It Ain’t Over

The Triple-A playoffs start tonight. To get in the mood, my friend and press-box neighbor Adam Sobsey wrote a nice piece for the Paris Review about the most exciting game he’s ever attended.

I don’t claim to be Adam’s equal as a story teller, but I thought I’d join in on the fun.

I’ve seen four MLB All Star Games, one World Series (2006, in Detroit). I was at the NLDS game at Shea Stadium on October 4, 2006, when Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca tagged out two Dodgers runners at the plate on the same play. Two weeks later, I saw the Mets beat the Cardinals to even the NLCS, and heard manager Willie Randolph announce at the post-game press conference, “Game Seven starts now.”

I’ve seen two no-hitters and two triple plays. I’ve seen one bench-clearing brawl, when then-Phillies closer Ricky Bottalico plunked Barry Bonds.  Perhaps acting out some rage of unknown origin, Barry charged the mound and literally beat bumps on Ricky Bo’s head.

Last year’s Jayson Werth walk-off to lead the Nats past the Cards in Game Four of the NLDS is a candidate. So was Schilling vs. Maddux on April 10, 1998. The two had met five days earlier in Atlanta and combined for 21 strikeouts in 17 innings as the Phillies won 2-1 in 2:07. Sequels are rarely better than the original, but as I watched from field level at the Vet (this game was worth the upgrade from the 700 level) Schil and Maddux combined to allow just 8 baserunners in 17 innings. Schilling fanned 10 and got the complete-game 1-0 shutout win in two hours even.

But my most-exciting game ever goes back to the last time I covered a playoff team (and, up until now, the ONLY time I’ve covered one at the professional level—baseball or football):  The 2006 Rochester Red Wings.

Their manager was a young-at-heart southern boy from Mississippi named Stan Cliburn. His identical twin brother Stew was pitching coach, leading to national attention, since the Wings were the Triple-A farm club for the Minnesota Twins.

Stan liked fishin’ drinkin’ and women, not necessarily in that order, and not as much as he liked attention. He once bragged to beat writers that he’d hit both of his MLB home runs “off Hall of Fame pitchers,” apparently not aware that the internet made it possible to check that. Neither Jerry Koosman nor Ross Grimsley ever made it to Cooperstown. Stan seemed offended that we wouldn’t just take him at his word.

Stan once started a post-game press conference with, “Sparky Anderson once said that a manager wins five games a year for his team. Tonight was one of ‘em.” (I can’t find a record of Sparky ever saying this, by the way.)

The local weekly Red Wings show interviewed Stan for a preseason feature on the team, and he showed up wearing a full-length white fur coat. It wasn’t the only fur-lined item in his wardrobe.

fur coat

Stan once went golfing at Rochester’s Oak Hill country club with Twins roving instructor and Hall of Fame player Paul Molitor. The Oak Hill people asked Paul to sign their Wall of Fame, then had to do some fast talking to prevent Stan from signing it too.

On August 7, Rochester was in the final month of a season that would end in the Governor’s Cup finals when they hosted Pawtucket. I was in my first season working for MLB Advanced Media, on their Gameday pitch-by-pitch tracking system.

The Wings were clinging to a one-game lead over Scranton, and they jumped out to a 4-0 lead on the Paw Sox. Pawtucket scored two in the seventh, however, and five in the eighth, courtesy of an error, passed ball and two walks, among other carnage.

Willie Harris homered in the top of the ninth to give Pawtucket an 8-4 lead.

Then things got crazy. Rochester had two runners on and two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Scranton had already won, and Rochester appeared headed for a first-place tie when right fielder Andres Torres hit a slow roller to second. Alejandro Machado fielded it and tossed to first, beating Torres by about five steps. The Pawtucket players jogged off the field and began congratulating each other.

When I went to my MLB AM training prior to the season, they spent a great deal of time explaining how to fix errors if the wrong data got entered into the system. “What if we accidentally end the game early?” I asked. The trainers exchanged blank looks and answered, “That shouldn’t happen.”

As the beat writers got ready to run to the clubhouse and I entered final data to close the book on the game, the home plate umpire pointed frantically at the spot the catcher had just left.

Prior to Torres’ weak grounder that appeared to end the game, Pawtucket catcher Alberto Concepcion hit the bat with his mitt. Catcher’s interference was the call, which automatically awarded Torres first base.  Bases loaded, two outs, tying run at the plate.

I set about trying to un-end the game in the system, while explaining to the MLB folks in Manhattan what had happened.

“Hopefully, this last guy will make an out and we can just make the change later on,” my support person said. At the same time, Rochester third baseman Terry Tiffee hit a 2-0 pitch to deep right for a game-tying grand slam, three pitches after everyone in the ballpark, except the home plate ump, thought the game was over.

During the rally, Cliburn had sent in a pinch runner for lead-footed catcher Shawn Wooten. The only other catcher on the roster was Heintz, who was currently playing DH. He took the field, meaning that the Wings lost their DH for the rest of the game.

After Pawtucket opened the tenth with a single, Cliburn came out to change pitchers. Managers in leagues with a DH rarely get to do a double switch, and Stan was going to make the most of the opportunity. He sent players scurrying into the dugout to get new gloves as they moved positions to make room or the new defensive player. After the dust cleared, the reliever got an inning ending double play.

In the bottom of the tenth, former Duke cornerback and former Durham Bull Quinton McCracken hit a walk-off, pinch-hit  double to keep the Wings in first. And 20 minutes later, working with the MLB folks in Manhattan, we finally had a box score that accurately reflected what had taken place that evening.

That meant I missed Stan’s post-game press conference. He invited the media into his office, looked at the beat writer from the local paper and opened his remarks with, “How ‘bout that double switch, huh?”

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