Winning a division title wasn’t the Orioles’ goal in ’70. Nor was winning the AL pennant, normally an achievement that makes a season. The Orioles’ only goal in ’70 was to win the World Series. It wouldn’t erase the memory of ’69, but it was all the Orioles could do now to ease the memory, and they took every swing and made every pitch with the thought in the back of their minds.
They faced Minnesota again in the AL Championship Series, and the outcome was the same as ’69—a Baltimore sweep. Cuellar gave up a run in each of the first two innings of Game 1 in Minnesota, but he hit a windblown grand slam in the fourth as part of a seven-run rally that put the game away. Game 2 was closer, with McNally holding a 4–3 lead going into the ninth, but another seven-run inning ended the suspense. Back home for Game 3 before only 27,608 fans, the Orioles finished off the sweep with a 6–1 win as Palmer pitched a complete game. With a .330 average and six homers, the Orioles had beaten the explosive Twins at their own game.
The Orioles wanted another shot at the Mets in the World Series, but the Mets faded to third in the NL East in ’70, and the Cincinnati Reds won the pennant convincingly, with a 102-win season and a sweep of Pittsburgh in the NL Championship Series. The “Big Red Machine” had an imposing lineup featuring NL MVP Johnny Bench (45 homers, 148 RBI), Tony Perez (40 homers, 129 RBI), Pete Rose (.316), Bobby Tolan (.316), and Lee May (34 homers, 94 RBI). The Orioles’ pitchers would have to shine.
The Series opener at Cincinnati’s new Riverfront Stadium was the first Fall Classic game played on artificial turf. The Reds scored a run in the first inning off Palmer, and then May hit a two-run homer in the third. Ghosts of ’69 began haunting the Orioles, but only briefly. Powell’s two-run homer in the fourth off Reds starter Gary Nolan cut the lead to one, and Hendricks hit another homer to tie the score in the fifth.
Brooks Robinson: “The big question after we worked out in Cincinnati [before Game 1] was what kind of shoes do we wear. It was our first time playing on AstroTurf, and we didn’t know if we should wear cleats. We finally decided just to wear our normal cleats, but be sure when you move to pick ’em up. You can’t just let ’em slide because they’ll catch and stop and there goes a knee.”
Boog Powell: “With the way the Mets had kicked our asses the year before, when we got down 3–0 in the first game of the Series, we were going, ‘No, this can’t happen again.’ I went up to the plate in the fourth inning saying, ‘I have to do something.’ I just made up my mind that he wasn’t going to get me out. I don’t think I’d faced Gary [Nolan] more than once or twice in spring training, but it didn’t matter who was pitching, I was going to do something.
“He helped me out and hung me a breaking ball, and I hit it OK. It barely went out and it was barely fair, but it was a home run. A Mickey Mouse home run, but worth two runs. So their lead was down to 3–2, and that took all the pressure off. When I got back to the dugout it was like a big sigh of relief. You could feel everyone go, ‘OK, we’re all right now; they can’t play with us.’ I hit another homer the next day, a huge one to the upper deck in center field. I don’t think anyone else has ever hit one up there. I mean, I crushed it. But the only one anyone remembers is the Mickey Mouse one. That was our wake-up call.”
The Reds almost regained the lead in the bottom of the sixth, but strong defense and a bizarre play at the plate cut short the rally and raised hope among the Orioles that their bad Series luck in ’69 was about to even out. Lee May opened the inning with a hard, bouncing shot over the third-base bag, a ball seemingly destined for the left-field corner and extra bases. Brooks Robinson leaned hard to his right, stretched and grabbed the ball, then threw blindly and across his body toward Powell at first. The ball skipped on the artificial turf and landed in Powell’s glove an instant before May hit the bag.
Brooks Robinson: “Of all the plays in that Series, that one stands out. I’d never made a play like that. Most of the time, any time you backhand the ball, you catch it, stop, plant, and try to get the good, long throw. This one, I just got it, and it was like I almost thought the ball was foul. You know how you just kind of go over and get a ball and throw it back to the pitcher? I think I had in my mind it might have been almost foul and I just kind of got it and then went ahead and threw it and one-bounced it to Boog.”
