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Personal stories

Let's Play World Series

By Lincoln Mitchell

One of the ways my oldest friend, Crazy Charlie, earned his nickname is because when we were teenagers furtively drinking beer in the parks, playgrounds and beaches of San Francisco, Charlie would sneak up behind somebody, announce “Let’s play World Series,” and empty a bottle of beer on some unsuspecting head.

Crazy Charlie and I have known each other since I was three and he was five, but it was the summer of 1978, when I was 10 and he was 13, that we really solidified our friendship. In my hometown of San Francisco, 1978 was one of those years when the world changed. In fact, our world changed in a period of less than two weeks. First, on November 18 hundreds of devotees of the cult leader Jim Jones committed mass suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-aid in the forests of Guyana. Jones’ People’s Temple was based in San Francisco, and many of the dead had lived in my city. A few days later, on November 27, an angry former city supervisor, Dan White, brazenly walked into City Hall and murdered Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Milk was the first out gay elected official in American history. He was the pride of many San Franciscans.

For some San Franciscans, however, 1978 will be remembered for something else as well. That was the year our beloved Giants made it back from the bottom rung of the baseball ladder and gave us one great summer of exciting, fun and winning baseball, before coming up six and a half games short of the NL West title. Led by a young Jack Clark, a very old returning hero in Willie McCovey, and the reborn left arm of former Oakland Athletic rival Vida Blue, that team remains one of the most memorable Giants teams to Bay Area sports fans of a certain age.

1978 was also the year I introduced Crazy Charlie to baseball and the Giants. Decades later, Crazy Charlie is still the biggest Giants fan I know. His passion for the Giants is an obsession that borders on unhealthy. I still don’t think Charlie’s father has forgiven me.

Over the next decade Crazy Charlie and I attended dozens of Giants games, and listened to hundreds more on the radio—rooting, imploring and hoping for the Giants to one day win a pennant. At some point in the early 1980s our days and evenings at old Candlestick Park were enriched by the additional presence of Johnnie Mash. The three of us enjoyed, and still enjoy, a very close friendship, one of the pillars of which has always been our Giants.

By 1989, our lives had moved forward. I had returned to San Francisco after finishing college, as had Charlie a few years earlier. Johnnie Mash was finishing his degree a few miles down the road at my alma mater, UC Santa Cruz. After an agonizing seven-game NLCS loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1987, the Giants finally looked in 1989 like they would bring, in Charles Einstein’s words, “a flag for San Francisco” for the first time since 1962, when Mays and McCovey were still young and Crazy Charlie, Johnnie Mash and I had not been born.

That 1989 team was led by the MVP-type seasons of Kevin Mitchell and Will Clark and the starting pitching of Rick Reuschel, a veteran, 240-pound, soft-throwing pitcher given to smoking cigarettes in the dugout between innings. He looked more like a weekend softball pitcher than the ace of pennant winning team. The division race was never really close, and the Giants clinched a few weeks before the end of the season.

All that stood between the Giants and the pennant was the NLCS and the Chicago Cubs. The two teams were relatively evenly matched. The Giants split the first two games in Chicago before returning to San Francisco for three games on October 7-9. We all knew that the Giants had to put the Cubs away in San Francisco and did not want to go back to Chicago, even if our Giants had a 3-2 lead in games.

October 9 was the day where, if things went according to plan, the Giants, we believed, would finally clinch that pennant. Unspoken was our shared belief that if they didn’t win on October 9, it would be Cubs representing the National League in the World Series, ending their own 44-year wander in the deserts of the National League.

October 9 was also Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. I was working on my first political campaign at the time and had told my boss that I could not work that day. My brand of secular American Judaism dictated that while you did not work on Yom Kippur, watching baseball was more appropriate than going to synagogue.

None of the three of us were season ticket holders so we could not get tickets for October 9th. Crazy Charlie, Johnnie Mash and I tried to make plans to get together to watch the game somewhere, but Johnnie Mash was not sure he could make it up from Santa Cruz. However, while I was working in my office that Saturday, the phone rang. It was my boss’s deputy. She quickly got down to business.

“We know you are a big Giants fan, and we have some extra tickets for game five are you interested,” she said. I jumped at the opportunity and immediately began worrying about how to choose between taking Charlie and Johnnie Mash.

The next words out of her mouth were, “You were going to take the day off for Yom Kippur that day. Will you be able to use the tickets?” I quickly assured her that I could. She then solved my problem by telling me she had three tickets, and we made arrangements for me to get them from her.

I tracked down Crazy Charlie and Johnnie Mash, who were very pleased that I had come through with tickets for game five. The Giants, meanwhile, were sticking to my plan, winning very close games in game three and four, so they would go into game five in a position to clinch the pennant.

Johnnie Mash drove up from Santa Cruz Sunday night and crashed at my apartment so we could all go the game together the next day. Neither of us could sleep much. We kept wandering around the apartment saying, “All we need is a three-hitter by Reuschel.” The Giants ace and fan favorite, Rick Reuschel was scheduled to start that game against Mike Bielecki, who Johnnie Mash had in a hopeful moment nicknamed Bye-Bye Bielecki.

October 9, 1989, was a beautiful sunny day in San Francisco. It wasn’t quite still enough to be called earthquake weather—that would have to wait for another eight days. Johnnie Mash, Crazy Charlie and I jumped into the front of my pickup truck, stopping to buy a couple of bottles of cheap champagne, which we put in a soft cooler on ice under the seat of the truck, before getting to the game early.

The attendance that day was one of the highest ever for a baseball game in San Francisco. 62,084 people were at the ‘Stick that day. About 55,000 of them had better seats than us, but we were ecstatic and excited just to be in the ballpark that day. Almost two hours before the first pitch we settled into our seats in section 48, deep in the upper deck behind left field.

