Category Archives: Make Every Win A Walk-Off

Remembering Rickey Henderson’s earliest walk-off moments

To kill time and have a little fun this offseason, I’m covering the walk-off beat. I’m documenting stories of not-well-remembered baseball walk-offs. Scan through the other ones I’ve done and you’ll see stories on the likes of players ranging from Ted Williams and Adrian Beltre to former 1969 Met Ed Charles. Is there someone you’d like me to write up? Send me a tweet

I was listening to an ESPN 30-for-30 podcast about the end of baseball legend Rickey Henderson’s pro baseball career. With MLB teams unwilling to sign Henderson, he decided to play in the Golden Baseball League, an independent league based on the West Coast.

The podcast detailed how Henderson fared and what it was like to watch an icon’s final days in that 2005 season (spoiler alert: Henderson had a .456 on-base percentage and San Diego won the league championship).

But what if I told you about a neat tidbit from the earliest days of Rickey Henderson’s MLB career? In 1979, he debuted with an otherwise highly-forgettable Oakland Athletics squad that went 54-108 under Jim Marshall (Billy Martin improved the team by 29 wins in 1980).

One of the first times that Rickey was really being Rickey was in a three-week stretch in late August and early September, when he hit .338 with an .829 OPS and seven stolen bases in 17 games. The Athletics went 10-7 in that run.

Among the games was a 4-3 win over the White Sox in which Henderson was 3-for-5 with three extra-base hits and three runs scored. He noted after the game that each hit came against a different pitch Henderson led off the 10th inning with a triple to right center against a Mike Proly slider. After a pair of intentional walks, Jeff Newman hit a ground ball that was booted by the White Sox shortstop, scoring Henderson with the winning run.

How cool is this quote from a humble Henderson after the game? “There are some things I want to achieve and my teammates are helping me as much as (they) can, but I have to bear down to make it happen.”

Here’s the punchline: That game took place on September 7, 1979.

That’s the same day ESPN made its debut.

PS: Henderson recorded his first career walk-off RBI the next day, drawing a bases-loaded walk against Proly in the ninth inning. Alas, not many were there to see it. The attendance for Henderson’s first walk-off RBI was 1,596.

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Bo Jackson knows walk-offs

If you’re my age, you probably remember Bo Jackson pretty well. You recall his amazing runs at Auburn, his untackleable Tecmo Bowl character from his Raiders days, or his home run to open the 1989 All-Star Game. He was a phenomenal athlete and a huge star whose career was cut way too short.

I was wondering if Jackson had ever hit a walk-off home run. He did not disappoint. In fact, it came the Saturday before that famous 1989 All-Star Game.

Jackson’s Royals trailed the White Sox 3-2 going into the bottom of the ninth inning, after George Brett had gotten doubled off second base on Jackson’s flyout to end the eighth inning. But Jackson and Brett’s teammate, Danny Tartabull picked them up with a game-tying home run against White Sox closer Bobby Thigpen in the ninth inning.

The game stretched to the 11th inning where Jackson led off against John Davis and on a 2-1 pitch, he hit a home run that cleared the fence in left center by more than 30 feet. It was his 21st home run of the season. Brett was the first to greet Jackson after the home run. You can see it here.

It was good timing too. The Miami Herald ran a 2,000-word feature by Bob Rubin on Sunday spotlighting Jackson’s phenomenal athletic ability (it asked if he was from the planet Zork). This was Bo Jackson at his peak. There was talk he could go 40-40 (he finished with 32 home runs and 26 steals).

“Watching Bo,” Mark McGwire said in the article, “he just belongs in another league.”

It’s funny to note that the next day, Jackson came up in the bottom of the ninth in another walk-off scenario, with Brett on second and one out in a tie game. He was intentionally walked. The next batter, Willie Wilson, hit a game-winning single. I suppose White Sox manager Jeff Torborg laughed when he watched Jackson homer in the All-Star Game and thought to himself “at least he didn’t do that.”

