Gary Pettis hit a fly ball in 1986. It went to the wall. Red Sox left fielder Jim Rice caught it at the wall. If it were 20 inches higher, it would have cleared the wall.
If it were 20 inches higher, Gary Pettis would have become one of the great legends of October baseball and maybe alter the lives of many prominent figures in baseball history.
As it was, Pettis played for over a decade in the majors and is now what I would call a Baseball Lifer. He is currently a coach with the Astros and has coached in several organizations. The native of Oakland was an Angels pick out of Laney College and became one of the best defensive outfielders in the game.
And yet he was so close to immortality.
Pettis broke in as a call up with the 1982 Angels. By 1984, was as an all glove no bat centerfielder. He batted .227 and posted a .632 OPS. But when he DID get on, he would fly. He stole 48 bases in 1984 and 56 in 1985.
1985 was also the year he won the first of his 5 AL Gold Gloves. He struck out way too much, usually over 100 times a year. And he did not walk enough and had little home run power.
But man he could cover ground in centerfield. Seeing that he was often flanked by not exactly fleet of foot Brian Downing in left and Reggie Jackson in right, Pettis being able to field the whole outfield well was no small contribution.
In 1986, he hit a career high 5 homers and batted his best ever .258 while stealing 50 bags. The Angels won the AL West that year and faced a solid Red Sox team in the ALCS.
In the opener against invincible Roger Clemens, Pettis walked to extend the second inning which turned into a 4 run rally. In the third, Pettis slapped an RBI single off Clemens to make it 5-0. His single off of Clemens in the 8th knocked him out of the game.
In a lineup that featured Reggie Jackson, Wally Joyner, Brian Downing and Doug DeCinces, it was Gary Pettis who drove in the final nail to Roger Clemens.
In Game 3, with the series tied at a game a piece, Pettis came up in the 7th with the Angels leading 2-1 with 2 outs and a runner on first. Pettis launched home run off of Oil Can Boyd, knocking him out of the game with the Angels up 4-1. They would hold on to win 5-3.
Pettis continued to be an offensive force in Game 4. He already had 2 hits when he came up to bat in the 9th with 2 on and 1 out and the Angels down 3-1.
He lifted a fly ball which Jim Rice misjudged and it flew over his head. Dick Schofield scored to make it 3-2 and pinch runner Devon White made it to third and Pettis was at second. It was a key hit as a 2 out hit by pitch of Brian Downing tied the game.
In the 11th, Pettis put down a sacrifice bunt that moved the runner to second and came around to score on Bobby Grich’s walk off single.
The Angels were up 3-1 in the ALCS and Pettis was the star. He was batting .500, had an on base percentage of .563, amazingly slugged .786 and an OPS of 1.348. He was lining up to be the Series MVP.
The Angels looked to clinch the pennant in Game 5 with ace Mike Witt on the mound. Pettis singled in the third and walked in the 7th, coming around to score to make the score 5-2 Angels. It remained that going into the 9th.
And then Donnie Moore gave up the homer to Dave Henderson and the Red Sox had the lead. BUT that wasn’t the game winner.
With a pinch runner on first and nobody out in the bottom of the 9th, Pettis, the team’s hottest hitter, was called on to bunt. He did so. Times were different in 1986. Rob Wilfong hit a game tying single but the Angels could not push across the pennant winning run.
The game went into extra innings. In the bottom of the 10th, Pettis came up with 2 outs and Jerry Narron on first.
Steve Crawford, still on the mound and getting outs, was on the mound.
Pettis hit a high drive to left field. It pinned Jim Rice to the wall with his arms extended up. Rice, a great player, was not as fleet of foot as he once was and probably would not have reached much higher above the wall than he did.
If the ball was maybe 20 inches higher, it would have cleared the wall. Pettis would have had the walk off homer to win the ALCS.
Instead the Angels lost the game and were blown out in Games 6 and 7 in Boston.
It would have been “The Gary Pettis Game.” Baseball history would have been different.
First of all Gary Pettis would have become a baseball legend, AND he probably would have won the series MVP.
Dave Henderson’s homer would have been one of those dramatic moments from a losing team, like the Endy Chavez catch or the Rajai Davis homer.
Gene Mauch would have finally won the pennant. Who knows? If that ball was 20 inches higher, Gene Mauch might have been elected to the Hall of Fame.
Gene Autry, the Angels owner, would finally have the pennant he wanted all those years in Southern California.
Reggie Jackson would have another team in the World Series, solidifying his Mr October monicker with another Series and another trip to New York no less.
Bobby Grich and Doug DeCinces would have had their glory moments in Anaheim after many solid years.
On the other side, if the ball was a few inches higher, the Red Sox are not in the World Series and Bill Buckner is remembered as a good solid borderline Hall of Fame player who played hard and played hurt.
Entire fan bases would be different and the identities of giants in the game would have been altered if only the ball was 20 inches higher.