Sunday, August 14, 2011
Ernie, Bobby, and August 1st, 1978
Though I am unsure, my guess is that I had seen the Braves before while attempting to manipulate the UHF contraption (I could waste a lot of time explaining UHF to the younger generation, but that would just make me feel 40). I think we got a better picture using an ordinary wire clothes hanger on the back of the TV, which means Joan Crawford must have beaten the living daylights out of some TVs back in her day. Then, one day, the Trenton Cable Company was founded bringing clarity to the vacuum tubes and some of the most fond moments of childhood.
It was, at best, primitive cable TV for a somewhat primitive part of the country - one time just after service was restored, the explanation for an outage appeared on the public access channel, a piece of poster board held in front of a black-and-white camera that read "We apologize for the interruption in service. Someone shot the cable last night." Like most everything else in Dade County, the cable company was probably owned by our version of Boss Hogg, the "elected" Commissioner of Roads and Revenue who, as they say, must have owned a Vaseline factory because his palms were so greased. But little boys didn't care about stuff like that back then. All that mattered was I got to see Gordon Solie call wrestling matches on Saturdays and the Braves just about every single day during the Summer. It was heaven, though the Braves were utter hell.
Since the year of my birth, the Braves had been winners only once, 1974 - the last hurrah for Hank Aaron, traded to the Milwaukee Brewers less than seven months after breaking Babe Ruth's career home run record that season. Atlanta was 88-74, good enough to tie for the lead in the National League East. The only problem was that the league had presaged this generation's lack of geographical sense and had placed the Braves in the West Division when the league was divided in two in 1969. That meant the Braves finished well behind the Big Red Machine from Cincinnati and the Dodgers, who would go to the World Series that year.
The Braves began 1978 from what had since become their natural habitat, 6th place in a six-team division - they had finished the previous two seasons there. They also began the year with a brand new manager, a guy who at one time was the "third baseman of the future" for the Yankees, and who instead finished his two-year big league career with nine homers and an 87 OPS+ on some forgettable New York teams. Bobby Cox was 37, two years younger than Knucksie - Braves star pitcher and, at the time, their only truly great player, Phil Niekro. Cox had a nice record as a minor league manager in the Yankees system plus a World Series ring as first-base coach for the Yankees' '77 team. Surely he couldn't have been any worse than Atlanta's skipper the year before - the year owner Ted Turner named himself manager for all of one game (a loss, of course) until National League president Chub Feeney banned The Ted from the dugout. The Braves would indeed win eight more games in '78 than in '77, yet finish last again. However, there was one glorious night at old Fulton County Stadium that summer.
Slightly more than 31,000 folks were at the ballpark on August 1, quite stunning since the Braves only averaged about 11,000 per game that ugly season. Usually, it took outstanding promotions such as "Wet T-Shirt Night" and "Headlock and Wedlock Night" (weddings before the game, Mr. Wrestling II and his brethren in the squared circle after the game) to draw more than mosquitos. The night before, the Braves had drawn an incredible 45,000 folks to watch Pete Rose extend his hitting streak to 44 games, still far away from Joe DiMaggio's 56-game record, but the closest anyone had ever come to Mr. Coffee. There was no reason to think The Gambler would not extend the streak to what would have been a new National League record. After all, starting for the Braves that night was a 24-year-old rookie left-hander; Larry McWilliams, making just his fourth start in the majors.
Larry Mac opened the game by walking Rose who, as was customary after drawing a walk with his ligament-straining, super duper batting squat, ran full speed to first. Rose would later score, and after Johnny Bench hit a two-run homer soon afterward., it looked like another typical night of viewing on WTCG, Channel 17. That meant Skip Caray, Ernie Johnson, and Pete Van Wieren would spend a good chunk of their call of the game cracking jokes about whatever horrid movie was coming on afterward. But the Braves' bats, which needed a Terminix treatment for much of the season, actually showed up that evening. Barry Bonnell, who swung the stick of Mormon conversion better than a baseball bit (among his converts: Dale Murphy), hit his first home run of the year, and the Braves were hanging tough.
Rose was up again in the 2nd inning and lined a shot up the middle. The hitting streak continued, except that it didn't. In what was likely the best defensive play of his career, McWilliams leaned as far to his right as a left-handed pitcher following through could, stuck out his glove, and the ball magically went in for the final out of the inning. Pete led off the 5th with a weak ground-out to short, and somehow, the Braves started to put the game out of reach in the bottom of the inning with a three-run bomb from Atlanta's answer to Gorgeous George in all his blond permed goodness, the man with less than two months in the bigs after refusing to play in the minors, Bob Horner.
Rose would next face the man who saw every part of the ballpark with every pitch, the underhanded Luis Tiant, and someone who had only been with the Braves as long as Bob Horner. Gene Garber came to Atlanta in a June 15th trade, from a playoff contender in Philadelphia to baseball purgatory. Gene was Atlanta's closer and came into the game to start the 7th inning. If you are younger than 30, you read that correctly. Most closers back then were real pitchers who pitched more than one inning unlike the vast majority of throwers masquerading as pitchers in today's closer world. Dave Collins led off the inning with a single, and it looked as if Pete had extended his streak with a line shot a few pitches later. But that line shot went directly into the glove of Horner at third base, who tossed to first a pre-center field Murphy to double off Collins. Fortunately for the man who would later be choke-slammed by Kane at Wrestlemania, Ken Griffey and Dave Concepcion singled after the double play, meaning Pete would get one more turn at the plate.
The Braves had put the game away with eight runs in the 7th and 8th, leading 16-4, and Rose due up third in the 9th inning. As any baseball fan knows, the gods (or, nowadays, Rupert Murdoch) always set up dramatic confrontations with an eye to detail, so we knew Mr. Parlay Sheet would potentially be the final out of the game. In an atmosphere that wouldn't be replicated until the Braves opened the '82 season with 13 straight wins, the future chicken farmer struck out the giant turkey with a series of lollipop change ups. Van Wieren screamed into the mic "the hitting streak is over!", as animated as The Professor would ever be in the broadcast booth. Rose and Reds manager Sparky Anderson would later complain that Garber didn't normally throw that many change ups, that he pitched Rose as if it were the seventh game of a World Series. But as Garber accurately pointed out, for the Braves it might as well have been game seven, and, come on, Garber's fastball was slower than his herky-jerky motion, much less his change.
It may have been the highlight of Cox's first and mostly forgettable tenure as manager of the Atlanta Braves. The memories, the championships, the reason his number 6 was retired and he was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame wouldn't take place until many years later. This past Friday, the day of Cox's induction, Ernie Johnson passed away. It also would have been Skip Caray's 72nd birthday had we not lost him three years ago. Good gracious, it wasn't that long ago, was it?