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Rich Camarillo

January 29, 2016

Rich Camarillo

Even in a 46 to 10 thrashing there is hope. It doesn’t seem that way in retrospect, but as you’re living through it—and this goes for life too—you’ll constantly be buoyed by possibilities, even as they transform more and more into preposterous myths.

For example, the Patriots took a lead in Super Bowl XX, and after they relinquished it a few minutes into the game they clung to a tie for a few minutes more, and then when the lead was given up it was only by a margin of another field goal. With the first quarter almost complete, the Patriots were down just 6 to 3.

It was my first day of college, and I was out of my mind on throat-shredding hits of potent marijuana from my new friend Tom’s chest-high Graphics bong by that point, so I can’t tell you exactly how much I believed the Patriots could scratch out an improbable win, but knowing my general approach to life—which despite all my complaining is actually pretty hopeful—I’m sure I still believed such a win could happen.

I do remember believing in Steve Grogan. The swashbuckling Grogan—whose specialty in my memory was faking handoffs and then bootlegging for big yardage before either being demolished by angered defenders or, occasionally, scooting all the way in for thrilling touchdowns—had been the Patriots quarterback for as long as I’d been a fan of the Patriots, but by the time of Super Bowl XX he was backing up the functional uninteresting football bureaucrat Tony Eason. I had envisioned before the game that the Patriots would fall behind and that the old pro would then enter the fray to lead a stirring comeback. I got teary-eyed even imagining it, such was my love for stories of stirring old-guy comebacks.

So judging from when Grogan entered the game. I still had hope in a Patriots’ victory even after the Bears had upped their lead to 20 to 3 and, furthermore, had shown ample evidence that the Patriots moving the ball even inches forward would be hard to do. Tony Eason’s last series underscored this perfectly, even suggesting that keeping from moving backwards would be a tall order:

James run left, no gain (Dent).

Collins sweep right, loss of 2 (Marshall).

Eason sacked, loss of 11 (Wilson).

And for a moment, there really was some hope. The Patriots recovered a fumble and Steve Grogan ambled onto the field and, after getting his first pass batted down, completed two passes in a row, for eight and six yards, respectively, achieving a New England first down, which in the context of the game at that point was something like me now, at age forty-seven, dunking on Bill Russell in his prime. The legendary Bears defense quickly shut down any further progress on that drive, and then the Bears scored a field goal on the next possession, upping the lead to 23 to 3.

Grogan completed another 8-yarder to set up another first down on his team’s next possession, and then came a sack, a penalty against the Patriots, and another sack to set up a third and 33. The notion of a third down with 33 yards needed to make a first down pretty much sums up the feel of that Super Bowl in retrospect, but as it unfolded I’m sure I took heart in Grogan’s next play, a 24-yard pass completion, even if it didn’t really do any good.

I probably took even more heart in the following play, a 62-yard punt from the fellow shown at the top of this page, Rich Camarillo. As it turned out, the punt set a new Super Bowl record. More crucially, it pinned the Bears down at their own 4-yard-line. Just stop them now, I prayed, or whatever it is you do when you are hoping life works out despite your current status as a pot-addled seventeen-year-old boob starting college halfway through the year on a mountain in Vermont, just stop them now, and Grogan is within bootlegging distance from the end zone, and after that maybe the team gets on a roll and the Bears start to get tight, etc. This was an incredibly short-lived series of thoughts, as I was reminded of today while perusing the play-by-play:

Camarillo 62 punt downed at Chicago 4-yard-line.

McMahon 60 pass to Gault deep right (Marion).

Soon after that historic-punt nullifier, the Bears punched it in for another touchdown, and it was 30 to 3, the kind of score that has an insurmountable steepness to it. Hope settled down inside me, losing itself in the more generalized tangle of inebriation and confusion. Those were some aimless days.

Sometimes I miss them. But for the most part I guess I have to admit that I’m now in a stage of my life where every day I’m consciously flooded with thoughts of gratitude. I’ve got two kids, four and a half and one and a half, and every day they make me think of Bill Murray’s line about having kids from Lost in Translation:

Your life, as you know it . . . is gone. Never to return. But they learn how to walk, and they learn how to talk . . . and you want to be with them. And they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life.

