Sunday, January 18, 2015

National League - Semi Finals

RUSSELL SPRINGS, KY - Most of the time, tournament pairings are routine.  Two teams are thrown together by fate or chance.  They play and the better of the two teams, at least at that point in time, wins and advances.  And then, at other times, two teams advance through the competition in the bracket and a little magic happens.  A memory from a long time ago is sparked.  I remember the Big Red Machine championships of 1975 and 1976 - a little.  Actually, I remember my dad watching the games intently, and me being much more interested in my toys.  

1976 Topps #610
One of my first favorites
Two things from the 1976 NLCS stuck with me.  One, my dad was excited about something baseball related.  Being a little kid, I didn't appreciate the importance of that at the time.  When the baseball strike hit in 1981, they lost him as a fan, and he's never come back.  Two, I remember Greg Luzinski's baseball card.  I started my obsession with Topps cards in 1977, but in 1976, I had a few.  This was one of them.  And that fall, this guy who I didn't know, was on a piece of cardboard in my hand.  He was also on my TV playing a game.  But I had Hot Wheels and Johnny West action figures to play with.  I was 8, and my attention span was limited.

The Reds won, my dad and uncles were excited, and I didn't pay a lot of attention.  The next two years, my Reds stayed home and I saw the Dodgers lose to the Yankees, twice.  But three years later, something great happened.  The Reds won their division and were back in the post season.  Now, I was 11.  No Hot Wheels or cowboy dolls were going take me away from the television and witnessing another Reds Championship!  Only no one told me the Reds didn't always win in the post season.  I watched in horror as they dropped games 1, 2 and 3, and the Pittsburgh Pirates advanced to play the Orioles.  After their remarkable comeback, down 3 games to 1 to the birds, I learned to appreciate the Cobra, Pops and Sister Sledge.  They became one of my all time favorite non-Reds teams.  But I can still see Cesar Geronimo standing and watching strike 3 for the final out of game 3 of the NLCS.

Now, some 35 years later, enter APBA and a tournament of the seasons I have from 1971 to 1990 broken down into the best from each franchise for 4 different 5 year periods.  Throw in a little good fortune, and I find myself with a matchup of those same 1979 Pirates against my Reds.  Only this time, it's not the puny 1979 bunch who got swept.  This time, it's the mighty 1976 Big Red Machine facing Pops and Company.  I have a much better, near mint '76 Luzinski in my baseball card collection now.  The Hot Wheels are gone, but I still have my Johnny West action figures.  This time, I won't be playing in the floor with any of them when the games play out.  Maybe later.

CINCINNATI, OH - The '76 Reds and the '79 Pirates were the only World Champions in the tournament.  The 1980 Yankees had a better regular season record than either of the 77-78 championship teams.  And, the '76 Phillies, with a better record than the 1980 world champion team, were selected to represent the city of brotherly love.  This clash of my baseball heros from the late 70s that would play out on my desktop with cards and dice, was billed as the "Battle of the Bling to be Lord of the Rings."

Game 1.  IMPLOSION.  From the beginning, the Pittsburgh bats hit and hit and hit some more.  Starter Gary Nolan lasted only 3 innings.  Don Gullet would last only 2 himself.  Fireman of the Year Award winning closer, Rawly Eastwick entered in the 9th, in an attempt to stop the bleeding, and could not get out of the inning.  It was a bad day in the Queen City.

Ed Ott has been "Red Hott" in the tounament.  His three run blast in the 2nd inning rallied the Pirates and silenced the Riverfront crowd.  Sac flies from Stargell and Garner sandwiched around a Bill Madlock RBI base hit, put Pittsburgh ahead 6-0 after 3, and brought Gary Nolan's day to an early close.  Dave Parker connected on a 2 run shot in the 4th inning to greet Gullet, and Pittsburgh stretched it's lead to 8-0.

Meanwhile, the Red's bats could do nothing with Bert Blyleven.  At one point, the future Hall of Famer retired 15 in a row before a rare error by normally sure gloved Omar Moreno snapped the streak.  The Big Red Machine sputtered, hissed and was spewing oil all day.  4 Reds hit safely, and only 1 time was a runner advanced as far as third base.  In the clubhouse, no Pirate player would venture near the winning pitcher's locker to congratulate him on the effort.  Unconfirmed rumors were circulating that Bert had consumed at least 3 Big Red Smokies, between innings, during the game.  It could not be determined if the destruction to Riverfront Stadium shown in the above photo was caused from the shelling off the Pirate bats or from Blyleven, as of this writing.

