PHOENIX – It began with a thought, a Google search and a hit.
The weekend before last, when the Rockies’ LaTroy Hawkins struck out three Giants on nine pitches – a feat now called an “immaculate inning,” so I’ve learned – I wondered if any pitcher had ever recorded three outs with one pitch.
A couple clicks later, I was watching video of onetime Mariners right-hander Jeff Nelson entering a game in 1995, letting a popped up sacrifice bunt drop in front of him at the last instant, then throwing to second base as two stunned baserunners were trying to make sense of what had happened. There it was: the immaculatest inning.
I was able to watch that brilliant bit of gamesmanship on Youtube because Major League Baseball finally uploaded troves and troves of archived video. It’s free (if you can sit through an ad or two), searchable and vast.
It already was a modern treat to be able to call up any box score from baseball history, thanks to sites like Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference.com. Now those box scores are coming to life. The play-by-play from that Mariners game wouldn’t have told me that Nelson let the bunt drop intentionally, or that Mariners shortstop Luis Sojo was savvy enough to tag the lead runner before stepping on second base, keeping the force play in effect. Or that Joey Cora started running everywhere and tagging everyone, straight out of T-ball, just to be sure.
Then, because the Internet is the Internet, curiosity for me became a time suck. I found myself watching parts of games I hadn’t seen in years, challenging hazy memories, reliving more bits of brilliant gamesmanship. And then, because I was a 9-year-old in 1984 and unfortunate enough to be raised a Chicago Cubs fan, I called up Game 5 of that year’s NLCS at Jack Murphy Stadium.
Giants fans, you only think you know torture.
Rick Sutcliffe was 16-1 for the Cubs in 1984. 16-1! The price to acquire him was Mel Hall and Joe Carter, the latter of whom went on to become a franchise star and a jumping, home-run hitting World Series walkoff hero for the Toronto Blue Jays. Didn’t matter. Sutcliffe, for that year alone, was worth it. He cocked his wrist behind his back, tumbled down the mound and delivered pure filth to hitters. He needed to be that good to lead the Cubs out of 39 years of postseason darkness. And when Jim Frey’s bunch won the first two games of that best-of-5 NLCS at Wrigley Field against the mostly anonymous Padres, a do-nothing franchise with a guy in a goofy chicken suit and brown and yellow uniforms that might as well have played in the Pacific Coast League until that point, a pennant was in their grasp.
Then the series shifted to the Murph. Steve Garvey hit the home run that forced a decisive Game 5. But the Cubs remained confident, as did I. They’d have Sutcliffe on the mound, after all.
The Cubs raced to a 3-0 lead. Gary Matthews made one of the finest catches nobody ever talks about.
I should have closed my browser. There was Carmelo Martinez racing around the bases, pinch hitter Tim Flannery with his pre-Mookie ground ball that went through Leon Durham’s legs to tie it, and the stadium rocking back to life. There was Steve Trout and Warren Brusstar and Dennis Eckersley, warming up on bullpen mounds so close to each other it looked as if their arms would tangle, knowing neither would enter because Frey was all-in with Sutcliffe so long as the Cubs didn’t trail.
The Padres still needed a big hit, though. They needed someone to deliver that finishing blow to the Cubs’ ace. It was the biggest baseball moment in San Diego history.
And, my misfortune, Tony Gwynn stepped into it.
Even then, at that young stage in his career, you knew Gwynn would not make an out. You knew 10 infielders wouldn’t be enough. The Cubs were cracking, and Gwynn at the plate was an army of fire ants.
With that ferocious yet so well measured swing, he got the hit -- a two-run double ripped past Ryne Sandberg -- just as I remembered. The Padres celebrated, just as I remembered. Afterward, there was a camera in the dim tunnel leading back to the clubhouse, and it caught a jubilant Flannery, smothering a much larger teammate with a full body hug. The two men continued past the camera and you didn’t need to make out Bruce Bochy’s name or No. 15 to know it was him. He walked with that same stiff hip swivel then as he does now.
Obviously, I didn’t know Bochy and Flannery when I was a 9-year-old. I know them now. And while there was no solace for me as a kid, I found myself smiling at my laptop screen as I watched them relive perhaps the greatest moment of their ballplaying lives. I remember wishing they had a camera to capture Gwynn’s reaction, too. He crushed my third-grade dreams, but nobody who ever met him could ever hold a grudge. He was too decent a person.
The next day, the news landed with a thud that Gwynn passed away. Bochy and Flannery are still in mourning. Flannery finally had to stop watching the tributes after seeing Keith Olbermann’s touching piece. It had all become too much to process. He still has trouble talking about it. This is usually when he sits down and writes a song.
Bochy had Gwynn as both a teammate and a manager, and is left with that sickness in his stomach that he hadn’t been in more frequent touch over the years.
There is a pall over the Padres franchise that has nothing to do with their major league worst offense or the fact they just canned GM Josh Byrnes. (“Relieved of his duties,” as the news release described it.)
The Padres come to AT&T Park to begin a three-game series Monday and the Giants will hold a moment of silence for Gwynn. The tentative plan is for both teams to stand on the baselines for it. And after Wednesday afternoon’s game, Bochy and Flannery will fly to San Diego. Gwynn’s public service is on Thursday, and they’ll attend before making it back to San Francisco in time for the series opener against the Cincinnati Reds that night.
“I’m going to miss him,” Bochy said.
Bochy was a rookie manager in 1995, and his first players were plumbers, store clerks and construction workers. After the strike was settled and the replacement players went home, the real major leaguers showed up. They did not know Bochy.
“He had his locker right behind my office and we talked a lot,” Bochy said. “He kept me abreast on what was going on in the clubhouse. It helped to give me credibility with players who didn’t know me, to have the support of the best player on the team. I’ll always appreciate that.”
And, of course Bochy appreciated Gwynn’s greatness on the field.
“Best hit-and-run guy ever in baseball,” Bochy said. “Back then, we’d let him put it on.”
Bochy appreciated all those batting titles, all those cracks that No. 19 found in the defense, all those moments San Diego needed a baseball hero and Tony Gwynn stepped into it.
You can watch those moments now, and so many others. What, really, is more immaculate than eternal life?