Monday, October 14, 2013

Miracle Men excerpt: Game 3, 1988 NLCS -- Dodgers at Mets

This is an excerpt from my recent book: "Miracle Men: Hershiser, Gibson & the Improbable 1988 Dodgers." You can order a copy here, here, or at most major bookstores.

Chapter 15
Saturday, October 9, 1988
New York
Dodgers vs. Mets
NLCS Game 3

The Mets were still steamed at the David Cone drama. They weren’t happy about what he said and how those words appeared in print. But they were even more upset at the crude and obscene things the Dodgers yelled at Cone from their dugout.
“Sportsmanship is out,” was the first sentence in a story in The New York Post. The Mets vowed they would get revenge. They had a pretty good idea how to do it. They just had to wait for the right moment.
They would wait through the travel day. They would wait through another day, after rain postponed Game 3 from Friday to Saturday. They would wait until late in Game 3, when the opportunity presented itself.
Because of the rainout, and because of the fragile condition of John Tudor’s hip and elbow and shoulder, Orel Hershiser started Game 3 on three days rest. Hershiser considered it a blessing, not a detriment. Two of the shutouts during The Streak came on three days rest. The sinker worked better when he wasn’t as rested. Plus, Hershiser was still angry about how Game 1 ended, and he was eager to get back on the mound.
Roger McDowell looks at the rain that plagued Game 3
In retrospect, Hershiser thought Game 3 should have been postponed yet another day. The temperature at first pitch was 43 degrees. The wind was blowing at 10 mph. The game started at 12:20 pm in New York, and it was so overcast, it looked like it was already a night game. In the official box score for the game, the field condition is described as “soaked.”
Mets owner Nelson Doubleday wanted a night game so the field would have more time to dry out. Doubleday fumed to Newsday that television was “screwing the national pastime.... This is the Fall Classic and we have to change things because the networks want to make money off us and off college football and pro football? When do we start making sense? They should come to us and ask us when we are going to play the games. I don’t want my guys playing on a soggy field. I don’t want a game decided because somebody’s outfielder slipped on wet grass. TV shouldn’t want it, either.”
Hershiser was convinced the only reason the game was played was because it was the playoffs and they needed to fit the game into the schedule. The A’s beat the Red Sox that day to go up 3–0, and they were ready for a sweep in Oakland. Hershiser wrote the following in his 1989 book:
“Shea Stadium was so muddy and sloppy it was like playing in a pigsty. The tarp had protected the field before we started, but by the fourth inning it was a like a soup bowl. With the temperature in the forties, I wore long underwear, my long-sleeved sweatshirt, and a dickey. A lot of our guys moaned about having to play at all, but it was the same for both teams. I tried to encourage them, saying that whoever was the toughest was going to win.”
Hershiser walked two batters in the first inning. He had trouble with his footing because he was worried that he would slip and fall. He also struggled to get a solid grip on the ball. Pitching coach Ron Perranoski noticed that Hershiser wasn’t bending his back enough because his footing was tentative. Hershiser was able to get out of the first inning without any runs allowed.
Kirk Gibson, the native of Michigan, would call it the coldest game he ever played in. He compared it to taking an ice bath for nine innings. The conditions got worse as the game went along. Midway through at-bats, hitters would try to dry their bat by wiping it between their legs or under their arms. The grounds crew worked on the infield between every half-inning, spreading Diamond Dry on the ground to soak up the moisture.
Ron Darling struggled even more than Hershiser. He issued two walks to start the second inning. On a sacrifice bunt, 10-time Gold Glove–winning first baseman Keith Hernandez (he won his 11th in 1988) threw the ball away to score one run. Jeff Hamilton’s groundout scored another run.
In the third inning, Sax went back to the blueprint. He singled to right, stole second base, went to third on a slow roller to Darling, and scored on a grounder to second base by Gibson. It was 3–0 Dodgers.
In the bottom of the third, the Mets answered. Gregg Jefferies, who walked in the first inning, singled to center. It was his fifth time reaching base in six plate appearances against Hershiser.
Hernandez crushed a ball to left field that he thought was a home run for sure. But with the wind blowing in, and in the damp conditions, the ball didn’t carry. Gibson caught it on the warning track. Strawberry followed with a liner to right, a double that trimmed the Dodgers’ lead to 3–1.
In the fifth, the field would nearly impact another play. Mookie Wilson hit a line drive to left field that Gibson pursued. Gibson slipped on the grass, fell to his knees, staggered back up to his feet, and made a diving catch. Gibson would change his shoes after the inning. But they just made bigger divots.
