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September 15, 2019 | Rome, Italy

Catch the ball!

By | 2018-03-21T18:19:03+02:00 April 1st, 2005|First Person|
Buckner's error of infamy.
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catch. A missed catch. There always seems to be a catch in life. Something that makes all the difference or that leaves you wanting. Something that decides the matter for better or worse.

The ability to catch a baseball is not the most appreciated part of the American pastime. The teams that make it to the World Series, baseball’s Holy Grail, are great for all the obvious reasons: Their batters hit with power and their pitchers pitch with blazing speed. World Series games usually involve players who do better than their counterparts in the time it takes for the game to progress from April cool through August heat to the ritual nights of October.

But it’s always been the little things, the defensive gems, that make the difference — and mold memory, at least my own.

I remember vividly the Baltimore Oriole’s Brooks Robinson’s fielding clinic in the 1970 World Series against the earliest version of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, the team with Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan. Day after day, the “human vacuum cleaner” — as Reds slugger Lee May dubbed Robinson — turned amazing plays at third to thwart potential Cincinnati rallies. My young buddies and I would watch the replays again and again as a diving Brooksie extended himself flat out over the third base bag while catching the ball at the same time. He would then, somehow, miraculously, right himself, turn and gun out frustrated Reds runners at first.

It was this display that drove home something I had already known, though not to the degree Brooksie made apparent to me: In baseball, you have to catch the ball. It’s a big deal.

As an aspiring young player catching the ball was not of paramount importance to me. I liked to hit the ball and was pretty good at it. Catching it was another story. After a 1968 game where I got three hits but made three errors at first base, my Little League coach Rich Demmel stuck me with the nickname “Hawk” — I was nine. “You play just like Hawk Harrelson,” he said. That is, I bumbled in the field like the soon-to-be reigning American League RBI champion Ken “Hawk” Harrelson of the Boston Red Sox. To this day, old friends call my office and ask for “the Hawk”; a few of my business partners call me by that name. All my friends and family do.

Ah yes, there is always a catch in life.

Perhaps it’s the missed catches that, more than anything, change the life of fans. In 1924, the New York Giant’s legendary manager John McGraw inexplicably left rookie Fred Lindstrom, 18-years-old, at third for the end of the seventh game of the Series against the Washington Senators. Twice, in the eighth inning and later in the twelfth inning, a ground ball hit something — a pebble, a stone; no one knows for sure — and bounced wildly over Lindstrom’s head. Many thought Lindstrom should have caught the second ball hit his way. That he didn’t resulted in a Washington win and the team’s only World Championship.

Lindstrom had 10 hits in the Series. After his playing days he went on to coach at Northwestern University. For 17 years he was the postmaster of Evanston, Illinois. The Veterans Committee elected him to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976. But he is forever remembered as the guy who cost the Giants a Series by booting the ball at third.

A missed catch can sometimes define you.

Bill Buckner’s miscue at first in game six of the 1986 World Series remains a nightmare for Red Sox faithful everywhere. My brother, Kevin, a die-hard Sox fan who listens to Boston games every summer evening from the back porch of his eastern Pennsylvania home, will not discuss the Buckner play in mixed company. Privately he confides that Buckner should never have been in the game. “(Red Sox Manager John) McNamara replaced him with (Dave) Stapleton all season and postseason long; Bill should have been on the bench.” But McNamara wanted Buckner — the 1980 batting champion who would play 22 years in the big leagues, amassing 2,715 hits — on the field when the Red Sox won. He was a big part of the team that year; it was understandable. Right?

But with two outs in the tenth inning, the New York Mets battled back to tie the game 5-5. Several times in the inning, the Red Sox were a strike away from their first World Championship in 68 years (they’d have to wait 18 more years, until last season, to get one). Then, on the 10th pitch of his at bat, the Mets Mookie Wilson topped a ball down the first base line. Buckner reached down — and the ball trickled through his legs. Ray Knight streaked home, into the jubilant arms of his waiting teammates, with the winning run. All of Boston groaned as another New York team celebrated wildly at its expense. Game seven was an anticlimactic win by the Mets. Bill Buckner, the great player, is remembered as the goat because sometimes he missed the ball. It’s a big deal.

But while the woes of Lindstrom and Buckner broke hearts, St. Louis Cardinal Curt Flood’s misplay of Detroit Tiger Jim Northrup’s line drive to centerfield in the seventh inning of game seven of the 1968 Series changed the game forever. A seven-time Golden Glove winner described as “The Best Centerfielder in Baseball” by Sports Illustrated that year, Flood broke in on the ball instead of waiting to read its trajectory. Two runs scored before he, after turning and stumbling, retrieved the ball near the outfield fence. The Tigers went on to win the game 4-1, defeating Bob Gibson en route to their first World Championship since 1945.

The subsequent winter Flood was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies — allegedly because the misplay had angered Auggie Busch, the beer magnate owner of the Cardinals. The official word was that Flood was over the hill and that his $90,000 salary was too steep.

