The SPORTS PHILOSOPHER says: “There’s always hope….which of course is Life’s greatest shell game of all.” — by Brad Eastland

September 5, 2011
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     Only one more week, people.

     Only one more week before the start of another thrilling NFL season, and then we all get to have five consecutive months of uninterrupted overlapping football orgasms.   So hang in there.   Hold on.   You can do it.

     In the meantime, unfortunately, the sports world is going through something of a dry period.   It’s basketball off-season.   That off-season might go on for a year, or more, the result of yet another owner/player labor dispute.   Tennis is too nice.   Lacks hatred.   Which means it lacks rivalries.   Which means nobody cares.   They just had the World Track & Field Championships and nobody noticed.   And golf—love him or hate him—is a tired, rudderless ship without Tiger Woods.



     That leaves baseball.   Normally that’s joy enough, at least for me.   For old-school guys like me, baseball is still thee sport.   But unfortunately, with still almost a month to go in the season there are only two legitimate pennant races left, out of the six division races and two ‘wild card’ races.   Two out of eight.   That’s not good.

     And the two that are still breathing are on life support.   The defending champion Giants are suddenly seven games behind the Diamondbacks, and the Angels are three or four games behind the Rangers.   Doesn’t look good for the two trailers, especially the Giants.   At least the Giants continue to sell out their beautiful bayside ballpark every time.   Yet judging by the ridiculously embarrassing amount of empty seats in Anaheim yesterday, confused Angels fans from LaVerne to Laguna Beach have already given up on 2011….

     Which calls for a brief baseball history lesson.

     While it’s true that the Giants and the Angels are probably only making it look good at this point, and that they will probably both come up short, there is ample precedent for them to catch the front-runners and win their divisions.   For instance: In 1964 the Phillies had a 6-game lead with only ten days to go….and blew it.   The historically overrated Philly manager, Gene Mauch, criminally overused his two great pitchers down the stretch—Chris Short and Jim Bunning—they both came up exhausted, and the Phillies collapsed in a heap, virtually handing the National League pennant to St. Louis.   Bunning still hasn’t recovered.   He got so depressed he went into politics, and served 24 years in Congress before being paroled earlier this year….

     There are others.   The Atlanta Braves were 10 games back of the Giants in July of 1993, traded for Fred McGriff, chopped the Giants down like a big stupid tree, and won the NL West pennant on the season’s final day (I still blame my Braves-loving brother Jeff for that one.).   The Yankees were 14 games behind the Red-Sox in July of 1978, but rallied like a freight train and ultimately beat Boston in a 1-game playoff, on a tremendous, improbable home run by a guy with a great name, Bucky Dent, who weighed about 85 pounds.   Our local Angels themselves choked one away in 1995, blowing a 12-and-a-half-game lead in August to the Seattle Mariners.   They finished the strike-shortened ’95 season tied.   Not that they could have won under any circumstances, after blowing it, but in the 1–game playoff that ensued the Angels were literally helpless against the Mariners’ side-arming lefty superstar Randy Johnson.   “The Big Unit”, having his finest season and perhaps the best season any pitcher has had in my lifetime (he had an 18-2 won/loss record, while averaging 12 strikeouts per game), went the distance, allowed only three Halo hits, and fanned his usual 12 guys in a 9-1 Seattle foregone-conclusion type win.  

     But the most storied and fabled baseball comeback in history will always belong to the 1951 New York Giants.   Down by 13-and-a-half games in mid-August, to a powerful Brooklyn Dodgers club chocked full of all-stars and Hall-of-Famers, things looked hopeless for New York.   Things had gone so bad for New York in ’51 that they offered a guy from little Arnold College in Milford, Connecticut a tryout.   The young man was also drafted by the NFL’s L.A. Rams in the 19th round.   The kid, named Andy Robustelli, was offered only $400 by the Giants, who were evidently not that impressed with his tryout.   They asked him not to join their major league club, but rather their AA-ball affiliate, the Knoxville Smokies.   Don’t you wish you could get a job playing baseball for a team called the Knoxville Smokies?   Thankfully, Robustelli chose football, and a few years later wound up on another New York Giants team, the New York Football Giants, and as a fierce defensive end ultimately wound up in the NFL Hall of Fame….

     Anyway, nothing was working for the baseball Giants in 1951.   Truth be told, the Dodgers were a better team than the Giants.   Much better.   Boasting talent the likes of Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo, Carl Erskine, Clem Labine, Don Newcombe, Preacher Roe, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, and the immortal Jackie Robinson, this was potentially a team for the ages.   Conversely, the Giants’ two best players were Monte Irvin, an aging star from the old Negro Leagues having his last great season but now past his prime, and Willie Mays, a scared-to-death 20 year old kid who really wasn’t half then of what he would be later.   No wonder the Giants were down by 13-and-half games!   This was a mismatch.

