Episode 6 of This Week in Baseball covers the week ending July 5, 1977, which means the All Star Game is almost upon us. As such, TWIB opens this episode with a look at who might be chosen as starting pitcher for the American League. Some consideration is given to Nolan Ryan; with the season not quite half over, he already has 200 strikeouts, and has tied Sandy Koufax's career mark of 97 games with 10 or more Ks. His Angels teammate Frank Tanana is also on the shortlist, as he leads the league in ERA and wins. We're shown Tanana striking out a batter to end an inning, then reacting curiously to the cheers of the crowd by sweep-slamming his cap on the ground on his way back to the dugout.
However, TWIB clearly has its own favorite, and that man is Mark "The Bird" Fidrych of the Detroit Tigers. His season was delayed by a self-inflicted knee injury (he suffered it while horsing around during spring training), but he's back and seemingly better than ever. Mel Allen reminds us that The Bird started the Midsummer Classic last season, during his rookie campaign that took America by storm. Cut to archival footage of Fidrych at a press conference just prior to the All Star Game, wearing a funky outfit (Dr. Venture might call it a speed suit) and explaining, to the best of his ability, how he feels at this moment.
I was never into baseball, and now I'm getting into baseball. I never thought I would...I don't know what to do! It's great though. Whatever happens, happens.
On the page/screen this might read as apathetic, almost nihilistic. When actually delivered by Fidrych, each word is punctuated with almost ecstatic laughter and said in the joyous tone you'd expect to hear out of a guy who looks like this:
Fidrych did not do all that well in the '76 All Star Game, allowing 2 runs and 4 hits in two innings of work and winding up the losing pitcher. This inconvenient fact does not prevent TWIB from lobbying that he is the best man for the job in 1977. Fidrych is so powerful, in fact, that he can get Allen to say that his team is experiencing a "resurgence," despite the fact that the Tigers are ahead of only the expansion Blue Jays in the AL East.
But The Bird's enthusiasm can be infectious. He can inspire one of his outfielders, Steve Kemp, to crash into an outfield fence and rob a home run. ("The Tigers still go all out for The Bird!" Allen chirps.) He can also inspire his personal catcher, Bruce Kimm, to hit an RBI double to spark win against the Red Sox. This is notable because the victory is Fidrych's sixth in as many starts, and because the double is Kimm's first hit all season.
The Bird continues to talk to the ball and manicure the mound on his hands and knees and come out for postgame curtain calls, and the crowds continue to cheer for more. I especially love this shot of the Tiger Stadium stands, where you see the fans going nuts, all except this woman in the foreground, who enjoys a quiet smoke.
Allen promotes Fidrych as the AL's starting pitcher in the All Star Game, touting his "enthusiasm" as the missing element that will finally break the National League's lengthy winning streak. "If it works in Detroit," he reasons, "why not Yankee Stadium?" (The refurbished House That Ruth Built is the site of the 1977 Midsummer Classic.)
TWIB's case for Fidrych is undermined somewhat when his string of wins is broken in his next start. The Bird is felled by the Birds, who Allen tells us are now "flying high in the AL East," jockeying for position with the Yankees and Red Sox. However, the Orioles' hot streak begins on as odd a note as you can imagine.
It's the bottom of the ninth of a game in Cleveland, with two out and runners on first and second. Baltimore is ahead by one run when O's second baseman Rich Dauer fields a potential game-ending grounder and heaves it into the stands. Both runners come around to score, and the Indians win, right? Everyone thinks so, including both teams, who leave the field, and the facilities dudes, who set off celebratory fireworks.
Everyone, that is, except the wily Earl Weaver. He grabs an umpire and informs him (correctly) that the wild throw only entitles each runner to one extra base, which means the lead runner can score the tying run but the winning run must stop at third. Convinced, the umps inform Indians manager Jeff Torborg. Then they inform the PA announcer (see below), presumably so the fans who went nuts on 10-cent beer night won't rip the place apart. Allen does not tell us if the ushers and parking lot attendants were also consulted.
The Orioles go on to win this one in extras, then travel to Boston and sweep a three-game set at Fenway, followed by taking the first three games in Detroit (including defeating the mighty Bird). At week's end, they're a mere game behind the Yanks in the division race, and half a game ahead of the BoSox.
