Originally Published: October 21, 2013

Afterglow: The baseball hero

When does it really sink in? Ten playoff stories from postseasons past

By Steve Wulf | ESPN.com
It takes just a moment for a player to make baseball history. Sometimes, it takes longer than that for him to realize what he's done.
ESPN Illustration

The baseball postseason is unpredictable, but there is one sure thing. At some point, the hero will be asked to describe his feelings, and he will say something like, "It hasn't quite sunk in yet." Then he'll disappear into the shaving cream pie or the champagne spray or the phalanx of microphones and notebooks.

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So when does It -- capital I -- sink in, and what does It feel like? It might happen right away, or the morning after, or the following spring, or years later. Gone are the days when Bobby Thomson could take the Staten Island Ferry home after hitting The Shot Heard 'Round the World (1951) or when Bill Mazeroski could sit on a bench in Schenley Park with his wife, feeding squirrels while the rest of Pittsburgh celebrated his ninth-inning home run off Ralph Terry (1960).

Those were simpler times, when the demands on heroes weren't quite as great or immediate. The afterglow seems to take a little more time to kick in nowadays, but It eventually happens.

With that in mind, we asked some selected heroes from the franchises represented by this year's postseason teams to pinpoint when It hit them.

Dave Roberts, Red Sox, 2004 ALCS

Dave Roberts
No. 31 there, being greeted by the Red Sox -- that's Dave Roberts, with the tying run.
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Not a day goes by during the baseball season that Roberts doesn't get a thank-you from a Red Sox fan.

"All because of one pinch-running assignment," says Roberts, now the first-base coach for the San Diego Padres.

In the 2004 American League Championship Series against the Yankees, Roberts provided the snowball that became the avalanche. Red Sox trailing three games to none in the series and 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth in Game 4. Mariano Rivera on the mound, the hearts of Red Sox Nation in their throats. Kevin Millar walks, and manager Tito Francona calls on Roberts -- a spare outfielder acquired from the Dodgers at the July 31 trade deadline for his speed -- to pinch run. Francona just winks at him.

“I didn't realize the significance of what I had done until I came back for the ring ceremony the following Opening Day. Oh, I had heard all the nice things from fans and teammates, and they meant a lot to me. But it was the ovation I got that day, the love of all these people washing over me, that fills my heart to this day.”

Dave Roberts

With Bill Mueller up, Rivera tries a few pickoffs, almost getting Roberts on one. But on the first pitch, he goes, and Jorge Posada's throw arrives at second as Roberts slides hands-first to the rear of the bag. Umpire Joe West signals safe (replays confirm the call), Mueller singles up the middle, and the rest is history: two extra-inning victories, the first comeback from a 3-0 deficit in postseason history, a World Series sweep and the first Red Sox world championship since 1918.

And Roberts started it all.

"I was just a small part," he says. "Millar has to draw the walk, Joe West has to make a great call, Mueller has to drive me in, Papi has to hit the walk-off in the 12th."

Roberts also stole a key base in Game 5, but that was the last time he played as a member of the Red Sox. He wanted to be a starter, so Boston GM Theo Epstein obliged him by trading him to the Padres.

"I didn't realize the significance of what I had done until I came back for the ring ceremony the following Opening Day," Roberts says. "Oh, I had heard all the nice things from fans and teammates, and they meant a lot to me. But it was the ovation I got that day, the love of all these people washing over me, that fills my heart to this day."

David Freese, Cards, 2011 World Series

David Freese
David Freese, about to be engulfed by the walk-off welcoming party at home in the 11th inning..
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports

In the 2011 postseason, Freese took the "local boy makes good" angle to an extreme. A Cardinals fan while growing up in Wildwood, Mo., the third baseman drove in four runs against the Phillies in Game 4 of the NLDS to force a fifth game. In the NLCS against the Brewers, he hit .545 with three home runs and nine RBIs.