Bo Knows Minutiae
– Jackson is better known for a walk-off denial. That came in the form of a 300-plus foot throw on the fly from the left field warning track on Scott Bradley’s double, to nail Harold Reynolds at the plate in the bottom of the 10th inning of a tie game against the Mariners in Seattle on June 5, 1989.

“There is no one on the planet who can make that throw, but Bo did,” said Royals catcher Bob Boone.

By the way, in batting practice that day, Jackson hit a 480-foot home run.

“I’m a better defensive player than offensive,” Jackson said afterwards.

If you want to see the throw, click here.

– The Royals needed Bo Jackson that season. They were 79-54 that season when he started, 13-16 when he didn’t.

– Bo Jackson never had a walk-off touchdown in the NFL. Of his 18 scores, 16 of them came in the first three quarters.

– If you had asked me which team Bo Jackson finished his MLB career with, I would have said the White Sox. I would not have guessed the Angels, for whom he concluded with in 1994.

– Bo Jackson’s penchant for striking out makes some of his numbers rather comical. He had 20 strikeouts in 28 at-bats against Mark Langston, 13 in 24 at-bats against Roger Clemens, 11 in 20 at-bats against Randy Johnson and 12 in 20 at-bats against Nolan Ryan. He did hit a 461-foot homer vs Ryan though.

Yo Adrian (Beltre)!

July 10, 1999 is an awesome day if you like walk-offs. There were six, among them the Mets beating the Yankees on Matt Franco’s two-run single against Mariano Rivera and light-hitting Omar Vizquel clubbing a home run to beat the Reds.

There was also one by second-year Dodgers third baseman Adrián Beltré against the Mariners. It’s significant because it was the first of his long major-league career.

It was a good pitcher’s duel between Kevin Brown and John Halama, with each allowing one run – Halama in seven innings and Brown in eight. In the bottom of the ninth, Jose Paniagua got Gary Sheffield and Eric Karros out to start the inning, but Devon White and Raul Mondesi each walked on 3-2 pitches. Beltré singled home White on the first pitch he saw.

“It’s important to me that the team looks to me in situations like that,” Beltré told reporters after the game, a pretty good quote for a 20-year-old.

Beltré’s team looked to him for walk-offs many times in a career that ended with his retirement earlier this week. In 18 of them, he came through. The second one, a home run, also came against Paniagua and the Mariners on July 7, 2001, nearly two years to the day of the first one.

Among the other highlights:

– On September 22, 2001, Beltré’s two-run single gave the Dodgers a 6-5 win over the Diamondbacks (I’ve previously mentioned my affinity for 6-5 final scores). The Dodgers staged two pretty good comebacks in this game. They were down 3-1 in the ninth inning before Paul Lo Duca hit a game-tying home run against Randy Johnson. Then they were down 5-3 in the 11th in the moments leading up to Beltré’s hit.

The hit was big at the time because it moved the Dodgers within three games of the Diamondbacks for first place with 13 games to go. The Dodgers didn’t catch them, but still pretty cool.

– On August 20, 2003, Beltré hit a two-run home run against Rocky Biddle to give the Dodgers a 3-1 win over the Expos. I like it because of the Rocky/Adrian connection (I hear Creed 2 got good reviews).

– Beltré’s last came on July 25, 2016 against the Athletics. He had four hits and drove in the Rangers’ last three runs of the game, the first with a home run in the seventh inning against John Axford to cut the Rangers lead to 6-5, the second a two-run bomb against Ryan Madson with two outs in the ninth to win the game.

“What superlatives do you want me to put on it?” asked then-Rangers manager Jeff Banister.

There are a lot of superlatives you could put on Adrián Beltré. The walk-offs are just a small piece of his excellence, but one you might have overlooked.

