Friday, July 16, 2010

Rant #301: Bomb's Away

The other evening, with summer TV boring the heck out of me and no baseball to watch because it was the All-Star break, I turned on ESPN Classic to see what was on there.

Well, let me start off by saying that I now had something to watch.

The station, which specializes in showing old sporting events—some just a few years old, some decades old—was showing the September 1976 baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Kansas City Royals at the original, one and only Yankee Stadium. They showed this game, and other shows highlighting the legacy of George Steinbrenner, the Yankees' legendary owner, who passed away this week.

This was the divisional playoffs, game five, and whatever team won this game would go onto the World Series against the mighty Cincinnati Reds.

The place was electric as the game was ready to begin, and the intensity level pretty much stayed the same throughout the entire game.

I know—because I was there.

Two nights ago was the first time I had ever seen the broadcast of the game, which goes down as one of the classic baseball games of all time.

It was a see-saw game the whole way, and then, the top of the eighth came with the Yankees leading 6-3. George Brett, one of the all-time Yankee killers, came to the plate and—

One swing of the bat tied the game, as Brett homered, bringing home three runs.

The score was tied 6-6 going into the bottom of the ninth. The Yankees had not been in the World Series in 12 years, George Steinbrenner had only been running the team for three years. Billy Martin was the manager.

And yes, I was one of the 58,000 in attendance that evening.

First baseman Chris Chambliss strode to the plate as fans cheered on their heroes. The lefty hitter got into the batters box, got himself comfortable and swung at the first pitch from pitcher Mark Littel.

He swung, and the ball rose in the air. Did it have the heft needed to go over the fence?

Yes, it did, and this walkoff homerun is one of the most famous in baseball history.

Chambliss tried to circle the bases, but fans poured onto the field by the hundreds (I couldn’t—I was sitting all the way up in nosebleed land but had beer poured down my back in celebration).

He jumped, fell over, and ran hurdles over hundreds of fans who took it upon themselves to celebrate on the field, a situation that could never happen today with the added security that stadiums now employ.

He never made it to home plate, or at least not when he was rounding the bases. He went into the dugout, and later touched first base—with an umpire present—to make it official.

But no one in the Stadium cared about that. We were too busy celebrating.

On the air, Keith Jackson, Reggie Jackson—right before he signed with the Yankees—and Howard Cosell reported the game as you would think that three announcers not very schooled in baseball (Reggie Jackson was as a player, but not as a broadcaster) would.

Cosell, who often voiced his hatred of the sport, put on a good face during the game, spouting statistics left and right. Keith Jackson, as an old-time football announcer, was very stoic in his presentation.

Reggie Jackson was, well, Reggie Jackson.

I remember that the Stadium actually shook briefly when people were jumping up and down and celebrating, a view that was later corroborated by Yankee broadcaster and Hall of Fame shortstop Phil Rizzuto. I knew I felt it, but the Scooter’s recollection helped me to know I wasn’t tipsy, the Stadium was.

On the broadcast, there was the now antiquated use of visuals, split screens, and other things we so take for granted today when we watch a sports broadcast.

But at Yankee Stadium, I remember that no one wanted to leave.

When we finally did, horns were honking, you couldn’t get out of the parking garage, and the roads were packed.

Chambliss hit his homer at 11:13 p.m.; I didn’t get home until about 3:30 a.m.

This game is one of the greatest memories of my teenage years, and to finally see it as it was broadcast 34 years ago was a thrill on a boring, summer night that made what was going to be a slow night into something truly amazing.

Now do they have the 1967 game that Mickey Mantle hit his 500th homer?

I was at that one too.

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