Even with that in mind, or perhaps especially with that in mind, I still believe life is more or less like being on the short end of a 46 to 10 thrashing. I’m not trying to be gloomy, but how else could it be otherwise when the deal is that you suffer (everyone agrees on this—Jesus, Buddha, etc.) and then it’s over (and what happens after that point isn’t the subject of this essay)? This is not to say that life is not without hope or delight or not to be clung to with deep gratitude. The problem isn’t finding things to be grateful for but finding a way to voice that gratitude. This is why I took some time today to thank Rich Camarillo, record-setting punter, one-rung-helmet aficionado, beacon of hope in the face of the relentless sacking that is life.

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Rolf Benirschke

January 21, 2016

Rolf Benirschke

Three things about this card that I love:

The single bar on his helmet. You still saw these when I was a kid. I think Billy Kilmer, the Washington quarterback, was the last non-kicker to wear one. When he was gone it was just the kickers who wore them. What was the point of them? I guess I love things that are pointless and gone.

The rain gear. Can it even be called a coat? I remember these too from my childhood, slightly modified garbage bags draped over the shoulders of kickers and quarterbacks, giving them a brooding, melancholy air as they stood there on the sidelines, waiting. Really the air that they gave off was of impending defeat. You don’t imagine a player flinging one off to charge onto the field for a winning play but instead to watch time run out, powerlessly, and then to move with a slight, lurching limp out of sight.  I don’t know what this says about the things I love.

The name of the player. Kickers all seemed to be from some far off land in my childhood, such completely separate entities from their hulking teammates that it seemed almost a requirement that they speak a different language and hew to odd, Old World customs. This was not the case with Rolf Benirschke, who was born in America, but I don’t think I knew that. I lumped him with all the other guys named Garo and Efren and Fuad and figured he sat aloof in the locker room at halftime eating pickled herring and reading Kierkegaard.

He almost perished in 1978, did Benirschke, but Raiders’ All-Pro Lester Hayes apparently saved his life by tackling him with such customary savagery that it caused the kicker’s ribs to shatter. He was rushed to the hospital where it was discovered that, unrelated to the hit from “the Molester,” Benirchke’s colon was in an advanced state of distress due to Crohn’s Disease. Benirschke nearly died despite the lucky medical intervention, losing 57 pounds to drop down to 123 pounds, perhaps attaining the status of the NFL player closest in weight to nothing since the days of Walter “Sneeze” Achiu. He regained his health and went on to set all kinds of Chargers’ records for scoring and, just after his football career came to an end, briefly hosted Wheel of Fortune. Vanna White turned the letters for him.

What a day I had, is all I really wanted to tell you. It was like any other day, which means I worried about dying, marveled at the beauty, hilarity, and exasperating qualities of my two boys, four and a half and one and a half, felt guilty about not staying in close enough touch with other loved ones, worked pretty hard at my job, and got involved in an email thread with some friends in which the discussion focused on what rock star deaths have affected us the most over our lives but then evolved into an argument about the precise level to which the Eagles (the band, not the football team) suck. Near the end of the day I bought some gum from a vending machine. It had gotten hard from sitting in the machine a long time, a little like the gum that used to come with these cards.

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Vada Pinson and Ron Hodges

October 26, 2015

Vada PinsonRon hodges 78World Series preview

Tonight after my wife and I got our two boys to sleep I came down to our carpeted basement and cleared out a space in the thick tangle of baby toys and toddler toys and flipped these two baseball cards at the wall, best four out of seven.

Earlier, while I was dancing the younger boy to sleep, I was wondering about baseball, specifically about whether there’s any other player in history besides Bret Saberhagen who, arguably, centered one franchise’s best moment and another franchise’s worst moment. I was seventeen years old and living in Boston when that first moment occurred, Saberhagen’s shutout victory as a 21-year-old in Game Seven of the 1985 World Series. I’d gotten my GED earlier that summer, and a few months later, in January, I’d realize I hated working and start college. Boy, those were some in-between days. I was working a few hours a week in an ice cream store, playing solitaire Strat-O-Matic, smoking resin shavings, going to matinees of Teen Wolf and Fletch. Sometimes I’d write in my journal. It was starting to dawn on me that this, writing, was really the only thing I’d want to do with myself upon my expulsion from childhood. Saberhagen’s win inspired a column by a Boston Globe writer, probably Bob Ryan, that I really liked. I cut it out and put it in my journal, something I never did before and haven’t done since. I carried it with me for some time, but I don’t have it anymore. I’m not sure why I cut out the article. I loved to read about sports, but I knew I wasn’t going to be a sportswriter. I wanted to write The Catcher in the Rye or On the Road. Still, something about the article—I think it was probably an ode to how baseball keeps us young forever, something like that—spoke to me. I was pretty fucking lost right about then, and yet not that far from when life had made sense, back when I was a kid collecting these cards.

