Bottom of the ninth, and history at the plate

I remember when I held the World Series in my hands.

I was 6 years old. My family lived in Arlington, VA, and because the Washington Senators were the only game in town, the lowly team had me in their grip. Each morning before school I would read their obituary in the Sports section. They died nightly and were survived by every other team in the American League who clobbered them regularly, especially the New York Yankees.

I hated the Yankees. Too much winning. Too much Mantle and Maris. Yet, I did collect their baseball cards.

Partly out of self-defense and more because the Senators didn’t really play defense, my conscience began looking to make a trade for a winning ballclub.

One day, a different-looking baseball card fell out of the pack I’d bought at the grocery store. The photograph caught my eye. There was no freshly scrubbed player framed by palm trees at spring training.

Instead, there was a scene, a mob, at home plate. A crazed city had jumped the fence. It was chaos vs. joy in bottom of the ninth, and both were dancing on top of the headline:

In the center of the photo was the hero, his right arm raised high. His teammates waited to greet him. Delirium had won.

I didn’t trade that card. In fact for years, even as our family moved out to Seattle and Forbes Field was razed and the Pirates faded to black, my curiosity kept tugging on me to see Bill Mazeroski rounding third.

Several years ago, thanks to an unexpected business trip, I flew out to Pittsburgh for the first time. I didn’t bother to tell the client what else was on my agenda.

After the workshop, I grabbed a rental car and a road map to chase down history.

I tried not to get my expectations up. The site of Forbes Field was now owned by the University of Pittsburgh. I parked the car and told myself to go easy. A thoroughfare now ran through left field. Still, I wanted to see where home plate might have been. Fortunately, it had been preserved near its original spot, under a clear, see-through case inside an academic hall. The whole thing looked odd – one part museum artifact, one part bad baseball taxidermy.

I walked back outside into a dying afternoon sun. October 13, 1960, had been that kind of day in Pittsburgh. When it came time for the Pirates to start the bottom of the ninth, the hands on the big Longines clock in left field said 3:35 pm, about the same time of day as I stood surveying a remnant of Forbes’ brick outfield fall now covered with ivy. It was the ballyard backdrop for the Yankees’ Yogi Berra who took up his outfield position, three outs away from, presumably, another championship trophy.

I walked toward left-center field, where Yogi would have stood. There was no Chamber of Commerce tour guide. All I had was my imagination and a true story, courtesy of my friend and seminary professor, Frank Spina. He grew up south of Pittsburgh and thus was in the vicinity of that day’s World Series drama. Spina recalled exactly where he was that afternoon as the seventh and deciding game took its nervous course.

“It was a Thursday during our high-school football season, and we were at practice. Trinity High School was 27 miles south of Pittsburgh in the town of Washington, but Forbes might have been next door.

“The Pirates trailed the Yankees 5-4 going into the sixth. Yet, as we were dressing, the buzz in the locker room was pessimistic. In their three wins, the Yanks had outscored the Pirates 38-3, including two dominating shutouts. We were still in this one, but we were more than worried.

“Before we headed out to the practice field, our tall, lanky wide receiver Thurman Bogen proclaimed, as though it were an unquestionable fact, ‘The Buccos will win this one. Quit moaning and groaning.’

“We hoped, but hardly believed. The Pirates were still behind 7-4 heading into their home half of the eighth. But a bad infield hop caught Yankees shortstop Tony Kubek in the throat, and miraculously Pittsburgh scored five runs that inning to go up 9-7. The Yankees then tied it with two of their own, leaving Mazeroski to lead off the bottom of the ninth.

“By this time, no one on our football team was thinking about preparing for the next night’s game, not even our coaches, who had never in anyone’s memory been more lax about letting us ignore our practice drills.

“About seven of us huddled around Gary Johnson’s beat-up 1952 Chevy, listening to Pirates announcer Bob Prince on the radio.”

By now, on my first trip to Pittsburgh, I was lingering behind Forbes’ ancient brick outfield wall. Yankees pitcher Ralph Terry and Bill Mazeroski, a .273 hitter with just 11 homers that season, were somewhere on the other side of that wall back in time, yet still very much alive in the ninth.

On his first pitch, Terry threw high and outside for a ball. Game footage shows the catcher, John Blanchard, going out to the mound and talking to his pitcher before resuming his crouch behind the plate.

Mazeroski swung, as Frank Spina echoed Prince’s radio call verbatim:

“Here’s a high fly ball going deep to left. . . .”

“None of us immediately thought ‘home run’ because the left-field wall at Forbes jutted out to 406 feet from home plate.”

“… Back to the wall goes Berra. Over the wall. Home run! And the Pirates win!”

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“None of us would see Mazeroski rounding second while waving his helmet until we saw it on the TV news that night, but our joy as we pounded on that Chevy could not have been greater.”

Here I was, now standing in the shade of history just beyond that same ivy wall, 406 feet from where Terry’s 1-0 fastball met destiny.

I looked around at the broken tree limbs and playground equipment that now littered the ground where his home run ball had landed years ago. I saw passersby and commuters unaware of the sacredness this weathered spot once claimed.

I checked around to see if anyone was looking. My right hand touched the ground as I knelt down and scooped up a handful of dirt.

For the second time in my life I was holding a piece the of Fall Classic. Or was it really holding me? I carefully put the soil in a plastic Ziploc bag, returned the rental car and flew home.

A few days later, back in Seattle, I walked outside and stood in the backyard. Then, savoring a moment of sunlight and morning dew on the lawn, I spread out the dirt from where the 1960 World Series had come to rest.

That fall, whenever I brought out the push mower to cut the grass, I’d look down and start to smile, knowing I was tending my own little piece of baseball lore. I took glee in both Yogi Berra giving up on Mazeroski’s ball and in Pittsburgh’s now-and-forever hero galloping around the bases.

His meteoric swing had suddenly brought Forbes to its feet and turned my autumn golden, once again.

Mark Cutshall lives in Shoreline and writes for a living. Fortunately, his mother never touched his baseball cards. Today, his near-mint condition 1962 TOPPS Mickey Mantle card has to be somewhere out there in a box in his garage.

Featured in The Seattle Times, Oct. 29, 2014. Reprinted with permission.

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