But it wasn't until Game 6 of the World Series that he became a household name outside of the 314. With Texas leading the series three games to two and up 7-5 in the game, Freese stepped into the batter's box with two on and two out in the bottom of the ninth.

“My life entirely changed. But as far as understanding what happened, that will take years.”

David Freese

On a 1-2 pitch from Neftali Feliz, he tripled past Nelson Cruz in right to tie the score. Leading off the bottom of the 11th against Mark Lowe, he launched a 3-2 pitch over the fence in center for a walk-off home run.

The next night, Freese hit a two-run double in the bottom of the first to raise his postseason RBI total to a major league record 21 and propel the Cards to a 6-2 win that gave them their 11th world championship.

"It still hasn't sunk in," Freese recently told Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "When I'm done playing this game, and when I sit back and appreciate what I've been through and realize how hard this game is and what I've accomplished over the years as a Cardinals, that is when I'll understand the greatness that we were a part of.

"My life entirely changed. But as far as understanding what happened, that will take years."

To this day, Freese steadfastly avoids any of his 2011 World Series highlights.

"I still haven't watched any part of the game," he said. "I'm not ready for it. I'll watch it probably when I'm 50. Yeah, I'll watch the whole deal when I'm 50."

Mickey Lolich, Tigers, 1968 World Series

Mickey Lolich
Mickey Lolich enjoyed a self-inflicted champagne shower at the end of the 1968 World Series.
AP Photo

The ace of the Tigers was 31-game winner Denny McLain, and the plan was to send him out to do battle against Bob Gibson of the defending world champion Cardinals in Games 1, 4 and 7. But McLain lost Game 1 and got shelled in Game 4, so for Game 7, manager Mayo Smith turned to his No. 2 starter, left-hander Lolich, who had complete game victories in Games 2 and 5.

“Our plane home gets diverted to a different airport, outside of Detroit. Fortunately, I had a friend who sent a private plane for us. As we descend over the city of Detroit, we see that the city is literally on fire. The pilot says to me, 'You did that, you know.' ”

Mickey Lolich

"Mayo asked me if I could give him five innings, and I said sure," says Lolich. "No big deal. But after five innings, the score is tied 0-0, so he asked me if I could give him one more. I got through the sixth by picking off Lou Brock and Curt Flood. He asked me for another inning. And another. Well, by the top of the ninth inning, we have a 4-0 lead, and this time I told him, 'I'm finishing this one.'"

Which he did, with the slight hiccup of a two-out solo home run by Mike Shannon. After he sealed the 4-1 victory by getting Tim McCarver to pop out, Lolich jumped into catcher Bill Freehan's arms.

"Because we're in St. Louis, we didn't get the full impact of the victory," Lolich says. "Then our plane home gets diverted to a different airport, outside of Detroit. Fortunately, I had a friend who sent a private plane for us. As we descend over the city of Detroit, we see that the city is literally on fire. The pilot says to me, 'You did that, you know.' That's when it began to hit me that we had given Detroit its first world championship since 1945."

You would think a man who had just pitched three complete games in the World Series, the last on two days' rest, would want to sit back and relax a little. But not Lolich.

"I had made a commitment to go to the opening of a pizza parlor in Flint," he says. "They weren't sure I would be available, so the owner of the franchise came to pick me up himself the next morning. You know who he was? Mike Ilitch, the owner of Little Caesars and now the owner of the Tigers.

"They didn't have to worry. I always lived up to my commitments."

Wes Parker, Dodgers, 1965 World Series

Wes Parker
That's Wes Parker on the right, celebrating with Don Drysdale and Lou Johnson in 1965.
AP Photo

"When I look back," says Parker, who was then a 25-year-old slick-fielding first baseman, "I think of three things: hitting a home run in Game 4 off Mudcat Grant, getting an RBI single off Jim Kaat in Game 7 and being in the presence of greatness, namely Sandy Koufax."

