10/28/2008

Cold, Wet World Series


Today’s weather forecast for Philadelphia predicts a high of 47 degrees and a 100 percent likelihood of rain. Or there could be some snow mixed in there.

So forget about the Philadelphia Phillies and Tampa Bay Rays completing game five of the World Series today. After playing most of last night’s game in a steady and undoubtedly chilling rain, the contest was suspended in the sixth inning with the score tied 2-2.

Major League baseball officials hope to resume the game tomorrow night. There’s a 20 percent chance of precipitation Wednesday, but even if it’s bone dry, the forecast high is only 49 degrees. If the thermometer does get that high, it’ll be sometime during the day. So that means the temperature at game time undoubtedly will be lower than that, and rapidly falling toward the forecast low of 34.

But the game will have to be completed somehow, even if it means playing it in below-freezing conditions.

Major League baseball’s expanded postseason is partly to blame for presenting the ridiculous sight of players wearing caps with earflaps in near-freezing weather. The two teams that meet in the World Series after winning division and league playoffs could be playing as many as 19 postseason games spread over three weeks after the regular season ends, usually around October 1.

The expanded playoffs undoubtedly have stimulated fan interest in Major League baseball because there are now eight teams chasing a World Series berth. But the expanded playoff has meant that the postseason has been extended to Halloween, and huge TV revenues have dictated that most of the games be played at night. And playing night baseball in late autumn means that there’s a very good chance that the conditions are going to be wretched.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If Major League teams played more doubleheaders during the regular season, the expanded postseason playoffs could begin earlier and be completed by mid-October at the latest.

Doubleheaders once were a fan’s delight and a manager’s headache. The fans loved them because they got two games for the price of one, and the managers hated them because having to play two games in one day caused havoc with their pitching rotations. But it was just part of the game. The good managers figured out a way to accommodate the problem and still win more games than they lost.

In 1958, the Philadelphia Phillies played 18 doubleheaders. Those twin bills accounted for 36 games – about 23 percent – of the 154-game schedule that MLB teams played at the time. The Phillies’ 1958 schedule included two dates when they played doubleheaders two days in a row.

On July 27, 1958, the Phils played two games in Los Angeles against the Dodgers. The following day, they were in San Francisco for a pair of games against the Giants. On August 31, the Phillies went to Cincinnati for a doubleheader against the Reds, and the next day they traveled to Pittsburgh for another doubleheader against the Pirates.

Some teams played even more doubleheaders in 1958. The New York Yankees, for example, played 21.

By contrast, the Phillies played only two doubleheaders during the season just completed – on September 7 in New York against the Mets, and on September 15 in Philadelphia against the Milwaukee Brewers.

If today’s teams played only 12 doubleheaders, that presumably would eliminate 12 playing dates and allow the regular season to be finished by mid-September. The playoffs could then start around September 18, and even if the World Series went seven games, it would be over before mid-October and the inevitable cold, chilly rains.

But, of course, that’s not likely to happen. MLB isn’t going to give up the revenue from 12 dates that would be lost to doubleheaders, and the Major League Players Association probably wouldn’t go along with it either.

So we’re stuck with the sight of players wearing caps with earflaps in the World Series and seeing their breath as they try to warm their hands between pitches. It’s an odd way for the so-called boys of summer to finish the season. (AP Photo: Philadelphia ground crew rolls out the tarp after umpires suspended the game.)

10/10/2008

The kid quarterback with the cool name


Any time Notre Dame comes to town to play football, it’s a big game for the home team. The Fighting Irish will be in Chapel Hill tomorrow, October 11, to take on UNC, so, ipso facto, it’s one of the biggest games on the Tar Heels’ schedule in years.

I was in the stands at Kenan Stadium when Notre Dame played Carolina exactly 33 years ago tomorrow, and it was a game I’ll never forget. The Irish had a young sophomore quarterback with one of the most colorful names I’ve ever heard. More about that guy in a moment.

Carolina came into the game with a record of 2-2, but the wins had come against the likes of William & Mary – not exactly a football powerhouse – and Virginia, which was the doormat of the ACC in those days. UNC would finish the season at 3-7-1. The Irish came into the game ranked 15th in the nation, and they’d finish the season 8-3. So the Heels really had no business being on the same field with Notre Dame.

But something strange and inexplicable happened that day. The game was scoreless at halftime. Notre Dame – the school of “wake up the echoes” where the so-called “Touchdown Jesus” mural overlooks the football stadium – had been held scoreless by a North Carolina defense that had allowed lowly Virginia to score four touchdowns a week earlier.

In the third quarter, what had been merely strange became truly bizarre. UNC scored twice. And somehow, the Tar Heel defense still held deep into the fourth quarter. With eight minutes left in the game, the 50,000 or so fans who’d crammed into a stadium with 48,000 seats were staring in disbelief at the scoreboard. It said, “North Carolina 14, Notre Dame 0.”

Then Notre Dame quarterback Rick Slagger threw a short touchdown pass to Ted Burgmeier. The Irish tried a two-point conversion but failed. So now it was 14-6.

Later, I realized that what happened next probably was inevitable. In addition to players and coaches, Notre Dame had priests patrolling their sideline. And they had nuns cheering them on behind the end zone. And they had a coach whose last name was “Devine,” for God’s sake.

I’m sure it would be improper to use the phrase “praying their asses off” in reference to priests and nuns, but I have no doubt that something like that was going on among Notre Dame’s sizable contingent of clerical supporters during the game’s final minutes. How are you going to beat a team that has that kind of pull?

Then Devine put in that quarterback who had the world’s most perfect name for a football hero. When his name was announced over the PA system, I remember thinking, No, that can’t really be that guy’s name. And then, in the blink of 100,000 eyes, the kid led the Irish to two scores, including a game-winning 80-yard touchdown pass with one minute showing on the clock.
Final score: Notre Dame 21, North Carolina 14.

It wasn’t until years later when that quarterback had become a household name among even casual sports fans that I realized that maybe Divine Intervention hadn’t been entirely responsible for Notre Dame’s last-minute game winning comeback. See, that Notre Dame kid with the perfect name for a football player was Joe Montana. And after that game in Chapel Hill, Montana made a specialty of pulling out games in the last minute during an NFL career that led him to the Hall of Fame.

So as I said, it was a memorable game – so memorable that I still have the ticket stub.