Friday, October 28, 2022

A Legendary Post-Season Clash Gets a 21st Century Reboot

MORE REBOOT THAN REMAKE, and certainly not a sequel, the renewal of post-season hostilities between the Houston Astros and Philadelphia Phillies figures to play out like a lot of modern Hollywood retakes on earlier hits.

The stakes are higher, the staging infinitely more expensive and elaborate, and the settings are completely different.

But whether the 2022 World Series can recreate, let alone exceed the drama of the 1980 National League Championship Series? That tension that left a baseball crazed kid writhing on the floor of his parents' den? That, sports fans, remains to be seen.

Held in an era when that one middle step from regular season to the final round was mostly just called "the playoffs," the 1980 NLCS was played entirely on artificial turf in Philly's since-imploded Vet, and in the Houston Astrodome -- once the "Eighth Wonder of the World" -- now a modern ruin.

It was a best-of-five series that went the distance and then some. Four contests were decided in extra innings, including the clincher. Pete Rose tried to take the very large head off a catcher-be-famous-later.

There were 11 stolen bases, and just one home run. And there was a triple play that wasn't, because NL President Chub Feeney said it wasn't.

There were Houston's tequila sunrise uniforms, Philadelphia's powder blues, Howard Cosell in the booth, and a quartet of future Hall of Famers hoping to be difference makers. 

Neophytes and Failures

Though their 93 wins paced the National League, back then it was the Astros who were the upstarts, making their first post-season appearance ever. 

The Phillies were back for the fourth time in five years, having lost in '76 to the Rose-led Cincinnati Reds, and to the Los Angeles Dodgers in '77 and '78. A founding franchise in the senior circuit, they'd only ever won two pennants, in 1915 and 1950, and never a championship.

From the Phillies' NLCS program

Now Rose was on the Philly side. So too was hard ass manager Dallas Green, who upon taking over for the deposed Danny Ozark, preached "we, not I," and drove his underachieving squad to succeed, even if that meant they hated him.

Lefty Steve Carlton, coming off the third of his four Cy Young season, anchored the Phillies rotation. Mike Schmidt slammed 48 homers and drove in 121 runs en route to his first of three Most Valuable Player awards. A rejuvenated, re-animated Tug McGraw anchored the relief corps.

Up the middle, the Phillies were Fort Knox. Their catcher: 7-time Gold Glove winner Bob Boone, the shortstop 2-time Gold Glover Larry Bowa, their second-baseman, 3-time GG Manny Trillo, and in center, 8-time winner Garry Maddox.

While lacking comparable bling, the Astros were not without their weapons, chief among them, free agent acquisition Nolan Ryan, baseball's first $1 million per year pitcher, who briefly formed a flame-throwing tandem with J.R. Richard.

Richard though, was felled by a midseason stroke from which he'd never fully recover.

Also from the Phillies' NLCS program

Houston held another ace though, knuckleballer Joe Niekro, who compiled back-to-back 20-win seasons, plus veterans Ken Forsch, Vern Ruhle and a cavernous pitching-friendly, climate controlled stadium. In the bullpen, McGraw's temperamental opposite, the calm, composed Joe Sambito.

Tailored for their ballpark, the Astros swiped 194 bases while stroking just 75 home runs. Among their everyday stars, left fielder Jose Cruz and Hall-bound returnee 2B Joe Morgan.

The Series


Hosting, the Phillies fell behind in the third before rallying to take the opener, 3-1. It would be the only game decided in regulation.

Game two to saw the guest Astros again take an early lead and lose it, only to regain it in the top of the eighth, lose it again in the bottom half of the frame, then score four in the 10th to pull away. 7-4.

Back in Houston, game 3 was a nail bitter, scoreless through regulation before the Astros walked it off on a bases loaded sac fly in the 10th to take a 2-1 series lead. The home team was one victory away from its first pennant, the visitors only a loss away from yet another wasted campaign.

