Monday, August 9, 2010

What If the 1975 World Series Had Ended Differently?

I thought of this one this weekend, as the Yankees and Red Sox play a 4-game series at the new Yankee Stadium.

There are three ways to look at this, and they all involve Carlton Fisk.

First Scenario. In the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 3 of the 1975 World Series, the Boston Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds were tied, 3-3, and tied at 1 game apiece in the World Series. With César Gerónimo on base and nobody out, the Reds sent Ed Amrbrister up to bat, and he collided with Boston Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk while attempting to sacrifice bunt, leading to a wild throw by Fisk and his subsequent failure to get Gerónimo out. Home plate umpire Larry Barnett did not make the expected interference call on Armbrister, a decision which was harshly criticized after the Reds won the game 4-3.

Now, suppose Barnett had made the call that Sox fans have wanted for 35 years. The Red Sox might have gone on to win the game... then again, maybe not. We are talking about the Red Sox, after all. But let's suppose that they did.

Then, instead of trailing 3 games to 2, they lead by that margin going into Game 6, and instead of merely forcing a Game 7, Fisk's home run wins the World Series. Think of how many times we'd have seen the homer and his "Fenway Twist" then!

In which case, the Red Sox end their World Series drought at 57 years. Fisk becomes not just a New England icon but one of the gods of baseball. The Red Sox do not simply let him get away after the 1980 season, and he remains a Red Sock for life.

He never goes to the Chicago White Sox. This probably doesn't hurt them much, as their only postseason appearance with Fisk on the active roster was in 1983, and they won the AL West by 20 games, a huge margin, and then lost the ALCS to the Baltimore Orioles.

Fisk is still the Boston catcher during the 1986 World Series -- just 11 years after they won their last World Championship. He calms down Calvin Schiraldi, and the Red Sox win in 1986 as well. And the Mets still haven't won a World Series, ever, except for 1969, which, in TTL, is looking more and more like it really was a "Miracle."

So, by the time they face the Yankees in a postseason series for the first time, in 1999, the Red Sox have won 2 World Series in the last 81 years... but also 2 in the last 24 years, as many as the Yankees have in the same period.

There is no "Curse of the Bambino." If Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe writes a book about the history of the Red Sox (he still might), he won't have the Curse to use as a title. And there will be no idea of a hex the Yankees have over the Red Sox: Sox fans will still hate the Yankees for finishing ahead of them in 1977 and 1978, but it will be a rivalry between, roughly, equal combatants. The idea that "The Red Sox can't beat the Yankees" is treated as a relic of the pre-1967, pre-Impossible Dream era.

That doesn't mean the Sox beat the Yankees in the 1999 or 2003 ALCS. They were a greatly flawed team both times. In 2004, they had corrected most of their flaws, while the Yankees had developed new ones. And then, of course, there is the question of steroids, for both teams. But, to use Shaughnessy's phrase, the rivalry between the teams is NOT "like the rivalry between the hammer and the nail." And, without the "1918" chants and all the Curse references, Sox fans could have been nearly as arrogant before 2004 as they've been since, and this rivalry could have been even uglier.

Second Scenario. Maybe the Sox winning Game 3 in 1975 means they grab the momentum, and they win Games 4 and 5 in Cincinnati, too, and there never IS a Game 6 of the 1975 World Series! And Fisk doesn't hit that home run. No matter: We lose the most familiar highlight in baseball history, but because he was the catcher of the World Champion Red Sox, Fisk still becomes an icon.

But, without that Game 6, and that Game 7 which was also a great game, that World Series isn't as fondly remembered. As a result, the Reds' reputation as a team that can't win the big one -- they would have failed in the Series of 1961, '70, '72 and '75 by this point, and also had close-but-no-cigar Pennant finishes in 1956, '64 and '73 -- perhaps boils over, and maybe they don't win in 1976, either. Maybe the Yankees win that World Series, perhaps over the Reds, or maybe over the Philadelphia Phillies who beat the Reds in the '76 NLCS. Maybe instead of going 7-0 in the '76 postseason, the Reds don't even reach the World Series.

And maybe that leads to the Reds not having that Big Red Machine mystique. Maybe Johnny Bench is not remembered as a candidate for the title of the best catcher ever, or Joe Morgan one for second base. Maybe Tony Perez never makes the Hall of Fame.

Maybe, instead of Marge Schott buying the team in 1984 like she did, the Reds' failure leads to a drop in popularity which, combined with Cincinnati being one of the smallest markets in baseball, leads to the end of the Reds franchise, as it gets moved to, say, Denver. It could have happened: The Reds' GM at the time was Bob Howsam, the man who founded the Denver Broncos and turned the 17,000-seat minor-league ballpark Bears Stadium into the 76,000-seat football horseshoe Mile High Stadium.

Maybe they still win the World Series in 1990 (which would have been their first in 50 years, since the Ernie Lombardi and Bucky Walters Reds of 1940), but as the Denver Reds, or perhaps the Colorado Reds. Barry Larkin in the Rocky Mountains? Sounds weird, like Reggie Jackson in Kansas City, as would have happened if Charlie Finley hadn't moved the A's to Oakland. But such a scenario would not only have been possible, but plausible. Maybe not likely, as an attempt to convince the Reds to move to New York following the Dodgers' and Giants' 1957 skedaddle to California failed badly... but plausible.

