This is Gene Mauch, who should be the patron saint of lost causes (but hey, Jude got that one) and is most certainly the one man who got more out of little on the baseball diamond.
I knew Gene Mauch well as a baseball fan. He taught me about platooning, using the bench, the importance of veterans and that you can never (ever) have enough pitching.
This Oiler season is starting to remind me of the NL East in 1973. It was a crazy summer that wasn’t decided until the sun faded and the cool winds blew. Allow me to list the final standings:
- New York Mets 82-79 (–)
- St. Louis Cardinals 81-81 (1.5)
- Pittsburgh Pirates 80-82 (2.5)
- Montreal Expos 79-83 (3.5)
- Chicago Cubs 77-84 (5)
Only the lowly Philadelphia Phillies were out of the race and even they were starting to build toward their world championship club that would bear fruit in 1980. The Expos were the surprise team because it was still an expansion club and their starting pitching was a mess (Bill Stoneman was their ace starter and his arm fell off early) and they had no obvious hitting stars.
They did it using 4 vital things: Mike Marshall in the bullpen (14-11 w/31 saves in 73 appearances), phenom Steve Rogers arrived in time to go 10-5, Ken Singleton had a stunning offensive season (123 walks, 103 rbi’s, 100 runs scored, .425OBP) and Gene Mauch platooned that team to death.
And they were in it, baby. They brought in people (including Felipe Alou) during the stretch run and they played their hearts out. I can still remember the names:
- Jorgensen and Breeden were the platoon at 1b (combined for 90 rbi’s)
- Ron Hunt at second when healthy and when he was not, two of the most glorious names in baseball history–Pepe Frias and Larry Lintz–filled in.
- The fiery Tim Foli at shortstop. No one fights in baseball, they brawl. Everyone jumps on everyone else. Foli fought. I remember him fighting more than a couple of times. Fists and bruises. He was a beauty.
- Bob Bailey at third. Bob Bailey couldn’t play third base well (or really at all) but my God could that man hit a baseball.
- Ron Fairly in LF. Fairly had the most beautiful lefthanded swing, it was gorgeous. I don’t follow baseball anymore but there’s probably some lefty batter who makes a fluid motion from beginning to end that looks like every movement is perfectly choreographed. It was a sight to see.
- Ron Woods and Boots Day in a centerfield platoon. Woods was a fleet player who didn’t have a great bat, and Day could barely play CF but Mauch was always trying to get more lumber in the lineup. A very unlikely platoon.
- Ken Singleton was a wonderful player, he really was. Patient and strong, he could beat you with a walk, a double and rip a homer too. He was not a good runner and only average in the field even as a young man, but lordy he was a key player for the Expos in 1973.
- The rotation had veterans Steve Renko (who could hit a little), Mike Torrez (who had some poor outings that summer), Balor Moore (who was my favorite player, he was kind of like Billy Wagner if he’d been, you know, good) and Ernie McAnally who always lost (at least that’s how I remember it). Plus Steve Rogers, whose “exhale” on the mound must have broken his ribs a few times.
- Mike Marshall was an ass but man could he pitch. He had a weird screwball pitch that behaved strangely but apparently looked exactly like his slider (this is from memory so don’t quote me on it) and MLB hitters had no answer. Mauch also used a bunch of other guys in the bullpen but I can’t tell you much about them without checking and that would ruin the fun.
Anyway, that pennant race was just about the most fun I ever had as a baseball fan. Nothing mattered, not school, not homework, not the chores (we had goats and had to bring coal into the house every night) not even girls (that would happen later–Mauch was gone by then). I carried that pennant race with me in my brain everywhere I went that summer and it was pure joy.
I’m starting to feel the same way about this team. Don’t ask me why, this season is just like many in the MacT era–but for some reason this team has captured my imagination and they matter to me. A kid like Cogliano, who plays in front of his family (apparently, his whole family) and puts on a wonderful performance. A kid like Gagner, who has had a dreadful season but remains confident and is eventually rewarded with a nice little streak on the road which is long overdue. A kid like Liam Reddox, who matured late and must pinch himself when thinking about those Stockton road trips that weren’t that long ago. These kids are the modern Steve Rogers, the new Balor Moore, the latest Pepe Mangual.
Plus the veterans: Fernando Pisani trying to stay healthy and contribute (and you know what? he does. Smart, smart guy–future coach), Dwayne Roloson willing this team to another deep spring, Shawn Horcoff doing the Dad work, Ales Hemsky batting cleanup. These are the Bob Bailey’s, the Ron Fairly’s, and in Hemsky’s case the Ken Singleton’s.
A hockey or baseball season is a massive investment when done right; for Oilers fans of this era it’s an “all or nothing” proposition. I’m older now, a husband and a father and grownup matters take much of my day.
Still, there’s not a lot of difference between watching Steve Rogers find his way as a rookie and seeing Sam Gagner struggle as a sophomore (Rogers would struggle too btw). It’s an emotional investment and a fan must choose well.
I did. And I have.