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October 10, 2012

The Lineup Card

Eight Playoff Heroes and Goats

by Baseball Prospectus

‚Äč1. Magglio Ordonez
At this point in my writing career, I rarely assume the role of fanatic. That was not the case in 2006 as I was still learning my current craft and divorcing myself from the devout fandom of my youth. I was an unabashed Detroit Tigers fan, and when they made a surprise trip to the 2006 postseason, I was elated.

I remember rocking back and forth like Leo Mazzone during the opening games of the Division Series against the New York Yankees. I recall my excitement when the Tigers advanced to the American League Championship Series. Then the night of October 14, 2006, happened. As I sat in a basement restaurant in Manhattan with no cell phone service, as it were at that time, I struggled to balance my friend’s birthday celebration with the joy of my favorite team in the playoffs and the game going on without my observance. I sat through pre-dinner drinks and appetizers. I sat through the wait for our meals. In the end, I couldn’t take it anymore. I stood up from our table, politely excused myself from the meal and walked around the corner to a bar that to this day, I cannot identify.

As I ordered a beer and took my place at the worn, wooden bar, Magglio Ordonez stepped to the plate. As my beer was served, Ordonez pounded a home run to left field. With my hand around the pint glass I erupted in joy, spilling my beer on the man next to me. As he began to explode in anger, he realized what had happened in the game, turned to me with a smile on his face and congratulated me, fan to fan, with a hug of appreciation. I promptly paid my tab—and that of the beer-soaked man next to me—and returned to dinner without another word.

Magglio Ordonez will forever be remembered as a legendary post-season hero in Detroit. His blast allowed Tigers fans to forget the misery of the 119-loss 2003 season and move onto a better era of Tiger baseball. His blast closed a chapter of youthful fanaticism in my life, and his blast still puts a smile on my face. Being a post-season hero isn’t always about the mythical home run to win the World Series. Sometimes, being a post-season hero allows fans to forget. It allows fans to own a unique experience forever. Being a post-season hero is special, not just to the player, but to the fans it touches in a Manhattan bar with no name. —Mark Anderson

2. Bob Moose
There comes a point when everyone finds out that life isn't fair. That time came for me when I was 8 years old while watching Game Five of the 1972 National League Championship Series on my family's new color television. The hometown Pirates had won the World Series the previous year. Since I obviously had little in the way of life experience to that point, I just assumed the Pirates would win the World Series every year when they entered the then-best-of-five NLCS against the Reds. Even when the series went to a decisive fifth game after the Pirates got skunked 7-1 in Game Four, it never entered my mind that the they might not go to the World Series, especially when they took a 3-2 lead into the ninth inning with the stopper—they didn't call them closers then—Dave Giusti on the mound. Johnny Bench led off the ninth with a home run to tie the game, and the nightmare played out until George Foster eventually scored the winning run on a wild pitch by Bob Moose.

I was devastated as my favorite team's trip to another World Series vanished right there in technicolor. Forty years later, it still stings to think about that game. I met George Foster at a banquet a few years back, and he was a nice guy. I told him I still felt a bit of hatred for him deep down inside. He laughed. I didn't. —John Perrotto

3. Armando Benitez
The Baltimore Orioles are back in the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. Their last appearance was in 1997, when the club went wire-to-wire atop the American League East. A big part of that squad was the bullpen, led by closer Randy Myers and eighth-inning flamethrower Armando Benitez. Only one of those two could be said to have had a large impact on the ALCS, which Baltimore lost to Cleveland before Edgar Renteria had a song written about him.

Benitez made three appearances in that six-game series. In Game Two, Benitez came in in the eighth with a 4-2 lead. Two walks and a home run later (to Marquis Grissom no less), the Indians had a 5-4 lead that they wouldn't relinquish. Two nights later, he relieved Mike Mussina after Moose set the ALCS record with 15 strikeouts in only seven innings. Thankfully, this was Benitez's one good appearance of the series (allowing only one baserunner). For Game Six, with the Orioles facing a three games to one deficit, Mussina started on three days' rest and gave Baltimore a one-hit, no-run, 10-strikeout performance. But neither team was scoring, and Benitez finally made it into the game in the 11th inning with the score still tied at zero. With two outs in the inning, Tony Fernandez took the first pitch of the at-bat—a middle of the plate fastball—over the right-field wall to give Cleveland the 1-0 victory (on a 20.09 second tater trot) and a trip to the World Series.