Frank Robinson: “It’s one of the best plays ever. He took three steps across the foul line before he even released the ball, and he didn’t even look at first base when he threw. It was a blind thing. Brooks did that a lot. He’d come up with a ball in foul ground and throw to second without even looking. Just from having done it. Knowing where he was on the field. He was the best.”
The importance of the play became apparent when Palmer walked Bernie Carbo and gave up a single to Tommy Helms, sending Carbo to third. Pinch hitter Ty Cline then hit a chopper in front of the plate, and one of the wildest plays in World Series history ensued. Plate umpire Ken Burkhart moved out from behind the plate and into the baseline to make a fair/foul call as Carbo headed for home, and Hendricks grabbed the ball and dove to make a tag with his glove. Carbo and Hendricks became entangled with Burkhart, who wound up sitting down with his back to the plate. Burkhart called Carbo out because he saw Hendricks make a tag, but the ball was in Hendricks’s other hand, and Carbo never touched the plate. Reds manager Sparky Anderson argued, but the call stood, and Palmer got the last out to end the inning. Given a break, the Orioles made the most of it when Brooks Robinson homered in the top of the seventh to give the Orioles a 4–3 lead that held up for the win.
Elrod Hendricks: “We had a meeting before the game, and we were listening to the scouting report, and just as the meeting was about ready to break up I said, ‘Just one second. If Carbo gets on, he’ll run the bases crazy. Don’t be surprised by anything he does out there. Just be ready for anything.’ So sure enough, he’s on third, the ball is hit back off the plate, Palmer comes in, and I’m not even thinking about him coming home, and he throws it to me.
“When I caught the ball, I saw Carbo ten or fifteen feet up the line, so I figured I had plenty of time to get down, block the plate, and make my tag. As soon as I started down, there was Burkhart sitting under me. I never saw him. He came out to get a better look at the play, but I didn’t see him at all under me because he wasn’t standing straight up. He was in a crouched position, looking up, and when I came down and saw him I said, ‘Uh-oh.’
“Then Carbo knocked me back, and that’s when the ball goes out [of the glove]. Then we’re all down. And I saw that Carbo slid right into [Burkhart’s] shin guards and got pushed off the plate. So my whole thing was to hold [Carbo] off long enough to get my balance back and go tag him. I pushed Carbo with the glove. Then Burkhart called [Carbo] out. I’d had the glove on his shoulder, and that’s what he saw. He was turned around, looking behind his back, and he saw the back of my glove, and he took for granted that the ball was in the glove. He just made the call. Had to make a call. There was another runner on base.
“Then Carbo got up and looked and said, ‘He never tagged me.’ Then he was jumping up and down on the plate, and Sparky came running out and said, ‘He never tagged him.’ Burkhart said, ‘Yes, I saw the tag. He tagged him.’ But Sparky said, ‘No, he didn’t have the ball in the glove.’ He argued and argued. But once Sparky came out, I knew the play was dead, so I didn’t worry. Sparky finally said, ‘What the heck, [Carbo] never touched home plate anyway,’ and he walked away.
“When he walked away Burkhart said, ‘You tagged him, didn’t you?’ I said, ‘Well, yeah.’ I told him [the truth] the next day. And he saw it [pictured in the papers]. He came to me and said, ‘What happened?’ I got all kinds of threats and hate letters from Cincinnati. By the time we got home I had a locker full of hate mail. But what they didn’t understand was it was a continuous play, another runner on the bases, so he had to make the call immediately instead of waiting.
“Years later we were in spring training one afternoon, and Burkhart said, ‘Ellie, did you ever make any money off that?’ I said no. He said, ‘I guess we went down in history as part of the play of the century, and we didn’t even get paid for it.’ I told him I got my reward. I got a [World Series] ring.”
From From 33rd Street to Camden Yards by John Eisenberg.
Copyright © 2001 by John Eisenberg. Reprinted by permission of the McGraw-Hill Companies. All rights reserved.