ONE of the most popular aspects of baseball's playoffs and World Series is the phenomenon of "little guys" rising to the occasion while some of the superstars fall on their faces.
Barry Bonds (until he broke out of it in the latter half of this year's National League Championship Series) was the most glaring recent example of the latter. The Pittsburgh slugger was the regular-season Most Valuable Player in 1990 and runner-up in '91, but you never would have known it from the playoffs.
Bonds failed at the plate both years, as the Pirates went down to defeat. This year, as the probable league MVP once again, he followed the same pattern for the first four games.
On the other side of the coin are lesser-known players like last year's rival World Series second basemen Mark Lemke of Atlanta and Chuck Knoblauch of Minnesota, who stole the show from most of their highly publicized teammates. Knoblauch didn't get a chance for a postseason encore, but Lemke did - and he picked up right where he left off a year ago, hitting .333 to rank among the batting leaders once again.
Now it's the playoff-winning Toronto Blue Jays and Atlanta Braves in the World Series starting Saturday night in Atlanta, where undoubtedly we'll have more of these October Cinderella stories so dear to the hearts of fans. But while conventional wisdom has it that these postseason role reversals are par for the course, is this really the case?
Well, yes and no. Any baseball aficionado can recite the litany of little guys who came through in a big way: Billy Martin, for instance, overshadowing his famous New York Yankee teammates by hitting .500 with a record 12 hits in 1953. Gene Tenace, then a utility player for Oakland and now a coach with Toronto, hitting more home runs in the 1972 Series than the entire Cincinnati Big Red Machine combined. Or the most famous home runs in postseason history, hit not by sluggers Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, or Wil lie Mays, but by Bobby Thomson, who lifted the Giants past the Dodgers in their 1951 playoff, and Pittsburgh's Bill Mazeroski, whose ninth-inning blast to beat the Yankees in Game 7 in 1960 is still the only home run ever to win a World Series on the spot.
The list of big stars who failed to rise to the occasion is equally long. Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox batted .200 in his only World Series in 1946. Duke Snider hit but three singles in 21 at-bats in 1952, and his Brooklyn Dodger teammate Gil Hodges went an even more incredible 0-for-21 the following year. More recently, the "Bash Brothers," Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, hit for a combined .056 average as the favored Oakland A's lost to Los Angeles in 1988.
Baseball seems to be a game of streaks that tend to even out over a long season - but not in any six-or-seven-game period. Every team has a few big stars and a lot of less-well-known players, so it's logical that in a short series, some of the former will be off their top form while some of the latter will catch fire at the right time.
Big hitters are marked men, even more so in these short, critical series than they are all season long. But with all the extra attention, many superstars rise to the occasion. "You could look it up," as Casey Stengel used to say.
The first World Series I covered, in 1967, comes to mind. The big offensive stars were St. Louis Cardinal Lou Brock (.414 with 8 runs and 12 hits) and Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox (.400 with 3 home runs and 2 doubles - an incredible .840 slugging percentage). The MVP was St. Louis pitcher Bob Gibson, who won three games, including the decisive seventh. All three players are in baseball's Hall of Fame.
Johnny Bench hit .533 to dominate the 1976 Series, and Reggie Jackson was even more awesome in 1977, hitting .450 and smashing a record 5 homers in the Yankees' victorious effort. No unsung heroes there!
When you put it all together, things probably come out about the same in postseason play as they do in any other one-or-two-week period: Big stars make most of the noise, but may slump at the wrong time, while a "little guy" steals the spotlight.
As we say in the news business, though, "Dog Bites Man" isn't likely to get quite as big a headline as it would the other way around. So the Cinderella stories and the failures of the big stars will always get top billing - even if they don't really happen as often as they seem to.