: Reggie Sanders and Larry Walker. Without them, they weren't as good on the field, and they were even worse off the field. The Cardinals' clubhouse had many problems during the last month of the season. It got so bad that some players were suggesting that Albert Pujols was turning into the next Barry Bonds. What? But the amazing thing is that the Cardinals reached the World Series with just 83 wins. Eighty-three wins! The Washington Nationals won just two less games in 2005, and there was no way that team had any hope of succeeding in the playoffs.
I guess I'm going to root for the Tigers, only because their appearance in the Series is so improbable. Don't get me wrong, though. I'm not a Detroit fan. That city was by far and away the worst I've ever lived in. St. Louis was a very clean and enjoyable city -- lots to do and I felt safe wherever I went.
The Cardinals - Tigers matchup is very interesting, particularly for me. I was 12 years old the last time the two teams met in the World Series, and it was the first year I followed baseball. Though it was 38 years ago, the memories from that series are still fresh: (note -- these are from memory; I didn't look anything up. I may get a couple of facts wrong, but memories don't mean much if they are fact-checked).
- The Senators played their last series of the season in Detroit, and for the first time that year, their game was broadcast on "NBC's Game Of The Week." Well, sort of. Giving the nation a preview of the Series, NBC did a split screen for most of the broadcast, with the Cardinals - Astros(?) and Senators - Tigers games showed simultaneously. All I remember about the game itself was Mike Epstein hitting a triple that hit the base of the wall in Tiger Stadium (it was concrete) and bounced around for quite some time.
- Tigers' manager Mayo Smith made a gutsy decision prior to game one by playing an outfielder at shortstop. Al Kaline was injured for part of the season, and Smith played Willie Horton, Jim Northrup and Mickey Stanley in the outfield during his absence. When Kaline returned, Smith moved Stanley, a shortstop in high school, to the infield to replace light hitting Ray Oyler (.135 in 235 at-bats). Okay. His stats I DID look up!
- Bob Gibson absolutely dominated the first game played at Busch Stadium, striking out 17 batters and setting a new World Series record.
- Pitcher Mickey Lolich hit a home run in game two(?) to help the Tigers tie the series at one game a piece.
- Down 2 games to 1, a thunderstorm hit Detroit with the Tigers down big to St. Louis in the fourth inning (It was something like 5-1 or 6-1). The Tigers' players did all they could to slow the game down in hopes of the umpires canceling the game. I remember Willy Horton had a butter knife in his back pocket, and after each pitch, he'd call time and step out of the box, then s-l-o-w-l-y remove the caked-on mud from his cleats. Finally, the home plate umpire got wise to what was happening and told the pitcher to pitch even if the batter wasn't ready. I didn't work.
- After tying the series at 3-3, Mickey Lolich pitched against Bob Gibson in the 7th game in St. Louis. In the 7th inning, Curt Flood, about the best fielding center fielder in the game, mis-played a routine fly ball and allowed three runs to score, securing a 4-1 victory for Detroit.
Denny McLain struggled throughout the series, going 1-2. Mickey Lolich, however, was superb, winning 3 games and almost single-handedly brought the championship to Detroit. That the Tigers won it all wasn't a surprise -- Detroit was clearly the best team in the major leagues that year.
The "year of the pitcher" came to a close with Mickey Lolich jumping into catcher Bill Freehan's waiting arms. Bowie Kuhn and the team owners were so concerned that the lack of offense was keeping fans away from the parks that they lowered the mound five inches. And it worked. Once again, baseball was a balance of offense and pitching.
Okay, I waited until the last paragraph to mention Endy Chavez' great catch that robbed Scott Rolen of a two-run home run. Without a doubt, it was the finest post-season catch I've personally seen, and that covers more than 40 years of baseball. I just hope you got tired of reading this story and moved on before you had to read this, painful as I know it is.
Either way, thanks for the memories. I was 15 that year and was rooting for the Cardinals because it was Roger Maris' last season, and I was a big fan of his.