PITTSBURGH, PA - The Reds' backs were against the wall.  Not only had they lost the first game, they were embarrassed.  Game 2 had to be different.  Pat Zachry took the hill against John Candelaria for the Bucks.  In the 4th, a struggling George Foster came to the box with Morgan and Griffey at 2nd and 3rd and no outs.  Big George grounded out to Tim Foli scoring Griffey and putting the Reds on the board.  With Morgan at third, Bench's 11-6 landed over the left field wall, and the Reds were up 3-0.  Meanwhile, Zachry was dealing.  Other than 2 singles by Tim Foli, the Pirates had no other safeties through the first 6 innings.  All of their APBA firepower had apparently been used up in Game 1.  Geronimo singled home Bench in the 6th and Bill Robinson tripled home Dave Parker in the 7th for the Pirates to complete the scoring for both teams.  Zachry went the distance to pull Cincinnati even and probably deserved "Star of the Game" recognition.  But Bench's home run was key, and I just love to look at this card on any opportunity I get.

CINCINNATI, OH - Back at Riverfront, the damage from the Pirate offensive bombing (or Blyleven's smokies) in Game 1 had been cleared and fumigated.  The teams took the field for 9 innings and winner take all.

The Reds struck early...but not often.  With 2 on and 2 out in the first, Bench singled home the first run (maybe I can use the card again) and Tony Perez followed with a three run 66 to put Cincinnati up 4-0.  The Machine came out in high gear, but after the first inning, it again sputtered, coughed and misfired, as it failed to generate any additional runs.  Their fate would lie with their pitchers and whether they could shut down the Pirate sluggers.

In the top of the 4th, memories of the 1979 World Series returned.  Pops showed age may have slowed him, but hadn't stopped him.  He crushed a Fred Norman offering into the blue seats of Riverfront's right field making the score 4-2.  In the 6th, Omar Moreno tripled to lead things off.  Tim Foli flew out to Foster in left and Moreno trotted home with the 3rd Pirate run.  Now, a home run would tie things up.  With two lefties due up, Sparky left Norman on the mound while he paced on the top steps of the dugout.  

Dave Parker drew a walk.  Now, a double would tie the game.  But Stargell was not able to come through twice in a row, as a ground ball to Rose produced the 2nd out, but moved the Cobra into scoring position.  Now, a single would tie the game.  Captain Hook had seen enough, and with the righty, Bill Robinson up, Borbon was summoned from the Reds bullpen.  Pedro delivered and Robinson grounded harmlessly to Concepcion to end the threat.

Phil Garner and pinch hitter, John Milner, singled with two outs, as Pittsburgh threatened again in the 7th.  Moreno flew out to Geronimo as Borbon pitched the Reds out of another jam.  Rawly Eastwick was called upon in the 8th to face the Pirate muscle after Borbon retired Foli.  Parker grounded out to Morgan and Stargell flied out harmlessly to Griffey to bring Pittsburgh down to its last 3 outs.

In Game 1, Bill Robinson had rubbed salt in the wound by teeing off on an Eastwick offering in the 9th to round out the score at 10-0.  Robinson and Eastwick now faced each other again, in the 9th.  A long ball from Robinson would tie the game.  The way the Reds were hitting in innings 2-8, there was not much indication they could score more to pull ahead.  They needed to make what they had stand up.  Robinson got a lot of another Eastwick pitch, but just not enough, as Foster tracked down the fly ball on the warning track in left field.  Ed Ott drew a base on balls, but Madlock and Garner sandwiched fly balls to Geronimo who ended this 3 game series, as he did in 1979.  Only this time, he was jumping for joy with the win rather than hanging his head and walking back to the dugout.

George Foster is 0 for 19 in the tournament.  However, he was able to keep Cesar Geronimo from landing on him, with a hard left to the gut, after the centerfield caught the final out of the series and then tried to jump over Foster in celebration.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Back in the oval office, the tournament director called his Russian counterpart, Leonid Brezhnev.  Communication between the two was difficult due to the language barriers, but they agreed to meet and discuss APBA and the SALT treaty.  Carter often suffered from terrible hemorrhoids while in office and used an inflatable duck, that he named Corporal Quackers, as a seat cushion to ease his discomfort. 

Brezhnev was always looking for an edge when dealing with Carter.  He seemed to control most talks between the two and the USA ended up on the short end of most deals.  Part of that may have been the language barrier.  Brezhnev would say one thing "Russian", but intend something totally different in "Russian".  Communication between the two leaders was challenging.  Not only was an interpreter needed to translate from English to Russian, a second interpreter was needed to translate Carter's Georgian to English.  This second translator's presence would play a big part in soothing the negotiations.

