(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)
Two: Mr. October
The Donnie Moore card has been on my desk for several days, waiting to be made sense of. Beside it is a small fragment of another baseball card. I recently fished the fragment out of my son’s mouth. He’s fifteen months old, which means I’m fifteen months into a new life, one more splintered and doubtful than what preceded it, more overpowered by love. He has a basket of 2011 baseball cards that we play with in the evenings. Most of the creased, beaten cards are of currently active players, and I’ve been surprised at how many of them I’d never heard of, more evidence that I’m falling away from the times with the slow but irreversible momentum of an untethered spacewalker. But mixed in are some cards featuring older players achieving milestones. Ernie Banks, Willie Mays. When I fished the fragment out of my son’s mouth, it took perhaps a second to process the limited clues available and recognize it as being from one of these “legend” cards. I could tell from the California Angels batting helmet, the wire-rimmed spectacles, and the gaze trained on the far distance that my son had bitten off a piece of Mr. October.
Mr. October got his name for his apparent ability to play spectacularly well when the games mattered the most. The narrative truth of this rests on his iconic three-homer game in the clincher of the 1977 World Series. He had paved the way for this moment to be a mythic apotheosis by anchoring three World Series championships with the A’s, and he added luster to its magic by again performing spectacularly well in a 1978 World Series win. His exploits, and the outsized personality that went with them, seemed to illustrate the notion that some guys are able to rise to a higher level during big moments.
It’s true that Mr. October’s career World Series numbers are phenomenal: In 27 career World Series games, he had a .357 batting average, a .457 on-base percentage, and a .755 slugging percentage). But if his ability to play better in crucial moments was truly unshakeable, why wouldn’t he have also hit well during his appearances in the American League Championship Series? In 45 games with the pennant at stake, he posted these anemic numbers: .227/.298/.380. Overall, his total postseason numbers suggest a slight increase in performance over his career numbers (in 77 postseason games, he had a .278 batting average, a .358 on-base percentage, and a .527 slugging percentage, all a little higher than his regular season splits of .262/.356/.490). The slight superiority of those postseason numbers could easily be attributed to most of his postseason appearances coming during the prime of his career, when his overall regular season numbers were higher, too.
These findings, if you can call them that, are in line with the general conclusions of all inquiries into the notion of “clutch” performance: Basically, as a sample size increases and thus becomes a more fully supported representation of reality, any seeming evidence of clutch performance tends to recede, if not disappear altogether. It seems a decent bet that Mr. October would dismiss this suggestion that his clutch abilities are imaginary, that he believed and still believes that he was in possession of a certain magic unavailable to his peers.
When I think of Mr. October as an Angel, I see him in a moment seemingly designed to demonstrate that magic, if it exists, is so migratory and random in nature as to be entirely beyond the grasp of human hands. He is in the dugout beside Angels manager Gene Mauch in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 1986 American League Championship Series, the Angels seemingly assured a pennant. In my memory, Mauch, who previously presided over the monumental collapse of the 1964 Phillies, is not smiling, but Mr. October beams broadly, winningly. He has removed his glasses, anticipating a pennant-winning victory scrum in which he apparently hopes not to have his glasses damaged. Some events transpire. Mr. October’s smile constricts. The game is once again in doubt. Mr. October puts his glasses back on.
(to be continued)