Monday, August 18, 2014

"One Day Wonders" by Dad

     Everybody knows about the One Hit Wonder, that pop music singer or group who score one hit and then disappear.  “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell comes to mind if you’re of a certain age, Norman Greenbaum’s  “Spirit In The Sky” if you’re of a slightly older certain age.
     In a similar way, what I’ve been pondering lately is a sports phenomenon that I’ll call the One Day Wonder. 
     To whit, most athletes who are remembered achieve their fame from a career’s body of work. From Babe Ruth to Derek Jeter, Ben Hogan to Tiger Woods, most athletic fame rests on having been great for a long time.  
     There is a much smaller group of athletes whose fame rests on one great, “lightning in a bottle” year. Mark Fidrych, aka The Bird, comes to mind. He lit up the baseball world in 1976, winning 19 games for the Tigers and finishing second to Jim Palmer for the Cy Young Award. He hurt his knee in spring training the next year, and was never great again. By all accounts a very good guy, he died too young in 2009.
     But then there’s the One Day Wonder. Before I get into this slightly snarky enterprise, let me first say that I know how amazingly much skill and how many years of dedication and hard work it takes just to reach a major league and be in a position to have, for good or bad, that one unforgettable day. 
     That said, let’s press on and start with the ultimate case of the One Day Wonder, the guy who’s not simply most remembered for what he did in the course of one day, but who wouldn’t likely be remembered at all if not for that day.
     The ultimate One Day Wonder, the guy whose name would top the list of any sports fan who gave this any thought at all, would have to be Don Larsen. His career fits the definition of journeyman. In a 14-year career, he went 81-91, never winning more than 11 games in a year. But in the fifth game of the 1956 World Series, he of course pitched that famous perfect game for the Yankees, retiring all 27 Brooklyn Dodgers hitters. An amazing day, and the sole reason we remember Don Larsen.
     On a smaller scale, perhaps because few positional players can dominate a game the way a pitcher can, there is David Tyree.  Hardly the household name, even in sports loving households, that Don Larsen is, Tyree is of course the wide receiver for the New York Giants who made “The Helmet Catch” to keep alive the Giants’ last minute drive to win Super Bowl XLII.  An amazing, resourceful catch, it comprises the entire David Tyree highlight reel. Tyree may in fact occupy a category all his own: Beyond a One Day Wonder, we should probably classify Tyree as a One Play Wonder.
     Then there’s the more problematic case of guys who had credible careers, but are still best remembered for the events of a single day. The two names that come most quickly to mind are a pair of Bills: Mazeroski and Buckner.
     Bill Mazeroski was of course the Pirates second baseman who hit the walk off, grand slam home run to win the 1960 World Series. Apart from that or, more likely, in large part because of that, he is among the least deserving players ever to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. A career .260 hitter with just 138 home runs, Mazeroski was a good, but not great, player whose fame rests largely on that huge home run.
     And then there’s Bill Buckner. 
     Buckner had a way better career than Mazeroski – a career that is actually worthy of at least Hall of Fame conversation.  A lifetime .289 hitter with over 2700 hits, he even won the AL batting title in 1980. But it’s his bad luck to have been, in a Bizarro World Series version of Mazeroski, a goat for the ages. There may not be a sports fan who needs to be reminded that it was through Boston Red Sox first baseman Buckner’s legs that New York Met Mookie Wilson’s ground ball passed, allowing Ray Knight to score the winning run in Game 6 of the ’86 Series. This forced the Series to a seventh game, which was of course won by the Mets. 
     Buckner was vilified for years in Boston, not the most forgiving of sports towns, although the town has famously forgiven him. And his appearance on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” in which he catches a baby dropped from a burning building, is well worth checking out.
     So there they are – a handful of One Day Wonders. If anyone has any others, please add ‘em to the list via our Facebook posts.