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Jayson Stark

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Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Decade of Change for Baseball
By Jayson Stark

Baseball in the '70s: First names predominated -- Reggie, Pete, Hank, George. In Philadelphia, disappointment predominated, as senior writer Jayson Stark can attest. Stark provides his top 10 list of baseball memories, even the painfully personal ones from the '70s.

I'm from Philadelphia. You ought to know that. And to be a Phillies fan in the '70s, you had to have a high tolerance for pain. Not that that was much different from being a Phillies fan in the '60s, '50s, '40s, '90s or just about any other decade. But the '70s were pretty much the pinnacle of Phillies masochism. Among the disasters crammed into this decade were: Both catchers breaking their hand in the same inning (1970), ticket-holding amateur contractors demolishing Connie Mack Stadium while the final game there was still in progress (1970), an entire pitching staff not named Steve Carlton combining to win 32 games in one season (1972), a 101-win team getting swept in the NLCS by the Big Red Machine (1976), another 101-win team kicking away the NLCS by blowing a three-run lead with two outs and nobody on in the ninth inning of Game 3 (1977), a Gold Glove centerfielder (Garry Maddox) dropping a fly ball to finish off another NLCS loss (1978) and three starting pitchers getting hurt on the same day (1979). Compared to all this, being a Cubs fan was like being a Yankees fan

Believe it or not, there once was a time when grown adults watched baseball for the sheer joy of it, checked box scores for the sheer poetry of it and memorized stats for the sheer triviality of it. Then, on the final day of the '70s, in a restaurant called La Rotisseries Francaise, Daniel Okrent pitched his idea for Rotisserie baseball to a bunch of friends that include ESPN the Magazine's own Steve Wulf and Glen Waggoner. A few months later, they held history's first fantasy draft. The next winter, they wrote a book revealing how this brilliant diversion had essentially destroyed their real lives as they used to know them. And modern civilization has never been the same.

Not since (choose one) Alexander Cartwright, Abner Doubleday, Christopher Columbus or Lou Costello sketched out the first baseball diamond had there been a more momentous day of rule adoption than Dec. 10, 1972. That, we now recall, was the day the American League passed the designated hitter rule and the rules committee approved the modern save rule. Subsequent historic investigations reveal those rules originally included no stipulations mentioning Jose Canseco, Dante Bichette, the invention of set-up men or specific orders to managers to stop warming up their closer if their team scored an insurance run to open up a four-run lead in the ninth. But some stuff just evolves naturally, we suppose.

Reggie Jackson
Reggie unloaded in the '77 World Series.
Not that they're exactly Team Serenity these days, either. But amidst all those soothing Joe Torre words and all that dominating the Yankees do now, they've almost made us forget what a madhouse this team was in the '70s. Their new owner, some guy named Steinbrenner, got indicted. They tore down the Babe's Yankee Stadium and built a new, "modern" version. Billy Martin got hired and fired 71 times. Steinbrenner changed pitching coaches and public relations guys like Imelda Marcos changed high heels. And turmoil reigned incessantly. But then, on this indelible October evening in 1977, Reggie invented Mr. Octoberism with three majestic shots into the ionized night. This was the third World Series game I'd ever seen in my life. The guy I was sitting next to wanted to leave after the top of the eighth. I said, "Not till Reggie hits." Phew.

Talk about your unbreakable records. Ron Hunt managed to get in the way of 50 pitches in 1971, blowing away the all-time record for pain absorption. And people have been trying (or not trying) to catch him for three decades. I have great personal reverance for this record, if only because it's helped me fill so much space over the years. Back in 1998, one of my favorite utility dirtballs, F.P. Santangelo, found himself ahead of Hunt's pace. So I tracked him down to ask about the possibility that Hunt's legendary record actually being broken. Santangelo laughed: "A lot of other things are going to be broken if I get close to that record. Like my ankle. And my knee."

