Season of the Asterisk

January 24, 1995|By STEPHEN VICCHIO

All winter long I am one for whom the bell is tolling;

I can arouse no interest in basketball, indoor fly-casting or bowling;

The sports pages are strictly no soap,

And until the cry Play Ball! I simply


-- Ogden Nash, Sports Illustrated

Perhaps only one thing was clear: They would no longer call Roger Maris' brush with immortality the season of the asterisk. The 1995 major-league baseball season had been one for the record books.

Beginning in spring training with the blockbuster trade that sent the entire Baltimore Orioles team to Tampa Bay for the Buccaneers, it had seemed more like a season authored by Franz Kafka than by the baseball gods. Peter Angelos, pressed to field a team by the new baseball commissioner Marge Schott, swapped Malcolm Glazer for the Bucs even-up, thus avoiding the use of baseball scabs, while bringing NFL football back to Baltimore.

Within hours of the trade, Joel Glazer, the new general manager and director of player personnel for the Orioles, called a news conference to announce that after 18 years of unsuccessful attempts to fill Brooks Robinson's shoes at third base, the Orioles finally had signed someone to do the job: Brooks Robinson.

But despite this and other front-office moves, the Orioles came limping out of the gate. By September, however, they were coming down the stretch neck and neck with the Red Sox. The Birds ended the regular season sweeping the Toronto Blue Jays who finished in third, with a record of 81 and 81, having played all 162 games on the road. The Bosox faded in the final week of the season, however, losing three of four to the Indians at home.

Sherman ''Babe'' Obando, the Orioles right-fielder, by the last day of September had hit his 62nd home run on a high fastball offered up by Sid Finch, a rookie southpaw for the Chicago White Sox. The White Sox had won the western division title in the American League, chiefly on the strength of the arms of Oil Can Boyd and Steve Carlton, the legs of their rookie center fielder, Michael Jordan, and the bat of their veteran designated hitter, Minnie Minoso. But the Oriole rotation of Jim Palmer, Charley Hough, Hoyt Wilhelm and 19 year-old left-handed flame-thrower Hirohito Suzuki, won the American League championship series in four straight.

Over in the National League it was just as strange a year. Glenn Davis hit 27 home runs in spring training, only to miss the entire regular season due to being hit by lightning when he carried the lineup card to home plate on a rain-delayed opening day.

The Niekro brothers, Phil and Joe, pitched the Atlanta Braves to within one game of the eastern division title, but the Braves' entire 106-win season was forfeited when it was discovered that Pedro Dellarosa, Atlanta's mustachioed first baseman, was really Pete Rose. Later it was revealed that during the All-Star game's home run derby Rose had made a bet with Indians' first baseman Albert Belle that he would be undetected the entire season, and double or nothing on winning the National League batting championship.

The real story of the 1995 season, however, came down to the final day. The Dodgers' Bert Blyleven, the first pitcher to win 30 games in nearly three decades, throughout the season had provided a steady diet of curve balls the National leaguers found hard to hit. Blyleven already had pitched games one and four of the series, beating Palmer on a four-hitter, and losing to Hoyt Wilhelm, when pinch hitter Floyd ''Sugar Bear'' Rayford hit the left field flag pole in the top of the ninth at Dodger stadium.

Game seven saw the Dodgers go ahead 2-1 on a suicide squeeze. Bill ''Spaceman'' Lee had started for the Dodgers, giving up one run on five hits through four innings; but Lee developed a blister in the top of the fifth, and he was followed by Mark ''Bird'' Fidrych, who lasted two, and then Tommy John, who pitched a scoreless eighth.

Obando came to bat in the top of the ninth. Cesar Devarez had walked to start the Oriole half of the inning. After pinch hitter Jim Traber -- who had sung the national anthem before the game -- struck out on ball four, and Harry Berrios popped to the catcher while trying to bunt the runner over, Devarez stole second. This set the stage for Obando, who had won games two and three on home runs.

Ken Dixon and Joaquin Andujar had been warming up for Los Angeles for most of the eighth, but after a short trip to see Tommy John, Lasorda yanked him and brought back the ancient curve-baller, Blyleven.

With a 3-2 count, Obando went deep, but a foot foul. Everyone on earth knew what the next pitch would be. It looked like it rolled off a table-top. Obando wobbled at the knees, taking strike three.

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