Wrong end of history
Downing, Trachsel relive milestone gopher balls
Posted: Wednesday July 25, 2007 1:08PM; Updated: Wednesday July 25, 2007 1:08PM
For every memorable home run ever hit, there's some poor sap who threw the pitch. For every Bobby Thomson there's a Ralph Branca. For every 61 or 62 or 71 or 715, there has been a Tracy Stallard, a Steve Trachsel, a Chan Ho Park and an Al Downing.
When Barry Bonds cranks career home run No. 756, hopefully very soon, the pitcher who serves up the record-breaker will become a trivia immortal, instantly joining a long list of players on the wrong side of history's most notable homers. It's an uncomfortable spot for some but, all in all, it's not a terrible place to be. It certainly beats not being remembered.
"Hank Aaron was going to hit that home run. Whether it was Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, it was going to be hit," Downing said. "And, for us, it didn't affect the rest of the season. So, I can say, everything has its positive side."
You don't have to be much of a trivia geek to know that it was the Dodgers' Downing who threw the down-the-freeway fastball that resulted in Aaron's record-breaking 715th home run on April 8, 1974, at Atlanta Stadium. Downing, a lefty with 14 big-league seasons under his belt at the time, let it go on a 1-0 count with a man on first.
Downing watched the line drive scream toward left-center (that was 24-year-old Dodgers outfielder Bill Buckner, who would be on the wrong end of another very historic play in the World Series a dozen years later, climbing the fence in vain), stood on the mound as a couple of fans stormed the field to follow Aaron along the basepaths and then cleared out for the ceremony once Aaron touched home plate, officially breaking Babe Ruth's long-held record.
Giving up a big home run like that could have been an ego-sapping moment for Downing. The Brooklyn Dodgers' Branca, who allowed the "Shot Heard 'Round the World" homer to Thomson that won the National League pennant for the New York Giants in 1951, struggled for years with his place in history. "Who would think that, 50 years later we would still be talking about it," Branca said in 2001, "but it is the most memorable moment in baseball history, voted that way. And I've lived with it for 50 years."
To be fair, there's really no comparing Branca's pitch to Downing's. Branca's pitch, and Thomson's home run, decided a pennant. Downing's pitch was historic, all right, but history was about all it was worth. It was only early April, after all, the second inning of the first road game of the season for the Dodgers, just the fourth game overall.
That was the great Aaron in the box facing him, too. Giving up No. 715 carried no particular stigma at the time for Downing. It still doesn't, 33 years later.
"This was a unique moment, and everyone in baseball understood it," said Downing, who was 32 at the time of the home run. "This was a moment that may never come again. Remember, nobody's promised anything. So when the big moment comes, you enjoy it."
As it turned out, 1974 ended up being a memorable year for Downing, even without the homer. The Dodgers would win 102 games that year and face the Oakland A's in the World Series. Downing started Game 3, a loss, and the A's won the series in five games. None of it had anything to do with an early April night in Atlanta.