That's two losses directly attributable to Benitez in a four games-to-two series loss. No wonder Davey Johnson and Mike Mussina looked so deflated after the home run. Orioles fans felt the same way. —Larry Granillo

4. Bill Mazeroski
Bill Mazeroski spent 17 seasons in the big leagues, all with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He hit .260/.299/.367 and collected more than 2,000 career hits. He won eight National League Gold Gloves for his defensive work at second base and is regarded as one of the best—if not the best—ever to field the position.

These are marvelous accomplishments that anyone would be proud of, but they are not why Mazeroski is remembered today. He is best known for the role he played in the 1960 World Series, which probably should be called Pythagoras' Nightmare if it isn't already.

This series saw the New York Yankees dominate the Pirates in every fashion imaginable except one—wins in a seven-game series. The Yankees outscored their opponents, 55-27, but Pittsburgh hung around by losing the blowouts (16-3, 10-0, 12-0) and winning the close ones (6-4, 3-2, 5-2).

With the series tied at three games each, the Pirates jumped out to an early lead at Forbes Field, scoring twice in the first and twice more in the second. The Yankees scored a single run in the fifth and four more an inning later to take a 5-4 lead. After extending their advantage to 7-4 in the top of the eighth, Yankees relievers Bobby Shantz and Jim Coates coughed up five runs in the bottom half, with the key blow being a three-run homer off Coates by backup catcher Hal Smith that appeared to be the game- and series-winner.

But the Yankees scored twice in the top of the ninth to tie the game, 9-9, and set the stage for one final dose of improbability. Ralph Terry, who had relieved Coates the previous inning to stop the bleeding, stayed on to face Pittsburgh's number-eight batter, who was hitting .292 for the series, including a two-run homer off Coates way back in Game One.

Terry's first pitch missed high. His second didn't miss at all. Mazeroski swung and drilled it over the 406-foot sign in left field as Yogi Berra, who had homered and driven in four runs on the day, could only stand and watch the Pirates win it all. Pandemonium ensued, and a hero named Maz was born. —Geoff Young

5. Steve Bartman
There are things that you do in your 20s that look silly with the benefit of time. I moved to Chicago 10 years ago in August, a bit too late into the 2002 season to fully develop a crush on the Cubs (and the Cubbies lost 95 games that year). But, in the summer of 2003, I was a 23-year-old who was smitten with my neighbors just up Sheffield Ave. That summer, my then-girlfriend, now-wife took a month-long trip to Russia to visit her family. Most people would have turned to alcohol to cope, but I'm not a drinker, and I was already flirting with something much more self-destructive. WGN was always on at the gym, and I lived and died on each pitch while going an extra mile on the elliptical machine. October came, and the Cubs were in the playoffs for the first time since 1989. Perhaps you know what happened next in Game Six of the NLCS. Yes, I remember where I was. I was listening the call in my car on my way to conduct an interview for the research project that I was working on.

I suppose that like any heartbreak, there's always a villain in the story. Seeing that I was new to town, I probably had no claim to be a true Cubs fan. But my heart broke still the same. Not in the same way as getting dumped by a girlfriend, but in the same way that when you finally work up the nerve to say something to a crush and get shot down. I could have been rational and blamed Dusty Baker for over-extending the arms of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. I could have blamed Alex Gonzalez (I can never keep straight which one... they were both there...) for making an error. I could perhaps retroactively find a way to blame Marlins clean-up hitter Miguel Cabrera, but Mike Trout was only 12 at the time. But love and the Cubs defy logic. I suppose that nine years later I (and the city of Chicago) can forgive Steve Bartman for being an over-eager guy who just wanted to catch a foul ball. And while I'm at it, I should forgive myself for wanting to be part of something so magical that I let my heart get broken. —Russell A. Carleton

6. David Ortiz
Most playoff heroes are known for a certain hit, or a certain game. David Ortiz’s performance in the 2004 playoffs is memorable for specifics, yes, but much more than that. In the Division Series against Anaheim, Ortiz hit the ninth-inning homer that turned a 6-6 game into a series win after the Angels had come all the way back from 6-1 via a Vlad Guerrero grand slam.