Anyway I went off to college and studied writing, avoiding writing about sports because it didn’t seem, I don’t know, literary. I think most young writers are dumb assholes in this way, avoiding who they are in hopes of being someone else altogether. When college was over, sports edged its way onto my pages as I wrote a novel about kids playing basketball in Tompkins Square Park. I finished it in the fall of 1991, and I spent quite a while hoping I could get it published and begin immediately living entirely off my writing. By 1993, this dream had pretty much run its course, and I was back to another long round of in-between days, this time in New York City. I worked some hours a week in a liquor store, read Dostoyevsky and the sports pages, watched late afternoon Charles in Charge reruns with religious constancy, if not fervor, and every few days drank cheap beer with my friends at the International Bar for hours, through the night, until the sun started pushing up over the gray buildings in the east like a bruise.

I went to Mets games periodically. Somewhere in there Bret Saberhagen threw bleach at some sportswriters. It epitomized the depths of one of the most miserable seasons ever by any team, not just in terms of how bad they were or even how disappointing they were (this was the high-salaried team that inspired a book titled The Worst Team Money Could Buy) but in just how unhappy they all seemed to be, the absolute opposite of the idyll of joy captured, to my young hungering ear, at least, by the Globe column on Saberhagen’s World Series heroics.

My baby fell asleep in the carrier I wear on my chest as I was thinking about all this. I sing to him as I’m getting him to sleep, mostly stuff I make up off the top of my head. Today’s song was pretty bad, insufferable treacle, but true.

I’m so glad you’re my baby
I’m so lucky you’re my baby
I’m so grateful you’re my baby
You’re my little sweet baby boy

A few refrains of that and he was zonked out on my chest. There was a time when I didn’t think I’d ever escape the feeling of wanting to throw bleach on the world. To sting it, harm it. To get it to back off. To wipe it clean, drain it of color. How is it even possible that the world didn’t listen?

When my baby was asleep I handed him to his mother, who went to lay him down, and I came downstairs to figure out who was going to win this year’s World Series. The problem was, I was now thinking about all those Mets game, not just the ones I saw as a kid that may or may not have featured Ron Hodges but all those games in the ’90s when I was in-between this and that.

Once I rode the subway to Shea with my friend Pete. We’d gotten our hands on free tickets to a rainout-generated single-admission doubleheader that was already in progress between the Mets, who were nearing the end of another bad season, and some other team whose identity escapes me now. Nothing was left to be decided. Rosters had expanded to include players who’d never played in the majors before and never would again. We arrived as the doubleheader opener was in its last innings. Pete asked a security guy near the entrance the score. We had been hurrying. I don’t know why.

“Losing,” the guard told us.

“Yeah?” Pete said. The three of us stood there. It seemed like someone should say something.

“Who’s pitching?” Pete said.

The security guard shrugged. A few people were leaving.

“Some guy,” the security guard said.

Some teams win for a fallen teammate, such as, most famously, the Gipper. I want the Mets to win this World Series for Some Guy. Whoever he was.

And because I want them to win I’m going to have to recuse myself from any sort of rational or even irrational prediction. Instead, I’m going to bring this all the way back to the beginning, to when I was a boy alone in my room with my cards.

So I flipped these two cards, best of seven. It went back and forth. I admit I was trying to will Ron Hodges to a win without sabotaging my Vada Pinson throws. But you are looking at Game 7. Hodges made it tough, but Pinson swooped past him, graceful to the last, and stood up tall against the wall.