Pete Rose
With a bat, Rose was a streaky guy.
Pete Rose was everywhere in the '70s. Wasn't he? He played every position but bullpen coach. He got 400 more hits than anybody else in his league. He got his 3,000th hit. He got mixed up in that steel-cage match with Bud Harrelson in the '73 playoffs. And in the winter of 1978-79, the Reds let him bolt for Philadelphia as a free agent. But before that, in June and July of '78, he strung together the longest hitting streak since DiMaggio -- a 44-gamer in which he whizzed by so many great names on the Longest Hit Streak list, he had to make up a guy to shoot for. That's where Sidney Stonestreet of the Rhode Island Reds came in. Stonestreet's 48-game hit streak never actually happened, but Rose gave it a week's worth of publicity until the Braves had the audacity to pitch around him and end his streak on Aug. 1. Apparently, nobody ever pitched around Sidney Stonestreet.

4. THE 23-22 GAME
Maybe to some people, the '70s were Bucky Dent's homer, or four Orioles pitchers winning 20 in the same year, or Reggie's all-star homer off the light tower in Detroit, or Roberto Clemente's plane crash. But this is my top-10 list, so I get to include my personal favorite game of all time: May 17, 1979, the fourth game I'd ever witnessed at Wrigley Field. Phillies 23, Cubs 22 -- in 10 innings. The losing team scored 22 runs. The winning team blew a 12-run lead. And of course, after 4 hours, nine innings, 44 runs, 49 hits, 29 singles, 10 doubles, two triples, 10 homers, 14 walks, one hit batter, five bat-arounds, 11 pitchers and 121 trips to the plate by 29 different hitters, nobody had even won this game yet. Nope. It took a 10th-inning homer by Mike Schmidt off Bruce Sutter to pull that off. Ten years later, Tug McGraw was still alibiing for the seven runs he gave up. "I wasn't warmed up properly," McGraw said. "I was hiding, so I wouldn't have to go into the game."

In the annals of the most unforgettable slices of videotape ever, where does this one rank? Aaron putting one more sweet swing on a defenseless baseball. The historic home-run ball disappearing through the early-evening raindrops, landing in the bullpen in the glove of Braves reliever and future human-trivia answer Tom House. Two fans bolting out of their seats to give Aaron an unrequested escort home. Breathtaking bedlam busting out once Aaron had completed this immortal trot, delaying the game for 11 minutes. And Milo Hamilton bellowing, "And there's a new home-run champion for all timmmmmeeeee." You can still feel the exhaustion in Aaron's voice as he told a crowd that would soon U-turn for the exits: "I'm thankful to God it's all over."

Carlton Fisk
Fisk jumps for joy in Game 6 of the '75 World Series.
If you could go back in time to watch one World Series game, you'd be hard-pressed to pick a better one than Game 6. Carlton Fisk has been waving that home run fair for more than a quarter-century. And through the magic of videotape, he won't ever stop. But there was so much more to this game -- the centerpiece of a magical World Series that changed baseball: The three days of rainouts that preceded it. The parade of eight Reds pitchers. Rose turning to Fisk and observing, in that poetic street-talk way of his, "Some game, ain't it?" Fred Lynn crashing into the wall. Denny Doyle failing to tag with the winning run. Dwight Evans' catch. And my favorite personal memory -- Bernie Carbo's game-tying three-run pinch homer, one pitch after the ugliest swing in World Series history. It was the first World Series game anyone ever had to stay up till midnight to watch. Who knew that would become an October tradition?

The '70s was the decade that brought us Curt Flood's lawsuit, Andy Messersmith's grievance and Catfish Hunter's breach-of-contract claim against Charlie Finley. But to trace the real beginning of modern free agency, you have to travel to a nondescript bank building in Providence, R.I.. It was there, in November and December 1976, that the first of the big-time agents, Jerry Kapstein, set up shop to conduct history's first free-agent bidding wars. Kapstein seemingly represented every big name on the first free-agent market: Joe Rudi, Don Baylor, Bobby Grich, Rollie Fingers, Gene Tenace. So to keep things simple, Kapstein just had teams come to him and make their offers, right there in downtown Providence. Then he and his clients began cranking out a press conference a day, until everyone was signed. It was one-stop shopping at its finest. And it launched free agency as we know it today -- well, give or take a few zeroes.

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