The Final Four

The Final Four
Baseball’s Final Four converge now to determine who advances to the World Series. It’s been this way since 1969 when baseball added two teams to the National League (San Diego Padres and Montreal Expos, now the Washington Nationals) and the American League (Seattle Pilots, now the Milwaukee Brewers and in the NL and the Kansas City Royals). At the time creating two divisions and the League Championship Series was decried by purists as making the World Series anticlimactic. I think we can agree that the World Series no longer occupies as central a position in the warp and woof of American life as it did in the middle of the last century, but certainly the LCS did not make it less compelling to the baseball fan.

From 1969 to 1984 the LCS was a best-of-five affair, and actually in the early years the contests were mostly forgettable while the World Series in those years were mostly gripping. The first ALCS that captured the nation’s attention was the 1976 matchup of the resurgent New York Yankees and the upstart Kansas City Royals. The fifth and deciding game was ended by a walk-off homerun by Yankees’ first baseman Chris Chambliss. It was interesting to see video of the event on MLB Network the other day, as hundreds if not thousands of fans descended on the playing field at Yankee Stadium in joy. The mob so congested the scene that Chambliss was unable to touch homeplate at the time; he had to be escorted under police guard later in the evening to complete his circuit. It’s no wonder that since then anytime a clinching game is being played the uniformed finest of whatever city are on alert and ready to be arrayed to protect the field and the players. The Bicentennial year was raucous on many counts.

The National League didn’t have an attention grabbing LCS until 1980 when the Philadelphia Phillies and Houston Astros engaged in a five-game set with more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie mystery. There were some truly bizarre events during that series, such as the Game Four imbroglio when Astros pitcher Vern Ruhle trapped a liner off the bat of Garry Maddox. Referring to the entry in Wikipedia:

Bake McBride and Manny Trillo opened the inning with back-to-back singles off Vern Ruhle. Garry Maddox then hit a low liner back to the mound that Ruhle appeared to catch, but TV replays showed he trapped it. Ruhle threw to first base, but Art Howe was unsure if the ball had been caught, so he stepped on the bag and threw to Rafael Landestoy at second, just in case. At that point, umpire Bob Engel ruled a catch by Ruhle, prompting a heated protest from Dallas Green. Engel declared both Maddox and Trillo out, but allowed McBride to return to second. This decision, in turn, aroused a protest by Astros manager Bill Virdon, claiming that McBride was still off second when Howe threw there and, if Ruhle made a catch, McBride should be declared out, too. The protests went for naught, but it hardly mattered as Larry Bowa grounded out for the third out.

The great Roger Angell wrote in his fine book Late Innings “The game seemed to be playing the men.” The Phillies went on the win that game in the 10th inning and took the NL pennant the next day in a thrilling contest on the way to their first World Series championship.

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