If you hang around baseball long enough, chances are you will see a lot of cool stuff. The Phillies' victory over the Mets on Tuesday night wasn't unique in a grand way, but it is one that will stand out in my memory banks for the oddities and the wacky foresight from Charlie Manuel.
Just how did he know that the right move was sending Carlos Ruiz to play third base so that Eric Bruntlett could drive in the tying run as a pinch hitter with two outs in the ninth? It's either incredible foresight or just dumb luck - or both.
Nevertheless, I've seen one no-hitter, two cycles, a play that went down in the book as a caught stealing by the catcher unassisted, and a game lost by the Phillies when pitcher Jose Santiago completely missed the return throw back to the mound from catcher Todd Pratt.
Those are just a few on-the-field peculiarities I've seen. I'm saving the off-the-field stuff for the book... you know, like the time I heard a former big-league manager use four curse words in a single, declarative sentence while sitting in the visitors' dugout at Camden Yards... I marked that one down. Yes, it was quite a display.
You don't get that type of linguistic prowess in the minors, kids.
But if you stick around the game long enough, the best part about it is all the different people you meet and how the paths crisscross over time. Time and baseball just keep steamrolling ahead without much of a thought about what gets lost in its wake. That's probably why we like telling and re-telling stories about past experiences so much. It's also probably why we're never in a hurry to see the season end... You know, in a metaphorical sense.
Anyway, my path crossed that of Andy Tracy's this past week. The truth is Tracy doesn't know me from a hole in the wall, and I wasn't sure of his significance until the Phillies called up Tracy from Triple-A Lehigh Valley to fill in for the injured Geoff Jenkins and I perused his professional record. That's when I remembered. Andy Tracy was in The Game.
Now before anyone gets confused, let me say that The Game is my nickname as well as that of the few handful of people that actually saw it occur. The fact is Classic Sports TV hasn't dug up a videotape - if one exists - nor is there much in the way of details about it out there on The Internets. The truth is, I haven't even written about it and I like to blather on about everything.
But when I approached Andy Tracy on Monday night in the Phillies' clubhouse to introduce myself and tell him I was there that rainy September night in 1999 at Harrisburg, Pa.'s City Island ballpark, he smiled. "You were there?" he said excitedly.
"Yes. Yes I was."
To this day, the deciding Game 5 of the 1999 Eastern League Championship series between the Montreal Expos-affiliated Harrisburg Senators and the Yankees' Norwich Navigators is still the greatest ending to a game I have witnessed.
Actually, I can't think of any game at any level that would rate as a close second. Anyone who was there that night will agree that there is no way possible to explain how that game ended. It perfectly fits the old cliché that if the game was pitched to a Hollywood producer as a possible movie, it would be rejected simply because it was so unbelievable.
And Andy Tracy, a long-time minor leaguer - a veritable Crash Davis, if you will - played an integral part in it.
"I started the last inning with a single," Tracy reminded me.
As a 25-year-old, four-year pro for Harrisburg in 1999, Tracy slugged a club-record 37 home runs - a mark that still stands. He also set the franchise record with 128 RBIs and 139 strikeouts. That season, Harrisburg won their fourth straight Eastern League title with future Major Leaguers, Jamey Carroll, Brad Wilkerson, Brian Schneider, Peter Bergeron, Jake Westbrook, Tony Armas, T.J. Tucker, Scott Strickland, and, of course, Milton Bradley.
Norwich, managed by Lee Mazzilli, had Nick Johnson and Alfonso Soriano -- players that went on to play in the World Series for the Yankees a few years later. Needless to say, there was a lot of talent on City Island that night, but through the most of the sloppy game filled with rain, errors, poor pitching and plenty of runs, not much of it was on display. By the time the ninth inning rolled around, Norwich had built a 10-6 lead (as I recall) and Senators' leadoff hitter Milton Bradley had struck out in all four of his plate appearances.