VIENNA, AUSTRIA - Peanut one landed in Vienna and Carter was quickly ushered to the private meeting with the Russian leader.  After, three days of stern negotiations, the two leaders agreed to the following:  1) The United States would immediately stop production of all nuclear weapons and destroy all existing warheads.  2) Carter would dress like Brezhnev at least 3 times a week.  3) The Russians would try APBA as soon as boards were translated into their language. 4) Carter would agree to one final undisclosed concession.

The final concession left Carter in a state of discomfort for the trip home.  However, according to his daughter, Amy Carter, in her book Malaised and Confused: My Life as Jimmy Carter's Daughter (published in 2011), the tournament director had a solution staring him in the face.

“Once, after meeting with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, dad lost ‘Corporal Quackers’ as he called the duck seat, and his aides were left scrambling to find a replacement,” Ms. Carter writes. “Fortunately, one of our translator ladies wore a pair of falsies, so he sat down on them instead. She was a G-cup, and they worked like a charm.” 

Some things you just can't make up.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - The Phillies and Astros prepared to battle in a rematch of the 1980 NLCS.  Only this time, Houston's '80 squad would face an even better team in the '76 Phillies.  The Phillies look to play big in the Vet while Houston's pitching staff needs to keep those big Phillie bats quiet.

Game 1.  People expected home runs, but not from the Astros.  In the first inning, Jose Cruz blasted a rare 2 run homer and Houston was out front first.  The Bull showed off his strength with a 66-1 in the 2nd to make it a 2-1 game.  In the 3rd, Houston scored in a more conventional way.  Morgan walked, stole 2nd and scored on a Cruz single.  Luzinski went 66-1 again in the 4th, as the two left fielders battled it out.

In the 6th, Maddox walked and both Schmidt and Luzinski played small ball, beating out infield hits.  Jay Johnstone's fly ball to Terry Puhl in right was deep enough to easily score Maddox from third to tie the game, 3-3.  The score remained tied through 9.  In the top of the 10th, Houston continued to show off their speed.  Puhl singled and stole second.  Cabell brought him home with a single and scored on a triple by (you guessed it) Jose Cruz.  Cedeno's fly to Luzinski in left sent Cruz scampering home with the 3rd run of the inning.

Joe Sambito took the ball and the large lead, needing only 3 outs.  But Sambito walked Dave Cash.  With one out, Schmidt picked up his second infield hit of the game.  Luzinski grounded back to the mound for out 2, but the runners moved into scoring position.  Dick Allen's walk loaded the bases and sent manager Bill Virdon to the pen.  Tournament rules require a 1 game rest if 6 batters are faced.  Vern Ruhle was called upon to get the final out so that Sambito would remain eligible for Game 2.  But Jay Johnstone had other thoughts, singling home the runners and putting the tying run on base.  Lefty batter Tim McCarver was called upon to pinch hit for Boone, but the future broadcaster grounded out to Craig Reynolds to end the game.

HOUSTON, TX - Game 2.  Things are bigger in Texas and there were certainly some big things in Houston waiting on the Phillies.  In the 1st, the Phillies did their thing.  Garry Maddox blasted a home run.  And, the Astros did theirs.  3 singles and a sac fly brought home 2.  The teams swapped out runs in the 4th, but in the 7th, Philadelphia brought out the sticks.  With two out and no one on base, Dave Cash started a rally with a base hit over Joe Morgan's head.  3 more singles and a walk sent 3 Phillies around to score.  Luzinski was thrown out trying to go 1st to 3rd to end the rally.  Otherwise, additional damage may have occurred.

Cesar Cedeno homered in the 9th to cut the lead to 1.  Howe followed with a double and moved to third on an infield hit by Alan Ashby.  With the series ending runner on first, and lefty Craig Reynolds up, Tug McGraw was called in relief of closer Ron Reed. Mike Schmidt turned a 27 into a 5-4-3 double play giving the Phils the win and sending the series back to the Keystone state.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - Game 3.  Back to Philly for the finale.  Mike Schmidt connected on his second home run of the tournament and Jay Johnstone continued to drive in runs like a machine as the Phillies took an early 3-0 lead.  Houston stormed back with two of their own in the 4th, to cut the lead down to one.  But Dick Allen's solo homer off J.R. Richard, in relief in the 5th, pushed the Phillie lead back to 2 runs.  Larry Bowa doubled off the tall Astro in the 6th and scored on a Bobby Tolan pinch hit single as the Phillies win the final, 5-2.  The Phillie relivers of McGraw, Garber and Reed combine for 4 scoreless innings.

The win sets up a rematch of the 1976 NLCS for my National League Championship.  '76 Phillies vs. '76 Reds.  It doesn't get much better than that for late 70s baseball.

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