Then it happened. Flood refused to report to the Phillies training camp, choosing instead to retire. Eventually the Major League Players Association joined with Flood to contest baseball’s reserve clause, which allowed Major League Baseball owners to trade players at their discretion. The players themselves had no say in the matter. “I’m a human being” Flood said. “I’m not a piece of property.”

Flood would lose his law suit against Major League Baseball, but his challenge — brought about ostensibly by a failed catch and a trade — ushered in the free agency era. Today, ballplayers have the right to be free agents after six years in the league. And Flood is remembered as someone who didn’t let a missed catch define him.

Missed catches pale in comparison to catches made. The made catches are so much more spectacular.

I played centerfield during my junior high school days. By then I really liked chasing down fly balls. It was during an after-school game that I made my catch. The bases were loaded with one out when a tall player smashed a low liner to right centerfield. I broke for it as the ball came off the bat. Neither of the other outfielders moved; it was as if I was the only one who saw the ball. At the last minute, I dove and I slid, and found the ball lodged in my mitt. The crowd, all ten of them, and coaches and my parents, went wild. Or so I recall.

I can still see Oakland Athletic Joe Rudy stretching higher and impossibly higher in Game 2 of the 1972 World Series to catch a towering smash by Dennis Menke of the Reds. His silhouette and the shadow of the descending ball make his arcing, backhanded stab against the hideous outfield wall of Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium into something surreal, conjured from magic. “I didn’t think I had a chance,” Rudi said afterward. “I thought it was gone.”

Gone.

That’s what Joe DiMaggio thought in Game 6 of the 1947 Series. Trailing 8-5 in the sixth inning, the Yankees had two runners on base as the Yankee Clipper stepped to the plate.

Immediately, DiMaggio drove a prodigious shot into the depths of Yankee Stadium’s left centerfield gap known as “Death Valley.” A little-known Dodger utility player, Al Gionfriddo, who had been shading the Yankee slugger to centerfield, somehow made his way to the short bullpen wall and robbed the Yankee legend of a three-run homer. The Dodgers went on to win the game 8-6. Gionfriddo was gone after the end of the year, never to play in another Major League game. The Yankees went on to win Game 7 and take the Series from the “Bums,” the affectionate nickname for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Gionfriddo was gone — even though he was the difference.

Eight years later, a Dodger made another great catch and the unthinkable occurred. It was Game 7 of the 1955 World Series between the same Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees. Dodger pitcher Johnny Podres had staked his team to a 2-0 lead through eight innings when Yogi Berra, the Yankee’s All-Star catcher, came to bat. In left field stood Sandy Amoros, a slight, left-handed substitute for the Dodgers who had just entered the game as a defensive replacement. Yogi sliced the first pitch just fair down the left field line. Somehow Amoros got to the ball, caught it, and stopped himself before crashing into the right field foul wall. Spinning, he hit cutoff man Pee Wee Reese, who relayed the ball to Gil Hodges, who doubled up Gil McDougal at first base. An inning later, the Dodgers finally won the World Series. The Bums no longer had to wait until next year. Next year was now — because of Amoros.

Other great catches come to mind: Willie May’s impossible over-the-shoulder play in the 1954 Series; Tommy Agee’s and Ron Swoboda’s snares for the Miracle New York Mets during their unlikely 1969 win over the vaunted Orioles; Yankee Bobby Richardson’s catch of the San Francisco Giant Willie McCovey’s streaming line drive to end the 1962 Series in yet another Yankee victory. (I still remember the chills going down my spine when I saw Richardson’s caught ball under glass in Cooperstown a few years back.) Time does not diminish the greatness of these catches because the game remains the same. The dimensions, the rules — all the same. The disposition or wealth of modern players, their proclivity towards striking, their moodiness and pampered pouting: none of it alters the beauty of the great catch.

In a way, the catches are portable. They can be transferred to our own lives, our own play.

Last year, I helped coach my seven-year-old son Daniel’s little league team to a respectable 13-6 season. I was very impressed by my little boy’s fielding. He made a few backhanded grabs at first base during the spring campaign that I — the Hawk — could never have.

It was during Danny’s last playoff game against the Northampton Orioles that the importance of the catch, of being caught, became ours. His team was losing by one run in the top of the last inning. The first batter nailed a screamer down the first base line and Danny just couldn’t get to it. The runner advanced to the second. The next batter tore a liner just over Danny’s head. He normally caught such balls, but this one tipped off the top of his glove. The runner on second scored and the man player who hit the line drive advanced to third.

Tears rolled down Danny’s face. The pitcher struck out the next batter, and the next. Now, the batter at the plate represented the last out of the inning. He grounded the pitcher’s first offering hard down the first base line — right at Danny. Wet-faced and silently sobbing, he deftly handled the hardest ball hit his way all day, stepping on the bag for the final out and tossing the ball to the mound like a sage old veteran.

There’s always a catch. Some are made and others missed. Often, they make all the difference in the world.

— Christopher F. Lloyd is a certified public accountant based in Allentown, Penn. He has two sons, Daniel and Brian, and has coached baseball and basketball.

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