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As I sit here midway through the 2002 season, I can't help but feel sad for the state of our great American pastime. Our beloved game of baseball, has fallen on hard times as alleged steroid abuse, possible team contraction and an impending strike over revenue sharing threaten to distance even more fans from the game. The disappointing All-Star debacle and accusations of racketeering within the baseball commissioner's office are just the latest in a long line of heated controversies. Many fans have become disillusioned with the sport and many others have questioned why even play the game. To find an answer, I looked to the games of days gone by. One game in particular… seems "perfect" for this occasion.
In many sports, individuals receive perfect scores from judges when they are believed to have performed a flawless routine. Gymnasts, skaters, and divers spend countless hours practicing the same repetitions over and over in an attempt to focus their minds and bodies towards accomplishing this rare feat. Many have believed that this is an impossible task as no athlete can truly be perfect. Surely the participants could have nailed their landing better, or done something to improve their routine overall. In baseball, perfection comes few and far between, and can only be measured by the statistics on a scorecard. On October 8, 1956 during game 5 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium, Don Larsen and his pinstriped teammates took the field against their rival Brooklyn Dodgers. After 97 pitches, the Yankee pitcher had mowed down the Dodgers 27 straight times and tallied a perfect game.
The magic of this moment however, goes way beyond a single game. Don Larsen's performance on the mound that day illustrates exactly why they play the game of baseball. It is an American tradition rich in legends, folklore and history, a never-ending story where every game is a new 9-inning chapter and every player has the chance to be the hero. October 8, 1956 was Don Larsen's shot and he shined with the only perfect game in World Series history.
The 64,000+ fans in attendance that day could never have predicted that they were about to witness the birth of a record that would stand into the next millennium or that their ticket stubs would mature into a $2000 piece of sports memorabilia. The Dodgers couldn't have predicted the beating they were about to take either. During the first inning, Larsen went to his first and only "ball three" count on Pee Wee Reese. From then on, the modest pitcher and his pinstriped teammates worked together on both sides of the plate to deliver an instant classic. In the second inning, Jackie Robinson smashed a line drive that was deflected by Yankees third baseman Andy Carey to shortstop Gil McDougald, who threw out Robinson at first. In the fourth inning, Mickey Mantle hit a low line drive into the right field seats, just inside the foul pole. Mantle's homer gave New York a 1-0 lead. In retrospect, home field advantage and a little luck sometimes pays off big. If the game had been at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, The Mick's hit would have likely been off the right field screen for a double.
In the top of the fifth, Gil Hodges, a 32-homer man during the regular season, drove a pitch deep into left-center field and right into the outstretched glove of a sprinting Mickey Mantle. Larsen later said, "Mantle made such a beautiful catch. That ball probably would have been a home run in most parks, but Yankee Stadium at that time was pretty big in left-center. Mantle could run like a deer, caught that ball and I had another sigh of relief." The next batter, Sandy Amoros, hit a line drive toward the right field corner but it curved foul and just missed being a home run.
As the game progressed, so did the anticipation of the crowd and the superstition of the players. Most of the Yankees avoided Larsen completely in the dugout. "Nobody would talk to me, nobody would sit by me, like I had the plague." Larsen recalled, "I don't believe in that superstition stuff. You just do your best. Some of the guys didn't want to say anything, afraid they'd put a jinx on it." Even Yankees skipper Casey Stengel got involved in attempting to preserve Larsen's marvelous momentum. "I had more managers around me on the bench than any pilot ever had before." he said, "The boys were helping me place the outfielders."
As the ninth inning came to a close, Larsen got a called third strike on pinch-hitter Dale Mitchell to end the game and set off a wild celebration that began with Yankees catcher Yogi Berra leaping into Larsen's arms. The moment would be replayed over and over for decade after decade in countless highlight films.
Even more impressive than Don Larsen's performance was the class that he showed after the Yankees left the field. In the locker room he said, "When it was over, I was so happy, I felt like crying. I wanted to win this one for Casey (Stengel). After what I did in Brooklyn, he could have forgotten about me and who would blame him? But he gave me another chance and I'm grateful." Stengel himself was quoted as saying that it was the greatest game he had ever seen thrown by a pitcher. Larsen responded in turn by stating that it was the greatest game ever called by a catcher (referring to his teammate Yogi Berra).
After losing Game 5, the Dodgers were down three games to two and the Series shifted back to Brooklyn. The Dodgers won Game 6 1-0 in 10 innings when Robinson's line drive to left field got past Enos Slaughter to score Junior Gilliam. However, the Yankees breezed to a 9-0 win in Game 7. Neither game would compare to 5 though and no other pitcher would even come close to Larsen's numbers.
Larsen pitched another three years for the Yankees before bouncing from team to team over the final seven seasons of a 14-year career. He retired in 1967 with a forgettable career record of 81-91, failing again to approach the heights he achieved on that October afternoon in 1956. Overall, his total stats added up to nothing more than mediocre. He was a good pitcher, but certainly not a great one. Once when asked about his performance in Game 5 he said, "I think about it every day. Sometimes it's hard to believe it ever happened. I'm glad it did because everybody thinks about that and forgets all the mistakes I made in my career."
Who knows? If history had gone another way, Larsen might have ended up as one of those forgotten players who fade away from memory shortly after hanging up their cleats. Instead he went down in World Series history as the man who pitched the perfect game. His story exemplifies the game of baseball when anybody can be anything on anyday… and that's why they play the game!
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