Former Major Leaguers recall postseason glory

MLB Alumni golf tourney a chance to gather, reminisce

Former Major Leaguers recall postseason glory

Baseball's postseason is a no-man's land where heroes are made and regular-season stars become mere mortals or fade away like summer's green leaves, forgotten until they're replaced next spring.

It's when All-Stars and MVP candidates can lose their luster, perhaps in favor of the unlikeliest of shooting stars.

It's when lifelong dreams are made and recurrent nightmares haunt participants every time a game is replayed and rehashed.

It's also a time when former ballplayers can get together -- as a Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association group did for Thursday's Rally in the Valley golf tournament at Valley Golf Club in Sugarloaf, Pa. -- to reminisce, play golf and agree on the baseball's often quirky nature, especially this time of year.

"Baseball is a game you cannot figure out. I don't care what you do,'' said Jim Coates, who pitched for the New York Yankees in 1956 and from 1959 to 1962 and appeared in World Series games in 1960, '61 and '62.

"You could have a good day today and do the same thing tomorrow and it just don't work. Pitching's the same way. You could go out there with nothing and get by, or you could go out with there with everything working and they'll hit you all over the park.''

Coates was an American League All-Star in 1960 en route to a career-best 13-3 record with two shutouts.

Longtime Yankees fans, however, remember that Coates was on the mound when the Pittsburgh Pirates rallied from a three-run deficit against him in Game 7 of the World Series that season.

The Pirates eventually won that game 10-9 on Bill Mazeroski's home run off Ralph Terry leading off the bottom of the ninth inning.

Baseball's gods were kinder to Coates, Terry and the rest of the Yankees the next two seasons. They easily defeated the Cincinnati Reds in the Fall Classic in 1961, then outlasted the San Francisco Giants in a memorable seven-game Series the following year.

In Game 7 in San Francisco, Terry was nursing a 1-0 lead with the tying run (Willie Mays) on third and the winning run on second in the bottom of the ninth when slugger Willie McCovey lined to second baseman Bobby Richardson for the game and Series-ending out.

"That's when Terry got his revenge from [1960],'' Coates said, shrugging his shoulders and turning his palms skyward. "If [Giants third-base coach] Whitey Lockman doesn't hold Mays up at third, they tie that game up and who knows what happens.''

Dickie Noles always wonders what would have happened had the Philadelphia Phillies' Tug McGraw not struck out Kansas City Royals speedster Willie Wilson to end the 1980 World Series, or if the Phillies had turned to Noles just to get to the Series.

By then McGraw was running on fumes, gassed by working almost every day in the Phillies' grueling run to the National League East Division title when they outlasted the young, but talented Montreal Expos .

McGraw also was a workhorse in the Phils' dramatic NL Championship Series win over the Houston Astros, when the first four games in the five-game series went extra innings.

The Phillies fell behind Nolan Ryan 5-2 in decisive Game 5 at the Astrodome before rallying to take a 7-5 lead. After the Astros tied the game in the home eighth, Philadelphia wound up going ahead with a run in the ninth. But instead of bringing on a reliever like Noles to put Houston away and send the Phillies to the Series for the first time since 1950, manager Dallas Green called on Dick Ruthven, a starter.

"I'd been up in the bullpen the whole game,'' Noles remembered. "I'm mad at Dallas because he brought in a starter. ... I came up to the dugout and I'm hollering at him, 'How can you put (Ruthven) in the game before me?' And he's like, 'Shut up! We've got a Game 5 to play here!' I'm mad because I didn't get in the game. I was 23 years old. I wasn't thinking any other way.''

Noles finally got his chance to pitch in the postseason when starter Larry Christenson got roughed up in Game 4 of the World Series with the Phillies ahead 2-1 in the Series.

Kansas City led 5-1 in Game 4 after first baseman Willie Aikens slugged his second home run of the game and fourth of the Series. But Noles and the Phillies weren't happy with the way Aikens reacted to his most recent blast.

"He hit it so far, I watched it land myself,'' Noles said Thursday.

"When I turned around, I saw him still in the batter's box, so I hollered at him, 'Willie, you better start running!' He finally started jogging but he was going so slow that by the time he got to first, I went over to him with the ball in my hand and said, 'When you come up again, I'm gonna hit you right in the head.'''

Noles then setttled into a groove with what he recalled as "my best stuff of the season'' before facing George Brett, the Royals' top hitter, and Aikens in the bottom of the fifth inning.

