The personification of baseball this October--the game's patron saint--might as well be William Aloysius Bergen, late of North Brookfield, Massachusetts. For he suits the present mood.
Bergen, who spent eleven seasons as a catcher with the Cincinnati Reds and the Brooklyn Dodgers right after the turn of the century, played 947 games, came to bat 3,028 times and by all accounts was a pleasant fellow.
But you won't find his plaque in Cooperstown...or in North Brookfield.
In the course of his career, Bill Bergen batted .170. This is regarded as the worst single lifetime statistic in the history of the game--at least by any player who didn't quickly find himself back in the mines or carrying hod once again. Bashin' Bill surpassed what is now called the Mendoza Line just once, batting .227 in 1903. In his rookie season, 1901, he managed a home run. But eight years passed before he hit the second--and last--homer of his career. Blame it on the dead ball if you choose: This is not impressive stuff for a man who stood six feet tall and weighed 184 pounds.
Welcome to Bergen County, baseball fans.
This October there are no playoffs. There will be no World Series. The announcers on ESPN are tearing their hair out trying to fill time on SportsCenter. Little kids everywhere are wondering why the game has betrayed them. Quite a few grownups are wondering the same thing.
The ghost of Bill Bergen, lumbering back to the bench after yet another groundout, is the only figure left on the playing field.
However, we do have history. And in times like these, past glories are the real fan's only comfort. In the mind's eye, tricolored bunting still enlivens the graceful curve of the first-base boxes. The scent of fresh-roasted peanuts yet perfumes the air. And if you listen carefully, you can hear the joyful throngs, however faintly. So let the legends return:
The Called Shot: October 1, 1932
A hint of twilight may be gathering now around the great Babe Ruth, but on this day in Wrigley Field, the Bambino strides among the immortals. Murderers' Row has devastated the Cubs in the first two games of the Series, 12-6 and 5-2, but the best is yet to come. For Ruth, who never met a bartender or a baby he didn't like, has reputedly spent the previous afternoon visiting a local boy lying helpless with a dread Hollywood disease.
Not only that--the Sultan of Swat has pledged to knock the ball clear out of Chicago for poor Johnny.
In the fifth, Babe steps in and, amid foul catcalls heaving up from the Cubs dugout, suddenly points a fat finger toward the center-field bleachers. One of the great baseball feats is about to unfold.
But first, photographers from the advertising firm of Blowhard & Blowhard burst from the field rails. "Hey, Babe!" they shout. "Point again! That's it, big fellow! Wait a sec, willya? Gotta change flash powder. That's it! Point that finger! Good. Now hold that pose, Babe. Wait for the tag line."
At that moment, an 140-foot advertising banner is unfurled across the outfield: BABE RUTH CALLS HIS SHOT FOR MCGILLICUDDY'S MUSTARD PLASTERS, it reads. Ruth blasts the next pitch out of Wrigley as the cameras click away.
"That Johnny crap was damn clever," the Babe later tells T. August Blowhard. "Now gimme my check."
The Miracle of Coogan's Bluff. October 3, 1951
Thirteen games behind the league-leading Brooklyn Dodgers in mid-August, the resurgent New York Giants have come to this: In the third and deciding game of a rare playoff series for the National League pennant, the Giants trail 4-1 in the bottom of the ninth at the Polo Grounds, when an exhausted Don Newcombe gives up singles to Alvin Dark and Don Mueller, and Whitey Lockman slashes a double to left, scoring Dark.
Clem Labine and Preacher Roe are working in the bullpen, but savvy Dodgers pitching coach Clyde Sukeforth recommends Ralph Branca to close the door.
Poor Ralph will throw just two pitches. The first is a fastball on the inside corner that Giants batter Bobby Thomson takes for a strike. But before Branca can deliver again, Thomson's agent, Al Retainer, suddenly materializes at home plate.