Koufax had chosen not to pitch the World Series opener because it fell on Yom Kippur. When the otherwise reliable Don Drysdale had to be lifted in the third inning of that first game, he told manager Walter Alston, "I bet you wish I was Jewish too." The next day, Koufax won Game 2 to even the Series. He then shut out the Twins in Game 5 to give the Dodgers a three games to two lead, but Minnesota won Game 6, leaving Alston with the Game 7 choice of a well-rested Drysdale or Koufax on two days' rest.

“I'm glad I could be of help to [Koufax] that day because as it turned out, that was the only time I would win a World Series. That's what has stayed with me all these years, that feeling of gratitude, for being a Dodger and for playing behind Sandy Koufax.”

Wes Parker

"None of us knew beforehand who would pitch," says Parker. "Sandy was the choice, but we worried for him, especially after we saw that he was hurting. He couldn't throw a curve, so it was nothing but fastballs for nine innings. I don't know how he did it."

The Dodgers staked Koufax to a 2-0 lead in the fourth on a solo home run by Lou Johnson off Kaat and Parker's RBI single after Ron Fairly had doubled. Those were the only runs in the game, as Koufax allowed only three hits and three walks while striking out 10.

"When he fanned Bob Allison to end the game, I was struck by the silence," says Parker. "It wasn't really broken until we got back to Los Angeles and our fans showed their appreciation while we were on the moving walkway at LAX.

"That whole Series was a battle," he adds, "and Sandy was a true hero. It's possible that game shortened his career. He called it quits after winning the Cy Young the next year because of the pain. I remember him being interviewed by Vin Scully afterward. He was totally spent. I'm glad I could be of help to him that day because as it turned out, that was the only time I would win a World Series. That's what has stayed with me all these years, that feeling of gratitude, for being a Dodger and for playing behind Sandy Koufax."

Dave Stewart, A's, 1989 World Series

Dave Stewart
Series MVP Dave Stewart hoisted the trophy at a post-Series celebration in 1989.
AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

The A's celebration after sweeping the Giants might have been the quietest in World Series history.

"We were happy and proud," says Stewart, the MVP for his complete-game five-hit shutout in Game 1 and seven innings of work to get the victory in Game 3, "but we were also mindful and respectful of the devastation on both sides of the Bay."

“That's what it was about. We. We, the A's. We, the people of Oakland. You know, people said the reason I got the MVP was more for what I did off the field than on the mound. And you know what? I'm OK with that.”

Dave Stewart

On Oct. 17, just before the originally scheduled Game 3, the Loma Prieta earthquake hit Northern California, killing 63 people, injuring 3,757 and rendering an estimated 10,000 homeless. The Series had to be delayed 10 days as the Bay Area tried to recover.

Stewart, who grew up in Oakland and lived in Emeryville on the eastern side of the Bay Bridge, was a starting pitcher, but he suddenly found himself in a relief role. The night of the earthquake, he drove to the wreckage of the Nimitz Freeway and stayed until 4:30 a.m., offering support and thanks to the workers, firemen and policemen. He would visit nightly until the A's shipped off to Arizona to keep sharp until the Series resumed, and even after his victory in Game 3 on Oct. 27, he returned to the site.

When Dennis Eckersley nailed down the save in Game 4 to complete the sweep, Stewart ran out to the outfield to embrace his old American Legion teammate, Rickey Henderson, and told him, "We've done it."

"That's what it was about," says Stewart, now an agent for players, including Matt Kemp. "We. We, the A's. We, the people of Oakland. You know, people said the reason I got the MVP was more for what I did off the field than on the mound. And you know what? I'm OK with that."

Tom Glavine, Braves, 1995 World Series

Ted Turner and Tom Glavine
Tom Glavine and Ted Turner rejoiced in the Braves' 1995 world championship trophy haul.
AP Photo/Tannen Maury

Even though the Braves were up 3-2 in games, left-hander Glavine had a lot of weight resting on his slender left arm given the stakes (39 years without a Braves world championship) and the heart of the Indians order he was facing (Albert Belle, Eddie Murray, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome).

