Here's my theory: Most sports fans are formed by the most cataclysmic or euphoric sporting event of their childhood. I am the sports fan that I am today because four days before my 14th birthday, with the Cleveland Browns in field-goal range, Sam Rutigliano called a play called Red Right 88, and Brian Sipe threw an interception against the Oakland Raiders. Then Brian put his hand in his face, and he stumbled off the field, and Rutigliano said, "I love you Brian," and I was wrecked forever.
I bring this up because today's topic is possibly the most famous collapse in baseball history, the fall of 1964 Phillies, and also my good friend Bob Dutton. Bob is now the excellent Royals beat writer for the Kansas City Star and the president of the Baseball Writers Association of America ... more to today's point, though, he was a 9-year-old Philadelphia Phillies fan in 1964. He lived that collapse. It shaped him. As I watch the Mets try to fall apart in the final weeks for the second straight year (and also the Brewers) I think of those 9-year-old Mets fans (and also Brewers fans), who will take this with them forever.
We can start our sad tale on Sept. 20, 1964, when the Phillies beat the Dodgers 3-2. JimBunning threw a five-hitter that day -- both the runs he gave up were unearned and due to a Vic Power error -- and the victory gave the Phillies a 6 1/2 game lead with 12 games to play. Bob remembers that the Wilmington Morning News ran a magic number on the front page -- not the front of sports but the front page of the entire paper, which impressed him -- and he remembers so clearly seeing that the Magic Number was 7. He remembers seeing that, of course, because it would stay at 7 for a very, very long time.
Funny thing is, even at age 9 Bob knew what most clear-thinking Philadelphia fans knew -- the Phillies were winning with smoke, mirrors, trap doors, wires, sleight of hand, David Copperfield arrogance, planted audience members and all sorts of other magician tricks. Bob says: "Yes, Richie Allen was a wonderful rookie talent. Johnny Callison was having a deal-with-the-devil year. Jim Bunning and Chris Short, especially Bunning, were terrific and capable of beating anyone. Gene Mauch was then, as he always would be, at his best in milking the maximum from an underdog club. ... Even so, as the summer unfolded, the Phillies hung in there. You kept waiting for the collapse. We all did, really. I mean, we knew the Phillies weren't as good as the Dodgers or the Giants or the Reds or the Cardinals. But they kept defying the odds."
I remember this feeling in Kansas City in 2003. You KNEW the Royals weren't good enough, and yet the summer went along and they stayed in first place, and after a while you just shrugged and decided that maybe they had the blessings of the gods. They didn't, of course. But the Royals had the good sense to fall out of things early enough to make the year still seem cheerful. By Sept. 20, even the most cynical of Phillies fans had to move all his chips in with this team. Nobody blows a 6 1/2 game lead with 12 games to go.
I asked Bob for his cold memories -- I didn't want him to go back and look up the details -- and the way he remembers it, the first couple of losses didn't bother anyone too much. He does remember vague details of that first loss, he was sitting in his father's car while his parents shopped at the farmer's market. The Phillies lost 1-0 to Cincinnati. "That was the night that Chico Ruiz or somebody on the Reds scored the only run on a wild pitch or passed ball or something," he says. In fact, Ruiz stole home with Frank Robinson at the plate. That's a bad sign, losing 1-0 when someone steals home. The Phillies' Wes Covington did double to lead off the ninth, but he died at second as John Herrnstein, Clay Dalrymple, Tony Taylor and Ruben Amaro could not drive him home. Cincinnati's John Tsitouris threw the shutout, his only one of 1964.
The next night, the Phillies lost more directly, 9-2, starter Chris Short pitching on short rest* got rocked pretty good. Frank Robinson homered for the Reds. The lead was 4 1/2 games. Bob doesn't remember panic creeping in just yet.
*The short rest thing will come up again.
The next night, the Phillies lost to the Reds again, 6-4, this time blowing the lead when Cincinnati's Vada Pinson crushed a three-run homer off of veteran Ed Roebuck. The Phillies had purchased Roebuck from the Senators back in April and he had pitched brilliantly. That's one of those glorious things about fluke seasons -- Ed Roebucks pitch better than they have their whole lives. Until they don't.
They lost to Milwaukee 5-3 to make it four losses in a row. Milwaukee's Joe Torre smacked two doubles, and Jim Bunning took the loss. The next night Philadelphia went 12 hard innings with the Braves. The Phillies were actually down 5-3 in the 10th, but Richie Allen hit a two-run inside-the-park homer off Bob Sadowski to tie the game again, giving everyone in Philadelphia hope. An inside-the-park homer by Richie Allen. If anything should stop the pain, that should do it. "All they needed was one victory," Bob says. "That would stop it. We all felt that." Bob was listening to the transistor radio under his pillow, just like the Norman Rockwell cliche, when Milwaukee's Eddie Mathews' single scored Gary Kolb in the 12th. The Braves won 7-5. That made five in a row. The lead was 1 1/2 games.
