When the cubs' Moises Alou leaped at the wall for Luis Castillo's long foul drive, timing it just right, in the top of the eighth inning of Game 6 of last year's National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field, why didn't he come down with the ball?
Because a fan interfered, of course, with what would have been a great catch. But why did that happen? Was it the 58-year-old billy goat curse on the Cubs? Or was it something more subtle: the fact that Alou, who had made the last out of the seventh inning, was not due to bat in the bottom of the eighth?
Knowing what we know now, alas, it was probably the curse.
You may have wondered lately, What ever happened to "As so often happens"? If so, you are not alone. The question is in the air. And an ambitious research project has come up with an answer—a disturbing answer that has traditionalists grumbling and statisticians scratching their heads.
No one knows when students of the game began to notice how frequently it happens: A fielder who makes a great play in one half-inning is the leadoff batter in the next. Coincidence? Maybe, but a significant one—a nice moment of recognition for a hero defender home from the field. "As so often happens," someone says in the booth and here and there in the press box and the crowd. The pitcher finishes his warmup, the honored defender steps into his offensive role, his glove hand perhaps still tingling a bit, and the game goes on, a part of its mythos reaffirmed.
"As so often happens" may be inherent in the deep structure of baseball. We know it entered American literature in 1914, when Ring Lardner's blithely confident rookie pitcher Jack Keefe wrote to his friend Al in one of the "Letters from a Busher" that Lardner would later collect in You Know Me, Al.
Well Al, I busted one down third that should of gone for two easy, but that lucky dog Zimmerman must of got bit by a bee, 'cause he dove just about out of his pants and speared my beauty of a liner, to the amazement of all including him. But the same Zimmerman was first up next inning, as so often happens, and I made him pay. Whiffed him proper, two hard ones and an up-shoot. I guess he'll think twice the next time he's inspired by the prospect of leading off against somebody with stuff such as mine.
Consider some of the most famous catches in history. In the 1947 World Series, Al Gionfriddo of the Dodgers went back, back, back to the centerfield fence to rob Joe DiMaggio of a home run. As so often happens, Gionfriddo led off the next inning. The one spectacular fielding play of the '59 Series was the back-to-the-plate running catch by White Sox rightfielder Jungle Jim Rivera off Charlie Neal of the Dodgers in the fifth game, bottom of the seventh. Rivera led off the top of the eighth. In the third game of the '69 Series, Tommie Agee of the Mets, in centerfield, made two great catches against the Orioles. He led off the following inning one of those times. Baltimore's Brooks Robinson made three memorable stops against the Reds in the '70 Series. He was first up after two of them. In the third game of the '78 Series, Graig Nettles of the Yankees made four dazzling plays at third. He led off the inning after two of them, including the most amazing one. ( Ron Cey made a great play at third for the Dodgers in that game but didn't lead off the next inning. Nobody ever said it always happens.)
Every fan knows of Bill Mazeroski's walk-off home run that won the 1960 Series for the Pirates against the Yankees. What people tend to forget is that it was a leadoff home run and that in the previous inning—with two outs, Mickey Mantle on first and Moose Skowron at the plate—Mazeroski made what Roger Angell in The New Yorker would later describe as...
...a great play that will forever go insufficiently sung, because of what happened afterward and because it was a simple force at second. Indeed with the fleet Mantle barreling toward second on the pitch, [ Pirates shortstop] Dick Groat's best play on Skowron's grounder into the hole was to first. Groat, however, after hobbling the ball slightly, looked to Mazeroski and rushed his throw, which went wide, surely wider than the compactly put-together Max. could stretch. But Maz, for whom second base is T.S. Eliot's "still point of the turning world," seemed to lay every fibre of his being end to end for an instant to snag Groat's throw and nip the sliding Mantle by a heartbeat. And then he jogged in toward the bottom of the ninth and immortality.