But he felt good warming up on a cool night in Atlanta. "Translating that into the game is a different story," says Glavine, "especially with my first-inning issues. But when I had a clean first inning, I knew I had quality stuff."

Indeed, he had a no-hitter going until Tony Pena singled to lead off the sixth.

"A no-hitter was the farthest thing from my mind. I was really only thinking about a win," Glavine says. "At one point, I came into the dugout and told everybody, 'Just get me one run. That's all I need!' I'd like to say that was the only time I ever said something like that, but I'd be lying."

“The feeling starts out as, 'Holy crap! We won a World Series!' then gets a little quieter and deeper with each celebration and thank-you and autograph request. And then, after a week or two, you realize how tired you are from the long season and how spent you are emotionally. And then you smile.”

Tom Glavine

That run came in the bottom of the sixth on a leadoff home run by David Justice off reliever Jim Poole.

Relying on his changeup, Glavine didn't give up any more hits, but he felt his stuff slipping away warming up before the seventh. After Thome lined out to deep left-center to lead off the eighth, he saw the low gas light come on.

"I told Bobby Cox after the eighth I was done," Glavine says. "We had Mark Wohlers to close."

And a World Series to win; the Braves had fallen just short in '91 (Twins) and '92 (Blue Jays).

So Glavine was in the dugout when Wohlers retired Kenny Lofton, Paul Sorrento and Carlos Baerga 1-2-3 in the ninth.

"It actually began to sink in even before Marquis Grissom caught the last out in center," Glavine says. "I had moved up to the top step, creeping a little closer with each pitch. I was trying to time it just right as the ball is in the air. It's like everything is in slow motion. My life is literally flashing before my eyes, right up through previous disappointments and all the work we did to get here, starting in February … and then Marquis squeezes it, and I take off for the dogpile in the center of the diamond."

Glavine's pitching line in that game is a thing of beauty: 8 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 8 K. He threw 109 pitches against some of the most feared hitters of the '90s to win his second game of the Series and the MVP trophy.

"The feeling starts out as, 'Holy crap! We won a World Series!' then gets a little quieter and deeper with each celebration and thank-you and autograph request," he says. "And then, after a week or two, you realize how tired you are from the long season and how spent you are emotionally. And then you smile.

"You know what the first thing I think about is when I recall the '95 Series? Javy Lopez picking off Manny Ramirez at first in the eighth inning of Game 2, the first game I pitched. If he doesn't do that, I'm not sure we win 4-3 and eventually the Series."

Glavine still has his MVP trophy, the replica World Series trophy the Braves gave him and a framed No. 47 jersey from the Series.

"I have a DVD from Game 6," he says, "but the only time I watch it is with my boys when they're giving me a hard time about something. It's sort of like telling them, 'See, your dad didn't always stink.'"

Dan Johnson, Rays, 2011 Season Ender

Dan Johnson
Dan Johnson was a happy man after his ninth-inning home run against the Yankees in 2011.
AP Photo/Chris O'Meara

When Johnson went back to Tropicana Field in late September this season as a member of the Baltimore Orioles, there was a seat waiting for him. It was in right field -- Section 140, Row 7, Seat 10 -- and it was painted white.

That is where Johnson's home run for Tampa Bay off Yankees reliever Cory Wade landed on the final day of the regular season, Sept. 28, 2011 -- the wildest moment in a day that came to be called Wild-Card Wednesday.

How wild? Let's count the ways. The Rays trailed the Yankees 7-0 after seven innings of a game they needed to win to stay alive in the AL wild-card race. In the bottom of the ninth, they were still behind 7-6 with two outs and the bases empty. Johnson, called up just two weeks before, was hitting .108, his last big league hit having come on April 27, and his left wrist was sore.

