Looking Back: The Greatest Game Ever

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Greatest Game Ever

Twenty years ago today, on April 26, 1997, the Kansas City Royals clashed with the Oakland Athletics in the second of a three-game series at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. The game is largely forgotten in the annals of baseball history. Neither team had finished .500 the season before, and neither would compete in 1997, either. The Royals would finish the season 19 games back, while the A’s would wind up in fifth place for the second straight campaign. A West Coast, April game between bad small-market teams – no wonder it has been forgotten. Too bad, because that day, the Royals and Athletics played perhaps the greatest game of baseball ever, or at least the most entertaining.

I know; I was there.

The Backdrop

In 1997 I was a high school junior, and my dad and I took a trip to California to look at colleges. We had a free afternoon in our travels, and decided to do the red-blooded American thing and go to a ballgame. We had no problem securing tickets – according to Baseball-Reference, the official attendance was 21,097 that day, about half of the Coliseum’s capacity. The actual attendance was likely quite a bit less. We settled in for a pleasant, meaningless game.

Even though the A’s were a poor team, clubs always have hope in the air in April. Oakland was no exception. The kernel of hope came from the return of veteran slugger Jose Canseco, a star for Oakland from 1986 until he was traded during the 1992 season. Canseco’s post-A’s career was marred by injury, but now the prodigal son had returned. The move paired Canseco in the lineup with future home run king Mark McGwire, reuniting the “Bash Brothers” who had terrorized American League pitchers in the late 80s and early 90s. McGwire, too, had suffered through injuries in the years preceding, but if the pair could stay healthy, look out AL pitchers!

So the A’s made Canseco the focus of the team’s marketing campaign: He was on the cover of the program, and the first 5,000 fans through the turnstiles got a Canseco pennant. Don’t quote me on the promotion, but it was something like that. Fans broke out their old Canseco jerseys; there was excitement in the air.

The Game

Only half of the duo lived up to the billing. McGwire walked in his first trip to the plate, then hit a solo home run in the bottom of the third inning to stretch Oakland’s lead to 2-0, while Canseco fanned twice. The Royals scratched out a run in the fourth, then McGwire doubled leading off the fifth. Unfortunately, Canseco was unable to advance him, popping up to bring his line to 0-for-3, and the A’s stranded McGwire at second. Kansas City pushed across two runs in the seventh to take a 3-2 lead. In the bottom of the inning, McGwire walked with a runner on first and no outs. Canseco again popped out. Scott Spiezio came through, however, doubling in Rafael Bournigal. McGwire was unable to score from first though, and was stranded at third base.

The Bash Brothers would get another chance in the eighth. An error, a bunt, and a lineout put McGwire at the plate with two outs and a runner on second base. Rather than pitch to McGwire, 2-for-2 with a double, a homer, and two walks, the Royals intentionally walked him to get to Canseco, 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. Canseco battled through a nine-pitch at-bat but ultimately lined out to third base, and the rally ended.

The ninth inning went quietly for both teams, with Kansas City’s only damage a two-out walk, and the A’s going down in order.

Extras

Athletics pitcher Aaron Small set Kansas City down in order in the top of the 10th, and Oakland put together a rally in the bottom of the inning. Back-to-back hits by Brent Mayne and Damon Mashore put runners at second and third with one out, but Bournigal tapped back to the pitcher. Faced with McGwire again, the Royals again elected to walk him to pitch to Canseco. With the bases loaded and a chance to deliver the game-winning run, thereby atoning for a disappointing 0-for-5 day, Canseco grounded out to third base.

Kansas City got to Small in the top of the 11th. Bip Roberts doubled in the go-ahead run with one out, and Jay Bell followed with a two-out, two-run homer to give the Royals a commanding 6-3 lead. Fans started filing out of the stadium, but Dad and I had nothing better to do and decided to stick around for the bottom of the inning.

Spiezio led off the bottom of the 11th with a single, but Scott Brosius followed that up by flying out to right. That put Jason Giambi at the plate. At the time, Giambi was a relative unknown; 1997 was only his second season as a regular and he was still struggling to find a permanent position. I mostly associated Giambi with a leather-lunged fan from earlier in the game who chanted “Gi-am-bi” to the tune of The Cranberries’ “Zombie.” Hey, it was 1997.

The man who would win the 2000 MVP and become the “Giambino” parked a Jason Jacome offering in the left-centerfield bleachers, and suddenly we had a one-run game.