The sixth inning would bring more drama and more problems from the conditions.
Hernandez singled to start the inning. Strawberry singled to left, and Hernandez momentarily stopped at second base, until he saw Gibson bobble the wet ball. Hernandez started running again, slipped on the muddy field, stumbled on his way to third base, and fell on his chest. Ultimately, he tried crawling to third base and was easily tagged out.
The out proved to be crucial. Kevin McReynolds reached on a throwing error by third baseman Jeff Hamilton, another casualty of the poor field conditions. Howard Johnson hit into a fielder’s choice for what should have ended the inning.
Instead, Carter singled to right to score a run. It was 3–2. Wally Backman hit a grounder between first and second. As Hershiser sprinted over to cover first base, he saw first baseman Mickey Hatcher just barely get a glove on the ball. If he missed the ball entirely, Sax fields it and throws out Backman. But by touching the ball, it slowed down too much. Everybody was safe. Game 3 was tied 3–3.
In the eighth, Roger McDowell struck out Mike Marshall and John Shelby. Scioscia hit a slow comebacker. McDowell backhanded the ball, slipped on the field, and threw the ball into right field. The field conditions were officially a joke.
Hamilton reached on an infield single. Then Mike Davis pinch hit for Alfredo Griffin and drew a walk. It wouldn’t be the last time that month that Davis would hit for Griffin and draw a walk. The bases were loaded.
Lefty Danny Heep pinch hit for Hershiser. Davey Johnson countered with Randy Myers, a lefty. Lasorda countered that move, hitting Mike Sharperson for Heep. Sharperson worked a seven-pitch walk, forcing in a run. The Dodgers led 4–3.
Lasorda needed six outs to secure this one-run victory. Lasorda handed the ball to Jay Howell, who pitched two innings 15 times in the regular season, eight times getting a save. The first batter Howell faced was Kevin McReynolds.
The game was three hours old, and the weather had gotten worse. It was colder. A steady drizzle had fallen the entire game, and this was after a day and night of hard rain. The field was a marsh. Howell’s first three pitches were balls. The next two pitches were out of the strike zone, but McReynolds swung and fouled them off.
On the ABC telecast, there was mention of a black spot on Howell’s glove. Mets first-base coach Bill Robinson told manager Davey Johnson that Howell was tugging on the glove between pitches. Johnson waited another pitch, saw the same tugging, and approached home-plate umpire Joe West about what he saw.
Photo courtesy of LA Times
Sportsmanship, indeed, was out.
West went to the crew chief, Harry Wendelstedt, and the two walked to the mound to see Howell’s glove. Second baseman Steve Sax, first baseman Tracy Woodson, and catcher Rick Dempsey went to the mound to find out what was going on. The Dodgers’ dugout was clueless. They thought maybe Howell went to his mouth, and a ball would be called, thereby leading to a McReynolds walk.
“When they came out to check, I walked to the mound,” said Woodson, now the head coach at Valparaiso University. “I knew I wanted to coach and manage. I walked in a lot. If Perranoski came out to the mound, I would always go out there. I wanted to hear what was being said, and I wanted to learn. I wanted to be involved. [The pine tar] was on there. Wendelstedt was using his thumb to rub and see what was on there.”
Wendelstedt and West ejected Howell for having a foreign substance on his glove. Howell offered no protest as he walked off the mound.
“The place went nuts,” Woodson said. “I remember seeing Jay Howell’s face. He was just shocked. I didn’t know anything about it.
Sax added, “It was flagrant. It wasn’t happenstance that a bunch of pine tar ended up on his glove.”
In the 2001 book True Blue, Howell said the following: “Guys have been using it for a million years. Most hitters don’t give a shit. They don’t care about pine tar. They don’t like spitballs. Anyway, I’m pitching to Kevin McReynolds. Then Davey Johnson comes walking out of their dugout. Davey says to Harry Wendelstedt, ‘Take a look at his glove.’ He turns around and throws me out of the game. I said, ‘Harry, what the fuck are you doing? Why don’t you just take the glove? I’ll get another glove.’ But it’s too late. The fans are going bananas in New York. And I go into the dugout and I’m thinking, This is bullshit. David Cone is using a black glove. Doc Gooden uses a black glove. Are you kidding me? There’s no mystery why guys use a black glove.”