The next day, the Phillies led the Braves 4-2 going into the eighth inning. The Braves made it 4-3 when Rico Carty scored on a passed ball. Funny thing, the Rico Carty I grew up with in Cleveland would not have scored on a passed ball if that ball passed through customs on its way to Istanbul. My Rico Carty kept his wallet in his back pocket because he didn't trust his teammates enough to keep it in the dugout. But Rico, like everyone, was a lot younger in 1964.
Anyway, 4-3 going into the ninth, Bobby Shantz on the mound, he had been awfully good since he had been purchased from the Cubs about a month earlier. He gave up a single to Hank Aaron, a single to Eddie Mathews and, after an out, a game-losing triple to Rico Carty. Yeah. A triple to Rico Carty. When the fates turn, they turn hard. That made six losses in a row. The Phillies lead was a half game.
Now it was pure hysteria, nothing else. A panicked Gene Mauch decided to send Jim Bunning out there on two days rest. Could you imagine a manager doing that now? Two days rest? Bunning got absolutely destroyed -- seven runs in three innings. Joe Torre homered, Lee Maye had five hits, Hank Aaron drove in two, the Braves drilled the Phillies 14-8. And the unthinkable was real: The Phillies were in second place behind Cincinnati, a team that had won nine games in a row. Bob and those Phillies fans were staring hard at the abyss.
The next night, Mauch sent Chris Short out there on two days rest. Why not? He pitched admirably under the circumstances, I guess, but Ken Boyer hit two doubles off Short, Mike Shannon had three RBIs, and the Phillies lost their eighth in a row, this time to the Cardinals 5-1. There was no escaping justice now. The Phillies dropped to third place.
And the story was really over. Of course, even after Greg Norman blew the lead at the 1996 Masters, he still had to finish off the round. The Phillies lost their ninth in a row, this time to St. Louis 4-2 -- the Cardinals' Ray Sadecki and Barney Schultz combined on the seven-hitter. The Phillies lost their 10th in a row the night after that, 8-5, it was poor Jim Bunning getting ripped again as his freaked out manager sent him out there one more time on two-days rest. Pitching on normal rest, Bunning was 14-4 with a 2.17 ERA on Sept. 1. The last month, he went 4-4 with a 4.68 ERA as Mauch lost his mind.*
*Now, to be fair to Mauch -- he did not have anything but Bunning and Short in '64. Rookie Dennis Bennett was his next best starter, and in the 10 games leading up to September he had gone 0-5 with a 5.22 ERA. Art Mahaffey, meanwhile, had been getting ripped all year.
That was that. Here's what Bob says: "It was beyond depressing. I became a cynic at that moment. I already knew there was no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy. But facing this reality was so much worse. I knew in my heart the Phillies had overachieved and yet, here they were, now replacing the 1951 Dodgers as baseball's ultimate chokers in historical context. I never looked at sports the same way again. I still loved sports. Still do, in fact. But for me, my perspective changed forever after 1964."
For posterity's sake it's worth noting that the Phillies did beat the Reds in their final two games of 1964, which did not do them much good but did take the pennant away from Cincinnati and give it to the St. Louis Cardinals. Bunning threw the shutout on the final day as the Phillies unloaded 10-0 with Richie Allen capping off his marvelous rookie season with two home runs.
And it's funny: Bob is enough of a baseball historian and lover of the game to know that, as you look back at the '64 Phils, it's probably almost as amazing that the Phillies were in first place by 6 1/2 games to BEGIN WITH as it was that they ended up blowing the lead. The next year, Bob played a whole season of APBA baseball, and he undoubtedly gave his Phillies every break imaginable. They finished 82-80, 12-games behind the Reds.
Still, it doesn't matter, the pain lingers on, and always will. You know, when you are a Cleveland fan, you have a wide choice of worst moments. You can choose the Drive or the Fumble, Michael Jordan's jumper over Craig Ehlo or Tony Fernandez's error, Joel Skinner holding up Kenny Lofton at third or Art Modell yanking the heart out of the city and showing it to us like he was the evil Bruce Lee. For me, though, the worst will always be Red Right 88, because it was the moment made me. My brain knows better, but I will never quite believe that any of that other bad Cleveland stuff even would have happened if Brian Sipe had just thrown the damn ball into Lake Erie, like he was supposed to, and the injured Don Cockroft had kicked the game-winning field goal (he had missed two that cold day and had an extra point blocked), and the Browns had gone on to win the Super Bowl.
Of course it's illogical, but being a sports fan is illogical, right? Why do we stick with our teams through pain? Why do we endure the agony of Cleveland sports -- or Philadelphia sports, or Chicago, Milwaukee. Seattle, Atlanta, Baltimore, wherever? Is it simply because of an accident of geography? I don't think so. I think we do it because of something deep in our souls, something to do with loyalty or pride and the hope we all have as children. I feel certain I'd be a different man if Red Right 88 had never happened. I'm not sure if I'd be better or worse. But I'd be different. I also would be a different man if Rutigliano had started choking Sipe as he came off the field.