That brought the 29-year-old Matt Stairs to the plate. Stairs hadn’t started the game, but entered in the eighth as a pinch hitter, a duty he would perform frequently during his career. Like Giambi, Stairs wasn’t a household name at the time, but would later experience success well passed a player’s typical prime. He had been employed by the Montreal Expos and Boston Red Sox systems, broken up by a brief stint in Japan, but had never had 100 plate appearances in a season before signing with the A’s. He popped 10 homers in 137 at-bats in 1996, foreshadowing the power that would sustain a surprising career. Stairs started the 1997 season as an extra outfielder and pinch hitter, but by June he would earn an everyday job. From 1997 to 2006, he would bash 209 home runs with a 119 OPS+. One of those home runs came here, a game-tying shot that chased Jacome from the game.

That brought in Mitch Williams. While Giambi and Stairs were just building their careers, Williams, though only 32, was at the end of his. Before Charlie Sheen’s Ricky Vaughn character was graced with the nickname “Wild Thing” in Major League, Williams earned the moniker for his energy, unconventional delivery, offbeat personality, and, yeah, walking a bunch of guys. He averaged over seven walks per nine innings for his career, which looks like a misprint by modern standards. Still, he finished in the top 10 in saves every season from 1989 to 1993, posting a 119 ERA+ in that span of time. Unfortunately for Williams, the 1993 season culminated in allowing one of the most famous home runs in World Series history, Joe Carter’s series-winning walk-off for the Toronto Blue Jays. Wild Thing struggled through the next couple seasons in 1994 and 1995 injured and ineffective, to the tune of a 7.34 ERA in 30 ⅔ innings with the Houston Astros and California Angels. He spent the 1996 season in the minors, posting a 7.43 ERA for two Philadelphia Phillies minor league affiliates. In 1997 with the Royals, his career was on life support.

Williams retired Mayne on a groundout to bring Kansas City within an out of escaping the inning, but true to form he walked Mashore. Bournigal reached on an infield single, putting runners at the corners with two out – and Mark McGwire at the plate. For the third consecutive time, Kansas City walked McGwire to bring his fellow Bash Brother, Canseco, to the plate.

Bases loaded, two out. Canseco dug in against Williams. The most fearsome slugger of the late-80’s against one of the most dangerous relievers of that time period, meeting almost a decade past their respective primes. Both had a lot at stake. Williams was trying to resurrect his major league career. Canseco, on a day celebrating the hope that the reunited Bash Brothers might bring to Oakland baseball, was looking to redeem himself after a brutal day: 0-for-6 with two strikeouts and nine runners left on base. Williams got the early upper hand, pounding in a called strike and coaxing a foul ball on his second offering. With an 0-2 count, he reared back to finish off Canseco…

and threw a wild pitch. The winning run scored.

Epilogue

Williams could not resurrect his career. He made only four more major league appearances, the last on May 10. The Bash Brothers, too, couldn’t resurrect their magic. Canseco left the A’s after the season and played for four different teams in his last four years. Nowadays, he is probably most closely associated with the steroid accusations he levied at fellow players, including McGwire and Giambi, in his 2005 book Juiced. McGwire departed the A’s even earlier than Canseco, dealt at the trading deadline to the St. Louis Cardinals for three players of little consequence. In 1998, he broke Roger Maris’s long-standing single-season home run record with an unbelievable 70 homers, but he, too, has become widely associated with steroid use.

The Athletics franchise fared better. Legendary general manager Sandy Alderson stepped down after the season, but that only ushered in successor Billy Beane’s Moneyball era. Despite a puny payroll most seasons, Oakland has made the playoffs eight times since 2000, a mark bested by only three franchises. Giambi and Stairs proved to be key components of those successful A’s teams, combining for 188 homers over the next three seasons. The Royals would take considerably longer to right their ship. In 1997 they were a dozen years into a playoff drought that would span 29 seasons, but they won the 2015 World Series, finally rewarding the long-suffering fans of Kansas City.

The game itself has largely been consigned to the dustbin of history, a sparsely-attended, forgotten April game between two forgettable teams. But my dad and I still talk about it two decades later, and I imagine anyone who stuck it out until the end remembers the game as well. The contest may not have meant anything, but it was memorable, entertaining, and just plain strange. For my money, it was the greatest baseball game ever played.


Follow Dave on Twitter @davearchie

Featured image courtesy of Albert Dickson.

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