Ten greatest stadium closeoutsby Chris Jaffe
October 12, 2009
Earlier this year, I wrote a column called "The 10 greatest games in Metrodome history." I knew the season was still going on, but I figured there was little chance the Twins would manage to pull off one more classic in their limited time left in the stadium.
Obviously, Game 163 was an all-time classic by any measurement. In a THT Live post, I even figured it might be the best game in Metrodome-dom. In retrospect, that was crazy talk on my part—Game 7 of 1991 is still the king. (In my partial defense, it was the greatest important game ever, but it's just that the heavier importance of the Jack Morris Game outweighs any playoff play-in game.)
Anyhow, that classic got me thinking: What is the greatest closeout game any stadium has ever had? Being the nerd that I am, I researched it. I can't say for all baseball history, but I can look up all stadiums that ended in the Retrosheet years: essentially all but 20 years of baseball since 1920.
Two things I should note: These are closeouts for every final home game a team had in a stadium, which isn't quite the same thing as a stadium's final game. For example, the Polo Grounds hosted the Giants for many years, and after they left, the Mets came there. I'd consider both the final Giant and Met games in here. After all, the Giants played there longer (and my sample size of games isn't that great here in the first place, so why not.
Second, it really has to be the final home game for a team, not final regular-season game. Upshot: while last week's epic Twin-Tiger clash clearly bests any of the below games, it is ineligible for inclusion.
None of these games is really an all-time classic, but the games were the most memorable goodbyes the home teams gave to their old stomping grounds. Here they are:
10. End of Crosley
June 24, 1970: Cincinnati Reds 5, San Francisco Giants 4. The Reds were rarely able to put together great teams in their many decades in Crosley Field. They were rarely particularly bad, but they didn't win many pennants. I suppose it's somehow oddly fitting then that they departed the place in the middle of a season in which they won a pennant, their first of four pennants in seven years.
The Giants took a 4-2 lead and with Hall of Famer Juan Marichal on the mound, victory seemed well at hand. Instead, the Reds rallied, culminating with back-to-back homers by Johnny Bench and Lee May to lead off the bottom of the eighth.
9. The original Blue Jay nest
May 28, 1989: Toronto Blue Jays 7, Chicago White Sox 5 (10). Like many out there in reader-land, I knew the Jays had a new stadium before moving into the Rogers Centre, but I had no idea what its name was. Turns out they called it Exhibition Stadium. Though it hosted a lot of bad baseball played by some miserable Toronto teams in the franchise's early years, the Jays departed the stadium on a good note.
It began as a rather routine affair, with the Jays seemingly pulling ahead for good when a four-run sixth inning gave them a 5-2 lead. Unfortunately for Toronto, five of the first six White Sox reached base in the eighth, tying the game up. In extra innings, George Bell hit a walk-off stadium-closing two-run homer to the cheers of the 46,120 in attendance.
Fittingly Dave Stieb, the greatest pitcher in the history of Exhibition Stadium, got the start that day.
8. The final note in the St. Louis Browns' blues
Sept. 27, 1953: Chicago White Sox 2, St. Louis Browns 1 (11). This wasn't actually the last game at Sportsman's Park, as the Cardinals continued to play there for another decade, but it was arguably the truest closeout on the list. The stadium may have survived, but the team was departing. After 52 years of baseball, this was the last game for the St. Louis Browns, who re-christened themselves the Baltimore Orioles in 1954.
It was a departure few would mourn. At a time when six of the AL's eight clubs drew more than 800,000 fans on the season, the Browns had fewer than 300,000 tickets sold, easily the worst in the league. That was hardly surprising—it was the 26th time in the last 28 years they were worst in the league in turnstile clicks.
St. Louis entered the day fighting for pride. Though they'd clinched last place, they began the day with 99 losses. A victory over Chicago ace Billy Pierce would allow them to avoid the team's eighth triple-digit loss total.
It started out promising for them. They squeaked a run by Pierce in the second, and St. Louis starter Duane Pillette made it hold up. For a while it looked like the Browns were going to leave the Gateway City with their 39th 1-0 victory in Sportsman's Park.
In the eighth, however, Jungle Jim Rivera tied the game with a solo shot, and three innings later Minnie Minoso doubled in the winning run. All too fittingly, the Browns slinked out of Sportsman's with a loss.
7. Slugging their way out
Oct. 1, 2000: Chicago Cubs 10, Pittsburgh Pirates 9. This was the best slugfest to ever close out a stadium. In this case, it was Three Rivers Stadium—Pirate home for three decades and two world titles.
The Cubs rolled out to an early 4-1 lead, only to see the Pirates bash back to an 8-5 advantage. Unfortunately for the Pirates, there were still four more innings left, and their bullpen allowed Chicago's subpar offense to take back the lead. The Pirates rallied late and had the tying run on third with no one out in the ninth. A groundout to third, a strikeout and another routine grounder squelched the threat without allowing the runner to dash the final 90 feet.