About an hour before game time, the lineups were posted on the scoreboard. A boy of about eight asked his father, referring to the light-hitting Cub outfielder, “Daddy, why is Marvell Wynne batting third?” His father said, “Because [Cubs manager] Don Zimmer has some interesting ideas about managing.” I did something, that now that I am a father, I regret. I interrupted the man and said, “Because Don Zimmer is a fucking idiot.” The father looked at me, looked at his son and said, “That’s another way to put it.” It was that kind of day.

Bye-Bye Bielecki mystified the Giants for most of that day. Through six innings, he had given up exactly two hits, a 4th-inning single to Will Clark and a fifth-inning single by Matt Williams. These were the only Giants baserunners for the first two thirds of regulation play. Fortunately, Rick Reuschel, displaying all the nervousness of a man mowing the lawn while drinking a cold beer, held the Cubs to one run through eight innings.

The Giants got that one run back in the bottom of the seventh on a triple by Will Clark, who had emerged as the star of the series, which was followed by a Kevin Mitchell sacrifice fly.

With the bottom of the order coming up in the bottom of the eighth of 1-1 game, we were hoping that Reuschel could continue his magic for one more inning and give the Giants a chance to put the game away in the 9th. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Pinch hitter Ken Oberkfell popped up and shortstop Jose Uribe reminded all 62,000 and change of us why he was a favorite for his glove work by striking out. With two outs and nobody on, manager Roger Craig pinch hit for Rick Reuschel with Candy Maldonado. We were furious—Reuschel was our man. We didn’t trust Steve “Bedrock” Bedrosian, the fireman—they weren’t called closers yet in 1989—acquired from the Braves late in the season, to hold the Cubs in the 9th. We could see what was going to happen: Bedrosian would lose the game in the 9th, and the Cubs would head back to Chicago with the momentum and finish the Giants off in games six and seven.

Maldonado was having a terrible year and was an ex-Dodger to boot, so we had no hope that he would come through. Maldonado took the count full before drawing a walk, the Giants’ first of the game. We still didn’t think there was much chance this inning, but Bielecki was rattled. Brett Butler expertly drew a walk, and Robby Thompson did the same.

It was a “Casey at the Bat” moment. All we could have asked for was a chance for Clark or Mitchell to come up with runners on. Two outs, a seal on every rock and Will Clark at the plate, it was as if more than a decade of our involvement with the Giants came down to this at bat. Zimmer had seen enough of Bielecki’s loss of control. Clark was the kind of batter who knew how to draw a walk and with Kevin Mitchell, who had hit 47 home runs that year (back when that meant something), on deck. Zimmer brought in lefty relief ace Mitch Williams, who strode to the mound as his song, “Wild Thing,” blared over the loudspeakers.

The late afternoon California sun was strong and our visibility from way out in the upper deck somewhere between third base and the left field foul pole was not good. If Clark got out here, it would be Mitchell and the bottom of the order in the 9th. Clark quickly fell behind 1-2 and we began to try to accept the worst.

We barely saw Clark swing at the next pitch. All we saw was Cub centerfielder Jerome Walton crouching down in center field to field Clark’s single. Will the Thrill had done it. He had come up with the biggest hit in franchise history since Bobby Thompson. Amid the cheering, Maldonado scored from third and Brett Butler sped home from second base to give the Giants a two-run lead.

Clark stood on first, Thompson on third and the game stopped. The crowd cheered for several minutes. Crazy Charlie, Johnnie Mash and I fell on top of each other. The hundreds of hours of our youth we had spent shivering, eating bad hot dogs, warm soda and soft popcorn watching the hapless Giants lose as groundballs went through the legs of the likes of Johnnie Lemaster or Rennie Stennett or as forgettable players like Jerry Martin and Milt May failed to drive in runs and pitchers like Atlee Hammaker and Jeff Robinson gave up walks and home runs, seemed worth it at that moment.

There were still three outs to go and Steve Bedrosian proved us right in lacking confidence in him. After getting two quick outs, he gave up three singles in a row as one Cub scored. Finally, with the tying run on 3rd, Bedrosian got Ryne Sandberg to ground out to Robby Thompson who, fittingly, tossed the ball to Will Clark and the game was over.

Finally, for the first time in our lifetimes the Giants had won the pennant. We stayed in the ballpark for a few minutes before going out to the parking lot. There we quickly drank our bottle of champagne, while yelling and celebrating with other fans. “The Giants win the pennant!” was repeated over and over. The three of us stood in the bed of my pickup truck, slightly tipsy from the champagne and the hot sun, trying to live this moment to the absolute fullest while making sure we would remember every aspect of it.

Johnnie Mash and I made eye contact. He made some excuse to get something out of the truck. I cornered Charlie in a conversation. Johnnie Mash snuck up behind him and announced, this time for real, “Let’s play World Series,” and emptied the second bottle of champagne on Crazy Charlie’s head.

—May 11, 2009

About the author

Lincoln Mitchell is the Arnold A. Saltzman Assistant Professor in the Practice of International Politics at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. His first book, “Uncertain Democracy: US Foreign Policy and Georgia’s Rose Revolution,” was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2008. He has also written articles on these topics in The National Interest, Orbis, the Moscow Times, the Washington Quarterly, The American Interest, the New York Daily News and Current History, as well as for numerous online publications including the online sections of the Washington Post and the New York Times and Transitions Online. Lincoln is also a frequent blogger on The Huffington Post, where he writes primarily about domestic politics in the US. He is currently working on a book about the Color Revolutions in the former Soviet Union.