That was great and all, but it was in the Championship Series with the Red Sox down three games to none that Ortiz’s etched his name on history’s plaque. In Game Four, Ortiz singled in two runs in the fifth and then hit the game-winning homer in the bottom of the 12th to keep the Red Sox alive. In Game Five, Ortiz homered in the eighth to bring Boston’s deficit to one and then, improbably, muscled a single into right-center to score Johnny Damon with the winning run in the bottom of the 14th.

Ortiz was quiet in Boston’s Game Six win but opened the scoring against New York’s forever-villain Kevin Brown by homering in the first inning of the Red Sox’ series-clinching Game Seven win. I was going to write that Ortiz was quiet in the World Series, but my memory has betrayed me. He actually hit .308/.471/.615 as the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years.

Before ’04, Ortiz had played in 21 post-season games, hitting .224/.280/.368. In 14 playoff games in 2004, Ortiz hit .400/.515/.764 with five homers. I’ve given you a bunch of stats to show how amazing Ortiz was, but that somehow undersells it. Watching the Red Sox in 2004 was like watching a sad movie you had seen many times before, but somehow, that time, it had a different ending. That’s how unexpected, shocking, thrilling, and exhilarating it all was, and Ortiz was the central character (among many) in it all. Through 110-plus years of post-season baseball, I’d put Ortiz’s performance up against anyone’s both in terms of the actual numbers and the total impact. —Matthew Kory

7. Kirk GIbson and Dennis Eckersley
I do/don't remember Kirk Gibson's homer off of Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 World Series. I had recently turned 7 and was not yet a baseball fan in the sense of watching games, having a team, liking players, and so forth. I played Little League and enjoyed it (in no small part due to the fact that I was pretty good—I had less fear of the ball than a lot of little kids, and I was (OK, am) chubby, so I had pretty good pop in my bat), but fandom didn't come until the next year, when not one but both of my (semi-)local teams were in the World Series. I picked the A's nearly at random—my family wasn't from Northern California, or any other part of California, and didn't really care about baseball in any case. By all rights, I should've been a Giants fan because my parents had bought me a Jeffrey Leonard Starting Lineup the year before, when he was still a Giant. But I wasn't. I was an A's fan.

As I got older, I started learning a little more about the history of the team, beginning with the recent past and working my way back through Billyball, through the Reggie Jackson years, to Kansas City and Philadelphia. Reverse chronological order and baseball's never-ending fascination with Gibson's limping, fist-pumping tater trot means I soon absorbed this massively heartbreaking moment into my psyche as a fan. Except that's weird, right? Why would the play have hurt me? I didn't care about the team at the time. I don't have any right to the emotion. I should have simply learned about the play, said "that sucks," and moved on with my life. And yet I can't help it: When I see replay of the Gibson homer, I feel exactly as busted up as when I see the Jeremy Giambi / Derek Jeter flip play, which I watched in real time. Maybe it's just my nature to focus on the devastation rather than the remarkable positive history also available to me as an A's fan—I have zero feelings, literally absolutely none, about the back-to-back-to-back World Series champion '70s teams, for instance. Whatever the reason, and however emotionally stable I may or may not be, Kirk Gibson is always the first player that comes to mind among the great history of playoff heroes in baseball because of the weird phantom pain I still feel from his homer. (Giambi was safe, by the by.) —Jason Wojciechowski

8. Jose Lind
Jose Lind. Yes, I know. Sid Bream, Francisco Cabrera, Stan Belinda: Those are the (un)holy names of Game Seven of the 1992 NLCS. Belinda coughed up the Pirates’ 2-0, ninth-inning lead, squandering the Bucs’ near-comeback from a 3-1 series deficit. Pinch-hitter Cabrera singled home the hobbled Bream, who beat Barry Bonds’ throw home from left field, somehow. This is the narrative that has asserted itself over time. (Video.)

