Wednesday, December 2, 2009

One At-Bat, One Home Run

My early years as a baseball fan were often spent looking through MacMillan's Baseball Encyclopedia. Back in the mid-'90s, before online resources became the standard, it was a treasure for any baseball-hungry kid. That heavy book was frequently by my side, and within a year some people already joked that I had the whole thing memorized. Indeed, I wouldn't be as knowledgeable today about the world's greatest game had it not been for that encyclopedia.

When you spend so much time poring over such a volume your eyes become attuned to certain norms in the data, and you'll occasionally see something that stands out. The postseason series summaries were always one of my favorite parts, and it always looked cool to me when a player's stat line for a series showed that he'd hit a home run in his lone at-bat. It was rare, but you'd occasionally spot one.

At the time it had only been done in the World Series, though it's been done a few times in the preliminary rounds since then. While all postseason play is special, the World Series is even more so, which is why my focus will be on the players who did it in the Fall Classic. There were only three men who'd done it as of my 1995 Encyclopedia, but three more have joined the club since then.

The six are as follows:



Not a particularly impressive group on its own. Two were Dodgers, two were Yankees and two were "Sox" players. None were Hall of Famers or even All Stars, though Gibson did win the MVP the year of his famous blast. All six are tied together by a mere statistical triviality, and yet it's one that may epitomize the beauty of the game. How many boys have dreamed that they'd hit a home run if they had just one chance to stare down a pitcher in baseball's premier event? For these now-adult boys that dream came true. In fact, two of these players, Mason and Kielty, retired without any other World Series at-bats in their careers. Blum is still active, so he could still possibly lower his career World Series slugging average.

I thought it'd be fun to look back on these homers and while I'm at it rank them in terms of greatness. You can't tell from merely looking at a line of stats, but some of these gopher balls have cool stories behind them.

6. Jim Leyritz, 1999 Game 4

This one is ranked last for two reasons. For starters, it doesn't really fit the spirit of this list. Leyritz drew a bases-loaded walk in Game 1, which made this at-bat his second plate appearance of the Series. Making the most of that one opportunity? Well...not quite. Second, he hit it in the eighth inning of a home game where his team was already leading 3-1 and on the verge of a sweep. His solo shot off Atlanta's Terry Mulholland was nothing more than an unnecessary insurance run; Mariano Rivera retired the Braves in order the next half-inning to win it all for New York.

5. Jim Mason, 1976 Game 3

No, this isn't an anti-Yankee bias (or an anti-Jim bias). For sheer underdogginess, Mason's is hard to beat. His regular season power display consisted of one homer, a slugging average of .235 and an OPS+ of 31. Yes, 31. He was only in the game as a defensive replacement when he took the Reds' Pat Zachry deep. His team was still down 4-2 after the seventh-inning solo shot, and the Reds made it 6-2 the next inning, which would become the final score. While I wish I could place this home run higher (I like to pull for the underdog), I'm not sure that I can.

4. George Shuba, 1953 Game 1

Interesting fact: four of these guys hit their homers in Series that were sweeps. Gibson's was in a five-gamer and Shuba's was in the longest, a six-gamer.

Yankee pitcher Allie Reynolds had held the Dodgers to only one run through the first five innings; the sixth was where it all fell apart. Gil Hodges led off the inning with a homer, followed by Shuba's two-run pinch-hit blast three batters later. Shuba's shot sent Reynolds to the showers, and the Dodgers would then tie the game in the seventh. Though the Dodgers would eventually lose, their fans got some extra excitement thanks to Shuba's clout.

3. Bobby Kielty, 2007 Game 4

At the time it didn't seem like much more than a garbage run. It was the eighth inning, the Red Sox were up 3-1 and on the verge of a sweep, and pinch-hitter Kielty parked one off Colorado's Brian Fuentes. Sounds eerily similar to Leyritz's homer doesn't it? The only difference? Kielty's homer ended up being necessary insurance. Garrett Atkins of the Rockies hit a two-run homer the next half-inning that would've tied it had it not been for Kielty. It just goes to show that you never know when a garbage run will become a game-winner.

2. Geoff Blum, 2005 Game 3

It was the top of the 14th and neither team could seem to push a run across the plate in extras. The Astros, desperate for a fresh arm, called on little-used rookie Ezequiel Astacio. With two outs and the bases empty, defensive replacement Blum broke through with a homer that gave the White Sox a 6-5 lead. The Sox would hold the Astros scoreless in the bottom half of the inning to take a 3-0 Series lead and win their first title in 88 years the next night. Technically it was only later that day, since Blum's homer came well after midnight.

1. Kirk Gibson, 1988 Game 1

Not much surprise here, is it? Originally I thought I'd shock everyone by putting Blum's homer at #1 due to the magnitude of what it meant to the fanbase, but a look at the circumstances surrounding the two homers made me come to my senses. While Blum's homer meant more to me personally (I'm a White Sox fan and I wasn't yet a baseball fan when Gibson hit his), you can't get much more dramatic than Gibson's heroic tater. There's a good reason we've seen it replayed so many times over the years; it was simply incredible.

Gibson, the best hitter on a weak offensive team, was on the active roster but unlikely to play because of injuries to both legs. Dennis Eckersley, one of the game's best closers, was a single out away from sealing a one-run victory for the Athletics. After Mike Davis drew a walk, up to the plate hobbled Gibson. Gibson needed to hit it hard if he was going to make anything happen, since he couldn't run. Down to his last strike, Gibson belted one into the right field stands for a game-winning two-run homer. With just one swing of the bat he'd turned an almost-certain 0-1 Series deficit into a 1-0 lead. His teammates handled the rest on their own, winning three of the next four while Gibson sat out.

So there it is: the One At-Bat One Homer Club. As I was writing this post I realized that each of these men is still alive. Is there anyone out there resourceful enough to get all six of them together for an official club photo?

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