Edge: Royals, in seven

hodges and pinson

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Rick Reuschel and Ron Hodges

October 17, 2015

Rick Reuschel 77Ron hodges 78NLCS preview

Predictions are asinine. This probably holds true for everything, but it’s particularly applicable to baseball, in which even the best teams lose forty percent of the time. The nature of the sport resists certainty of any kind. Everyone on the field is in the middle of a baffling slump or an even more inexplicable hot streak, and either direction is subject to change immediately. A great team might have a sixty percent chance of beating an average team on a given day, but put two good teams against one another, and it’s a coin flip.

Or maybe I just don’t want to predict this series. I don’t really want to see either team lose. I have a connection to the Mets that goes back decades, to my once-a-year trips with my brother from our home in Vermont to New York, where our father, with reluctance and without looking away from his New York Times throughout the game except to grimace up at the low-flying air traffic into LaGuardia, took us to a game every summer, where we saw Ron Hodges and the rest of the lackluster late 1970s Mets get trampled. I was a Red Sox fan and will always love that team the most, but somehow the Ron Hodges era will always also reside deep in my psyche. In many ways, those Mets, the echoing malaise of empty Shea, sunshine and loss and a scattering of strangers, reflect my persona much more than the star-studded 1970s Red Sox. And after that childhood orbiting of the Mets I lived in New York for years, through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, and forged my closest adult friendships. Most of these friends are Mets fans. I guess anyone could use a win, but since these people are my friends I know what a win would mean for them. I don’t want the Mets to lose.

****

I live in Chicago. I’ve been here for eleven years now. It’s as long as I’ve ever lived anywhere, at least consecutively, but I still feel like I’m from somewhere else. The again, I’ve always felt that way no matter where I’ve lived. Anyway, last winter I was digging the car out of deep snow and cursing, and a helicopter started hovering loudly above me. It was unpleasant, but it’s not like I was enjoying the task without it. I kept shoveling and cursing. My wife stuck her head out the window of our condo and yelled at me.

“There was a shooting at the McDonald’s on Clark, the gunman’s on the loose,” she yelled. I realize her line of dialogue contains a comma splice, but that’s an appropriate recreation of how the words came out. Gunmen on the loose don’t engender felicitous punctuation.

“You done shoveling, daddy?” my son yelled when I came inside.

“Not exactly,” I said.

“Let’s play!”

Snow and nearby gunplay and awareness of comma splices and my yelling family: that’s my Chicago.

Chicago’s where I got married, where I wrote some books, where I got and kept a job correcting comma splices, where my two kids were born. If one of the stray bullets flying around kills me and you want to do something with my ashes, add them to the gunk in the part of Lake Michigan that laps up against the little sandy area a few blocks away from our place. It’s called Hartigan Beach, and more often than not I’m frazzled and annoyed there, trying to prevent my children from eating sand or drowning, but I’ve also managed to look out at the wide water once in a while and see the world as my boys are seeing it, this their timeless place, what they’ll always be dreaming their way back to. I’ve never loved a place more than that modest chunk of churned-up sand, pocked with cigarette butts and my own persisting anxieties.

Yesterday I asked a Cubs fan I work with if he remembered 1969. I wasn’t sure if he would. He’s older than me, but not by a whole lot.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “When the Mets clinched, I went into the backyard and burned all my Mets baseball cards.”

Now he’s watching the games with his teenage son. He says his son is nervous.

I don’t want to see the Cubs lose either.

****

But this is supposed to be a prediction. I notice that some observers are bringing up the Cubs’ record against the Mets this year: they beat New York in all seven meetings between the teams. To emphasize how pointless I think it is to refer to these games to foretell what’s going to happen in the championship series, I’m instead going to pick a game not long after my tenth birthday instead. It was on April 22, 1978. Rick Reuschel started the game and pitched well. In fact, he held the Mets hitless through five innings in forging a 2-0 lead. In the seventh inning, the Mets finally broke through for a run on a Ron Hodges sacrifice fly. An inning later, in the eighth, with the score now tied, Hodges’ spot in the order came up again. There were two outs and two men on. In his twelve-year career, Hodges’ batting average against Reuschel was a pathetic .148. But he came through this time with a single that drove in Willie Montanez with the go-ahead run. The game wasn’t over there. The Cubs loaded the bases in the bottom of the eighth but couldn’t score. Reuschel blanked the Mets in the top of the ninth, and in the last of the ninth they got their leadoff man aboard. After a strikeout, Rick Reuschel’s spot in the order came up. He was a good hitter, but of course in that spot you go to a pinch-hitter. The pinch-hitter grounded into a game-ending double-play.