The rowdy crowd at Shea Stadium chanted “L-A Cheats! L-A Cheats!” Sitting next to owner Peter O’Malley and their wives, hearing the abuse from Mets fans, general manager Fred Claire steamed.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that, during the commotion after the ejection, one Mets relief pitcher hurried into the clubhouse and changed gloves.
Alejandro Pena was forced to enter the game cold, without properly warming up, which enraged the Dodgers even more. Pena’s first pitch was a ball, so McReynolds was aboard. McReynolds was forced out on a bad bunt by Howard Johnson, who made up for it by stealing second base. Carter flew out for the second out—and maybe Pena could somehow escape trouble.
Backman had other ideas. The second baseman crushed a double to right- center and the game was tied. Pinch hitter Lenny Dykstra walked, and that was it for Pena.
Next came Orosco. Mookie Wilson singled home the go-ahead run. Orosco hit Jefferies with a pitch to load the bases, and he walked Hernandez to force home another run. Ricky Horton entered the game next, and Strawberry singled home two more runs. It was a five-run inning and an 8–4 Mets lead.
Photo courtesy of NY Daily News
The Dodgers went quietly in the ninth—against David Cone, of all people— to end a 3-hour, 44-minute game that wasn’t anything resembling a masterpiece, but a classic for sure.
The Dodgers kept the clubhouse closed for 25 minutes after the game, 15 minutes longer than the usual 10-minute cooling-off period. When the doors opened, Howell knew what was awaiting him. He answered every question. He admitted putting pine tar on his glove but denied it was to gain an unfair advantage by making the ball move.
“The resin [bag] doesn’t help on a cold day like this, and the ball gets so slippery you can’t even grip it,” Howell said that day. “All the [pine tar] is there for is to help me grip the ball. I regret all this. But I wasn’t doing it to make the ball move any funny way.”
That’s not what the Mets thought.
Remember, the Mets were convinced that Mike Scott was scuffing the baseball during the 1986 playoffs. They had what they thought was evidence, a bunch of balls with scuff marks, but Scott was never caught with any foreign substances.
Remember too, this was a time when players were getting caught cheating regularly. In 1987 alone, Twins pitcher Joe Niekro was caught with an emery board in his back pocket, Phillies pitcher Kevin Gross was found with a strip of sandpaper glued to the heel of his glove, cork was found in the broken bat of Astros outfielder Billy Hatcher (who claimed it was pitcher Dave Smith’s bat), and Howard Johnson’s bat was confiscated twice (but never found illegal) after public accusations by Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog.
The tip on Howell originated from a butcher shop in Covington, Tennessee. That’s where Tucker Ashford, a former teammate of Howell in 1982 with Triple A Columbus in the Yankees organization, was working when he observed how dark Howell’s cap was in Game 1.
Ashford, a former minor league coach in the Mets’ organization, didn’t remember Howell throwing a curveball that broke as much as it did in Game 1. Ashford suspected that Howell was using pine tar, or some foreign substance, so he called Mets director of minor league operations Steve Schryver, who relayed the information to Davey Johnson.
“Certain pitchers have certain reputations,” Johnson said.
“We knew Howell had a great breaking ball, and this kind of confirms that he had a little help,” Carter said.
Howell’s best defense came from Keith Hernandez, an unlikely source. “I feel badly for him because I don’t think he was trying to make the ball do anything. He was just trying to get a grip on it. If the Dodgers would lose their best reliever now, that just wouldn’t be fair.”
Fred Claire didn’t care about Howell’s intent. A rule was a rule. The commissioner’s office once called Claire, annoyed that the Dodgers placed more calls than any other team in the league about rules, and was concerned that Claire was trying to find loopholes in the rules. In Claire’s mind, you went right up to the edge of the rulebook and looked for every edge possible. But you didn’t cross the line. Ever. Claire was livid in the stands but needed to hold his composure. Once the game was over, Claire stormed into Lasorda’s office.
“You bet I was pissed,” Claire said 25 years later. “I wasn’t quite sure what happened. I went into the clubhouse and said, ‘You get Jay in here. You get Perranoski in here. I don’t know what the fuck happened, but whatever happened, I want it declared exactly what happened. We don’t cheat. Whatever the fuck happened, nobody better say anything other than exactly what happened. Period.’ I was pissed. I’m still pissed today.”
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To read the excerpt from Game 1 of the 1988 NLCS, click here.
To read age excerpt from Game 2 of the 1988 NLCS, click here.
To order your copy of Miracle Men, click here.