Many races are heating up. While the Orioles streak, the Twins travel to Chicago with, as Allen puts it, "first place in the American League East on the line!" These teams actually play in the AL West, Mel, but details, details. It is true that Minnesota and Chicago are battling for first, and so White Sox fans come out to Comiskey Park in droves for this four-game set. The stadium is so packed that fans stand on the roof and even gather in the batter's eye. Neither of these things would fly nowadays, but as well know by now, the 70s were a much more mellow/dangerous time.
Even if Allen's narration isn't on point, the signs in the Comiskey Park stands are. Like these exhortations regarding White Sox slugger Richie Zisk, held aloft by some of Chicago's finest shirtless dudes. The official motto of the 1970s was "No shirt, no shoes, no problem!"
It's not just Zisk who receives this treatment. Second baseman Joe Orta's name lends itself to some easy puns, like HE ORTA HIT A HOME RUN (Allen's reponse: "He Orta respond!") and MADE TO ORTA (Allen: "That's right!" (?)). Rich Spencer is spurred on with a pair of signs: C'MON SPENCE OVER THE FENCE and O-O-OH FOR THE LONG ONE! "Spencer can read, and he can hit!" Allen says, though I don't think anyone said or even implied Spencer couldn't read. I definitely would have remembered that Afterschool Special.
Regardless of Spencer's literacy skills, in the second game of the series, the first baseman belts a grand slam and logs 8 RBIs on the day, the second time this year he's driven in that many runs in a game. The Twins never recover, and the White Sox go on to sweep the series, planting themselves 3 games ahead in the AL
East South West.
Next, we're treated to an update on the St. Louis Cardinals, who are playing well lately and trying to make a move in a crowded NL East. The first scene features Cards manager Vern Rapp screaming in an umpire's face, because nothing says belly-fire more than angry skippers. Except, perhaps for speed, which TWIB, per usual, points to as the fount of the Cards' resurgence.
"Cardinals speed forces other teams into mistakes, big mistakes!" Allen counsels. This comes right before a scene against the Cubs in which veteran Lou Brock and youngster Garry Templeton run all over the infield on a Cubs team that forgets how to field and throw baseballs. Whether this is the product of nerve-racking St. Louis speed or Chicago fielding incompetence is unclear.
The other highlight from St. Louis is Brock's pursuit of Ty Cobb's all-time steals record. He is now a mere 15 swipes away from the Georgia Peach. This has not inspired Busch Stadium to step up its tribute game, however. In design circles, this look is called "re-used Advent calendar."
Another team on the upswing are the Phillies, who've received a shot in the arm with the trade deadline addition of leadoff man Bake McBride and the return of relief ace Tug McGraw. (Mike Schmidt destroying baseballs at a ridiculous rate hasn't hurt either.) The Phils' charmed life of late is exemplified by a marathon win against the Pirates. Pittsburgh scores two runs in the top of the 14th, but the Phils turn the tables when Richie Hebner belts what looks like a three-run homer. Unfortunately for Philly, the ball caroms off of the black batter's eye above the outfield fence and bounces back toward Dave Parker. The umpires never make a home run call and so Parker heaves a throw back into the infield. Schmidt, who was on first base when Hebner went deep-ish, assumes the blast is a home run and is stunned to find himself tagged out at home.
The umpires eventually confer to figure out exactly what happened. They decide that Hebner's hit was not out of the park (though replays indicated it almost certainly was), but also decide that their lack of a clear decision made things unnecessarily difficult for the Philly runners. So they award Hebner with a double, allow the lead runner to score, and place Schmidt on third. Larry Bowa storms out of the dugout and goes ape doody anyway, jumping up and down right in an umpire's face. He is not ejected, but Frank Tavares of the Pirates is, which makes you wonder what horrible thing Tavares did to get the boot when a clearly unhinged Bowa is allowed to stay.
It's a bad bit of luck, scoring only one run on a play that should have given the Phils three. And yet, one sac fly and one single later, they win the game anyway. Just like they drew it up in practice.
After a commercial break, we return to the subject of the All Star Game. Allen informs us that Rod Carew, currently flirting with a .400 average, is the AL's leading vote-getter. In the NL, the top man is Steve Garvey, who leads the league in RBIs and has already equaled his personal best of 21 home runs this season. Close behind Garvey is Schmidt, who recovered from a slow start to his season to belt 14 longballs in the month of June, equaling the mark for that month set by Ralph Kiner. The return of Schmidt's power inspires this graphic on the Veterans Stadium scoreboard. It's better than than the others we've seen lately, though this digital portrait looks less like its intended subject than it looks like Steve Somers. The Schmooze!