One thing's for sure: In such a scenario, Miami and somebody other than Denver will get the NL's 1993 expansion teams, but that somebody won't be small Cincinnati. Maybe Washington, D.C., with Robert F. Kennedy Stadium already in place. And then, maybe the Montreal Expos still get moved, maybe they don't, but if they do, it won't be to Washington.

Maybe Pete Rose not only goes to the Phillies, as he did in RL, but stays there, and is better remembered with them. Maybe he becomes their manager, and, not in his hometown with so many of his enablers, he doesn't bet on baseball. Maybe he doesn't think he has people around him to help him get away with it. Maybe he's still a consultant in the Phils' front office to this day, as his 1980 manager Dallas Green is now. And, of course, Rose is in the Hall of Fame. And maybe Commissioner Bart Giamatti, not having to have Rose investigated, doesn't have a fatal heart attack, and remains in charge of baseball beyond 1994, and prevents a strike, and now we're getting into a much wider speculation.

Third Scenario. Having seen two halves of the same side, we now look at it from the other side of the coin. It's 12:34 AM on October 22, 1975. Game 6. Bottom of the 12th inning. Game tied 6-6. The Red Sox need to win to force a Game 7 and still have a chance at their first World Championship in 57 years, or else the Reds win their first in 35 years.

Fisk hits the ball. It goes down the left-field line. Fisk jumps, and waves, and jumps, and waves, and jumps, and waves...

Foul ball. Strike one. The at-bat continues, and Pat Darcy gets Fisk out. Because his team ultimately won the Series, Darcy has never faced the kind of mockery and anger that have fallen on Ralph Branca, Mitch Williams, and a few others. Now, there's no guarantee the Red Sox still don't win this game, but suppose Darcy gets the Sox out in the bottom of the 12th, and Reds score in the top of the 13th, and the Red Sox can't equalize or surpass. Game over, Reds 7, Red Sox 6, in 13, Reds win the Series in 6.

No Game 7. No Fisk heroics. No aura of how the '75 Sox came soooooooo clooooooose... We might still be waiting for Fisk to get into the Hall of Fame. In RL, even with the homer, he needed two tries to get in. Look how long it took another legendary catcher, Gary Carter, to get into the Hall of Fame, and he started the rally to beat the Sox in that other Game 6, in 1986. Also, Jim Rice, who had a great rookie season but was injured and couldn't play in the Series, might not be in the Hall yet, either. He only got in just last year, in his last year of eligibility before he'd have to wait for eligibility via the Veterans' Committee.

And, without the attention the '75 Series still gets in RL, the Red Sox don't become the baseball version of "America's Team." They're not these lovable nearly-winners-but-always-ultimately-losers. Maybe the failures of '67, '72, '74, '75, '77 and '78 lead a lot of people to give up on them.

Now, after the Impossible Dream season of 1967, there's never been any threat to move the Red Sox out of the Boston metropolitan area. But without the myth of the 1975 World Series, the romance of the Boston Red Sox is gone for people outside New England. The Red Sox don't get that kind of aura around them. Maybe the Chicago Cubs, who sort of have it, get a bigger one, and become that kind of team.

Maybe, as could well have happened by 1971 if the Red Sox hadn't won that 1967 Pennant, they get moved into a multipurpose stadium in Foxboro, to replace the home of the Patriots. Or maybe Gillette Stadium is built next door to the old Schaefer/Sullivan/Foxboro Stadium, as happened in RL, and then it's torn down to make way for a new Sox ballpark, and they move in, and in 2003, Fenway is demolished. Whether a new stadium, more comfortable, with different dimensions, helps or hurts the Sox in the David Ortiz era depends on a number of factors. But without that Fisk homer, I guarantee you that Fenway Park does not host a World Championship celebration on Opening Day 2005. The Sox may host one, but not at Fenway: The little green pinball machine in the Back Bay is gone.

And without all the fuss made over the '75 Red Sox, maybe the 1970s Reds get the credit they deserve. After all, in that span of 10 years, they reached 6 postseasons, just missing 2 others; won 4 Pennants and 2 World Championships (and losing another in Game 7). Much is made of the other teams to win in that decade: The Swingin' A's, the Bronx Zoo Yankees, the Pirate Family with Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell, and, of course, though they didn't win it all, the Yaz, Fisk, Lynn, Rice, Tiant, Lee Red Sox.

The Reds might have been the best of them all, but how often do they get discussed as one of the best teams ever? Aside from Sunday nights on ESPN, when Joe Morgan mentions them? Joe Posnanski's new book The Machine: The Story of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds hasn't gotten nearly the attention of some other books about 1970s baseball that have come out the last few years. Maybe the Big Red Machine just wasn't that interesting. Or maybe people are just tired of hearing about Pete Rose, and, prior to 1989, whoever would have thought that could happen?