His name was Bill Buckner.

Edge: Mets

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Vada Pinson and Jim Mason

October 16, 2015

Jim MasonVada PinsonALCS Preview

This one is pretty simple. The two cards here, representing the American League teams poised to vie for a spot in the World Series, both feature players who got one chance to play at that very pinnacle of their sport. Vada Pinson did so in 1961, when he was 22. He had a spectacular season, the best of his splendid career, and helped the Reds win the National League pennant. In the World Series, the Reds faced one of the greatest teams in history, the 1961 Yankees, and got smoked four games to one. Pinson played poorly, managing only 2 base hits in 22 at bats.

Fifteen years later, the teams met again in the World Series, only this time it was the Reds, not the Yankees, in the role of legendary collective steamroller. Pinson was no longer on the Reds, or anywhere in the majors, but Jim Mason was on the Yankees team that the Reds blasted in four straight. Unlike Pinson, he’d not been a central factor in his team making it to the World Series, hitting .180 in 217 at-bats as one half of a punchless shortstop platoon. In the World Series, the platoon approach seems to have gone out the window, and Mason’s counterpart, the immortal Fred “Chicken” Stanley, got the start in each of the four games. In game 2, Stanley was pinch-hit for early, and Mason replaced him in the field and got a turn at bat later in the game. It would be his only World Series at bat. In his entire career he would have 1756 plate appearances and would homer just 12 times, but he made his one World Series at bat count by lining one over the right-field fence.

It was the only home run by the Yankees in the series. In the ninth inning, Mason’s turn at bat came up again, and manager Billy Martin pinch-hit for him, bringing in righty Otto Velez to face lefty Will McEnaney. Velez struck out. A few weeks later, Velez would follow Mason to the Blue Jays in the expansion draft. Mason didn’t last long as a Blue Jay, but Velez established himself as one of the most prominent of the early Blue Jays—by the time he left Toronto, he was second on the Blue Jays career home run list to only John Mayberry, who is best known as a member of the team on which Vada Pinson finished up, the Kansas City Royals.

Is life a swirling web of interconnected strands, Pinson to Mason to Velez to Mayberry to Pinson, everything tying together with everything else in a dizzying and ultimately infinite everlasting wholeness? Or is it just an absurdity of random occurrences? Who knows? All you can do is break things down into measurable data. And on that level, the level of percentages, Jim Mason, the only player to homer in his only World Series at bat, is—despite his inferiority to, among others, Chicken Stanley—the greatest World Series performer in the history of human civilization.

Edge: Blue Jays

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Manny Mota and Ron Hodges

October 9, 2015

Mota Ron hodges 78NLDS preview, part two (part one here)

One of the last classes I took as an undergrad, many years ago, was in Chaucer, and the only thing I remember was the tale of the knight concluding with a discordant pratfall, the knight falling off his horse. It seemed to me a brilliant commentary on the myth of heroism, if not on the absurdly random nature of life itself. Nobody is a superstar bound to some shapely, impeccable narrative. Really the best you can hope for is that you stick around for a while, maybe find a place you can call home, figure out a way to make yourself useful, and try to steer clear of trouble.

The two players shown here managed all but the last of these elements in their careers. Both had some trouble. Probably trouble is unavoidable. But there’s trouble and then there’s trouble, and Hodges was lucky enough to run into the lesser of these two gradations. He played 12 years for the Mets as a part-time catcher but is most often remembered, at least if his fan memories page on the Ultimate Mets Fan Database is a guide, for fracturing pitcher Craig Swan’s ribs while trying to throw out a young base stealer named Tim Raines. This is the kind of Chaucerian physical comedy that seems to come up with irresistibly appealing regularity on the fan memories page of the Ultimate Mets Fan Database (along with conflicting eyewitness reports of the Met in question’s treatment of fans—on Hodges’ page he is derided by one fan for grabbing his crotch and saying “right here” to him, and he’s lauded by another fan for tirelessly signing autographs for kids), and for that reason I always have to pry myself away from the site to avoid spending the rest of my days browsing through anecdotes about the stumbling, pockmarked humanity of the likes of Bob Apodaca, Doug Flynn, Bill Pecota, etc., etc., into infinity.

