Baseball world reflects on past Game 7s
Luminaries such as Mex, McCarver and Wizard of Oz reminisce
ST. LOUIS -- This is what you dream about as a kid, playing in Game 7 of the World Series. It is finally about to happen again in 2011, and Ozzie Smith said he missed it a little bit.
The last such moment came in 2002, an especially long drought by the Wizard's standards. It was a practically routine existence for the Hall of Fame shortstop in the 1980s, when he won with the Cardinals in 1982 and lost with them in '85 and '87.
"One of the toughest things to do is win a Game 7 on the road, so when you have a chance to win a Game 6, you better put everything into that," Smith said Thursday as the Cardinals stunned the Rangers, 10-9, in 11 innings to force one last showdown on Friday night at Busch Stadium. "There's always pressure to do well. You just hope you are able to go out there on that particular night and do whatever it took to get you here.
"Just having the opportunity to play in a World Series my first year over here was real special. Getting the last out, with Bruce Sutter throwing that 85-mph fastball by Gorman Thomas," Smith continued with a laugh, "that's a great memory, you know? I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to do it three times. Some guys spend their whole career and never get a chance to experience that, so it's pretty special. It's always pressure-packed.
"Anytime you're the only game in town, when everybody is focused on you, you can be a hero and you can be the goat. You want to be more the hero than you are the goat. It's one of those things where you try and enjoy the moment, you work hard and try to play as consistently as you can, and try to control the nerves. Everybody's nervous. The great ones are able to control them."
Jim Sundberg wanted nothing to do with a Game 7 in this Series. He is senior executive vice president of the Rangers and their longtime former catcher, and he wanted to get out of St. Louis in six. But he's been through it before, as catcher for the 1985 Royals who clinched at home in Game 7 against Smith's Redbirds. Sundberg had an RBI single and caught Bret Saberhagen in that 11-0 rout.
"It's very exciting, very tense," Sundberg said. "The most nervous I ever was in a uniform was the day of the seventh game. By the time I got to the park, I was fine, but it's very tense. It's kind of numb when the game starts. You're trying to eliminate any possible emotion that might be negative.
"It's just the magnitude of the game. It's the game that, when I was in second grade sitting in school and dreamed about being a Major League player, made me think how cool it would be to play in the seventh game of a World Series someday. It's a huge event. It's a historical event in sports, really."
Tim McCarver caught in a couple more Game 7s than Sundberg -- in 1964, '67 and '68. The Cardinals beat the Yankees in the first Series and the Red Sox in the second, but even with Bob Gibson starting, they lost at home to Detroit in the '68 finisher.
"I only played in Game 7s," McCarver said. "You try to make it appear that it's like any other game. You know it's not. In '68, in retrospect, we were so sure that nobody could touch Bob Gibson, we thought he was invulnerable. And it turned out that Games 5 and 6 could have been played with a little more urgency. 'Nobody's gonna beat Gibson.' That was our mindset. And of course, Bob, in all of those, made Game 7s more interesting because he started all three of them. That's pretty good, when you have Bob Gibson at his best starting three Game 7s."
GOING THE DISTANCE
Now McCarver is about to broadcast his first World Series Game 7 for FOX since 2002 in Anaheim.
"I remember how to do it," McCarver said with a smile. "I think the most exciting Game 7 that I remember was 2001. I can't think of anything as exciting as that, with [Curt] Schilling and [Roger] Clemens going against each other and [Mariano] Rivera coming in at the end of the game, and all the things that happened that will be indelibly etched in my mind until the day I die. It's amazing how the game brings out the unusual parts of the players. I haven't figured that out.
"It's the last game of the season. It'll be the 180th game for the Cardinals, 179th for the Rangers. That's a lot of baseball. That's six solid months of games congealed."
Mike Shannon was McCarver's teammate for the three World Series in the '60s, and he said the feeling as a player is "no different than [Games 6 or 4]. There's no doubt everybody dreams about [Game 7]. But you just want to win the World Series, that's all. If it's the fifth game, sixth game, seventh, whatever, it doesn't matter. Winning is all that counts."
David Eckstein played in the last Game 7 of a World Series, and before throwing out the ceremonial first pitch on Thursday night at Busch Stadium, he recalled what it was like being part of that with the Angels.
"Coming off the night before, when it was such a big win, with the [Scott] Spiezio homer, it felt like destiny," Eckstein said. "You couldn't wait. You wished you could just play the next game right after the game ended. You felt so good about the situation. It was the anxiousness for the game to start. That was the big thing. We were well-prepared, couldn't wait for it to go."
MLB Network analyst Al Leiter started Game 7 for the Marlins in the 1997 World Series, giving up just a two-run single to Tony Fernandez in the third inning. Florida won it all on Edgar Renteria's walk-off single in the 11th. How does Leiter describe the feeling of Game 7?
"Dream come true? You dream about it," Leiter said. "The proverbial in the backyard. The pretend crowd noise. Your buddy's at bat. 'Game 7, World Series, I'm facing ... whoever.'
"It's nerve-racking, but yet you're trying to have the ability to eliminate all the exterior distractions and think about this pitch, this moment and do your thing. Knowing that, as a starting pitcher, if you're awful, there's a good chance your team doesn't win. I love it. I love the whole one-and-done. Your back against the wall ... it's beautiful."
After nearly a full decade without one, Leiter said a World Series Game 7 "would be great for baseball."
"Really, even if you don't like either one of these teams, if you're just a baseball fan, this has been awesome," Leiter said. "Every single game, other than [Albert Pujols'] historic night, had a closer on the mound with the implication that the game could either be won or lost. Beautiful."
Jim Kaat pitched a quarter-century in the Majors, but made it to a single World Series. He started three games for the Twins in the 1965 Fall Classic against the Dodgers, who won in seven. Kaat was on the mound for Game 7 against Sandy Koufax, a classic pairing.
"My Game 7 memories are not as dramatic, nor did they attract the attention of today's Game 7s," said Kaat, now an MLB Network analyst and MLB.com blogger. "Not as much media hype. Before Game 6 was over, I had already put myself in a mindset that I would be facing Sandy Koufax in Game 7. I really didn't feel any pressure beyond a normal game. I had a normal night's sleep and breakfast, and drove to the stadium like any other day game.
"It was all Koufax -- a man among boys, all fastballs after the fourth inning. It was a helpless feeling knowing we could do nothing but sit and watch the master at work ... 2-0 final. We scored one earned run off Koufax in 24 innings over eight days."
Keith Hernandez played in Game 7s with the 1982 Cardinals and '86 Mets. His teams won both.
"The finality is there, of course, in two ways," Hernandez said. "Either way, you go home. Guys say the playoffs are more about pressure because there's still so much to be gained -- you want to get to the World Series. But when you get to the Series' seventh game, [the pressure] is the same as trying to reach the Series. You're so close to it. You know it's possible. No matter how you match up against your opponent, or who's favored, all you have to do is win one game.
"The team that's home, I think, has an enormous advantage. I was home both years, and we won. We lost the seventh game [of the National League Championship Series] in L.A. in '88. If we were home, I don't know.
"I don't remember saying [in 1986], 'We won 108 games, and now if we lose, the season's a bust.' ... But, what, 15 teams had won 108 games? That was a great accomplishment. Losing the Series that year would have been disappointing after all we went through to get there, but it wasn't going to undo everything."