Monday, August 7, 2017
Chico Ruiz steals home and puts hex on Philadelphia?
The National League story in 1964 was epic. The Cardinals with a young Lou Brock emerged on top. Cincinnati was easily in the hunt. Let's consider Philadelphia. Those red-trimmed uniforms looked oh so grand for most of the '64 summer. Gene Mauch was at the helm. Maybe that was a sign that Philadelphia fans should have been whistling past the graveyard.
Mauch's Phils showed great command through most of the summer. What a blessed summer it must have seemed in the City of Brotherly Love. John Callison hit a walk-off home run to win the All-Star Game for the Nationals. The crafty Jim Bunning was in his prime - he pitched a perfect game in June vs. the new York Mets. Chris Short was in the groove as pitcher. Richie Allen, later to be known as Dick Allen, was spectacular as a rookie.
Early August saw Philadelphia really turn on the jets. Man oh man. For two weeks they looked like world-beaters. They went from 1 1/2 games up to 7 1/2 games, the latter bulge happening on August 20. Could Phils fans relax after that 12-4 stretch?
A date of fate in baseball annals
Bring on Monday, Sept. 21. The Phils sported a win total of 90 compared to 60 losses. They were 6 1/2 games up on second place with only 12 games left to play. It was an evening game in the City of Brotherly Love (an ironic name when you consider the city had an image of racism). A crowd of a little over 20,000 was present to see the Phillies take on that other team with red trim: Cincinnati. This was the Cincinnati team that had Frank Robinson. Robinson would go on to make his biggest mark with the Baltimore Orioles. In '64 he was the Reds' best hitter.
The Reds sported a record of 83-66. Dick Sisler was the manager, having taken the reins from the terminally ill Fred Hutchinson. Vada Pinson wielded a bat for those Reds. Oh, and there was Pete Rose, not yet a superstar but budding. Jim O'Toole and Jim Maloney were leading pitchers. I can't help but remember O'Toole in Jim Bouton's 1970 book "Ball Four," standing out as the classic troubled pitcher with a perpetually sore arm, in the "Diathermy" machine all the time, remember?
The September 21 game had Jon Tsitouris pitching for Cincinnati and Art Mahaffey taking the mound for Philadelphia. A bad omen for Philadelphia was being snakebit with runners in scoring position: 0-for-8.
The top of the sixth seemed to be when the baseball gods did their thing. Chico Ruiz singled to right field. Remember that name. Pinson hit a long single to right that advanced Ruiz to third, although Pinson was thrown out at second by outfielder Callison. Robinson strides up to bat. Nice scoring opportunity, right? His average was .306 and he had 27 home runs.
There were two outs so the Reds apparently needed Robinson to hit safely. Chico Ruiz had other thoughts dancing in his head. Mahaffey went into his long windup. Ruiz becomes like a bat out of hell, tearing for home a la steal. The steal of home is always an exotic play. We here in Minnesota associate it with Rod Carew.
Not only did this play succeed with Ruiz, it became legendary as it appeared to be a hex vs. the Phillies. Mahaffey uncorked a wild pitch. Ruiz scored and the Reds won 1-0. The game ended with the Phillies advancing the tying run to third with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, but shortstop Ruben Amaro struck out to end the game.
Writer Ray Kelly observed: "Nobody tries to steal home with a slugging great like Frank Robinson at the plate. Not in the sixth inning of a scoreless game." Mahaffey was quoted saying: "Now you must realize that with two outs and two strikes, if you throw a strike, Frank Robinson swings and knocks Chico Ruiz's head off. It was just so stupid." Stupid like a fox, I guess.
The Phils' advantage erodes
The Phillies still had a lead of 5 1/2 games with eleven games left. Now the stage is set for the famous choke of the '64 Phillies: a ten-game loss streak. It was so bad, it didn't matter that they won their last two games of the season (over the Reds). The Cardinals went 9-3 to close out the season. The Cardinals won the pennant on the last day as they beat the Mets 11-5.
A sabermetric analysis has shown that Ruiz's steal of home was not a bad percentage play. In the book "The Hidden Game of Baseball," authors John Thorn and Pete Palmer write that "the two-out steal of home is the unknown great percentage play." Ruiz said "it just came to my mind. In this game, you either do or you don't."
I was nine years old in 1964. Kids back then could have quite strong emotional connections with their home baseball team. Looking back, I often think how unfortunate this connection was - it was out of proportion. So you can imagine how many young Phillies fans felt as their team crashed in 1964. Samuel Alito of our U.S. Supreme Court was a big admirer of outfielder Callison. Callison seemed a lot like our Twin Bob Allison. Richie Allen was like Tony Oliva.
It was a golden age of baseball. Integration of the game had proceeded well enough - halting at times but adequate - and we did not yet have the disruption of zealous unionism and excessive drug use. I will always wonder if those '64 Phillies could have won the world championship in '64. Just as I wonder if our 1967 Minnesota Twins could have done it after getting edged out for the pennant! We close our eyes and imagine.
Ruiz entered baseball annals permanently with his unique, impulsive play, a play that impacted fate!
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org