Unlikely heroes can rise in playoffs
There's been Reggie and Gibson, sure, but also less-heralded stars like Dent, Eckstein
Baseball as a meritocracy never is more evident than in the yin and yang of postseason play. For more than a century, Ordinary Joes have stepped through the shadows -- literally in some cases -- to carve legends of their own alongside the game's giants.
Don Larsen remains the rags-to-riches standard. The only pitcher to produce a perfect game in postseason history, Larsen was 3-21 for the Baltimore Orioles in 1954 before being shipped to the Yankees in a 17-player swap that winter. Larsen's 11 wins in '56 represented his career high, and he would retire with an 81-91 record across 14 seasons for seven teams.
Larsen, the journeyman, found perfection in the shadows of Yankee Stadium in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series against the formidable Brooklyn Dodgers. Like Yogi Berra, his batterymate that October day, Larsen wasn't one to over-analyze his work.
"Phooey on all this deep-thinking stuff," Larsen famously said in the afterglow of his 2-0 triumph. "I only shook off a couple of Yogi's signals. But he stuck with them, so I went ahead and pitched what he called."
The closest anyone has come to matching Larsen was Roy Halladay, who threw a no-hitter for the Phillies against the Reds in Game 1 of the 2010 National League Division Series. A two-out, fifth-inning walk to Jay Bruce on a full count was all that kept Halladay from giving Larsen a partner in October perfection.
Postseason play was dramatically altered in 1969 with the advent of league playoffs. From 1903-68, the World Series represented the entire postseason.
The first World Series champions -- the 1903 Boston Pilgrims -- subdued legendary Honus Wagner and his Pirates behind 28-game winner Cy Young. After a dispute between the upstart American and established National League, the 1904 postseason was canceled, but the 1905 World Series was the private domain of Christy Mathewson.
With cool precision, Mathewson, the game's first superstar, unleashed three shutouts in six days to drive the NL-champion New York Giants past the Philadelphia A's.
Young and Mathewson established a pattern of dominant pitching that held through into the 1960s. Even Ruth -- who twice had three-homer games in the Fall Classic for the Yankees while revolutionizing the game with his raw power -- first achieved celebrity as the overpowering southpaw for the champion Red Sox of 1916 and '18.
The first World Series MVP trophy was handed to the Dodgers' Johnny Podres, who blanked the Yanks in Game 7 in 1955, giving Brooklyn its first and only championship. Nine of the next 10 World Series MVPs also were pitchers, with Sandy Koufax claiming the award twice for the 1963 and '65 Los Angeles Dodgers.
The only position player to interrupt the trend was Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson in the extraordinary 1960 World Series. Rival second baseman Bill Mazeroski of the Pirates stroked the Series-ending home run in an epic Game 7, but Richardson's 12-RBI, 11-hit performance made him the lone player in history from a losing team to be named World Series MVP.
In 507 plate appearances that season, Richardson had 26 RBIs. He matched his one home run in the Series.
Kirk Gibson's magical home run in 1988 against Dennis Eckersley might stand alone in some minds, but crazy, unexpected things always seem to happen in October.
The hitters began stealing the pitchers' thunder during the longer postseasons that accompanied expansion across the sport's map. From 1969-84, the only pitcher claiming a World Series MVP award was a reliever -- Rollie Fingers of the 1974 A's.
When the "Miracle Mets" shocked the baseball planet in 1969, their World Series MVP, Donn Clendenon, was a man who didn't take a swing in the inaugural NL Championship Series against the Braves after he was acquired midseason from Montreal.
Getting a shot against Orioles lefties Dave McNally and Mike Cuellar, Clendenon, a .252 hitter with 37 RBIs in 72 regular-season games for the Mets, homered three times in four World Series games.
Al Weis, a .215 hitter with two homers in 103 games, went deep along with Clendenon in the Game 5 triumph that left Shea Stadium fortunate to survive the seismic celebration. Weis, who made Richardson look like Mickey Mantle, was 5-for-11 (.455) with four walks in the Fall Classic.
A true slugger for the ages, Reggie Jackson earned his enduring "Mr. October" designation as the World Series MVP with the 1973 A's and the '77 Yankees. The big man loved the pressure, but so did Gene Tenace -- Oakland's 1972 World Series MVP -- and Bucky Dent.
Dent, the Yankees shortstop, claimed the 1978 World Series MVP as the Bronx Bombers repeated as champions against the Dodgers. The Red Sox, in their heartbreaking Oct. 2 tiebreaker loss at Fenway Park, weren't the only team stung by Dent that autumn.
