A Happier 9/11

It has been seven years since this piece was first published: September 11, 2003. A lot has happened since then – including a very happy September 18, 2006. But this game will always remain special, and I hope you don’t mind me continuing to remember it on this date.

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Twenty years ago today, Dodger Stadium hosted its greatest game.

It began swathed in bright blue skies and triple-digit temperatures. When it ended, 228 crazy brilliant minutes later, shadows palmed most of the playing field, and every Dodger fan who witnessed the spectacle found themselves near joyous collapse.

The game was between the Dodgers of Steve Sax and Pedro Guerrero, of Greg Brock and Mike Marshall … and the Braves of Dale Murphy, of Bruce Benedict, of Brad Komminsk.

In the end, however, it came down to one man. A rookie named R.J. Reynolds.

A Brave Battle
Los Angeles entered the game with a two-game lead in the National League Western Division over Atlanta. Their battle for the division crown came a year after a near-epic contest in which the Dodgers rallied from a 10 1/2-game deficit to the Braves in 12 days and took the lead, only to falter and have a home run by the Giants’ Joe Morgan off Terry Forster knock them out on the final day of the season.

On September 11, 1983, coming off an extra-inning loss to Atlanta the night before, Los Angeles took the field behind starting pitcher Rick Honeycutt, making his fifth start for the team since being acquired from Texas in exchange for Dave Stewart, a player to be named later and $200,000. (Supplementary information in this article courtesy of Retrosheet.)

After a scoreless first inning, the Dodgers tallied two runs in the second off Braves starter Len Barker. With two out, catcher Jack Fimple, near the height of his brief but shining heyday as a fan favorite, doubled home Brock and Marshall.

Murphy brickwalled the Dodger momentum in the next inning, displaying the form that left his contemporaries certain he would become a Hall of Famer. In the top of the inning, Murphy hit a three-run home run, his 32nd of the season. In the bottom of the inning, he crashed into the center-field wall, glove extended above and beyond it, to rob Guerrero of a two-run homer.

Stunned at the end of the third, the crowd had no idea that the frenzy was only beginning.

Four on the Floor
With the kind of mathematical symmetry normally found in Schoolhouse Rock cartoons, the Dodgers used four pitchers in the fourth.

Honeycutt got the first two batters out in the top of the fourth, but then gave up back-to-back singles to Jerry Royster and Rafael Ramirez. Having seen his starting pitcher allow seven hits, two walks and a hit batsman in 3 2/3 innings, and with Murphy again at the plate, Dodgers Manager Tom Lasorda brought in Pat Zachry.

Ramirez stole second base, and then Zachry walked Murphy.

With the bases loaded, Lasorda made another move, bringing lefthander Rich Rodas – in his second major league game – to face Chris Chambliss with the bases loaded.

Rodas walked Chambliss to force in the Braves’ fourth run, then allowed a two-run single to Komminsk that made the score 6-2 Braves.

The fourth Dodgers pitcher of the inning came in … a young, young-looking guy by the name of Orel Hershiser. Compared to Rodas, Hershiser was a veteran. This was the Bulldog-to-be’s third major league game. To the naked eye, Lasorda was trying to win the way Buttermaker relied on Ogilvie and Miguel in The Bad News Bears.

Hershiser loaded the bases again with a walk to Benedict. The ninth batter of the inning, third baseman (no-not-that) Randy Johnson, came up with a chance to bury the Dodgers, but popped out to his hot corner counterpart Guerrero to end the top of the fourth.

The score stayed at 6-2 for two more innings. Marshall and Brock, who combined to reach base seven times in this game, led off the bottom of the fourth with singles. Reynolds, however, grounded into a double play. Fimple followed with a walk off Barker, but future Braves hero Sid Bream grounded out batting for Hershiser.

Burt Hooton, a longtime Dodgers starter who went to the bullpen shortly after the acquisition of Honeycutt, became the team’s fifth pitcher in the fifth. The teams gave the fans a breather with an uneventful inning, and Hooton retired the Braves in order in the top of the sixth.

Then the surreal moment arrived.

No, You’re Not Even Warm
After Marshall flew out to open the bottom of the sixth, Brock walked, Reynolds singled him to second, and the Midas behind the recent Yankee dynasty, Atlanta manager Joe Torre, replaced Barker with Tommy Boggs.