Johnson did have two things going for him: 1) a beautiful left-handed swing, and 2) a history of delivering in the clutch; the Rays owed their 2008 and 2010 trips to the postseason to pinch-hit home runs by the man known as The Great Pumpkin. Manager Joe Maddon told him to get ready if they got to the fifth batter in the inning.

“They asked me to pull out the bat I had used -- an X bat, 34 inches, 32½ ounces, cherry maple, Model 27. As I'm looking down the barrel of the bat, I realized what I had done.”

Dan Johnson

"Unfortunately, when the first two batters made out, I was in the batting cage between the dugout and the clubhouse," Johnson says. "That's when the security guard ran up and told me I was due up."

Johnson quickly went down 0-2, a count that normally reduces major leaguers to .160 hitters. He worked the count to 2-2 and knew that Wade, a former minor league teammate, would throw him a changeup on the outside part of the plate.

"With the swing I put on it, I kind of expected it to go foul," he says. But it hit the right-field foul pole and bounced into Seat 10, Row 7, Section 140, sending the game into extra innings. "I wasn't sure it was a home run until I was halfway around the bases. When I got into the dugout, I took a real pounding."

That set the stage for Evan Longoria's walk-off home run in the 12th.

TV analyst Brian Anderson told viewers, "Dan Johnson may be a Ray for life!" Alas, he wasn't even on the ALDS playoff roster because the Rangers had a preponderance of left-handed pitchers. He could only watch as Texas took the series three games to one. In November, the Rays waived him.

That offseason, as he worked to rehab his wrist and find another posting, Johnson says he used the home run as motivation.

"It told me, and hopefully other teams, that I could still contribute," he says.

But It didn't really hit home until a writer and photographer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune paid him a visit the next January.

"They asked me to pull out the bat I had used -- an X bat, 34 inches, 32½ ounces, cherry maple, Model 27. As I'm looking down the barrel of the bat, I realized what I had done," Johnson says.

Steve Blass, Pirates, 1971 World Series

Steve Blass
In the Pirates clubhouse after the 1971 World Series, Steve Blass and his father Bob joined Manny Sanguillen in the festivities.
AP Photo

One of the nice things about having the Pirates back in the postseason is that they woke up so many memories.

"I felt like Rip Van Winkle," says Blass, a TV analyst who has just co-authored "A Pirate for Life," 42 years after authoring a four-hitter that gave Pittsburgh a 2-1 win over Baltimore in Game 7.

He also won Game 3, after which his father jumped down from the dugout roof to share his joy, interrupting a postgame interview with Tony Kubek of NBC.

"I still have the photograph of that scene," says Blass, "signed by Tony."

“It was at the railroad depot, and I spoke for about a minute and half. If I were to do it again, I would go on for an hour and a half, probably replay every pitch.”

Steve Blass

A few days after the Series, Blass was given a parade in his hometown of Canaan, Conn.

"It was at the railroad depot, and I spoke for about a minute and half," he says. "If I were to do it again, I would go on for an hour and a half, probably replay every pitch. And I'd tell them about the scene on the plane."

The Pirates had two dominant Series heroes: Roberto Clemente, who was the MVP, and Blass. Clemente cemented his legend by hitting .414 and the solo home run that gave the Pirates a 1-0 lead in Game 7. In the chaos on the field and in the clubhouse that followed the win, the two friends didn't get a chance to congratulate each other.

"This is the moment I will always remember," says Blass. "We're sitting on the charter flight back from Baltimore, and I'm in a window seat while my wife Karen is on the aisle. Here comes Roberto and his wife Vera, walking down the aisle. As always, he's dressed in a beautiful suit, immaculate. He gets to my row, looks at me and says, 'Blass, come out here and let me embrace you.' And so I climbed over Karen, and we hugged right there on the plane.