In the ninth Tracy singled to start it off and ended up scoring to put the Senators down by three runs. However, with two outs, the Senators' chances still didn't look very good. By that point, most of the crowd was finally chased away by the steady rain and the lopsided score, anyway, so it seemed as if Harrisburg's chance to become the first Eastern League team to win four titles in a row had ended.
But three walks/singles later, Bradley was due up for a fifth time; only it took some frantic searching to get him up there. Tracy told me that by the time the second out had been recorded, Bradley was back in the clubhouse with his uniform stripped off and on the floor ready to call it a season. Having whiffed four times in the deciding game of the league championship series, Bradley was understandably disgusted. It was certainly an auspicious way to end a season and the soon-to-be temperamental big-league star, was feeling sorry for himself and for his teammates. He was too busy brooding about his failure to realize that his teammates were busy rallying to give him one more chance.
So as the Senators put runners on base, someone had to go to the clubhouse to look for Bradley to tell him that he was on-deck.
By now you know where this is going. It's really quite obvious at this point. But, yes, it happened. Despite the Golden Sombrero, Bradley came up for a fifth time and lined a 3-2 pitch with two outs in the ninth inning for a walk-off grand slam in the 11-10 victory. The only thing missing was an explosion from the light tower as Bradley circled the bases in the rain in slow-motion.
The remaining fans stood and screamed, cheered and jumped up and down having witnessed an ending that was unfathomable just moments ago. A grand slam on a 3-2 pitch with two outs to win the final game of the championship game by one run? Nah... it can't be true.
It happened. I saw it. I probably wasn't standing too far away from Andy Tracy when it went down. Oh, but get this: Beyond the right-field fence filled with billboards at the City Island ballpark, there was a bull's eye advertisement taunting players to drill it with a homer for a free something-or-other from a local business. You know, one of those conspicuously placed ads that takes a perfect shot from William Tell to hit.
Anyway, though I didn't see it through the rain drops while standing just off the first-base line, Tracy says Bradley's walk-off, championship slam might have nailed it. He isn't sure either, but it would be a nice touch to the legend if it did. So we'll just say it happened that way -- Bradley's walk-off, championship slam drilled the bull's eye in right field as the rain drops fell, the fans freaked out and his teammates danced on the field.
And boy did they dance. Tracy says he and his Senators' teammates stayed in the clubhouse all night celebrating that fourth straight title for Harrisburg. Needless to say, the on-the-field celebration was quite spirited, to say the least. But Bradley was so stunned by his feat that after he quickly circled the bases he broke free from the mob scene at home plate and strolled out to center field all by himself with his hands on his hips and head shaking in attempt to wrap his mind around what had just occurred. Afterwards, when he was finally able to talk about his goat-to-season-saving-hero night, Bradley's chest heaved as he answered questions in the rain near the pitchers' mound. He was so emotional about his big hit that it seemed as if he was going to hyperventilate.
Later, the celebration in the clubhouse was so raucous that everyone had a cigar in one hand and a bottle of champagne to spray and dump over the head of anyone in eyeshot. It kind of reminded me of a party I threw on South 15th Street a long time ago, only we built a bonfire for that one.
Nevertheless, Tracy got his cup-of-coffee with the Phillies this week and was designated for assignment on Wednesday when the team's bullpen became too taxed from a pair of extra-inning games. Chances are Tracy will clear waivers and head back to Triple-A Lehigh Valley, where he leads the team with 21 homers, 84 RBIs, 32 doubles, 60 walks and 95 strikeouts. This year marks the eighth minor-league season in which Tracy has slugged at least 20 homers. Making this dubious feat even dubious-er is the fact that he's pulled the trick for five different big-league organizations.
With 230 career minor league homers (13 in the Majors), it's clear Tracy can hit. For one reason or another he just hasn't gotten a long enough look for a big-league team. Crash Davis, indeed. Anyway, one of these days I hope to cross paths with Milton Bradley and compare notes with him about that rainy September night in Harrisburg nearly a decade ago.
I wonder how that one ranks for him.