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2004-01-08 20:53
by Mike Carminati

"It isn't that," said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. "It isn't that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune."

—On the amount of money that his old boss, Fezziwig, spent on a gloriously remembered holiday party from Ebeneezer "Don't Call Me Scroogie" Scrooge's youth, A "Clay" Christmas Carol By Charles "Don't Call Me Jason" Dickens

Tug McGraw passed away at the age of 59 on Monday after a hard-fought struggle with brain cancer. I hadn't posted anything about it until now because frankly I didn't really know what to say. We sabermetricians love looking under the hood at the numbers. Though McGraw's numbers were nothing to sneer at, he meant something else to the community, something that's difficult to put into words.

McGraw was a very good reliever for almost twenty seasons, but if his legacy was dependent pitching alone, he would never have become the icon that he has been for the past thirty years in Philadelphia. After all two of Tug's best years came before he ever joined the Phils. The third one came during the Phils' sole World Championship year, 1980. McGraw threw the last pitch in that World Series striking out Willie Wilson with the bases loaded and with the winning run at the plate, and he will be remembered forever in Philly for his exultant leap that followed (see above).

(It's odd that on the play just before the strikeout Pete Rose snared in midair a foul Frank White popup that had bounced out of catcher Bob Boone's glove to record out number two, a play that rivaled Derek Jeter's incredible throwout of Jason Giambi at home in the 2001 playoffs for postseason shock and awe in my estimation. Now news of Rose's self-indulgent, tell-some biography precedes news of McGraw's death and the outpouring of emotion that followed, clearly delineating the much different paths that the two individuals traveled in life in the intervening years.)

The pictures of that moment remind me of the old picture of Babe Ruth, who is calmly standing with a self-satisfied grin amid a sea of faces that are almost spinning around him as if feeling his gravitational pull. McGraw was the eye of the jubilant maelstrom that quickly followed. It was such a classic moment that the Phils had McGraw re-enact it at the closing ceremonies for Veterans Stadium this fall.

McGraw had a great postseason in 1980. He ended game 5 of the Series by striking out Amos Otis again with the bases loaded. He also pitched in every game of the classic five-game League Championship Series between the Phils and the Astros, recording two saves. He did falter in game 5 allowing the tying run in the eighth, but consider that he was making his fifth appearance in six days and was pitching his eighth inning over that span. He also gave up the winning and only run in the eleventh inning of game three on a bases-loaded sac fly by Denny Walling (the Phils walked the bases full intentionally after a Joe Morgan triple led off the inning—see, it didn't work back then either). Of course it was after throwing three scoreless innings. In total McGraw collected four saves in nine appearances. He appeared in nine of the eleven postseason games for the Phils.

Those were great moments, but that's not what I remember about Tug McGraw. I remember the delivery that always looked like a righty trying to throw lefty (at least that’s how I look when I throw lefty). It started with the high knee kick and hands meeting and pointing skyward as if in supplication. Then he sort of teetered on his back leg, finally toppling at the waist. He ended up almost doubled over, his legs and arms taking separate flights to the same location, and the ball always seemed to come from way towards the first base side. Or maybe I’m just remembering his scroogie. Anyway, at the end of each inning he would slap his glove on his thigh, which, I believe, he once explained was a signal to his wife, who was not a big baseball fan, that the inning was over. After an especially grueling inning, he would sometimes rapidly pat his chest to demonstrate what his heart was doing.

But again with Tug, the emotion and personality that he displayed on the field was just the tip of the iceberg. He named his pitches. He had his signature pitch, the Scroogie, as well as the Cutty Sark fastball, so named because "It sailed", and the Peggy Lee fastball, which left the batter asking, "Is that all there is?" He even penned a comic strip named "Scroogie", which was also the name of the main character, who was also a relief pitcher but for the Pets (Phillies/Mets). By the way, does anyone remember Royce Rawls? I had a copy of the comic book somewhere that I have to dig up.

Then of course were the great Tug McGraw quips. He coined "Ya gotta believe" before he joined the Phils, and it's become famous. In simpler times, he responded to his preference for grass or astroturf with, "I don't know. I never smoked any astroturf" and when asked how he would spent his postseason earnings responded, "Ninety percent I'll spend on good times, women and Irish Whiskey. The other ten percent I'll probably waste."

There was a comment that struck me as odd during the 1980 World Championship festivities: "New York can take this championship and stick it." I though it was odd for a player who had once played in New York and whose current team had had no problems with a New York team since the Whiz Kids lost the Series to the Yanks 30 years earlier. I have since grown to understand Philly's inferiority complex caused by its proximity to the Big Apple.

Finally, Tug had some great advice that we can all live by, "Ten million years from now, when then sun burns out and the Earth is just a frozen iceball hurtling through space, nobody's going to care whether or not I got this guy out." Maybe that attitude is what made him such a memorable person.

Tug was the one who instigated the Phils' all-green St. Pat's Day uniforms that they wore in spring training every year. He taped aspirins to his arm. He read "Casey at the Bat" on stage. He became a staple on local Philly TV after he retired. He was like your goofy uncle who's always a bit tipsy, but McGraw remained avuncular and charming and a big lovable ham. He never displayed the sordid underbelly that personalities today always seem to have. Maybe it was the times in which he played, but I prefer to think that Tug was just what he seemed. Given the outpouring of positive stories since his death, I see no reason to think otherwise.

It reminds me of a story about Bombo Rivera that I was ready to attribute to W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe (which was made into a film as Field of Dreams) but couldn't find there. Anyway, the author attended a game in Minnesota and as Rivera stepped into the batter's box, one half of the stadium cheered "Bombo" while the other followed with "Rivera". He admitted that Rivera was not the best player on the field, but he just had that certain something that drew fans to him. I criticize ballplayers for their old-cronyism, but I have a special place for the ballplayers of my youth including Tug McGraw. Just the nickname alone is so full of personality. He played in an era when it was OK to have a personality on the field, when players weren't considered crybaby multi-millionaires and weren't expected to act as such. Before the strike. Before the lost World Series. When baseball cards were little pieces of cheap cardboard with fuzzy pictures slapped on them, were almost indistinguishable from the brittle splinters of (alleged) gum that attended them, and were made by only one company. Maybe the players themselves have not changed much since that era: maybe it's society that's gotten jaded. Maybe I just grew up and nothing else has changed but me. I have no way of knowing, nor do I particularly care. It affects me all the same.

Meanwhile, with GM and manager Paul Owens' recent death, the Phils have lost two pillars from their late Seventies dynasty in less than two weeks. This comes at a time when the Phils are featuring their recent history while preparing to implode the old stadium, much to the chagrin of locals who fear there will be fallout to the surrounding area, and open a new one. Tug’s death makes the closing of an otherwise featureless tin can of a stadium actually poignant.

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