Monday, January 6, 2014

No. 150 – Sultans of Swing

Performer: Dire Straits
Songwriter: Mark Knopfler
Original Release: Dire Straits
Year: 1978
Definitive Version: Live Aid, 1985.

The home run I hit off my junior-high nemesis (good ol’ No. 584) remains my sports highlight from a personal standpoint. However, I had an even bigger moment later that same year, the year Dire Straits, though this song, provided aural sunshine amid the gloom of disco.

After we beat the Boilermakers, the Hoosiers entered the postseason tournament with a 14-2 record. Unfortunately, the league changed the rules in 1978 to our general detriment.

Previously, the Big Ten held two postseason events. One was a double-elimination tournament that my team, the Buckeyes, won in 1977. The other was the actual league championship series—a best-of-3 series between the champions of the two divisions. In 1978, however, only the tournament was held. In other words, our regular-season record meant nothing except that we got a first-round bye.

It didn’t help. We promptly lost a 2-1 heartbreaker to the Wolverines that included several outs on base, which almost never happens in little league. I went 2-for-2, but I didn’t help matters by being thrown out at second on a steal attempt (might have been the only one in my little-league career).

And just like that, we were one loss away from having our season ended despite having the best record in the league. Fortunately, our No. 3 pitcher threw a no-hitter—the only one I’ve seen in person—and we advanced to a second elimination game.

This time we played the Illini, which went 10-6. We handled them in the regular season, but they had their best pitcher going, a kid named Bob Hayes, who was on my Buckeye team the year before. It wasn’t going to be easy.

I entered the tournament on something of a hot streak, which started with the Boilermaker game. I was 4-for-5 with a double in the first two games, so against the Illini, the coach had me in the cleanup spot.

This was significant, because I was something of a choker when I felt pressure. And what’s more pressure than batting cleanup? I’m not really THAT good, am I? I’d batted cleanup before, and I’d never done much.

Apparently, the rest of the team caught Willitis that day, because before long, I was 0-for-1 and we were behind 4-0. We were only three innings from ignominious defeat. But the fourth inning started with the first two batters in the inning getting hits. Then, Richie Crabtree, who batted third, got plunked.

I mention Richie by name, because he and I were victims of another new rule that year. When I played with the Buckeyes, due to an injury that allowed me to be on the team, we had seven all-stars. In 1978, the league capped all-star selections at four per team.

Richie and I both had all-star worthy years, but we weren’t among the four best players on the team, so we were victims of being on a team that was too loaded. Going into the Illini game, he was as hot as I was, if not hotter. We both said they should revote.

So, after his HBP, here’s the situation: The bases were loaded with no out, and I was coming up to bat. In addition to batting cleanup, I also had a problem in general when I batted with the bases loaded, although earlier in the year, I nearly hit a grand slam to come out of a horrendous slump. Now I was coming up with the bases loaded … while batting cleanup …in a tournament elimination game … against one of the better pitchers in the league. A swarm of butterflies filled my stomach as I walked to the plate.

Fortunately, Bob started by tossing three wide ones. (Apparently, he felt a bit of pressure, too.) Now he was one ball away from walking in a run with no end in sight to a big inning.

Well, this was easy. With none out, no way I’m swinging at the next pitch, so the pressure was off. I gave him the old “fake bunt pull away,” and Bob grooved a meatball over the middle for strike one.

OK, now I’m back to swinging. I still have the advantage though, so I wasn’ tnervous. He grooved another pitch. I swung with all my might … and hit the ball a mile into the air to right. Awww … just missed it.

As I trotted down to first I consoled myself with the fact that a sacrifice fly at least would move the runners along and put us on the scoreboard. Then I peeked out to the outfield and saw the center fielder and right fielder in a dead sprint away from the infield.

Wait ... what?

I turned on the jets, as much as I can turn them on, and whirled around the bases. The head coach, at third, gave me the most lackluster wheel home I’d ever seen, and the only thing awaiting me at the plate was the entire team out to mob me. I leaped on home plate and was swarmed under. I remember nothing but a cacophony of joyous shouts all the way back to the bench. At this point, the ball finally arrived in the infield.

By a trick of the schedule, we were the only game at Northam Park that day, so we had a pretty good crowd watching, including a few kids from other teams who lived nearby. (They wore their team jerseys.) As I sat back on the bench, a couple even came over to say how I really hit the crap out of that one.

I was in shock. What happened? I mean, I know what happened. With one swing of the bat, I’d turned a 4-0 game into a 4-4 tie. I’d hit a FREAKIN’ GRAND SLAM! But … how? My power was to left. The only time I hit the ball to right was either a grounder or a pop fly. I hit a homer to right once, my second back in 1976, but that was a fluke due to a well-placed rocket of a grounder that shot on the hard-packed grass after a long dry spell past the right fielder. I couldn’t believe I hit a fly-ball homer to right.

No matter, we got two more runs that inning to take a lead, and we held on to win 6-5 and advance again. (Alas, our luck ran out in the championship game against the Wolverines, who apparently had our number.) I was particularly pleased that I didn’t have to bat again. I mean, how do you follow a grand slam?

I was given the game ball, which—in what should be a surprise to absolutely no one—I still have tucked away. I don’t know whether it was my actual grand-slam ball, but it could have been. There’s a huge blue spot on the ball from where aluminum met horsehide. It was, without question, the biggest hit of my baseball career.

Many years later, I tried to determine exactly how far I’d hit the ball that day. We played on Diamond 4, which faced southeast. In distant center field was Diamond 5, where no one ever hit a ball as far as I knew. Just to the right was a girl’s softball field. Supposedly my fly ball LANDED in the girl’s softball field and nearly rolled into Northam Road.

I stood about where home plate was for Diamond 4 (now long gone). My pace is 3 feet exactly, and I stepped off what I recall were 120 paces to the girls’ softball field, which meant my hit traveled somewhere in the neighborhood of 350 feet, give or take.

I might have miscounted. Maybe my mind—and the reports of others—exaggerated where the ball landed that day. I don’t know. What I do know is that I will go to my grave thinking that if I had hit the ball exactly the same distance with the exact same trajectory in Riverfront Stadium—or nearly any other big-league ballpark for that matter—it would’ve gone out. Now THAT’s a home run.

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