This walk-off is holiday-appropriate

The 1908 baseball season is best known for Merkle’s boner, a baserunning mishap by a player on the New York Giants that cost them a game that had they won, would have given them enough wins to win the NL pennant. Instead, the Cubs triumphed over the Giants in the season’s final game to take the flag. They’d go on to win the World Series.

But there was a lot of other stuff that led up to that point, including one game I just read about it that I’ll share here.

It was the Giants’ home opener against the Brooklyn Dodgers (then known as the Superbas) on April 22, 1908. It was a highly eager crowd of more than 25,000 in the Polo Grounds, a challenging group to keep in line because the stands were not equipped to hold that many people. In fact, the some of the crowd overflowed onto the field in center field (this is a totally unimaginable scenario today).

This led to some interesting obstacles. A Superbas player hit what should have been an inside-the-park home run into the mass of extra spectators, but
It was ruled a ground-rule double. The fans on the field grew larger in volume as the game went along, forcing the outfielders to play shallower than usual. The Giants benefited from this in the eighth inning when Fred Merkle (for whom the boner was named) hit a double into the fan contingent, a ball that should have been caught, according to the wonderful resource that is the Brooklyn Eagle.

The Superbas led 2-1 after 8 ½ innings. Merkle hit another of what was called a “phony double” in the ninth, but was thrown out at the plate later in the inning trying to score the tying run.

The game came down to Mike Donlin’s at-bat with a man on base. Donlin was a hitting star. He finished his career with a .333 batting average. He had returned to the team after sitting out a season in a contract dispute. He would later take an interest in theatre and perform in plays and movies.

Anyways, Donlin had a flare for the dramatic on this day, as he clubbed a two-run home run against Harry McIntire. More than 5,000 fans stormed the field to celebrate the win and make the romp around the bases with Donlin, who arrived home safely.

“The Giants had all the luck, all the time,” wrote one Eagle reporter.

So why am I sharing the story with you today of all days?

Donlin was a cocky fellow who walked around with a healthy strut. That earned him an appropriate nickname.

Turkey Mike.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Brooks Robinson’s last home run was a pretty cool walk-off

I like the idea of writing about a notable player’s notable walk-off every so often, so today I picked a notable player I like –- Orioles Hall-of-Famer Brooks Robinson.

When I was 12, I went to a baseball card show on Staten Island where Robinson was signing autographs. Since my dad was a vendor at the show, we got a freebie, and I got an autograph and (at Robinson’s insistence) a picture with Robinson. He couldn’t have been nicer. I’ve heard he’s that way with everyone.

The other story I like comes from Curt Gowdy, whom I got to interview when I worked at ESPN. He said he went on a hunting trip with Robinson once, and when they got back to the hotel, Robinson paused for a moment. Gowdy asked what was wrong, and Robinson said something to the effect of “I can’t believe we got beat by the Mets in 1969.”

So this brings us to Robinson and walk-offs, and he may have had one better than this, but I really like this one, so this is the story I’ll share.

In 1977, Brooks Robinson was 39 and at the end of an illustrious 23-year career that was best known for his 16 Gold Glove Awards for unbelievable defense. The Orioles had a young potential star at third base in Doug DeCinces, so Robinson was limited to a reserve role. The Orioles were playing the Indians, a team managed by former Orioles legend Frank Robinson, on April 19. Brooks Robinson hadn’t played in a week.

He watched from the bench as the teams battled to a 2-2 tie through nine innings. In the top of the 10th, the Indians scored three times. They could have scored more had Buddy Bell and Andre Thornton (two good hitters) not struck out with the bases loaded to end the inning.

Those turned out to be two important outs. In the bottom of the 10th, Ken Singleton singled and Doug Decinces walked to bring the tying run to the plate. Eddie Murray struck out, but Lee May followed with a single that scored Singleton. Earl Weaver, perhaps playing a hunch, called on Brooks Robinson to pinch-hit for lefty-hitting Larry Harlow against lefty pitcher Dave LaRoche (Adam’s father).