Rick Monday, his heroic days behind him, batted for Fimple and was called out on strikes for the second out. But Ken Landreaux, the Dodgers’ regular center fielder, pinch-hit for Hooton and walked to load the bases.

Torre went to the mound and signaled for a pitcher to replace Boggs. None other than Terry Forster – the fall guy of 1982 – emerged from the right-field bullpen.

But then a strange thing happened. Torre signaled again – for a right-handed pitcher.

The strange thing was not that Torre wanted a righty to face Sax. It was that he wanted a righty when none had been warming up.

On the telecast, Vin Scully reported that Tony Brizzolara had warmed up earlier in the game, but in this inning, it had clearly been Forster who was backing up Boggs. Brizzolara had been cooling off for some time.

As a puzzled Forster stood on the edge of the warning track and the outfield grass, looking back and forth between the mound and the bullpen, Torre insisted that Brizzolara come in to face Sax.

In Brizzolara came. He threw four pitches to Sax – in the dirt, low, low and high. In the Dodgers’ third run came, and out went Torre to replace Brizzolara with Forster.

Atlanta was rattled, a thespian who had forgotten his lines on Broadway, but Los Angeles got the minimum out of the comedy, as shortstop Bill Russell struck out against Forster and left the bases loaded.

Joe Beckwith, the losing pitcher in the previous night’s game, laid anchor for the Dodger bullpen, throwing three innings and scattering two singles and a walk. Meanwhile, the mythic Donnie Moore provided a dose of calm for the Braves, retiring the Dodger side in order in the seventh and the eighth.

And then came the bottom of the ninth.

With a Flick of the Wrists, It Begins
Jose Morales, 38 years and 116 pinch hits old, led off, batting for Beckwith. Against a change from Moore, Morales’ off-balance swing, arms well behind his hips, wrists trailing his arms, presaged Kirk Gibson’s flick at the backdoor slider from Dennis Eckersley five years and one month later. Morales’ ball flew into the left-field corner, and Morales easily won a battle of his old legs and Brett Butler’s weak arm, cruising into second with a stand-up double, and giving the master improvisationalist, Scully, his modest opening line …

He just kind of felt for the ball.

Dave Anderson entered the game to run for Morales. As Sax batted (with S. Sax on the back of his uniform, to distinguish himself from his brother Dave for the easily confused), the television camera found a much-in-need-of-SlimFast Lasorda, sitting near Dodger coach Monty Basgall.

Lasorda, Basgall dying a little bit in the Dodger dugout. Tommy’s not feeling well anyway. He’s got a cold for about a month.

Gene Garber, sporting the kind of beard you just don’t see ballplayers wear anymore, was warming up in the bullpen as Moore went 3-1 to Sax. One inside pitch later, Torre was out of the dugout with a hook for Moore. As Moore, the victim of a devastating playoff home run in October 1986, left the game, Tom Niedenfuer, his October 1983 counterpart, began warming up for in the Dodger bullpen for the 10th inning.

Russell, sporting the kind of physique you just don’t see ballplayers compete with anymore, then struck out in his second consecutive critical at-bat.

Dusty Baker, in his last season with the Dodgers before his acrimonious departure, was the batter with one out and two on. Even Baker, with more than 200 career home runs, was thin back then.

Baker swung and missed at Garber’s sidearm delivery, then took one low and outside. On the 1-1 pitch, Baker hit a pop fly that fell between second baseman Royster and right-fielder Claudell Washington, a defensive replacement for Komminsk. The bases were loaded with the tying runs.

This crowd is on its feet and pleading. They’re all getting up. It is that time of day. Never mind the seventh-inning stretch. This is the wire.

Cecil Espy came in to run for Baker, and Guerrero came up to the plate. His at-bat took more than six minutes.

‘This Is Hanging Time’
Guerrero swung and missed at the first pitch, took one low and outside, then hit a grounder just foul.

Boy, what an exhausting finish to a long afternoon at the ballpark. Well, it figured the Dodgers and the Braves are gonna put you through the ringer, right down to the last day. So naturally, they do it right down to the last minute.

Guerrero took one low, evening the count, 2-2. Then he grounded one by third base, just foul.

The table is set and the big man is in the chair.

Pitch No. 6 of the at-bat was six inches off the ground, outside – and still fouled off by Guerrero.

