Autumn Closing In

“Strange how the night moves,
with Autumn closing in.”

Night Moves (click to listen)
Bob Seger (1976)

How many times have you had your heart broken?

You’re not too old or jaded to remember the feeling, right? Can’t focus, can’t eat, can’t sleep … your thoughts flowing toward the object of your affection like a mountain stream moving downhill, sometimes rushing fast and other times just trickling along … but never ceasing and never really under control. Yeah, you remember.

I don’t know how many times my heart’s been broken, but I sure remember the first time.

I remember because an eight year old’s heart is a tender thing. But, damned if that gray-haired old Jim Northrup cared. Neither did big, fat Mickey Lolich, or the gambler Denny McClain, or moon-faced Bill Freehan, or any of the other dastardly Detroit Tigers of 1968. Forty-five years ago this week (October 10th, 1968, to be precise), my favorite boyhood baseball team – the glorious and unbeatable St. Louis Cardinals – were beaten by the inglorious Tigers. Boy, did I cry.

It all came down to Game 7.

My Cards, defending champs from 1967 (having disposed that year of the pompous Boston Red Sox and giving me bragging rights over some cousins and an uncle who should have known better than to pull for the Beantowners), looked like they’d cruise to another World Series championship. In Game 1, Bob Gibson – my favorite player, the best pitcher I’ve ever seen, he of the glowering, glistening, menacing countenance – struck out a Series record 17 (!) Tigers in a 4-0 shutout. Gibby came back in Game 4 and pitched another gem, yielding a single run (off a homer by Northrup) in a 10-1 victory. That the portly lefty Lolich kept winning games for the Tigers mattered little to me. Gibson would go in Game 7. Gibson would win Game 7. Gibson was the best.

The other Cards were good too. Fast Lou Brock in left, smooth Curt Flood in center, solid Roger Maris in right, baby bull Orlando “Cha-Cha” Cepeda at first (so good he needed two nicknames), light-hitting Julian Javier at second, non-hitting Dal Maxvill at short, stout Mike Shannon at third, athletic Tim McCarver catching … wake me up from a dead sleep any day of the year and I can name that roster for you. Of course Gibson would be perpetually on the mound for me. He set a modern day record in 1968 with an earned-run average of 1.12 and went 22-9. How the man lost 9 games is a mystery worthy of national security investigation.

On the day of Game 7, I had a problem. It was called third-grade.

Yes, all World Series games were played during the day in 1968. The first World Series night game wasn’t until 1971, and it would be 1987 before day World Series games would become wholly a remnant of the past. So, I found myself sitting in Ms. Nicholson’s class thinking of my team – of my first love – of my Cardinals. No radio, no television, no smart phones … just a fall Thursday that crept past minute by slow minute. Why my mama didn’t let me skip school that day baffles me. I should have been crafty enough to feign an illness. Finally, the bell rang, I dashed to the bus, leaped off at my stop, sprinted through our front yard, and burst into the house and turned on the television.

NO!

It was the 9th inning and the Tigers led Gibson 4-0.

NO!

Lolich had shut down the Cards yet again. The impeccable Flood had misplayed a 7th inning Northrup line-drive into a triple to break a scoreless tie (the god-like Gibson had only given up one hit going into the seventh). A Mike Shannon homer in the bottom of the ninth gave me a glimmer of hope (and made me realize the Cardinals would surely have won had I only the foresight to skip school and watch the whole game – after all they outscored the Tigers 1-0 while I was tuned in), but it was not to be.

The Cardinals lost. Bob Gibson got beat. My heart got broken for the first time.

Thankfully, an eight-year old heart heals fast. A few weeks later, a slouching quarterback wearing white shoes would lead the upstart New York Jets through the playoffs and eventually to a win over the stodgy Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. I had a new team and a new hero – Joe Willie Namath and the Jets.

As Autumn closes in, seasonally in north Georgia during this beautiful October and metaphorically in my life, it is strange how the night moves. While I still like the Cardinals, the hometown Atlanta Braves became “my team” in the 1970s (when they were bad by the way). The Pittsburgh Steelers (when they got good) eclipsed the New York Jets the day Franco Harris caught the Immaculate Reception and remain my NFL team to this day. College football already had a grip on me by 1968, and soon the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Georgia Bulldogs would become my lasting sports passions.

Sports reflect life in so many ways … in both there have been a few heartbreaks along the way for all of us. I still remember my first one.

Boy, I don’t like the Tigers.

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