Bill Tanton, a columnist for Baltimore’s Evening Sun estimated that only hundreds remained from a crowd of 4,826. They saw an epic at-bat, one with seven foul balls and a 3-2 count. It kind of had the feel of Kirk Gibson against Dennis Eckersley, but with smaller stakes. And it ended similarly, with Robinson homering (to left field instead of right field) to win the game, and raising his fist in celebration.

“I feel like a little kid every time I put the uniform on,” Robinson told reporters after the game.

It was the 268th and last home run of Robinson’s major league career. He’d have 44 more at-bats before retirement. This was a good at-bat to remember him by.

Brooks Robinson Minutiae
– Brooks Robinson hit eight walk-off home runs, which I can say with 99.99% certainty is a Browns/Orioles franchise record. Baseball-Reference’s data dates to 1925 and there’s no one from the Browns within striking distance. Eddie Murray ranks second with six.

– Brooks Robinson had a walk-off RBI in Game 6 of the 1971 World Series. He hit a sacrifice fly in the 10th inning against the Pirates. Future Indians manager Frank Robinson scored the winning run.

Rodney Scott an unlikely king of the walk-offs

Forget the MVP. Here, we’re concerned with the MVW — the Most Valuable Walk-Off’er.

Because there are no rules here, we’ll give it to the player with the most times recording a walk-off RBI in a season. That means for 2018, your MVW is Mets infielder Wilmer Flores, who had 4 walk-off RBIs.

The great thing about the MVW is the total randomness of it. One year it could be Mickey Mantle, Another, it could be George Mitterwald. The last 3 players to lead the majors in walk-off RBI (in reverse order) are Flores, Mark Trumbo and Carlos Correa with 4.

Four walk-offs in a season typically leads the majors. That did it in five of the last six seasons, with 2014 the holdout (Anthony Rizzo, Ryan Howard and Josh Donaldson had 3). Five is unusual. Six is the holy grail.

Baseball-Reference.com has walk-off data dating to 1925. In the 94 seasons, there have been four instances of a player recording six walk-off RBIs in a season – Rodney Scott in 1979, Cory Snyder in 1987, Wally Joyner in 1989 and Andre Ethier in 2009 (note the common bond of the ‘9’s).

I’m familiar with the work of Msrs. Joyner and Ethier, but not so much with Rodney Scott, so I decided to take a quick look (Here’s a great bio). Scott was a very fast infielder who played in the majors for four teams in eight seasons from 1975 to 1982. His career got jump-started with the 1977 Athletics, who liked to run, and for whom Scott stole 33 bases but was caught 17 times. He got better with experience, stealing as many as 63 bases in a season for the Expos. His nickname was “Cool Breeze.”

Scott had seasons in which he hit .261 and .282, but he sputtered after that, dropping to .238 in 1979, .224 in 1980 and .205 in 1981. In 1979 and 1980, he was an everyday player, despite an OPS that barely cracked .600. And yes, Scott had six walk-off RBIs in 1979. They were the only ones of his career.

Scott had three walk-off singles, a walk, a hit by pitch, and a home run. The latter was cool. It was the third and last of his career and it came against the team for whom he played the previous season (he was traded by the Cubs to the Expos in December 1978). It came in the 12th inning against Willie Hernandez on Aug. 1. The quote from the Ottawa Citizen is cool too.

“I guess they’ll be dancin’ in Chicago tonight,” he said. “Seriously though, I just got good wood on a pitch and out it went. I’m no slugger. I was only trying to hit the ball and bring (Warren Cromartie) around. It was a good win. Sure I guess it was dramatic, but I like to believe the most dramatic times haven’t come yet. That’s when we win the 1979 World Series.”

Alas the 1979 Expos came up a little short, finishing 2 games out in the NL East. But Scott didn’t. His prolific mark has been matched, but yet to be surpassed since. Scott doesn’t get much recognition for this (in the words of Rodney Dangerfield “I don’t get no respect”), but we’re here to salute him.