"You have to remember, hugging was a big deal back then. A regular handshake was usually enough."

Sandy Alomar Jr., Indians, 1997 ALDS

Sandy Alomar Jr.
Sandy Alomar Jr.
AP Photo/Tony Dejak

The 1997 ALDS between the Yankees and Indians looked like a mismatch: the defending world champions coming off a 96-win season versus a team that had won the weak Central Division with only 86 victories. When New York took a 2-1 lead in games in the best-of-five series, Yankees fans were making plans for another deep October run.

“You know when it sunk in? Right away. We were the Cleveland Indians, and we had just beaten the New York Yankees!”

Sandy Alomar Jr.

But with the Indians trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the eighth in Game 4, Alomar hit a solo home run to deep right off then-27-year-old reliever Mariano Rivera, setting up a game-winning single by Omar Vizquel in the ninth. The next night, the Indians barely held off the Yankees for a 4-3 victory. With two outs, Paul O'Neill had doubled off Jose Mesa, then Bernie Williams flew out to Brian Giles in deep left-center.

"You know when it sunk in?" asks Alomar, now the bench coach for the Indians. "Right away. We were the Cleveland Indians, and we had just beaten the New York Yankees! As we merged together after that last out, me and Mesa and Charles Nagy and Matt Williams, we knew then and there we had slain Goliath. In front of our fans. It doesn't get any better than that."

Those Indians weren't done. They beat the AL East champion Orioles four games to two and took the Marlins to 11 innings in a 3-2 loss in the seventh game of the World Series.

"That was disappointing," says Alomar, "but to this day, I will always remember the feeling of beating those Yankees. I'm smiling right now."

Will McEnaney, Reds, 1975 World Series

Will McEnaney
Will McEnaney and Johnny Bench were so excited to win the 1975 World Series they didn't know what to do.
Darryl Norenberg/USA TODAY Sports

The cover of the Nov. 3, 1975, Sports Illustrated shows Reds catcher Johnny Bench carrying an ecstatic McEnaney as if he were a baby. And in some ways, McEnaney was just a kid, a 23-year-old left-handed reliever who grew up in Springfield, Ohio, worshipping the Reds, Bench included.

He had just recorded the save in a 4-3 Game 7 victory over the Red Sox in one of the greatest World Series ever played.

"I got Yaz to fly out to Cesar Geronimo, and John and I look at each other, and he shouts, 'What do we do? What do we do?' And that's when I jumped into his arms," McEnaney says.

“I'm back home in Springfield, Ohio, a few days after the Series and one of my old teachers comes over, a woman who taught me to play baseball when I was 6 years old. She asked me to sign the cover of Sports Illustrated for her. That was the first time I saw the picture.”

Will McEnaney

McEnaney also played a prominent role in Game 6 of the Series, relieving Rawly Eastwick with men on first and third and no outs in the bottom of the ninth and the score tied 6-6.

"Sparky [Anderson] had me walk [Carlton] Fisk intentionally to load the bases," says McEnaney, a former banker and commercial painter who is back in the baseball business -- as the scoreboard operator for the Jupiter Hammerheads in the Florida State League. "Fred Lynn is up, and John puts down the sign for a slider. But I'm too amped up to throw anything but a fastball, so that's what I throw, and Flynn flies out to George Foster in left, and he throws out Denny Doyle trying to score on a sacrifice fly. John starts cursing me out for not throwing a slider, and all I can say is, 'Hey, it worked out, didn't it?' Then I got Rico Petrocelli to ground out to end the inning."

McEnaney remembers the sadness of Red Sox fans after Game 7, and the plane ride home, and the parade in Cincinnati.

"But you know when it really sank in?" he says. "I'm back home in Springfield, Ohio, a few days after the Series, and one of my old teachers comes over, a woman who taught me to play baseball when I was 6 years old. She asked me to sign the cover of Sports Illustrated for her. That was the first time I saw the picture."

Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer

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