If the worst thing that ever happens to you is you fracture Craig Swan’s ribs, life isn’t so bad. Manny Mota would surely agree. Mota, after some time on the Giants, Pirates, and Expos, stuck for many years with the Dodgers, settling in under blue skies to become arguably the most effective right-handed pinch-hitter ever (he ranks third all-time in career pinch hits, after lefties Lenny Harris and Mark Sweeney). It’s a specialized skill requiring that the practitioner know how to effectively sit and wait, just you and all the spiraling directionless tales in your mind. How Mota did this is a mystery, as he had by then lived through the second kind of trouble, the kind most of us never even want to imagine. In 1970, some years before his shift from part-time starter to pinch-hitting specialist, a foul ball from his bat struck and killed a 14-year-old boy in the stands.

That kind of thing, making sense of it, is beyond me. It’s beyond anyone, surely; there’s no sense to be made of some things. But I don’t even really want to think about it. So:

Edge: Mets

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Rick Reuschel and Al Hrabosky

October 9, 2015

Rick Reuschel 77 HraboskyNLDS Preview, part one

Style is a mode of conflict. It doesn’t seem that way to most individuals, I don’t think, but whenever style choices are made—clothing, hairstyle, behavior—they are made within the context of the surrounding society and are therefore always capable of cutting against the norms of the society. In other words, for example, Jonathan Papelbon is going to occasionally strangle Bryce Harper.

The two men shown here offer a contrast not only in style but in the approach to style. One stoically avoided throughout his long career any style choices that would have made him stand out from the prevailing norms, while the other, at an early, tenuous stage of his own much more mercurial career, adopted a strikingly unusual style on the mound, not out of a desire to set himself apart from his peers but out of desperation. Al Hrabosky, dubbed the Mad Hungarian after he began instituting a mid-crisis routine of stalking behind the mound, taking a few cartoonishly deep heaving breaths, slamming the ball into his glove, and spinning back around to face the batter with a menacing, Fu Manchu-enhanced sneer, reflected on the genesis of his routine in a 1986 Sun-Sentinel article entitled “Hrabosky Hreflects”:

“What people forget is that originally, the Mad Hungarian started when I couldn’t get anybody out. I had a 7.00 ERA with no saves. It was a last-ditch effort to gain my concentration.”

It worked—for a while in the mid-1970s Hrabosky was among the best and arguably the most famous reliever in the league—but the style also rubbed opponents the wrong way. I urge you to read Dayn Perry’s recap of the following brawl—which was sparked, predictably, by a batter who also had a nickname starting with “Mad” (Bill “Mad Dog” Madlock) taking exception to the Mad Hungarian pre-pitch ministrations:

1974 Cubs-Cardinals brawl

Hrabosky’s catcher, Ted Simmons, “won” the brawl by landing a Varitekian blow to the face of Mad Dog, and Hrabosky was credited with the win as the Cardinals forged a game and a half lead in their division with eight games to play. A week later, however, the Cubs managed some measure of revenge by winning 8-3 to knock the Cardinals out of first place, and three games later St. Louis would finish the season separated from the playoffs by that one-game margin.

You wouldn’t notice at a glance that the other player shown at the top of this page contributed to that Cubs win, much in the way that the world didn’t really notice that Rick Reuschel, for nearly two decades, was one of the best pitchers on the planet. He’s been handicapped in the traditional estimation of starting pitchers by a wins total that is not as impressive—i.e., decidedly short of the 300 threshold—as some others in the Hall of Fame, and in this his team’s 1974 revenge win is a bit of a microcosm. Reuschel started the game and pitched well for seven innings, having by more modern standards the greatest positive impact on the game, but because the game was decided after he left with a blister on his finger, Reuschel didn’t get the win.

I doubt he complained. It wasn’t his style.

Edge: Cubs

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