Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

I didn't grow up in a major–league town — or anywhere close to one, so I rarely saw major–league baseball in person.

But a couple of times, when I was about 11 or 12, my family took summer trips to St. Louis, where we went to see the Cardinals play in the old Busch Memorial Stadium.

To a young boy from Conway, Ark., it was like a trip to Mecca — even though I have been a Dodger fan most of my life.

On one of those occasions, we were privileged to see two of the best pitchers of my childhood, Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson, pitch against each other.

That game lived up to expectations. It was a low–scoring pitchers' duel, and it went into extra innings (both Seaver and Gibson had been relieved at that point). Unfortunately, we missed the ending. It was unseasonably cool in St. Louis that evening, and my parents decided to take my brother and me to the motel's courtesy van to listen to the finish and wait for the others to join us.

Consequently, we heard the dramatic finish on the radio — St. Louis' Ted Sizemore hit an inside–the–park home run.

Many years later, when I was working for a newspaper in north Texas, a co–worker of mine and I did a little projecting based on pitching rotations and determined that Nolan Ryan (who had just joined the Rangers) would be facing Boston's Roger Clemens in Arlington. We bought tickets ahead of time — and prayed that nothing (like rain or injury) would interfere.

Ryan and Clemens did face each other that day, as we expected, and that game also lived up to expectations. It was another low–scoring duel, and I later learned that Ryan, who was in his 40s by that time, had been throwing with back spasms since the second inning. He hung in there, though, until the Rangers took the lead with a two–run homer in the bottom of the eighth.

The Rangers went on to win the game.

Those are, without a doubt, the four best pitchers I have ever seen in person (although there was one time when I was visiting some friends in St. Louis and we went to see a Cardinal–Dodger game and we almost collided with Orel Hershiser as he was leaving the stadium and going across the street to his hotel and we were making our way back our car — but Hershiser didn't pitch that day and, besides, that's a story for another time), and those two pitchers' duels were extraordinarily entertaining.

But I will concede that Jim Kaplan just might be right when he writes about a game that was played 48 years ago today and calls it "the greatest game ever pitched."

Now, there have been many games that have been mentioned as the greatest game ever pitched, and Kaplan admits that in an article he wrote for Sports Illustrated.

"Opponents trot out the usual suspects," he writes, "like the 1–0 perfect game Cleveland's Addie Joss threw against the White Sox' Ed Walsh on October 2, 1908; the 26–inning, 1–1 tie pitched in 1920 by Joe Oeschger of the Boston Braves and Leon Cadore of the Brooklyn Dodgers; Harvey Haddix's unprecedented 12–inning, 1959 perfect game that he lost in the 13th; and Sandy Koufax's 1965 perfecto in which losing pitcher Bob Hendley of the Cubs allowed one hit and two base runners."

To use Kaplan's own word, those games — and others — were each "remarkable."

But the game played between the Milwaukee Braves and the San Francisco Giants on this day in 1963 was unique. "There was nothing to compare it to," Kaplan writes.

That's tough to dispute.

"On that day, a pair of future Hall of Famers, one with his best days behind him, the other with his career blossoming before him, engaged in a battle never seen before or since," Kaplan writes. "Spahn, already an icon, had debuted during World War II and was in the midst of his 13th and final 20–win season. Marichal, among the game's new breed of Latin stars who were changing the face of baseball, was en route to his first of six 20–win seasons."

That was similar, I guess, to the game I saw between Texas and Boston. Ryan was nearing the end of his career, Clemens was in the early stages of his.

But they didn't pitch against each other for 15 scoreless innings, as Marichal and Spahn did. A home run did decide the outcome of the Marichal–Spahn battle — but it came from the bat of one of the most prolific home run hitters in history, Willie Mays, who hit the 15th of what would be 38 home runs that season.

(Hank Aaron could have been the hero instead. He was in Milwaukee's lineup that day, but he went 0 for 6.)

I mean, what could possibly top that? Maybe Mickey Mantle bailing out Whitey Ford in a duel with Bob Lemon or something like that.

No such story exists in the annals of baseball, though, so I must conclude that Kaplan is right.

The Marichal–Spahn battle that was waged at Candlestick Park 48 years ago today is the greatest game ever pitched.

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