Rodney Scott Minutiae
– Rodney Scott had only one fewer walk-off RBI than Ted Williams. Makes sense, given that everyone probably wanted to pitch to Scott, but no one wanted to pitch to Williams.

– Scott’s six walk-off RBI were twice as many as any other player had that season and one short of the total by the rest of his teammates combined.

Juan Marichal: 1 walk-off HR, No Cy Young Awards (really!)

A week ago, we did a reminiscence of a great walk-off moment for Willie McCovey, one which came against the Mets on September 17, 1966. To remind you, McCovey beat the Mets with three home runs, the last of which was a walk-off

The Giants starting pitcher that day was Juan Marichal. Marichal’s next start came against the Pirates four days later. And neither Willie McCovey nor Willie Mays was going to be the walk-off hero of this one.

This is the first time I’ve ever looked at a box score for this game and I can tell you that it is totally bonkers. Some context: Both teams were trying to chase down the Dodgers in the National League. The Pirates were 1 ½ games out with 11 to play entering the day. The Giants were five games back with 10 left.

The teams were scoreless through six innings. In fact, the Pirates pitcher, Tommie Sisk, had a no-hit bid to that point.

The Pirates broke through for three runs in the seventh on Donn Clendenon’s three-run home run. The Giants answered with two runs in their half (yes, they broke up the no-no), and tied the game in the eighth inning on McCovey’s bases-loaded walk.

Marichal was still in the game in the ninth inning, but he must have been fatigued. The Pirates put runners on first and third with two outs for Bill Mazeroski. Mazeroski’s single plated the go-ahead run and an error by Mays (gasp!) brought in a second run.

The Pirates led 5-3 going into the bottom of the ninth. I love a 5-3 score going into the bottom of the last inning, because that’s what the score was when the 1986 Mets rallied past the Red Sox in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

That game had an epic ending. This one did too.

Jesus Alou led off the Giants’ ninth with a single against Pirates closer Roy Face. The next batter, catcher Tom Haller, followed with a game-tying home run. Face got the next batter up, which brought up Marichal.

Giants manager Herman Franks let Marichal bat, which in this era seems like a rather ridiculous decision. But at that time, it wasn’t. Marichal was a good-hitting pitcher that season. He had career highs in batting average (.250) and RBIs (15) and as the Oakland Tribune noted, he fared alright in batting practice games with his pitching teammates. But at that moment, Marichal had 590 career at-bats and had hit one home run.

When this at-bat was done, Marichal had two career home runs. Yes indeed, he hit a walk-off home run on a first-pitch slider to give the Giants a win.

“I’m not a good hitting pitcher,” Marichal said afterwards. “But when they make a mistake on me, I can hit the ball. I know I have the power to do it. I never thought I could hit a ball that hard”

I like bringing this up on Cy Young Award day for this reason. Marichal is one of the best pitchers to never win a Cy Young Award. He had an epic prime from 1963 to 1969 but was always beaten out, whether it was by Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, or Tom Seaver. In Marichal’s one “off-year” in that stretch, one of his teammates won the award (Mike McCormick, 1967).

Marichal may not have a Cy Young Award, but he is in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and he did do something that (guessing) 99.9 percent of pitchers have never done – hit a walk-off home run.

Marichal Minutiae
– Marichal was involved in a lot of great walk-offs. Besides this one and the previously-mentioned McCovey one, he was the winning pitcher in a 16-inning duel with Warren Spahn won on a walk-off homer by Mays. He also lost a 1-0 game in 14 innings to the Mets on a Tommie Agee home run in 1969. Marichal came to ESPN to appear on Baseball Tonight once and talked about it. I remember he said of Agee’s homer “I can still see it.”

– The last walk-off home run by a pitcher was hit by Craig Lefferts of the 1986 Padres. I talked to Lefferts for a story for ESPN.com in 2011. Here’s the link.