The seventh baseball game I ever attended should count twice. It began on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the Bronx and ended on Sunday evening.
I was there with my friend Matt for his 12th birthday. We were born two days apart (I’m older), and from 1988 to 1992, we celebrated our birthdays with a ballgame or two. If it was a Mets game, my dad would drive; if it was a Yankees game, Matt’s dad was the chauffeur. Nine days earlier, we’d been at Shea Stadium for an 8-0 Mets win over the Dodgers on my actual birthday. But the Yankees were on the road for Matt’s Sept. 4 birthday, and then school started.
So Sunday, Sept. 11, 1988, it was. Only, Matt’s dad threw out his back, so he enlisted one of his assistant football coaches to shepherd three preteen boys (Matt’s cousin Pat came along, too) to Yankee Stadium.
It was a beautiful afternoon, and we were giddy over getting to see a left-hander from the Jersey Shore making his 21st career start: Al Leiter was on the mound for the Yankees. The Tigers had a promising rookie, too, and I remember asking one of the guys, “How cool would it be to catch a foul ball thrown by Al Leiter and hit by Matt Nokes?” Not like we had a chance at catching a foul ball in the upper deck, but a kid could dream. (In fact, I’m still dreaming about catching a foul ball.) Alas, Nokes, a left-handed hitter, didn’t get the start against the southpaw pitcher.
The starter for the Tigers was Doyle Alexander, traded to Detroit the previous year for some kid named John Smoltz, who on this date was just seven games into his Hall of Fame career (with Atlanta, of course). Each team had a member of the 1986 Mets in the lineup: Ray Knight at third for Detroit and Rafael Santana at shortstop for New York. And between the two teams, three Hall of Famers got the start: Alan Trammell, batting third for Detroit; Rickey Henderson leading off for New York, with Dave Winfield batting cleanup.
Each starter breezed through the first in 1-2-3 fashion before faltering in the second. Tom Brookens‘ two-out double off Leiter gave the Tigers a 1-0 lead — but Alexander couldn’t get an out before losing that edge. Winfield led off the bottom half of the inning with a double and Jack Clark followed with a home run to center field. The Yankees added another in the fourth when Don Mattingly and Winfield opened the inning with back-to-back doubles.
Leiter ran out of gas, though. Facing the top of Detroit’s order in the fifth, he yielded a leadoff single to Gary Pettis and walked Luis Salazar on four pitches. After 94 pitches (three hits, four walks, two strikeouts), his day was over. Neil Allen came on and got out of the inning with two strikeouts and a flyball to deep left, but he couldn’t preserve the lead. A Fred Lynn single in the sixth and a Trammell home run in the seventh knotted the game, 3-3.
It stayed that way through the ninth … through the 14th (“Hey! They’re playing ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ again!”) … through the 17th …
In the 18th, Nokes (who came on as a pinch-hitter in the 12th and stayed in to catch) reached on an error by Mattingly. Brookens bunted him to second and Torey Lovullo singled him home. 4-3, Tigers, going to the bottom of the 18th.
At this point, Detroit’s bullpen ace, Willie Hernandez, 1984 AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner, was entering his third inning on the mound. Of course, back then, relief pitchers often went more than an inning. This was the 16th time that season Hernandez had gotten more than three outs in a game and the eighth time he had completed at least two innings — and four of those were three innings or longer.
He didn’t go much longer, though. He walked Henderson on five pitches, bringing up Claudell Washington. It was Washington’s death a few weeks ago that prompted me to go back to look at how this game unfolded, because all I’d remembered was Al Leiter on the mound and Claudell Washington at the plate.
With Henderson on first, a steal was certainly in play. But manager Lou Piniella called for a bunt, and Washington pulled the bat back for a called strike. Hernandez, perhaps expecting another bunt attempt, put one right where Washington wanted it.
“He just laid it in there,” Washington told reporters after the game. ”If I was pitching, that’s what I would have done.”
My memory of the home run is of John Sterling, on the Yankees’ radio broadcast, noting the length of the game and saying something to the effect of, “Open up your windows and shout it to your neighbors! The Yankees win!”
So I rolled down my window and started screaming to the cars on the Major Deegan that the Yankees had one.
We left after the 17th inning.
What could we do? We were seventh graders in the charge of a 20-something high-school gym teacher and assistant football coach who was responsible for three boys — one of them his boss’ son — to whom he wasn’t related. It was after 7 p.m., now a school night (for all four of us), and we still had a least a 90-minute drive home. The decision had been made in the 17th inning to leave if the game wasn’t over after the Yankees batted.Embed from Getty Images
“Washington’s name will never be the first to pop into an average fan’s mind when thinking about the Yankees’ million-dollar players,” Claire Smith wrote in the Hartford Courant. “But that is not the case among Washington’s teammates. ‘He’s been awesome, offensively and defensively,’ Don Mattingly said. ‘And boy, can he hit.'”
Washington’s name may not have popped into my mind much over the past 32 years, but when it did, or when I came across one of his baseball cards, I always thought back to that game and how we walked out before the walk-off.