Monday, October 17, 2005

Some Memorable Sports Moments

ESPN has their greatest, funniest, weirdest or whatever sports moments of all time. I just have moments I remember just because they were funny or unusual; many involve the teams I grew up following. Most of them will never be in those “of all time lists”, but I like them.

-- How to freak out an All-Star hitter: Jim Kern was a fireballing pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, appearing in his first (and only, if I recall properly) All-Star game. His first warmup pitch was 8 feet over the catcher's head; so was the second. The third was 8 feet short of the plate. And so it went for all his warmup pitches. I wish I could remember who the batter was that watched this display. All I recall for sure is that he did not dig in at the plate. So Kern grooved three pitches down the heart of the strike zone to strike him out. Quite possibly the greatest psych job of all time.

-- The “Mad Hungarian” gets shown up: Al “Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky was a relief pitcher for the Royals. He had a fu-manchu mustache, a maniacal glare, and a routine before each batter that was geared to intimidate. He would go behind the mound, head down, shoulders hunched, in some sort of deep concentration. He would then pound the ball into his glove and stride onto the rubber to face his victim. It helped that he was a sometimes-wild fastball pitcher. One the Indians were in KC to play the Royals. Hrabosky had come in to save the game, and Cleveland had sent a rookie (whose name I forget, regrettably) to pinch hit. When Hrabosky turned to stalk to the mound, he saw the Indians batter behind home plate, shoulders hunched, clutching his bad fit to squeeze sawdust out of it, mimicking his routine. Hrabosky was not amused; he struck the rookie out on four pitches.

-- Size doesn't matter: In the sixties, the Euclid, Ohio (just outside Cleveland) high school basketball team was everyone's pick to win the state championship, primarily on the strength of their 6 foot 9 inch center, Al Vilchek. They easily made it to the state semi-finals, where they were to meet Columbus South. No one on the Columbus team even approached Vilchek in height, but the team was loaded with superb athletes. To take the opening tap, they pitted one of their sub-6 foot guards to jump against Vilchek; Columbus won the tip. This team that was so short (tallest kid was maybe 6-4) was packed with remarkable leapers. They jumped to shoot, they jumped to pass. And pass they did; the ball seldom touched the floor. When Vilchek went up for his first shot, it was gorilla-blocked into the stands. After 10 minutes, Vilchek was done; he couldn't shoot, he couldn't block, he couldn't rebound without one of these leaping smurfs getting in the way. The Euclid coach had mercy on Al, pulling him early in the second half to salvage his ego. Columbus, of course, trampled Euclid and ultimately won the state title.

-- “Baby Huey” was no Babe Ruth: This isn't exactly a moment, but Bob Chance's career with the Cleveland Indians didn't last much longer than that. At first, it looked like the Indians had a gem in the genial first baseman who could hit a ball a country mile. Chance, whose physique reminded people of the the cartoon character “Baby Huey” (a large pear-shaped sort of guy), started the season belting balls all over the place, gathering bunches of homers while hitting over .400. It looked like the Indians were going to be set at first base for years. Unfortunately, Bob had a weakness for low pitches, and pitchers around the league began to exploit it big time. Chance would swing at anything around his ankles, even balls in the dirt. The average plummeted, the bench beckoned, and “Baby Huey” ended up playing in Japan. However, not all was bad, because Bob was very popular in Japan, although he never did conquer the low pitch.

-- Open field? What's the open field? Back in the “three yards and a cloud of dust” days of Woody Hayes, Ohio State fullbacks had a simple task: take the handoff, put both hands on the ball, and plow straight ahead. Don't juke, don't dance, don't run to daylight; just plow. For Bob Butts, this style fit him like a glove. But one glorious game, Butts got his handoff, dived into the line ... and found an opening! Suddenly he was in the open field, galloping like a rhinoceros through the secondary. With both hands still on the ball, Butts rumbled down the field, looking for all the world like he was lost. He continued on the same path he had been going when he hit the line, never even turning when he got near the sidelines, so he went out of bounds on his own. I don't think he ever broke a run like that again, which is just as well.

-- Watch the bouncing ball: Steve Yeager, long time catcher for the LA Dodgers, got injured in many and varied ways. One reason you see catcher's masks with a chin flap is because Yeager managed to get a piece of a broken bat stuck in his neck. But, there are worse things than a splinter in the neck. During one televised game, a batter fouled a ball into the ground which bounced backwards into Yeager. Yeager went down in a heap. The announcers somehow managed to miss where the ball went, so they speculated on a knee injury. When the replay came up (and it was a beauty, super slo-mo from the dugout camera, providing an unimpeded view of the trajectory of the ball), showing clearly that, with the angle of the bounce, even his protective cup was going to be scant solace. One announcer said, “Let's see what happened to Yeager. Okay, there's the ball hitting the ground and bouncing ... oooh ... well, no wonder he's down.”

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