But it was that error by Jose “Chico” Lind that catalyzed all of it. After Terry Pendleton’s leadoff double off of Pirates starter Doug Drabek—who carried a five-hit shutout into the ninth—Dave Justice hit an average ground ball to Lind’s backhand side. It wasn’t a gimme play, but it wasn’t all that hard, either. It was a play that a good, even decent, second baseman makes. I feel like saying that Adam Kennedy makes it, because I feel like Adam Kennedy is a decent, average second baseman.

We know fielding percentage is a hollow stat, but it does tell you, basically, whether a guy who gets to the ball catches it. Lind made six errors in 786 chances during the 1992 regular season, good for a .992 fielding percentage. The league average was .981. He won the Gold Glove Award that year. He seems to have had above average range. Jose Lind makes this play.

Only he doesn’t. Justice’s ball ticks off his glove.

Justice reaches, Pendleton moves to third. This is the play that makes the inning an inning, the one that jumps the Braves’ win expectancy from 19 percent to 35 percent.

With his 129th pitch, Drabek then issues his second walk of the game, to Bream—who was from Pennsylvania and had been the Pirates’ regular first baseman for the second half of the 1980s. Bases loaded, nobody out. Maybe, if Lind makes his play, Drabek takes care of Bream. Maybe, if Drabek takes care of Bream, manager Jim Leyland throws pitch counts to the wind and lets Drabek finish out the pennant-clinching game.

But no, he has to take Drabek out. Belinda comes in.

Cut to three batters later: Cabrera singles, Bream scores, Braves win.

Montage: the ensuing off-season: leaves fall from trees; Barry Bonds becomes a free agent and goes to San Francisco; Doug Drabek, ditto, to Houston.

Twenty-year time-lapse: the Pirates have 20 consecutive losing seasons. The film catches up with the moment you are reading this. You are an extra in a movie about the saddest franchise in pro sports, and it is Jose Lind’s fault.

Why pick on him? Maybe it’s the violation, later, in the 1990s, of his restraining order, and the subsequent domestic battery charges. Maybe it’s the drunk driving with no pants on, the cocaine problem. Maybe it’s because the freewheeling Chico Lind, who enjoyed leaping over teammates from a standstill, failed to make that 1992 play, that one serious play, that play he needed to make when it mattered the most. Maybe it’s because Lind generally gets to avoid the same boldfaced ignominy that bedevils Stan Belinda, but is just as guilty, if not more so. Belinda was a high-fastball pitcher who had a reputation early in his career, as I recall it, as a heart-attack closer. What he did that night was something Stan Belinda might do. What Lind did was not something Lind would do. He was a second baseman who caught the balls he touched.

Lind resurfaced as a player-coach of the Bridgeport Bluefish in the independent Atlantic League. He later became the manager and spent four seasons there, from 2003-06.

Stan Belinda was born in Huntingdon, Penna., and went to high school in State College. So I’m going to say he was a boyhood Pirates fan, just to make this hurt more. This is, after all, the most painful moment in Pirates history, other than the death of Roberto Clemente. After the Cabrera hit, which “haunted me for years,” Belinda said, he continued to pitch, often effectively, for the rest of the decade.

In the late 1990s he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but overcame its effects well enough to keep pitching. In 1999, Belinda and Jeffrey Hammonds were traded by the Reds to the Rockies. In the middle of the following season, the Rockies released him. Four days later, on July 29, 2000, another team signed Belinda to what would turn out to be his final pro contract. After 10 appearances and a 9.82 ERA (11 innings, four homers), he was released, on September 12. By the Atlanta Braves. —Adam Sobsey

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