Boy, he was late. He just did get a piece of that. After you get that palmball trickery of Garber … it was almost in Benedict’s mitt.

No. 7: another grounder, just foul.

And the tension remains …

With Garber about to throw the eighth pitch, Guerrero stepped out at the last moment and called time. Vinny, laughing:

Oh yeah, these are tough to take, I tell you what. Guerrero just had to back out. I mean, this is hanging time. Woo!

Garber bounced the resin bag back and forth on the front and back of his right hand. Guerrero stepped back in, and Garber threw. Low – ball three.

It is almost too much to take …

Guerrero went back in for the ninth pitch of the at-bat, then called time again.

You can just imagine the pressure – you’d have to be a block of wood not to feel it.

Here came the pitch. Two feet outside. Guerrero flung the bat away backhanded and strutted to first base.

Anderson scored the first run of the inning, cutting the Braves’ lead to 6-4. The ballpark shadows have just reached Garber. Third-base coach Joe Amalfitano counseled the next batter, Marshall.

Garber slipped on his right foot in delivering the first pitch outside for ball one. The next pitch was outside as well.

Marshall then hit a long drive to right. Washington, with his glove on his right hand, went toward the wall with his back to the right-field stands. But the ball was slicing behind him, and Washington turned his body 180 degrees to try to find and catch the ball in the late-afternoon sun.

It didn’t take. The drive landed right at the base of the wall. Murphy, coming over to back up the play, nearly collided with Washington as the latter threw the ball back. Two runs scored on Marshall’s double – tying the game at 6 – but Guerrero was held at third. On-deck hitter Brock stood near home plate, raising his hands behind his head like he thought Guerrero could have scored, but the replay showed that Amalfitano probably was wise to hold Guerrero.

With the winning run on third and first base open, Brock was walked intentionally – the first wide one barely snagged by a staggering Benedict.

The batter will be the kid, R.J. Reynolds, with a chance to win it.

Holding Back to the Last Second
Reynolds stood at home, looking at Amalfitano, and stretched the bat over both his shoulders.

And now, with the bases loaded, the infield is up, the outfield looks like a softball game, and the batter is R.J. Reynolds.

The first pitch is outside. Reynolds looked at Amalfitano again.

Gene Garber is battling to stay afloat.

If this was a game of Bad News Bears moments, this was Ahmad’s.

Reynolds didn’t give it away. In slow motion, the bat doesn’t even start to come off Reynolds’ shoulder until Garber’s pitching arm is all the way back.

But then … Reynolds’ left hand finds the barrel of the bat. He lays the bat forward, relaxedly, at a slight downward diagonal pointing below his waist, then corrects it to a straight horizontal line to meet the ball.

Reynolds pauses a millisecond to watch. Garber’s follow-through carries him toward the third-base side of the mound, but the bunt rolls toward the first base side.

The SQUEEZE! And here comes the run!!

By the time Garber reverses field and lunges for the ball, Guerrero is 15 feet away from home plate. Before Garber is even upright, Guerrero touches home, banging his hands together in exultation.

He squeezed it in!

Backs of jerseys from our past – Yeager, Thomas, Maldonado, Landestoy, Rivera – come out to rain congratulations on Guerrero. Lasorda risks smothering Reynolds in a headlock.

By the way, if you are keeping score in this madhouse, not only did R.J. squeeze, he got a base hit and an RBI. And Guerrero brought the winning run home. BEDLAM at Dodger Stadium.

Replays and images of celebrations pass in front of us for several seconds, without comentary – you know this is Vinny’s way, to let the moment be the moment. We catch Ross Porter, in short-sleeved shirt and tie, is in the dugout to prepare to interview Reynolds.

Finally, Vin is ready to speak again.

The pictures told it all. There isn’t any way I could improve on the picture. What a story. The squeeze in the ninth. The Dodgers score four times and pull it out and beat the Braves, 7 to 6. They show the squeeze on Diamond Vision and the crowd, EUPHORIC in its joy, roars again.

R.J. Reynolds has put the Dodgers in the right direction.

And so he had. The victory put the Dodgers three games up in the NL West, and three games up in the NL West is how the Dodgers finished the 1983 season.

Reynolds was a hero. A baseball hero, at least.

And a game for the ages, a game worth remembering, I hope, even on the saddest of anniversaries, was over.

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