So That’s What it Was Like
In the ever-evolving storyline of baseball, the present not only adds additional layers to the horizon; it can also provide opportunities for us as fans to expand our understanding of the past and connect with the emotions, experiences, and perceptions of older generations. Within the present-day baseball universe, we can use the moments of today to better understand and appreciate those that came before our awakening; in such a contemplation, the intimate colors what may have been superficial, and the past can leap out of the vicarious to breathe and shout in a definable and very real manner.
In the late 1990’s, when Vladimir Guerrero brandished his powerful bat and arm and started a run that has seen him make eight All-Star teams in 10 seasons, one could joyfully watch Vlad – laser beam a throw to third, or connect with a fastball 12 inches off the plate and four inches from the ground and send that pitch bee-lining into a right centerfield gap, or even amble, with that awkward, up-and-down-halt of a man with pain from hips to ankles – and perhaps gain a sense of what it must have been like to follow Roberto Clemente on the diamond. On June 2, 1998, with the Brewers in Atlanta and with both teams sporting replica uniforms of the 1958 Milwaukee Braves, I witnessed Andruw Jones, in a baggy uniform, pant legs pulled high, striped stirrups in full display, glide toward right centerfield and at last minute, drop his arms and hands to his waist, and basket catch a deep drive with all of the practiced and feigned nonchalance of a 12-year boy on his bicycle pulling off stunts in front of a group of girls. In that moment, with the happiness of watching a beautiful play performed by a virtuoso of his craft, I understood what it must have been like to watch Willie Mays patrol centerfield in the Polo Grounds.
These glimpses spring up everywhere on the baseball field – we only have to keep our eyes open and our minds on the here and then. The exercise works best when we remain patient and passive in the dynamic, and allow the game and the small moments to develop and impinge themselves upon our internal baseball library. Once there, in the manner of a prospector searching for gold, the images are sifted through, considered, the unsubstantial are rejected (or at least placed to the side for later reconsideration), and the nuggets are revealed, celebrated, and happily deposited into a reserve for further examination and contemplation. For gold does lie at the end of this baseballed-rainbow endeavor. The resultant epiphanies and understandings allow us to see the beyond the static or poorly developed past – we become better equipped to converse with those who experienced the long-ago directly, we carry on dusty legacies, and we add another perspective to the evolving framework of our connection to the game.
As we carry into the last week of August and the pennant races are placed under the broiler, I have found myself whirling amidst a drawn-out drama of the present calling up the past. Since he was traded to Milwaukee on July 7, C.C. Sabathia has started nine games for the contending Brewers and won eight of them. He has completed five of the starts to take over the NL lead in complete games, has hurled two shutouts to tie for the league in that category**, and has compiled a sparkling, twinkling, showy 1.60 ERA. C.C. Sabathia’s name rests atop the list of players in baseball’s seasonal pennant race drama; his work on the mound has recalled those not so long ago days when starters often finished what they began, and his presence has energized a city and franchise that has been left off the playoff invitation list for more than a quarter-century. No matter how the last chapter finishes, Sabathia and his run will always remain a focal element in the story of the 2008 season and the trade deadline machinations that witnessed reloading, puzzle-fitting and chance-taking, and which left the baseball world in an excited state of wondering where all of this would lead.
In 1982, 26 years before Sabathia brought his prowess to Milwaukee, a similar deadline move made by the Brewers did indeed deliver the taste of October baseball to the club and its fans. On August 30, 1982, the Brewers sent cash and three players to be named later to Houston and secured the services of a right-handed future Hall of Famer named Don Sutton to assist them in their push for the American League East division title. Heading into September, Milwaukee was already in first place, four-and-a-half games in front of the Boston Red Sox. At the time, Sutton had won 13 games for the Astros, and had already accumulated 254 victories in his career. In his first start for his new team, Sutton pitched a complete game, but took the loss as the Brewers fell to the Indians in the second game of a doubleheader. Sutton would pitch a shutout in his next start against the Tigers, and then won his next two decisions as well. He was pitching about as well as the Brewers could have hoped, and his efforts helped the team maintain their lead in the East. And then the story got really interesting.
After Sutton received a no-decision in a Brewers’ win on September 29, the team lost their next game and finished the month holding onto a three-game lead. They had four games left to play, and as all four were coming against the second-place Baltimore Orioles, Milwaukee only had to win one in the series to clinch their first-ever outright division title (they had made the playoffs in the strike-shortened 1981 season by virtue of winning the nominal second-half of the season). But when Harvey’s Wallbangers were swept in a doubleheader on Friday, October 1, the lead was cut to one precious game. When they lost again on October 2, their once seemingly insurmountable lead had vanished and the Milwaukee Brewers and Baltimore Orioles settled in for what amounted to a one-game, winner-take-all playoff. Adding to the intrigue and hoopla of the final contest, the starting pitchers for the two teams were two men who faced one another (although they didn’t go head-to-head) 16 years earlier in the 1966 World Series. In this one-game-for-all-the-marbles, Don Sutton took the hill for the Brewers against Baltimore’s own future Hall of Fame right-hander, Jim Palmer. Entering the game, Palmer had won 263 games in the Majors; Sutton countered with 257. By the end of the game, Palmer’s total remained the same, Sutton’s increased by one, and the Milwaukee Brewers had won the American League East. Their quest had reached the final destination, thanks in large part to the man who jumped aboard their rollicking caravan for the September push.
C.C. Sabathia – in only two more starts – has already won twice as many games as Sutton in that magical pre-autumn run of 1982. With each start, the legend of the portly southpaw gains another volume and the Brewers move one step closer to a wish they have not fulfilled since Sabathia turned two years old. Sabathia is, of course, too young to remember Don Sutton coming to the team and providing the final piece in a heated pennant race. But each time he steps toward the mound and rubs up a ball, he walks in the same footsteps and conjures up the same feelings that Sutton created all those years ago. And for us? We get to sit back and enjoy the ride: for its immediacy, for its distillation of what always remains vital and pulsating within the game, and for its ability to remind or introduce us to a series of days long ago, when the Milwaukee Brewers flashed brilliantly in the middle of a pennant race and rode the splendid arm of an ace to the promised land.
**As of August 21, Sabathia actually is tied for both the National League AND American League lead in shutouts. Before taking his show to Milwaukee, Sabathia pitched a couple of gems: one against the A’s on
May 14, and then versus the Twins on June 10, and sits atop the junior circuit leaderboard with Roy Halladay, Matt Garza, James Shields, Jon Lester and Kevin Slowey.
Thanks to baseball-reference.com for information that helped with this piece.