Noles quickly got ahead of Brett, then whistled a fastball underneath Brett's chin and sending the Kansas City superstar sprawling and staring at Noles. As the home crowd rained boos down on Noles, Royals manager Jim Frey came out of the dugout screaming at Noles.

Phillies first baseman Pete Rose finally defused the situation, but the incident put a charge in the Phillies and gave them back momentum.

They didn't win Game 4, but came back to take Game 5 in Kansas City and Game 6 at a rabid Veterans Stadium for the Phillies' first World Series crown.

"What people don't remember about that game [6] is that Tug's on the mound and he's worn out facing Willie Wilson [with two outs and the Phillies leading 4-2] in the [top of] the ninth,'' Noles recalled.

"I'm in the bullpen and the bullpen phone rings and Dallas tells Irish [bullpen coach Mike Ryan] that I got the next guy if Tug doesn't get Willie Wilson out. I'm thinking, 'I'm gonna be the guy to get the last out. Of course, Tug struck out Willie.''

Garrett Stephenson's big league career lasted from 1996-2003. He broke in with the Baltimore Orioles, played two seasons with the Phillies and his final five campaigns with the St. Louis Cardinals.

In St. Louis, he experienced baseball's highs and lows. He was a member of two Cardinals playoff teams, but he injured his elbow while throwing a curveball to the Braves' Andruw Jones during Game 3 of their NLDS in 2000.

He sat out the entire 2001 season, but came back to play two more years with the Cardinals.

"I got to see anything and everything during my five years in St. Louis,'' Stephenson said. "A lot of players nowadays don't get to spend time with the same team. Having Tony La Russa as my manager and Dave Duncan as my pitching coach was a lot of fun. My family got to come with me. We stayed there. We had a great connection with fans there, a connection you don't have anywhere else in baseball. They know what you're talking about. That was the most impressive thing about playing in St. Louis."

Even though his only playoff appearance ended in disappointment, the big-game experience helped Stephenson prepare for his life beyond baseball.

"You have guys that can handle the pressure and some that can't,'' he said. "I've always told the kids I now teach to think back to the last place they had success. That helped me when I got to the big leagues.

I thought back to Triple-A. It helped me throughout my career.''

For Andy Ashby, getting to the postseason with the San Diego Padres in 1998 was a career highlight. Getting through the NL playoffs to the World Series was a bonus.

"You set the same goal every Spring Training," said the affable right-hander, who pitched for five teams between 1991 and 2004. "You want to have a great year, get through injuries and get guys to fill in, but the bottom line is to get to the postseason, win the National League pennant and win the World Series.''

The 1998 Padres accomplished all of their goals except for beating the mighty Yankees in the World Series.

"To put 25 guys together, make a goal, strive toward it and achieve it after going through a season's worth of ups and downs, you see what guys are made of,'' Ashby said. "To accomplish it, it's very special.''

"Special'' is how Ashby described what's going on in his native Kansas City this fall, where the Royals have advanced to the ALCS for the first time since winning their only Series crown in 1985.

"I cannot wait to watch them,'' he said. "It would be great to see another I-70 Series between the Royals and Cardinals, but I gotta stick with Boch [former Padres manager and current Giants skipper Bruce Bochy]. He's a great man and a great manager.''

The Giants-Cardinals matchup in the NLCS and Royals-Baltimore Orioles showdown in the ALCS might surprise some baseball experts, but not Ashby.

"You never know in the postseason,'' he said. "That's why I try to tell people, 'Don't ever sell yourself short. If you're counting yourself out, you're beat before you get out there.' That was a big thing with us in '98. Even if we were down five runs, we said, 'Hey, we're gonna score six.' Whether we did or not, we still had the attitude that we were gonna go out there and do it.

"These teams still playing are saying, 'Hey, we're here for a reason. We're pretty darn good.'''

A couple steps from Ashby, Tampa Bay Rays manager and Hazleton, Penn., native Joe Maddon -- the host for Thursday's gathering as it benefitted his Hazleton Integration Project -- was lamenting not being on a baseball field this October.

"I love to be here and I hate to be here at the same time,'' said Maddon, who has guided the Rays to the AL playoffs in four of the past seven seasons. "It's great to be here for this particular event, but I was an angry guy for a couple weeks for the fact we're not involved in the tournament. I hopes it serves as motivation for all of us moving into next year.''

When new heroes emerge. Just like they do every postseason.

Dave Seamon is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.