After hitting .243 with 40 RBIs in 123 regular-season games, Dent drove in seven runs with 10 hits in six World Series games, batting .417. There was no ALCS MVP in 1978 (not until 1980 were ALCS MVPs awarded), depriving Jackson of another trophy in his collection. He hit .462 with two homers and six RBIs in four games against the Royals.
Reds manager Dusty Baker was the first LCS MVP for the 1977 Dodgers. The clutch-hitting left fielder is credited with teammate Glenn Burke for originating the high-five after Baker's grand slam in Game 2 against the Phillies at Dodger Stadium lifted a soaring Burke out of the dugout to greet Baker with his right arm raised high.
He's often overlooked when the game's premier pitchers are discussed, but Oakland's Dave Stewart dominated LCS play like no one else has -- with the possible exception of Mariano Rivera.
Stewart, an intimidating mound presence, was 8-0 with a 2.03 ERA in 10 ALCS starts. He was the World Series MVP for the 1989 champion A's and MVP twice of the ALCS, in '90 with the A's and in '93 with the Series-champion Blue Jays.
Toronto's World Series MVPs in back-to-back title runs were low-profile catcher Pat Borders in 1992 and Paul Molitor in '93. A .368 hitter with six homers, 22 RBIs and 28 runs scored in 29 playoff games with the Brewers and Jays, Molitor is among the best postseason players ever.
Rivera is 4-0 with 13 saves and a 0.92 ERA in 33 ALCS appearances. "The Sandman" is even more lethal in Division Series play, as his microscopic 0.32 ERA in 39 games attests. Taking his place alongside the greatest postseason pitchers ever, Rivera is 8-1 with a 0.70 ERA in 96 games, covering 141 innings, with 42 saves.
Rivera, the 1999 World Series MVP, began the Yankees' dynasty of four titles in five years in '96 as the setup man for World Series MVP John Wetteland.
Derek Jeter, evolving from precocious rookie to polished superstar, has appeared in 158 postseason games, scoring 111 runs and driving in 61, with 20 homers. The World Series MVP in 2000, his career postseason line of .308/.374/.465 made the shortstop the Mr. October -- and Mr. November -- of his time with five championships with the Yankees.
A solid player often obscured in manager Joe Torre's star-studded cast, third baseman Scott Brosius rose to the forefront in 1998 to be the World Series MVP of one of history's best teams. Brosius, in 13 games, hit .383 with four homers and 15 RBIs, and Dent and Richardson welcomed a new member to the club.
The Red Sox chased off ghosts and the Curse of the Bambino in 2004 with their unprecedented rally from a 3-0 ALCS deficit against New York in large measure on the force of David Ortiz's bat. Big Papi homered in Games 4, 5 and 7 and drove in 11 runs in seven games.
It was reminiscent of Willie "Pops" Stargell's magnificent 1979 performance as the Pirates' World Series MVP in their inspiring comeback against the Orioles.
Reds hitters shouldn't be shy about seeking advice on dealing with October pressure from their coach, Billy Hatcher. He hit .404 in 52 postseason at-bats for the Astros and Reds, going 9-for-12 with six runs scored in the Reds' 1990 World Series sweep of the A's.
It's easy to see why the Rangers have missed suspended slugger Nelson Cruz. His 1.048 slugging percent in 48 plate appearances is the highest in LCS history.
When the Giants subdued Texas in five games in the 2010 World Series, their Fall Classic MVP with two homers and six RBIs was shortstop Edgar Renteria. He had three homers and 22 RBIs in 72 regular-season games. It was Renteria, at 20, who drove in the winning run in the bottom of the 11th inning of Game 7 for the 1997 World Series champion Marlins at the expense of the supremely talented Indians.
Last October, Pablo Sandoval -- a nonfactor two years earlier -- stole the World Series show as its MVP with his three-homer performance in Game 1 of the Giants' sweep of the Tigers.
When David Eckstein in 2006 and David Freese in '11 emerged as unlikely World Series Most Valuable Players for the champion Cardinals, it stirred memories in the heartland of the legend of Pepper Martin.
Stepping out of the shadows for St. Louis' 1931 champions, the 5-foot-8, 170-pound center fielder from Oklahoma batted .500 and ran wild on the bases as the Cards subdued the heavily favored Philadelphia A's of Jimmie Foxx and Al Simmons.
"Young man," Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the Commissioner, said to Martin in the aftermath, "I'd rather trade places with you than with any man in the country."
Martin, aware of the disparity between his $4,000 income and Landis' $60,000, had a ready response. "Fine, Judge -- if we can swap salaries, too," Martin said.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.