The heat of one of the National League’s best pennant races drove Juan Marichal batty – literally. The year before, his baseball team gagging uncontrollably, manager Gene Mauch succumbed to a pennant fever that threatened to send mercury bursting thru the top of the thermometer. A couple years after Marichal’s explosion, Detroit’s Dick McAuliffe broke Tigers fans hearts by grounding into a season-ending double play – the first time he’d done such a thing all year. Five years later, McAuliffe and his teammates whooped and hollered as they plopped manager Billy Martin into an ice-filled whirlpool, enjoying their vengeance over the Red Sox. In 1978, the Yankees demolished the Red Sox in Fenway Park in a four-game sweep called, aptly, The Boston Massacre.
The Tigers and Indians are duking it out in another one of those inaccurately described “pennant races.” It’s a divisional race, to be exact. The pennant can only be raised if you are the only team left standing when the two-tiered playoffs are done. And, with the Wild Card in the mix, even divisional races are diluted. Lose the AL Central, Bunkie? That’s OK; you can still qualify. Just beat out some other team in some other division. Wild stuff.
Regardless, the ballclubs from Detroit and Cleveland, a puddle-jumping flight over Lake Erie away from each other, are playing rock-paper-scissors with a division that, at times, nobody appears to want to win. It used to be that great “pennant races” were between two teams that responded from the other’s blows with one haymaker of their own. Now, it hardly matters if the victorious team has but 84 wins, or 88, or some other unworthy number. As long as it’s close, we proclaim it marvelous baseball theater.
But this isn’t a blow-by-blow race right now, between the Tigers and Indians. Lately, the Tigers lose and stagger – then the Indians respond with some bad baseball of their own. They’re trading blows alright – but both teams are mostly on the receiving end from a third party. The Indians lose, and Tigers fans are relieved, for the Tigers probably lost, too, and thus lost no ground. A two-game set in Cleveland this past week ended, predictably, in a 1-1 draw. Tied going in, tied going out. Nobody is seizing control.
The Tigers went into Yankee Stadium, which, if you listen to the media, might as well add “The Hostile Environment of” in front of its name on the building. Tigers announcers Mario Impemba and Rod Allen, who are actually OK in my book, used that term innumerable times in the first two games of the four-game series. The heralded rookie outfielder Cameron Maybin was summoned all the way from Double A ball just in time to make his MLB debut on Friday night.
“To come here, for your first big league game, and play in this hostile environment … ,” Allen said of Maybin. I don’t remember the rest of the sentence.
The Tigers grand-slammed their way to victory Thursday night. The Indians were idle. The Tigers moved a sliver ahead, by one-half game. Friday night, the Tigers lost. The Indians, no longer idle, beat the Tampa Bay Devil Rays – as well they should. The Indians now hold that sliver of a lead. Only in divisional races in sports can we identify something as being worth one-half game. You gotta love math. Which half, though?
It’s likely to be this close the rest of the way; Indians winning a couple, then losing a couple. Tigers doing the same. Countless nights when both teams lose. Back and forth it will go, and at times we will wonder what is so awful about winning the AL Central that causes the Tigers and Indians to treat it so disrespectfully.
Ah, then there’s the Wild Card. This Tigers series in the Bronx is being bantied about as being big because the Yankees – making another of their classic second half charges – are now leading the second and third place teams in the league for the consolation Wild Card playoff spot. The Tigers, last season, let a sure-thing division crown slip through their fingers, settling for being Kings of the Second Place Finishers – a.k.a. the Wild Card. Of course, they played that card all the way to the World Series. Some, like Pudge Rodriguez’s 2003 Florida Marlins, have played that Wild Card all the way to a world championship. Still doesn’t make it right, though.
There was no Second Place Crown in 1965, which might have gotten to Giants pitcher Marichal, he of our lead sentence. Angered by a ball thrown back to the pitcher by Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro – a ball that Marichal, the batter, thought nicked his ear – Marichal took his bat and slammed it down onto Roseboro’s skull. Several times. Battered and with blood running down his chest protector, a dazed Roseboro was aided by, of all people, Giants outfielder Willie Mays, who pulled the Dodgers catcher out of harm’s way. The ’65 Dodgers-Giants race was another in a series of classic season-long duels between the two bitter rivals. But Marichal’s violent act was certainly the most (in)famous incident of all those sprints to the finish line.
Marichal (far left) lets the pennant race heat get to him
Mauch, managing the Phillies in 1964, panicked when his team started to fritter away a six-game lead with 12 to play. He over-relied on his two ace starters, Jim Bunning and Chris Short, sometimes pitching them on two days rest. The Phillies lost 10 in a row, and by the time they won again, they had been eliminated from contention. The Phillies, as a franchise, reached the 10,000 loss mark this summer. They’re the first pro sports franchise to lose that many games. But 9,990 of those losses, combined, weren’t as painful as the ten suffered, in a row, late in the ’64 season.
In ’67, the Tigers, Red Sox, Twins, and White Sox engaged in a wild four-team race for much of the summer. It came down to the final weekend. The Tigers were forced to play doubleheaders on both Saturday and Sunday, due to earlier rainouts. If they could somehow win all four games, they’d be pennant winners, outright. Three-of-four would force a playoff between themselves and the Red Sox. But the Tigers could only manage to beat the visiting California Angels twice, surrendering the pennant to the Red Sox. McAuliffe, who hadn’t hit into a double play all season, accounted for the final two outs by grounding into one.
Five years later, the Tigers got back at the Red Sox, taking two of three from them at Tiger Stadium in the final weekend to win the AL East in the strike-shortened ’72 campaign. That’s when they dunked Martin in the icy whirlpool.
These were, like so many others not mentioned here, terrific races, in their own way. But each had one thing in common: you had to finish in first place to play on in October. How much of their luster would have been cut had finishing in second place also meant a trip to the postseason? They’d be not so wild, I would think.