Wednesday, August 18, 2010

And In A Single Moment.......

One half of one of the most storied combinations in the most storied of American sports died Monday. On October 3, 1951, if not in the gloaming then at the very least on the exit ramp leading to it, Bobby Thomson struck a home run known by its somewhat understated sobriquet, "The Shot Heard 'Round The World". Thomson danced a jig, Russ Hodges blew a blood vessel or ten and Ralph Branca hung his head and walked that long walk off the field (the Dodgers had to access the visitor's clubhouse via dead center field), forever linked to Thomson as the man who threw the pitch that catapulted Thomson into baseball immortality.

Branca threw. Thomson swung. And the Giants won the NL Pennant by a two games to one count in the best-of-three playoff. They won by virtue of a home run in the bottom of the final inning of what would have been the Giants' final game. Had a Hollywood screenwriter written it as a script, it would have been ridiculed as having been too heavy on the schmaltz. Of course, here in the 21st Century it would have been written by Nicholas Sparks, caused cavities to cause in the teeth of men everywhere and been an international best-seller before being turned into a film starring Greg Kinnear and Kevin Costner. But I digress....

For almost sixty years since that fateful day in early October in the middle of the last century, Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca resided on opposite sides of conjunction junction from each other. Thomson regaled for his feat and Branca lauded for the dignity he displayed not only in the immediate aftermath of throwing that fateful pitch but that he displayed on the countless times since when the two men made an appearance together. No more. On August 16, 2010 the man who manufactured the Miracle at Coogan's Bluff died. Bobby Thomson died in Georgia at age 86.

While there was undoubtedly some tension between the two men when it was revealed several years ago that the '51 Giants had fostered quite a home field advantage at the Polo Grounds - a rather elaborate system to steal signals from the visiting team's catcher (which may have aided the Giants in their frantic pursuit of the Dodgers, making up a 13 game deficit and forcing a 3-game playoff)-and the Dodgers intimated that they believed Thomson knew what was coming when he hit "The Shot" off of Branca (a charge Thomson always denied), Ralph Branca's reaction to hearing the news of the death of his long-time nemesis was classy and predictable. "I'll miss him," Branca said. "I mellowed over the years and we became good friends. I enjoyed being around him."

In the course of sixty years much has changed in all sports, including but not limited to, baseball. As is the same with everything I suppose, not all of the change has been for the better. Everywhere we look we see players applauded for what candidly appear to be displays of poor sportsmanship or at the very least examples of questionable class. For close to sixty years, in spite of having spent most of their mutual existence in glare of the spotlight generated by their singular, defining moment in the sun, neither Branca nor Thomson ever displayed anything other than respect and admiration for one another. On too many occasions to count, I either saw them on television, heard them on the radio or saw something attributed to one or the other of them in print expressing surprise that all these years later people still made so much of one pitch. Of one swing. Of one game.

And I saw Thomson on more than one occasion express his genuine appreciation for Branca's ability to talk about it and to relive it all the while with his eyes fixed straight ahead and his head up. He might have slumped and slunk his way off of the field at the Polo Grounds all those Octobers ago, but Ralph Branca never did anything other than walk like a man. It always seemed to me that Thomson understood what others might have failed to, which is that being a gracious winner is far easier than being a good loser.

I hope that being posterity's poster children put more than a bit of coin in each man's pocket over the years. Both are famous in baseball for a single moment as opposed to a career's worth. Proof that in one moment everything can indeed change.

And proof that in one moment maybe nothing changes. I suspect that Thomson and Branca each were the men the world came to know them as long before Branca threw, Thomson swung and the Giants won the pennant. Exposure to extreme light simply permitted them to grow bigger and made them easier to see. And to appreciate.

For what made their moment memorable was not the shot. It was the echo. We hear it still.


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