Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders.
by Jim Baker
Thanks to one of the great screw-ups catalogued in Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball
Blunders, I got on television. There’s no other way around it: without that blunder, I would not have been on Channel 11 when I was
By the time Boston traded Sparky Lyle to New York for Danny Cater, I was a fully-committed Yankee hater. That I had only experienced the Yankees as a non-winning team might make them seem like an odd choice, but not really; I was both a Mets and Red Sox fan. For me, hating the Yankees flowed from those allegiances rather than from grievances over their past successes (which I was not old enough to have experienced with any cognizance).
I don’t remember my reaction to the Cater-Lyle trade, except that I wondered why the Red Sox would want to do business with their hated rivals. (I still wonder why teams trade
within their own division – especially now when such a high percentage of potential trading partners exist outside of each division.) I do remember that by the end of the first season after the trade had taken place, Lyle had been elevated to god status at Yankee Stadium and Cater was a crater in the Red Sox lineup.
The moment for me that epitomized the Danny Cater Experience came on April 28, 1973, his second year in Boston. That Saturday, the Red Sox hosted the White Sox in an NBC Game of the Week. I would nominate this game as one of the most frustrating performances ever suffered by a team — at least that I’ve ever watched in person or on television. White Sox starter Stan Bahnsen surrendered seven hits and five walks while his relief, Terry Forster, gave up another four hits and a walk. In addition, Bahnsen hit a batter. So, you get the picture: lots and lots of Red Sox baserunners while, for their part, the White Sox turned only one double play. And yet, entering the bottom of the eighth the Red Sox trailed, 2-1.
With two outs, they loaded the bases. Up stepped Cater, who had entered the game earlier as a pinch
runner, to face Forster. Cater worked the count full, fouled off some pitches and
then looked at the most hittable called strike three you can imagine. I
still have in my mind the memory of NBC’s (then-innovative) center-field camera
view of him standing there doing nothing while Forster’s fastball
poured over the plate screaming “Smack me!” That was pretty much the game right there. Boston did get another
baserunner in the ninth, but Dwight Evans couldn’t get a bunt down and that was
it. One run. Sixteeen runners stranded on the bases. A
complete dry hump of a game.
About five months later my parents were able to score some Yankees tickets from a family friend. They were amazing seats, the kind I’d pretty much have to sell plasma for two months to be able to afford today. My father would drive us to the Bronx and I could invite two friends. I chose Dave and Ray, the former because we always did stuff like this together and the latter because he had never been to a big-league game. Ray wanted to see the game . . . but what he reallywanted was to get on television. I guess we all did, but none so much as him. My particular obsession was to be clever. In print. I concocted a way to fulfill this need, make Ray happy and, probably — in the subtext of it all–show my frustration over the Danny Cater/Sparky Lyle situation.
Obviously, the easiest way to get on television was to do a banner (the “sign guy” at Shea Stadium was then a well-known figure in the area). So on Saturday we spent a few hours painting my idea on a white sheet, and went to the game the next day with it tucked under my arm. It was September 9; New York was hosting Milwaukee and the only thing in doubt that day was whether the Brewers would catch the Bombers for fourth place in the American League East (they wouldn’t). When you go to only a couple of games a year, though, who cares? Things don’t have to “matter.” Just being there is enough.
The Brewers lit into Mel Stottlemyre in the second inning and were quickly up 7-1. By the fifth inning, it was 10-2. This was not good because, in order for our banner to have the kind of dramatic impact necessary for a TV appearance, Sparky Lyle had to get into the game. Would Yankee manager Ralph Houk indulge us and bring him in for some work? He’d pitched only once in the previous two weeks.
Our prayers were answered when Lyle came on to pitch the ninth, with the Yankees trailing 10-3 and only about half of the original 13,708 crowd still hanging around. Those who had stuck around gave him a welcome befitting a king . . . until, that is, they saw our banner. I must admit that I got cold feet at the last moment and left it up to Dave and Ray to hold it up. They stood on their seats, and, according to a carefully-made plan, unfurled only the top third of the banner. The rest would come when they were sure they had attracted the attention of the nearest camera. It read, in large block letters:
S P A R K Y
The game was telecasted locally by WPIX (Channel 11) and Dave was savvy enough to hold it up at the exact moment they would come back from the commercial break heading into the top of the ninth. With Lyle warming up, a camera swung toward us, and on came the red light. Ray was beside himself — we were pretty sure that it was getting on television. It was then that they unfurled the remainder of the banner. It read:
S T I N K S !
B R I N G B A CK
D A N N Y C A T E R !
The exclamation points may or may not be an accurate recollection, but the wording is exact. There was some definite disapproval from the crowd but nothing quite like you’d expect, probably because the proposition was so ridiculous. (For his part, Lyle was his usual competent self, striking out two of the three men he faced.)
I wasn’t certain we had gotten on television until the next day at school. Given the time of the season and the Yankees being just barely over .500, I can’t imagine that too many people were watching the game. One of my classmates was, though. His name was Scott and the one thing I remember about him is that he used to wear wrestling shoes every day even though he wasn’t on the wrestling team (now people wear shoes that look like that all the time, so he was way ahead of the curve on that one).
“Hey, were you at Yankee Stadium yesterday?” he asked me.
They had showed us, all right, and commented on it as well. I asked Scott what the announcers’ reaction was, but I can’t remember what he told me. I’d like to think that Phil Rizzuto was confused by it, though; that he said something like, “Holy cow, that’s a bad idea right there.”
We tried the absurd banner trick one more time the following season, this time at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. It read NOME, ALASKA LOVES THE BREWERS. No reaction. No television time. It failed because it was just silly. The Lyle/Cater banner, though . . . that one had relevance!
Jim Baker thanks
Retrosheet and Dave Ringel for filling in the gaps in his memory.