     But for some reason, the Giants started winning.   And winning.   And winning some more.   Soon their winning streak reached a staggering 16 games.   The Dodgers’ lead was shrinking fast.   It wasn’t that the Dodgers were playing badly.   They weren’t.   It’s just that the Giants couldn’t be stopped.   No team in baseball history has ever gone from mediocre to great with such devastating speed, sudden decisiveness, and flat-out numerical unexplainability—not even last year’s Giants.   Consider this: At one point in the season the Giants were 46 and 46.   Equal wins and losses after 92 games, befitting their mediocre roster.   But in their final 62 games, somehow, some way, they went 50 and 12!   There is no explanation for it.

     The teams finished the ’51 season in a tie.   A 3-game playoff was scheduled.   There had never been a 3-game league playoff before, there had never been a comeback like this before, there had never been anything like this in New York City before, ever, two local teams whipping the entire city into a rooting, partisan frenzy.   You were either a Dodgers fan or a Giants fan.   No in-between.   And one side’s fans were destined for joy, while the other’s were doomed to bitterness and everlasting disappointment….   

     Game One went to the Giants, 3-1.   But things looked bleak for them when the Dodgers took Game Two easily, 10 to nothing.   And when the Brooklyners went up by a score of 4 to 1 late in Game Three, despair was knocking at the Giants’ door.   The Dodgers were only one inning away from the pennant.   They had their ace, Newcombe, on the mound.   Giants bats were quiet as church mice.   Could we really (any Giants fan might have well have asked his fellow partisans at that moment) be allowed to come from 13-and-a-half games back with less than two months to go and win 16 straight games and go 50 and 12 down the stretch and get into a playoff with the blankety-blank Dodgers, only to then be forced to accept defeat???

     The answer?


     Evidently the baseball gods would not deign to allow the lowly Giants to finish the season 50 and 12 only to have them fall on their swords at the wire.   In the bottom of the 9th Alvin Dark led off with a single.   Don Mueller also singled.   Irvin popped out, but Whitey Lockman spanked a double to left-center, scoring Dark, with Mueller taking third and nobly breaking his ankle sliding into the bag.   Clint Hartung pinch-ran for the fallen Mueller.   Ralph Branca came in to relieve the exhausted Newcombe.   Suddenly it was 4 to 2, two on, one out, first base open, with Bobby Thomson striding heroically to the plate.

     At this point, Brooklyn manager Charlie Dressen had two options.   One, he could walk Thomson and load the bases, thus creating a force-out at each base and a possible season-ending double play, or two, he could pitch to Thomson.   In retrospect, pitching to Thomson would seem to have been out of the question.   Thomson owned Branca.   He’d always had good success off him, and the veteran 3rd-baseman had homered off of Branca as recently as Game One of this very playoff.   On deck, on the other hand, was the scared-to-death 20 year old Mays, a rookie, supremely talented, but at this point in their careers nowhere near the hitter Thomson was nor nowhere near as psychologically equipped to handle a situation like this.

     The rest is history.   The kind of more-perfect-than-a-made-for-TV-movie type of history that only baseball can provide.   Dressen made the dumbest decision of his life, he let Branca pitch to Thomson, Thomson slammed a 3-run home run into the lower deck of the left-field stands, the Giants’ announcer Rudd Hodges screamed, “The Giants win the pennant!  The Giants win the pennant!” into his microphone, the Giants walked off with the pennant by a score of 5 to 4, and what is still the most epic and famous home run in baseball history had a nickname: “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World”.

     In other words, all you 2011 Giants and 2011 Angels fans out there, there’s Hope.

     And isn’t that all we really need in life?   Hope?   To be able to delude ourselves into thinking that things might get better?   Until it’s too late, and by the time you realize there’s no hope you’ve actually been tricked into having a pretty good time here on this Earth?

     Of course it is.                             

meet….The Sports Philosopher!

Brad Eastland is an author, historian, film buff, undiscovered fictioneer, and only too happy to make a history lesson out of anything.   Brad’s other recent columns for LaVerneOnline can be found in Sports under ‘The Sports Philosopher’ and also in Viewpoint under ‘Brad Eastland’s View’.    Brad has also written 4 novels* and over 20 short-stories.   

*To pick up a copy of his recently published novel of life at the racetrack, WHERE GODS GAMBLE, a tale of American mythology, simply search for it on,, or…it’s easy!  (You do wanna read it, don’t you???)




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