Monday, October 4, 2010

October 4, 1955: Next Year

BRONX, N.Y. - Johnny Podres was an unlikely candidate to be a hero. Only 22 years old, he went 9-10 in the 1955 season as the Dodgers No. 3 starter. But he had won Game 3 of the '55 series, an absolute must-win as Brooklyn was already down 2 games to 0. So he had handled pressure well earlier in the week. But this was an entirely different kind of pressure.

After seven straight World Series losses, the losing can start to wear on you. After so many heartbreaking losses, the refrain of "wait 'til next year" starts to sound a bit hollow. It'd be one thing if those losses had been to different teams in different eras, but the last five losses had all been to the Yankees. The Damn Yankees. Why should this year be any different?

If Podres was feeling any pressure, it didn't show in his performance early. The first two innings went by without incident. Trouble came in the third, though. With two outs, Rizzuto walked and Martin singled, with the heart of the order coming up. Even with Mantle injured, it was still a dangerous lineup. Then, finally, a break. McDougald grounded one to the left side that probably would have gotten through, but it hit Rizzuto. Automatic out, inning over. The Dodgers finally got a lucky bounce.

It wasn't just losing, either, it was how they lost. Like the '47 Series, when they won Game 4 after getting their only hit with two outs in the ninth. It seemed like they had fate on their sides, then, until they blew the two-run lead in game 7. 1952 might have been the worst, though; that talented team, coming back to Brooklyn only needing to win one of the last two games to take it all, then blowing a game 6 lead, then watching that damn Martin save game 7 by catching that wind-blown popup that he never really saw. It's after stuff like that when you start to think the franchise really was cursed.

Maybe they were emboldened by finally catching a break, but Campanella's one-out double in the fourth gave the Dodgers life. He moved to third on a groundout, then scored when Hodges singled him home. Berra doubled to lead off the fourth - now how big was that ball that hit Rizzuto the previous inning? - but Podres pitched around it, got through the fifth as well. In the sixth, it was a single, an error, a bunt, and a walk, before Hodges drove home another with a sacrifice fly. So Podres had two runs to work with now. Based on Brooklyn's World Series history, that might have to be enough. Go get 'em, kid.

Of course, a loss doesn't have to happen in the World Series to be painful. Like 1950, when the pennant-winning run was thrown out at the plate in the bottom of the ninth, and the Phillies hit that home run in the top of the 10th. Or 1951, and Bobby Thomson's home run. Both on the last day of the season, both with the World Series painfully close to their grasps. At least those losses weren't to the Yankees, but that's really very little consolation.

Fate came back into play again in the bottom of the sixth. Shuba had entered as a pinch-hitter for Zimmer the previous inning, but he was no infielder. So the Dodgers moved Gilliam in to second and put in Amoros, the speedy left-handed Cuban, out in left field. Martin and McDougald reached, bringing up Berra. He was a lefty, so the outfield shifted over toward right. Naturally, Berra sliced it into left. But Amaros can fly. He ran somewhere between 50 and 500 feet, tracked it down on the track, reached out and caught it just before hitting the wall, fired to first for the double play. Two bits of fortune there: Amoros was the only player on Brooklyn's roster who could have caught up to that ball, and him being left-handed made the catch possible; a right-handed leftfielder almost certainly misses that ball. Maybe Fate had changed sides for once.

Nobody remembers the '16 and '20 World Series. They were so long ago as to be irrelevant to what was happening today. They weren't even called the Dodgers then, were they? But 1941 is recent enough for people to remember, for it to matter. That's when the Dodgers started their run. That's when they started being that team that was brilliant, but not quite good enough. It was someone different each year - for a few years there, it seemed like the Dodgers were perpetually two games behind the Cardinals, or they were just barely inferior to the Yankees, or they were one painful run short of the National League champion de jure. Always second-best. Always waiting 'til next year.

No lead is safe. Nothing can come easy. In the seventh, it was Mantle, pinch-hitting despite being barely able to walk. Of course he was the tying run. There was a sigh of relief when he popped out. In the eighth, it was that damn Berra again. It seems like he's always batting with two runners on base. But when Furillo closed his glove on Berra's fly ball, it seems like the worst of it was over. Bauer then struck out. Three outs to go.

It wasn't just how often the Dodgers lost, it was how often the Yankees won. Since 1923, only the Cardinals had beaten them in the World Series - in 1926, when Alexander struck out Lazzeri and Ruth ended the series by being caught stealing, and 1942, when the Cardinals were about as good as they had ever been (of course, the Dodgers finished two games behind the Cards that year. Of course they did). For those keeping track, that's a 15-2 record in the World Series. At some point, it stops being about luck. The Yankees were damn good, always would be. That's why they were so hard to beat.

Another Dodgers rally fizzled out in the ninth, and Podres went back out to pitch the most important inning in Brooklyn baseball history. A quick look around the field probably revealed some nervous faces, people afraid of having the ball hit to them for fear of making the crucial error. Reese doesn't have the fear, though, that's for sure. Snider in center probably doesn't, either. Too bad Jackie's hurt, 'cause you know he'd want the damn ball hit to him, even demand it. For the first out, though, Podres fielded Skowron's grounder himself. Two outs to go. Then Cerv flied to Amoros, probably to remind everybody of his great catch earlier. One out to go.

Pee Wee Reese joined the Dodgers in 1940 and played in the World Series for the first time the following year. In his long career, he was always good, never great, but always consistent. His years are filled with top-10 MVP finishes, and he became the captain, the heart and soul of the team that would come to be known as the Boys of Summer. Nobody embodied the Dodgers like Reese. He was the only man who had played in every World Series game between the Yankees and Dodgers. More than anybody else, he knew the pain of always coming up just short, knew exactly what it would mean to the team and the borough to get this last out.

Podres took the sign, got set. He started his windup and threw. Howard liked what he saw and swung, making solid contact. A grounder to the right side, right at Reese. Of course it was Reese. Could it be anybody else? He fielded it cleanly, made a perfect throw.

Next Year was finally here.

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