And so we've come to the end. Episode 17 (covering the week ending September 20, 1977) marks the finale of This Week in Baseball's inaugural season. Most TV series have 24-episode runs, but MLB had the unique insight to choose a prime number. I assume this was due to commissioner Bowie Kuhn's powerful OCD.
As for the baseball season, most of the playoff spots are decided, but narrator Mel Allen is extremely excited about the one that's still being contested. "With days left to go in the season, one race remains, and it's a classic!" he squeals, referring to the ongoing battle in the AL East between the Yankees, Red Sox, and Orioles. We open with a shot of Yankee Stadium, packed with fans literally hanging from the rafters. Big crowds have come out for a three-game set between Red Sox and Yanks that will go a long way to deciding the postseason picture.
Game one brings a battle of rookie pitchers, as Boston's Mike Paxton and Yankee Ron Guidry both look sharp early. Louisiana Lightning is just a little bit better, limiting the Sox to 2 runs and 5 hits while striking out 8. Mickey Rivers belts the go-ahead homer in New York's 4-2 victory, inspiring hearty HOLY COW signs in stands. The rivalry has brought out some choice signage from the fans, as the folks in the crowd brandishing stylish GO YANKS banners and two-part REG-GIE placards.
Game two is a nail biter. Or, as Allen's puts it, "Tension tuned to a fine pitch, with artistry on the diamond!" Boston hurler Reggie Cleveland, who Allen dubs "a Yankee killer," goes for his eighth straight win against New York. Cleveland and Ed Figueroa match zeroes for 8 innings, while players from both sides rob opposing batters with amazing plays. Carl Yastrzemski makes a great catch to prevent a Reggie Jackson hit. Figueroa loads the bases with no outs in the fifth, but gets Fred Lynn to bounce into 1-2-3 double play and benefits from a comebacker from Yaz that bounces off the pitcher's legs. Reggie Jackson exacts revenge and then some by making a superb leaping catch at the right field wall to steal a hit from George Scott hit, then does the same to Bernie Carbo with a sliding catch. "Man alive!" Allen toots.
But as usual, Reggie does the most damage with his bat, as he reaches "Yankee killer" Cleveland for a walkoff two-run blast deep into right-center bleachers. The crowd goes bonkers as Reggie rounds the bases, so a phalanx of cops streams onto field to keep the peace. New York's finest are aided by what appears to be an American Legion marching band, I guess? TWIB recap readers will remember a similar sight from way back in episode five. If anyone has any insight as to who these red-capped people really are, please do not tell me. I'd rather think that Yankee Stadium security was once entrusted to sousaphone players.
Boston salvages the series finale behind the pitching of Luis Tiant, who Allen tells us "hypnotized the Yankee hitters with twists, twirls, and tantalizing curves." Oh my! The Sox also catch a break when Yankee pitcher Mike Torrez leaves with shoulder strain. Pressed into the unfamiliar role of longman, Yankee closer Sparky Lyle gets hammered by the Sox' lineup. He may have also been distracted by the grapefruit-sized wad of chaw in his mouth.
Baltimore remains in the hunt, and recently rattled off seven straight wins, but they shoot themselves in the foot in what even the cheery Allen is forced to call "one of season's most bizarre incidents." The Orioles are down 4-0 on a drizzly night up in Toronto, when Earl Weaver petitions the umpires to protest the presence of a tarp down the left field line, saying it could injure a player. The umps counter that it's league policy to leave a tarp open and ready during such weather. Presumably, they were also in no mood to do any favors for Weaver, the chronic ump-baiter. Weaver responds by taking his team off the field and refusing to return. Here's the offending tarp. You be the judge if this was a true hazard or if Weaver just felt like getting out of a cold September rain in Toronto.
As a result of Weaver's tarp gambit, Baltimore forfeits a game at a time when every win matters. The Orioles rebound somewhat by taking two of three in Boston behind the pitching of vet Jim Palmer and rookie Dennis Martinez. It's still inconceivable to me that a manager would ever do something like this, let alone with less than two weeks left in the regular season. If a skipper did that nowadays, the internet would explode with rage.
Meanwhile, to bolster their offense in the season's final days, the Yankees have picked up a new DH on the waiver wire: Dave Kingman (seen here in the Yanks' road grays). This means Kong has played for four teams this season; prior to coming to the Bronx, Kingman toiled for the Mets, Padres, and Angels. It takes a man of certain character to force his way onto four different rosters and one season. That certain character is usually referred to as "huge jerk."
After their series with the Sox, the Yanks travel to Detroit and sweep three games from the Tigers. Kingman crushes a homer into Tiger Stadium's upper deck, which is so completely devoid of fans I assume Detroit was gripped by a swine flu epidemic. During the Tigers series, Reggie belts his fifth longball in five days, a feat that earns him the final Gillette Special of the season. TWIB usually concludes its episodes by awarding the Gillette Special, but for this finale time Mel Allen mentions the accolade off-handedly, in a manner not befitting the grandeur of an award that has been bestowed upon players for, oh, a few months or so.