One of Schmidt's homers in June was actually an inside-the-parker, caused by a weird hop off a Vet outfield wall. "Inside the park home runs are all the rage!" Allen tells us, followed by a clip of Expo Ellis Valentine getting his own when Lee Mazzilli of the Mets misplays a ball off the wall. Almost as ugly as Maz's play is Montreal's decor. As Valentine jogs back to the dugout, we see that he does so over an olympic-size running track, still there from last year's games. No real excuse for this, unless Quebec had a 100-yard dash franchise I'm not aware of.
Lou Brock tries for an inside-the-parker of his own in a game against the Cubs, but the throw beats him to the plate. A limber Brock manages to leap right over the catcher and elude the tag. Unfortunately, he doesn't manage to touch the plate, and so when he lands, the Cubs' catcher stands between him and scoring. The two men get caught in a standoff, crouching like sumo wrestlers, each one daring the other to make a move. Brock is the first to blink and allows the backstop to tag him. The two warriors share a brief embrace and move on.
In the same game, Cards batter Ken Reitz lays down a sac bunt toward first base. Bill Buckner fields the ball and waits for Reitz to run down the line. And waits. And waits. But Reitz stops moving halfway up the line. So Buckner trots toward him. Reitz backs up slowly. Buckner stops. Reitz stops. Buckner feints in his direction, and Reitz moves again. Eventually, Reitz darts to elude a tag from Buckner, but is tagged out anyway. And thus, the war comes to an end. But I heard this inspired the two men to tour with their own version of Waiting For Godot.
Even running this goofy pales in comparison to what happens in a Phils-Mets tilt at Shea. With runners at the corners, the Mets attempt a suicide squeeze, but the batter completely misses, leaving the lead runner, Joel Youngblood, hung out to dry. The Phils chase him back and forth, but are distracted when the trailing runner, Doug Flynn, attempts to take second. This buys Youngblood enough time to get back to third. However, the Phils pay so much attention to Flynn, Youngblood convinces himself this would be a great time to try another attempt to run home. No dice; Youngblood gets caught between third and home a second time. In the ensuing confusion, Flynn runs all the way to third, then sees that Youngblood's trying to retreat again and scurries back to second.
By this point, the ball has passed through so many fielders' hands that center fielder Garry Maddox runs in to get a piece of the action. He chases Flynn toward third, where Youngblood has decamped, and tags the lead runner out. In your scorecard, it's a CS 2-5-2-4-5-8. Or you could just write YEESH. Allen notes that Youngblood left the game after this play, presumably because this play robbed him of the will to live.
On a lighter note, we are treated with a scene from an Angels-Royals game in which KC batter Hal McRae is nailed in the hip by a Frank Tanana fastball. McRae trots gingerly to first, then literally rubs dirt on the spot, and doubles over in mock-pain. It appears to be a show of levity for the benefit of the Angels dugout. He's also probably trying to cover up the fact that in 1977, a Frank Tanana fastball to the hip really, really hurt.
TWIB extends congratulations to Willie Stargell for belting his 400th career homer. Per usual, mention of a major career milestone is not accompanied by actual footage of said milestone. But we do get to see a pair of great plays, the first a basket catch by Ron LeFlore of the Tigers. More impressive is a running catch made by Hector Cruz of the Cardinals. His trajectory nearly takes out the Pirates bullpen and the first row of seats at Busch Stadium. If you're going to make a great catch, you should take out as many people as you can along the way.
This week's Gillette Special goes to Roland Office of the Atlanta Braves, who makes a spectacular running crash that appears rather nonchalant--Office blowing bubbles as he ran--until he crashes into the Fulton County Stadium fence. "Looks like Roland got some kind of headache for that effort!" Allen chuckles. Concussions are hilarious in 1977!
This weeks exhortation from Allen is much briefer and more soft-sell than in recent weeks:
Friends, when it comes to unexpected thrills, and excitement, baseball is the name of the game!
Next week: Grab a bag of milk and some hot poutine, because episode 7 is all Canada all the time! Except for the parts that aren't.