Houston struck early in the potentially decisive game 4, holding a 2-0 lead until Philly posted three in the top of the eighth. The Astros tied it with a walk, a sac bunt and a base hit in the bottom of the ninth, sending yet another game into extras.

The Phillies, however, strung together a single and two doubles to plate two runs, holding on to knot the proceedings at two wins a piece.

Game five would be win or go home, and again Houston struck first with an RBI double by Cruz in the first, scoring outfielder Terry Puhl. Philly responded immediately, with two in the top of the second off Ryan.

The Astros fought back with one in the sixth and three in the seventh, 5-2 Houston heading into the eighth inning at the Eighth Wonder. The Phillies, unbowed, posted five runs -- the biggest single inning in the series -- to pull ahead, 7-5, but Houston came right back to tie it.

There it stayed until the top of the 10th when doubles by Del Unser and Maddox plated the winning run, 8-7. Game, set and match.

The Phillies had their first pennant in 30 years and, days later, would lock down the first championship in their 98-year history.

Nowadays

The ensuing 42 years have seen the Phillies win four more pennants, though just one more championship. The Astros captured their lone NL flag in 2005, lost the Series to the Chicago White Sox in a sweep, did a complete tear down, moved to the American League and emerged a perennial, albeit tainted, powerhouse.

Now, with Houston housed in a Juice Box and Philly in a band box, with analytics, launch angles and exit velocities ensuring a plenitude of home runs, with future Hall of Famers like Justin Verlander, Jose Altuve and Bryce Harper, in an era when everyone's a million dollar ballplayer, they battle again, this time for all the marbles.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Friday, December 31, 2021

Don't Stop Believin' -- A Post-Boomer Anthem Turned 40

"JUST A SMALL TOWN GIRL, livin' in a lonely world. She took the midnight train goin' anywhere."

The L.P.
Come on! Sing it with me! 

"Just a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit! He took the midnight train goin' anywhere!"

Now stop and locate South Detroit on a map of Michigan. Then again, don't bother. It's not there. The only thing directly south of motor city is Windsor, Ontario, and that's not even in the same country, let alone the same city or state

The real lesson here is never to never let geographical inaccuracy get in the way of a stellar pop song. Steve Perry and Journey sure as heck didn't and, as a result, Don't Stop Believin' is still with us like some post-boomer national anthem four decades after its release.

Everyone knows the words, from the kids from Glee to Tony Soprano. The song became a staple at hockey games in Detroit and baseball games in San Francisco. It's even been deconstructed by musicologist Rick Beato.

45-degree turn
And yet it wasn't the first, or even the biggest single initially released from the band's seventh studio album, Escape, released during the summer of 1981. 

Its cultural contemporaries included the movies Raiders of the Lost ArkSuperman IIChariots of Fire and For Your Eyes Only. The latter two films spun off their own charting singles, a Vangelis instrumental from the former and a Sheena Easton-sung title song from the latter. Nominated for an Academy Award for best original song, it lost out to The Best that You Can Do, from the comedy Arthur.

All of this during what was kind of a bleak year. 

President Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt, so too did Pope John Paul II. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat did not. Irish Republican Army member Bobby Sands staged a fatal hunger strike. Major League Baseball shut down from June 12 to August 9 because of a labor dispute, wiping out more than a third of its scheduled games.

Escape was recorded that spring and released at the end of July.

Side 1, Track 1
Don't Stop Believin', the lead track, was a kind of balm. Forward-looking, optimistic, idealistic even. A good song to play amid a never-ending pandemic.

It entered the Billboard Hot 100 at number 56, the week of Oct. 31, just behind Trouble by Lindsay Buckingham. Also on the charts then: Harden My Heart by Quarterflash, Olivia Newton John's Physical, the theme from Hill Street Blues and that number one song from Arthur.

Still on the chart, an earlier Journey single, Who's Crying Now which went to number 4. Still to come, their power ballad, Open Arms, which topped out at number two behind the J. Geils Band's Centerfold.