The Yanks then travel to Boston for their last two games of the season against the Sox. A sign at Fenway reminds us that the Sox are DOWN BUT NOT OUT. The Sox are aware of this, as we see Carlton Fisk and Butch Hobson dive into the stands for foul ball just like players on a team who are not out but perhaps a bit down. Fisk emerges from the scrum with ball in glove. Watching the actual play, it doesn't seem possible he even got a glove on the ball, let alone caught it on the fly. More likely, he managed to find the ball once he fell into the stands and convinced a gullible umpiring crew. But hey, you do what you gotta do in a pennant race, right Pudge?
In the same game as his glove gambit, Fisk belts a 3-run homer over Green Monster, while Reggie Cleveland regains the title of Yankee Killer by going the distance in a 6-3 win. What happens in the all-important final game of the season between these two teams? We don't know, because it's played a day after TWIB's arbitrary cut-off date of September 20. All we're left with is this poetic teaser from Allen: "Who will wax and who will wane? We may need to wait until the harvest moon of October to find out!" Well, I guess Mel Allen realness like that is just as good as knowing who actually won, right?
The rest of the TWIB season finale has the feeling of the last day of school: little new business, lots of yearbook signing and desk cleaning and magazine time. But I think TWIB is entitled to phone it in a little after 16 action-packed episodes in which they basically invented the sports highlight show, don't you? You don't? Wow, you're harsh.
First, TWIB pays tribute to the outstanding performances of 1977. Rod Carew of the Twins is the AL's batting star, as he leads majors in hits, run scored, and batting average. He has a shot to finish with the highest BA since Ted Williams hit .388 in 1957, and earlier this year was the first player to hold a .400 average as late as July since Williams hit .401 in 1941.
In the NL, Pittsburgh's Dave Parker is the late leader for the batting title, while Cincinnati's George Foster leads the league in homers and RBIs. Boston's George "Boomer" Scott leads the AL in dingers, and both he and Foster have a chance to become first players since Stan Musial to accumulate 400 total bases. In the AL home run race, however, Yankee Graig Nettles and Angel Bobby Bonds are close behind Scott. Larry Heisel of the Twins is challenging them as well, while also leading the league in RBIs. Allen reminds us that 1977 was a year of unprecedented offense—more homers were hit that year than in any previous season—and refers to it as "the year of the lively ball."
TWIB has a soft spot for speed, so the program makes sure to note that Freddie Patek of the Royals leads AL in steals. They also make sure to remind us that Freddy Patek is pocket-sized. "It looks like another season of 50 or more for the major league's smallest player!" Allen says. Frank Taveras of the Pirates leads the NL in stolen bases, as Allen predicts he "could hit the 70s" by the end of the 1977 campaign.
As TWIB informed us two weeks ago, Philadelphia's Steve Carlton was the first pitcher to 20 wins and continues to lead the majors in victories. Nolan Ryan leads the AL in wins and has notched his fifth straight season with 300+ Ks. "No one else has done this," Allen marvels, "not even Sandy Koufax or Bob Feller!" Here we see Ryan stalking off the mound with the stoic determination of an ol' cowhand. He'd have the same expression here if he'd just run some rustlers off his land or had to put down his beloved but rabies-ridden sheep dog.
The Cubs' Rick Reuschel was "quite a surprise" to Allen as anyone else, as he came out of nowhere to win 20 games and be selected as NL Pitcher of the Month twice. As for other notable hurlers, Tom Seaver earned his 200th career win and has chance to become first pitcher ever with 10 seasons of 200+ Ks. Both marks will come with Cincinnati, not the Mets, by the way. Sigh.
But in TWIB's eyes (yes, it has eyes), the firemen deserve the biggest spotlight. "This has surely been the year of the reliever," Allen opines, "featuring a remarkable number of bullpenners who could all compete for Cy Young honors." BIll Campbell of the Red Sox won 12 games and saved 27. Sparky Lyle also won 12, saved 24, and leads the AL in ERA. Tom Johnson of the Twins has most wins in relief (16), and has chance to match the all-time mark of 18 relief wins set by Roy Face in 1959. In the NL, Bruce Sutter was felled by an injury that coincided with the Cubs' slide from contention, but he still saved an impressive 28 games. Rollie Fingers (now with San Diego) leads all relievers with 33 saves. TWIB also points out that Pirate Rich Gossage has the majors' best ERA, and is totally okay with noting wins and ERA for relievers without mentioning that they come by these totals with far fewer innings than their starting counterparts.
As for redemption stories, Eric Soderholme missed all of 1976 due to injury, but has smacked 23 homers as a bargain basement pickup for the White Sox. TWIB declares Willie McCovey "the most remarkable of all comebacks," however as he's accumulated 26 homers and over 80 RBIs for the Giants at the tender age of 39.
