National broadcasts of playoff games are supposed to be, at least in theory, neutral. Now we all know that is almost impossible.
Announcers want there to be drama. And the drama that keeps people watching a game and builds up the drama of a series is good for the network, the announcers and the game.
Sometimes there is built in drama in a team advancing and history being made. In 1984, the regular season looked like a great old fashioned World Series was going to take place. The Detroit Tigers made a mockery of the AL East from the start and with Sparky Anderson in charge of a young, star studded squad, Detroit was the team to beat.
Meanwhile the Cubs, who hadn’t played in October since 1945, fought hard tooth and nail with the Mets for the NL East. A Tigers vs. Cubs World Series would have been heaven sent.
They would be playing in the same ballparks as the 1945 series (and the 1935 series for that matter.) Two old school teams, wearing traditional uniforms (at least the home unis) and two great sports cities would clash.
As with every championship caliber team, the Cubs got contributions from everyone, from their stars to their role players. 23 year old Henry Cotto was one of the member of that Cubs squad. The Bronx native who went to school in Puerto Rico was a speedster and a solid defensive outfielder. Between 1980 and 1983, he shot up through the Cubs system. By 1984, he was in the majors.
He mainly came off the bench as a pinch runner and defensive replacement. Veterans Gary Matthews, Keith Moreland and Bob Dernier did the bulk of the starting but Cotto would give manager Jim Frey some young legs off the bench.
In his second ever start of April 8th, against San Diego, he got 3 hits and played all 10 innings in the Cubs win. On August 7th, he got 4 hits in a critical win against the Mets.
The Cubs clinched the NL East. As the Tigers made quick work of Kansas City in the playoffs, it was Chicago’s turn to dispatch the unheralded San Diego Padres for the pennant and have the World Series everyone was waiting for.
Wrigley did not have lights, but the World Series games were scheduled for the evening. Cub fans could not wait to force the Commissioner to change the TV schedule to play World Series games in the afternoon.
The Cubs clobbered the Padres in Game 1, 13-0. Cotto came off the bench and singled as everyone got into the fun. After a Game 2 victory, the Cubs went to San Diego, needing only one win in 3 games to go the World Series for the first time since 1945.
The Padres saved face with a Game 3 win. In Game 4, the Cubs went for the kill. Neither starter, Scott Sanderson and Tim Lollar, made it out of the 5th, making it a battle of the bullpens. The Padres took the lead in the 7th and a tiny bit of panic started coming over the baseball network powers that be. The narrative that sells was slipping away.
When Keith Moreland reached base in the 8th representing the tying run, Cotto came in to run. With the Padres 4 outs away from forcing a deciding Game 5 (and NBC executives gulping wondering how to sell San Diego in the World Series), Cubs catcher Jody Davis doubled off of Rich Gossage. Cotto came around to score and the game was tied.
Lee Smith worked out of trouble in the 8th. But the Cubs put two men on and 2 outs against reliever Craig Lefferts in the 9th.
Cotto came up and was hit by a pitch, loading the bases for Ron Cey. A base hit would give the Cubs the lead and be 3 outs from the World Series. Cey grounded out.
In the bottom of the 9th, Tony Gwynn singled off of Lee Smith and Steve Garvey came to the plate. On a 1-0 pitch, he hit a deep drive to right. Cotto chased it to the wall. He jumped up onto the top of the wall, arm stretched. But the ball was well over his head.
Steve Garvey hit a dramatic walk off homer. It forced a deciding game and gave Cub fans and TV executives a hollow pit in their stomach.
The TV announcers, a strange group of future Hall of Famers, Don Drysdale, Reggie Jackson and Earl Weaver, called the shot. Almost right away Drysdale started praising Cotto and his effort to catch the ball.
“Watch this effort, Earl!” exclaimed Drysdale. “If that isn’t major league, I don’t know what is!”
To this day, that bit of analysis in the wake of an unbelievably dramatic homer struck me as odd. I am not one to scream “bias”. I rolled my eyes a lot over the years when people accused announcers of New York and Boston bias. But it was pretty clear that they were throwing something to the many Cub fans and the legion of people who did NOT want to see a Padres pennant.
An inning prior, the Cubs had knocked out Gossage and had the bases loaded and a seasons former LA superstar, Cey, ready to slug them into the World Series. Instead it was ANOTHER former LA superstar, Garvey who got the big hit. So why not praise the backup Cubs outfielder who stretched his glove out to catch a ball 10 feet over his head?
As it turned out, it would be his last game as a Cub. The Padres did indeed win the pennant in Game 5. In the off season, he was dealt to the Bronx, kind of a homecoming, as he gave the Yankees valuable depth on their bench. Between 1985 and 1987, he went back and forth between the Yankees and Triple A Columbus. In 1988, he was dealt to Seattle and saw regular playing time along side Ken Griffey Jr and Jay Buhner.
He bounced between the Mariners, Marlins, Japan and the White Sox organizations before finally hanging up his spikes. Currently he is a minor league manager in the San Francisco Giants organization.
But for one moment of exaggerated effort, he personified hustle, big league desire and the realization that the hopes for a dream World Series were flying out of reality’s reach.