When you're young and in love dating is a balancing act. You want to keep the other happy by doing things that interest them, and then occasionally, you'll get to do something that might interest you.
How many times have you said, “Sure honey, I'd love to go to that movie with you” when you know it is another cliché romance movie? But you go to movies like that sometimes in order to have a good argument so you can do something cool later.
That happened for me in 1977.
Back in May of 1977, I was dating a young lady that I worked with at a local restaurant. We had good times together going to concerts and those wonderful movies. But on Memorial Day I had an idea to do something different. I asked my girl if she would be up for a Tribe game that night.
“The Indians? At the Stadium?” she asked like she was mentioning a trip to the dentist.
You didn't have to plan very far in advance to go to an Indians game. There were about 80,000 seats in Cleveland Municipal Stadium. That's about 70,000 more than required for most Indians games. About 13,000 would show up that night.
After letting her parents know where we were going, she let me know that we were on for the game. But there was one catch.
“We've got to take my brother”, she said.
“We've got to take Joe,” she explained.
Joe was her 13-year old little brother. I had no problem with Joe. He was a good kid. But little brothers could put a crimp in your style on dates.
We got to the Stadium and did the usual process of buying general admission seats and then sneaking down to something better. We sat on the first base side. The Indians were playing the Angels. The match-up would be a good one with the Angels Frank Tanana taking on Dennis Eckersley.
The Indians drafted Eckersley in the third round of the 1972 draft. They knew they had something special with him as he made his MLB debut in 1975 at age 20. They initially used him in the bullpen, but quickly moved to the starting rotation. By 1977, his long hair, cocky attitude and fastball made him a fan favorite.
The Indians were wearing their blood red jerseys with white pants that night. I always thought that combination looked good. Much better than the all red. The Indians lineup that day featured young players like Rick Manning, Duane Kuiper, and Buddy Bell. My favorite happened to be “the big man”, Rico Carty. The Angels lineup featured established professionals like Joe Rudi, Bobby Bonds, and Don Baylor.
In the first inning Eckersley issued a walk to somebody named Frank Solaita. He would be the only walk Eckersley gave up. But not the only base-runner.
In the bottom of the first, Indians second baseman Duane Kuiper hit a triple to center field off Tanana. Then Jim Norris followed with a sacrifice bunt that scored Kuiper. That was the only run of the game.
As the game went along, I was aware that Eckersley hadn't given up any hits. But it wasn't spoken. I would try to point out things to my date. She tried to be interested. Her brother Joe was running around here and there, getting us hot dogs with delicious stadium mustard. But as the innings went by, a buzz was building. The crowd realized Eckersley was pitching a gem.
In the eighth inning slugger Bobby Bonds led off. Eckersley stuck him out, but the third strike was a wild pitch that enabled Bonds to reach first. Next up was Don Baylor. Eck got him to hit into a 6-4-3 double play. The crowd was roaring now. Everybody could feel it.
For the bottom of the ninth, extra photographers and new media showed up and were waiting in the wings. Everybody was on their feet. Even my date was into it.
Bobby Grich led off and struck out. Pinch hitter Willie Aikens flied out. The place was ready to explode. Next up was Gil Flores. He was slow to get set and in the box and was trying to kill time. As the story goes, Eckersley yelled at him to get in the box. He told him the photographers were here for him, not Flores. Eck stuck him out. That had to be.
It was pandemonium on the field and in the stands. The Indians had a crappy team, so other than something like a no-hitter there was little to celebrate. That game remains the most memorable baseball game I was ever at. It was also the best date I ever had.
EPILOGE: The girl I took to that game eventually became my wife. But she still would rather see a chick flick than go to a game. Her little brother Joe is now one of the most respected doctors in the area.
Dennis Eckersley was traded to the Red Sox in 1978. He had a good career as a starter, but reinvented himself as a closer for the A's. He was the dominant closer of the era and won the AL MVP in 1992. He is now a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.