Don't Stop Believin' climbed only to number 9, lingering on the charts for 16 weeks, but it never really faded away. Journey's signature song became instead a part of the firmament, a touchstone embedded in our pop-cultural consciousness. 

"Hold on to the feeling..," Steve Perry sang in the outro, and hold on we have. It's the most digitally downloaded song of the 20th Century.

______________________________

For Joan and Ian, who -- in these uncertain times -- now have the ultimate reason to believe. 

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Friday, September 10, 2021

Nightmare in a Cardboard Box: The September 11 Papers

TWENTY YEARS ON and I can still recall everything I did that day.

To be clear from the outset, I was -- relatively speaking -- outside the zone of physical danger, in an office building in midtown Manhattan. "Still too damn close," my cousin in Florida told me that evening. 

So far away, yet close enough to see from an office window the World Trade Center towers burning and then watch from the same vantage point as the top of the north tower, suddenly enveloped by a billowing cloud of smoke, splintered and sank from view.

In 1975 I had the misfortune of being on a road running alongside New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport when an Eastern Airlines jet on final approach from New Orleans got caught in a microburst and crashed just short of the runway, killing 113 people.

Again, in relative terms, I was outside the zone of immediate danger. I still have nightmares inspired by that day. But it was an isolated, discrete, incident and, more importantly, a genuine accident, whereas the events of September 11, 2001 were not.

I'd arrived from work that morning after voting in the city's primary election. As I walked north on Madison Ave., people on the street were standing still and pointing south. I'd no idea what the commotion was about until I'd gotten upstairs, where my editor greeted me with, "You know what happened, right?"

I didn't until he directed me to a west-facing window, told me to lean out as far as I could then look south. There, the north tower stood, with a smoking hole in its fa├žade.

As a reporter, one's immediate reaction is to observe and report. Not knowing what lay ahead, I ran from the office to the nearest drugstore to buy a disposable camera, believing the fire would be put out, the hole repaired and the incident would become part of the city's lore, like that day in 1945 when a fog-bound B-25 bomber smashed into the Empire State Building.

The cheap camera's pictures turned out poorly, but in my mind's eye -- aided no doubt by the unprecedented media coverage -- they're crystal clear, as are the TV and radio news reports, the first-hand visual confirmation, the deepening dread as events unfolded, the not knowing which blow would be the last.

I pitched in on my newspaper's coverage that day, and on those that immediately followed.

Nearly 3,000 people died on what began as a sparkling clear September morning.

Somehow, those I knew who worked at the complex all survived, one because he found an intact stairway out of the south tower above the point of impact, another because he was fortuitously late for work. 

Among the recognizable names of the dead was someone I'd known back in day camp, where he took an arrow to the eye in an archery accident.

Arriving home in Queens that evening, I found my girlfriend awaiting my emergence from the subway. We held each other tightly, staring westward at the plume of smoke across the sky, trying to comprehend the awfulness. We watched the news, talked and slept fitfully before I woke to head back in.

The Manhattan of September 12 was nightmarishly still. Subway traffic was halted south of Grand Central Terminal. Walking the last dozen blocks to my office, through that silent, desolated midtown at what now wasn't rush hour, was an experience I'll never forget.

In the years since, I've read novels that have tried and failed to capture the feeling of that day, and tried to watch movies that nail it so well I needed to turn them off. The emotions are hard to harmonize. So I fall back on the immediate documentation.

A saver of things since boyhood, a habit or human failing that's provided the backbone for this blog, I reflexively kept the newspapers published on that terribly quiet next day, and periodicals from the days and weeks that followed.

It seemed, and still seems, wrong to discard them, wrong to diminish the record of that terrible day. For 20 years, they've been in a cardboard box, one of many in a closet dedicated to my compulsion to retain printed matter, an urge undimmed by the evaporation of tangible media, newspapers and magazines, movies, music and books.

"Time it was and what a time it was, it was a time of innocence, a time of confidences. Long ago it must be, I have a photograph. Preserve your memories, they're all that's left you." -- Simon & Garfunkel.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive