Hidden heroes use postseason as coming-out party


October 12, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

TORONTO -- My favorite moment in these American League playoffs occurred when Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly came to the mound in the eighth inning of Game 1 to remove reliever Carl Willis, and Willis stopped just short of embracing his manager. "TK," he burbled, eyes gone watery, "thanks for the chance."

(This moment comes in just ahead of a pre-series interview with the Twins' Jack Morris, who said, before going out to pitch Game 1 in the town where he grew up dreaming of just such a golden moment, "I'm not out there representing anyone. I'm representing myself." Is this a great decade or what?)

A quick canvassing of amateur and professional baseball historians, raconteurs and geeks was unable to summon the memory of another postseason moment in which a pitcher actually thanked his manager while being pulled. There is a rumor, unconfirmed, that such contrition runs against a stipulation in the Players Association bylaws. Anyway, it was something to see.

Willis offered his thanks because his is one of those never-say-die stories. He spent eight years in the minors, getting bombed to the tune of a 6.39 ERA in Class AAA in 1990, but suddenly discovered his control just when he was thinking of retiring and wound up winning eight games in 40 appearances for the division-winning Twins.

Then, after slumping late in the season, he got the call in Game 1 after the Twins' five-run lead had dwindled to one. His 2 1/3 innings of perfect relief saved the day. When he thanked Kelly "for the chance," it really was for two chances: to pitch in Game 1, and to pitch at all in the majors. Therefore, the burbling.

He was a celebrity afterward, of course, the press descending on him for that staple of our industry, the five-minute biography. Did he ever think about retiring? (Yes.) Was he nervous? (Hoo boy.) What was he doing this time last year? (Sitting in a BarcaLounger at home in North Carolina, watching the playoffs, depressed that even the Indians didn't want him.)

The postseason is famous for such insta-fame, of course. It doesn't happen every year, but very nearly: Some lifelong bench-warmer or habitual bungler suddenly pulls a Mays or Koufax for a night or two in the biggest game of his life, as everyone watches in amazement. It's sort of a Jimmy Stewart thing, aw shucks, you can't explain it. An irresistible hook.

Just last year, someone utterly anonymous named Billy Hatcher had hits in seven straight at-bats as the Reds swept the A's in the World Series. Two years earlier, a self-professed goofball named Mickey Hatcher ran wild for the Dodgers as they upset the A's. Aw shucks.

Rick Dempsey wasn't exactly a nobody in 1983, but his Series MVP performance was miles over his head. And what about the Royals' Buddy Biancalana in 1985? His defense and funny name took him all the way to Letterman before he lost his job the next season.

Such sudden star turns can be found throughout the sweep of baseball history. In 1947, the Dodgers' Cookie Lavagetto broke up a no-hit bid with a game-winning hit with two out in the ninth. Later in the series, Brooklyn's Al Gionfriddo robbed Joe DiMaggio of a home run with a famous catch.

A coach named Jimmy Wilson came out of retirement to hit .350 for the Reds in 1940. In 1969, Ron Swoboda's sprawling catch and Al Weis' improbable home run helped do in the Orioles.

What's makes them all so remarkable is you rarely come across them in other pro sports. Does a third-string halfback win the Super Bowl for the 49ers? No, Joe Montana does. If the Bulls win the NBA championship, does the backup center lead the way? Nope. President Bush's favorite Mike does.

One reason is the presence of the minor leagues. If a football player doesn't make the NFL out of college, he's history. A basketball player can go to the CBA, but few return. Carl Willis can keep making a living in his game into his 30s, hanging around the fringe as he tries to figure out what he is doing wrong.

More than anything, though, it is the magical nature of the game. Only baseball players find and lose ability without knowing why. Why did Jeff Ballard win 18 in 1989? Why did Carl Willis suddenly find his Grail? Who knows? There is always an explanation, a new grip or stance, but the same tactic invariably blows up the next year.

The thing for both players and fans to do is just appreciate it when it occurs. It is becoming harder and harder for players to be obscure with the ESPNing and Rotisserie-ing of the game, so we should just clap at the chance to see a humble, weak-chinned, nobody pitcher get his big day. And then say, as Willis did, that he'd be happy just to get invited to spring training next year.

Aw shucks.

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