"You wanna win this?" Retainer demands of Giants manager Leo Durocher. "You lookin' for a miracle? Fine. But our side wants a few things, too. First, right off the top, five grand. Okay? I mean today. Bobby here also needs a $20,000 bonus for next year, and we want an incentive clause hooked to the '52 All-Star Game."
"Done," Leo the Lip answers meekly.
A moment later Branca winds, and his ill-fated fastball casts him into hell forever. Meanwhile, the Shot Heard Round the World lays some pretty thick porterhouses into Al Retainer's freezer chest out in Bethpage.
Maz's Blast. October 13, 1960
Write it large: Bronx Bombers. Baseball's perennial elite. The dynasty of Ruth and Gehrig, Mantle and Maris, of Larsen's perfect game. In this oddly misshapen World Series, too, the Yanks have dominated: Collectively, they've batted .338, to the Pirates' .256. They have outscored their NL counterparts by 28 runs, and they have swaggered through the proceedings, as is their custom. Yesterday, they came back from a 2-3 Series deficit to demolish the Bucs in game six, 12-0.
No worries now, either. The lowly Pirates have not prevailed in a World Series since 1925.
But the finale, in Forbes Field, is a wild affair all afternoon long. Trailing 7-4 going into the bottom of the eighth, Pittsburgh puts together a five-run inning to lead 9-7. In the ninth, Mickey Mantle's single scores Bobby Richardson, Yogi Berra's infield smash plates Gil McDougald and the game is knotted 9-9.
Enter Bill Mazeroski, the Pirates' lead-off man in the ninth. Tapping the dirt off his spikes with his bat, he turns to Yogi Berra and says: "It's over. I'm gonna hit it out."
"It's not over 'til it's over," Berra answers.
"Over," Mazeroski repeats. "Out-and-out over. As soon as it's out, it's over."
"What're you doing when the game's over?" Berra asks.
"Going out," Mazeroski answers. "Over dinner, gonna work out my new contract. If I don't get over $25,000, I'm out."
"Yer gonna be out if you don't get this at-bat over," the umpire interjects.
"Okay, tell him to throw one over, and I'll put it out."
"It's not out 'til it's out," Berra says.
After taking ball one from the Yanks' Ralph Terry, the second baseman gets a slider at the letters. Before Berra can snatch it away, Mazeroski swings, connects and pulls the pitch out toward the vine-covered left-center-field wall. Just like that, it's out. And it's over.
So is America's love affair with a game. Welcome to Bergen County, folks. Stay a while.
Let's hope professors at Colorado State University popped no quizzes Monday morning.
By all accounts, the public ecstasies that ruled Fort Collins this weekend in the wake of the Rams' shocking 21-16 upset of sixth-ranked Arizona were fueled by hops and malt aplenty. Those students who didn't show up for Animal Husbandry 201 after their revels should be forgiven: They were eating Advils and chuckling about the Sports Illustrated jinx.
Simply put, this is the greatest moment in Colorado State's embattled football history. The Rams are 6-0 this season, having knocked off mighty Brigham Young in Provo and taken the sting out of the Desert Swarm in Tucson. CSU's number-thirteen ranking in the new Associated Press football poll represents a ten-slot jump from last week.
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Forget it, Notre Dame. You're number seventeen. Get lost, Syracuse. You're eighteen. Boomer Sooner? Twenty-two. Rose Bowl winners Wisconsin? Twenty-three. Never have the Rams breathed such rarefied air.
In fact, as CSU reloads to face Texas-El Paso Saturday at Hughes Stadium, only one thing sticks in the craw: The undefeated Colorado Buffs may have sleepwalked through their win over lowly Missouri Saturday, but they're ranked number four in that AP poll.
In a fair world, the Rams and Buffs would smash horns this season. And CSU, long the poor relative, would finally get a real chance to cast out its old demons.
Alas, drinking beer, beating Utah and winning the Holiday Bowl will have to do this autumn on College Avenue.