This season, Pete Rose passed all time markfor hits by a switch hitter. He's gunning for his ninth season of 200+ hits, and already Allen insists that Rose's pace of career hits "threatens Ty Cobb's career mark." Speaking of Ty Cobb, Lou Brock just passed The Georgia Peach's all time steals mark. We're treated to a repeat of the feat as seen in episode 14, as Allen yells, "Go, Lou, go!" In his estimation, "that has to rate as the number one achievement of the year on the playing field." The off the field "award" goes to "the fans" for filling ballparks to the 37 million, "more than any year in the history of baseball." This is kind of like when a stand-up asks you to give yourself a round of applause for coming out and supporting live comedy. Mel declares 1977 "a season of all seasons!" which has to make 1976 feel real nice.
After a break, we close out the last TWIB of the year with a look back at the "weird" plays of 1977, beginning with another glimpse of Baltimore's bullpen rocking out. Then, the awarding of the "special" accolades for the season. Newly crowned steals champ Lou Brock gets a citation for this play we saw in episode 6, when he leaped over a Cubs catcher to elude a tag, then tried to deke him into abandoning the plate. "Stay with em, Lou!" Allen counsels
Most spectacular pitch of the year goes to Pedro Borbon of the Reds, who dropped a "super blooper" eephus pitch on Dave Parker back in episode 11. Most spectacular swing honors are taken by Lou Piniella, who just last week swung so wildly on a pitch he almost broke his neck.
Odell Jones wins "wildest way to be knocked out of the box." Back in episode 12, the Pirates pitcher fell off the mound mid-windup, then fired a ball that missed the plate by 20 feet. The sight is so crazy, even on second viewing, that Mel can't finish his signature "how bout that!" without cracking up.
"Best swim stroke in the outfield" goes to Larry Heisel, who dove for a ball in a wet Yankee Stadium outfield during episode 15, missed it, and came up with a face full of rain.
"Carl Yastrzemski takes the honor as the player least attached to his glove," Allen tells us as preamble to this gem from episode 5. Yaz leaped at the left field wall in Yankee Stadium, trying to take away a homer from the home team. He came back down without the ball, and without his leather.
Dan Driessen earns "player with the best cause to cry foul" for this odd incident from episode 9, wherein he ran for a foul ball near the first base stands and nearly caught it, only to have a fan deflect the ball away from him with an umbrella. It's a clear case of fan interference, and yet Driessen's complaints to the umpire fell on deaf ears.
A Cardinals employee receives "the ball girl most anxious to play the game" for this play from episode 10. In the execution of her duties, she nearly collides with the St. Louis third baseman. "Sorry, ma'am, only nine men to a team," Allen advises. Yes, as you can see, she is a grown woman yet is called a "ball girl" because hey, the 70s, man.
Also from episode 10: "Best disappearing act by a baseball." A line drive foul at Veterans Stadium was hit so hard it lodged between the lightbulbs in an auxiliary scoreboard. The scoreboard responded with this comment.
"Earl Weaver easily wins the award for the best rejection of an ejection," Allen says, as Weaver theatrically "throws out" the ump who ejected him, as seen in episode 14. A legendary moment in umpire now-thumbing, but for my money, the best manager theatrics came from Gene Mauch of the Tigers, who was see in that same episode going completely insane.
The "most confusion and profusion" award goes to the insane Pirates-Giants game highlighted in episode 4, during which fielders, baserunners, and umpires alike all forgot how to do their jobs. I shan't repeat the details here, because trying to understand them the first time almost broke my brain. Here's a highlight: the play in question ends with a player tagged out at home even though the ball is clearly sitting in the dirt, not in the catcher's glove. It was a banner day for stupid, my friends.
Unsurprisingly, the defensive play of year goes to the leaping catch Fred Lynn made way back in episode 2. In my humble opinion, TWIB showed many better catches than this one. I only say unsurprisingly because when TWIB first showed it, Allen nearly lost his mind praising the Boston centerfielder. I mean, it's a great catch, but it's not head-explodingly great. No offense, Fred.
Mel Allen bids us adieu thusly:
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is baseball 1977, a very good year. Until next season rolls around, this is Mel Allen saying, so long everybody.
Aren't there almost two weeks to go in the season? Yes, but when Mel Allen says the season's over, the season's over. I know that means there won't be a World Series this year, but I don't make the rules.
What did I take away from This Week In Baseball Season One? Mainly that baseball wasn't necessarily better in the days of Astroturf, bushy mustaches, and powder blue away unis, but it was certainly different. I was reminded that in baseball more than any sport, each season has its own ebb and flow that our memories tend to gloss over. For instance, I had no idea that teams like the Cubs, White Sox, Twins, Rangers, and Red Sox competed for the playoffs this year. And I learned that even a show that had far less video at its disposal and could only be produced once a week still did a better job of presenting highlights than SportsCenter does now.
Mostly, though, I learned that Mel Allen can make anything sound like a delightful romp, even Carter administration era baseball. How 'bout that?