6. The House That Ruth Leased
Sept. 28, 1975: New York Yankees 3, Baltimore Orioles 2. When you think former Yankee stadiums, Shea probably isn't the first one to come to mind. Nor should it. The Bronx Bombers played in Queens for only two years while their own home was being remodeled. While the Yanks were good for those two seasons, no one remembers that's franchise' teams for being merely good.
Still, it was their home and they did leave on an impressive note. Baltimore took a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning, at which point the New Yorkers staged a last-minute rally. A pair of leadoff singles and a walk loaded the bases with none out and chased Baltimore starter Mike Flanagan from the game. After relief pitcher Dyar Miller whiffed the first batter he faced, a two-run single tied the game.
It ended weirdly. According to the game log, backstop Thurmon Munson threw to third to pick off Baltimore's Rick Dempsey. Instead of diving for the bag, Dempsey began a rundown, which ended when Miller threw the ball away for a game-ending error.
5. The Baseball Palace of the World
Sept. 30, 1990: Chicago White Sox 2, Seattle Mariners 1. In 1990, Comiskey Park was the oldest ballpark in the game, having opened its doors in 1910. There isn't much to say about the last game there, except that it was an impressive act of tightrope walking by the White Sox.
Not only did they eke out a close 2-1 victory, but the game was actually a bit closer than the score. The Sox allowed 11 hits and a walk—but Seattle couldn't get their runners all the way around the bases. In fact, the Mariners' sole run wasn't even driven in, it came on a wild pitch. Seattle went down in order only twice while putting runners in scoring position in five separate innings.
It was a tightly contested, hard-fought win for Chicago. Not a bad way to close out their old stadium.
4. O'Malley's temporary residence
Sept. 20, 1961: Los Angeles Dodgers 3, Chicago Cubs 2 (13). When you think home park in LA, you think Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine. However, before that was constructed, the Dodgers played at Memorial Coliseum. Its finale has the distinction of being the longest contest of them all, with the final run scoring in the 13th frame.
In a sign of how the game was different back then, Dodger starter Sandy Koufax (in the midst of his first really successful season), threw a complete game. Suffice it to say, while fanning 15 batters in 13 innings, he threw more than 100 pitches. In fact, he threw more than twice that, finishing with 205.
3. The first ballpark's final game
Oct. 1, 1970: Philadelphia Phillies 2, Montreal Expos 1 (10). Bill James, in his Historical Baseball Abstract, had an essay on the creation of Shibe Park in Philadelphia, noting that it was the game's first modern ballpark. Previously, they were cheap little grandstands. Once this sturdy concrete structure went up, all other clubs had to either refurbish their old stadiums or move into similar stadiums to compete.
By 1970, its original inhabitants (the A's) were in Oakland, and its name was changed to Connie Mack Stadium. The Phillies abandoned it for Veterans Stadium, a place that symbolized everything that people hated about multipurpose facilities.
In the finale, pitchers dominated the proceedings as the two teams combined for only 14 hits on the day. The Phils jumped out to a quick 1-0 lead and held on to it for dear life. Instead of an easy victory, the Expos tied the game in the ninth inning when—for the only time all game—they collected two hits in the same frame.
Ultimately, all the Montreal rally did was extend the ballpark's existence for another inning as the Phillies won in the 10th.
2. Getting ready for the new stadium
Sept. 27, 1964: Houston Astros 1, Los Angeles Dodgers 0 (12). Ladies and gentlemen, the best pitchers' duel to ever close out a stadium came in Houston's Colt Stadium. That's a rather interesting fact, because this was the last home game the Astros played before moving into what is possibly the best pitcher's park of the 20th century: the Astrodome. As great as the Astrodome was for pitchers, it hosted only four 1-0 games that went 12 innings or longer.
In the game itself, the Astros didn't collect a hit off Dodgers starter Don Drysdale until they squibbed an infield single in the sixth inning. Until the ninth they only had one, and Drysdale departed having allowed only three scratch singles in 10 innings of work—and two of which were infield hits.
At the other end, the Dodgers managed only three hits after the second inning. In fact, from the second through ninth innings, the two offenses combined for one hit in 42 at-bats. At one level, that could become rather boring. However, there is something intrinsically cool about a game tied 0-0, and the longer it goes the more impressive the pitching dominance becomes. There aren't too many better pitching-duels than this game.
1. The highest stakes of all
Oct. 24, 1996: New York Yankees 1, Atlanta Braves 0. As near as I can tell, only three teams have bid adieu to their stadium in the World Series. The Boston Braves left the South End Grounds with their miracle romp over the A's in the 1914 Fall Classic.
The Yankees left their pre-Yankee Stadium digs in the 1922 World Series. Well, sort of. Their previous stadium was the Polo Grounds, where the Giants—who owned the place—rented out space to them. Not only would the Yanks play in it in future Octobers, but that 1922 contest was against the Giants. Immediately after the Yanks' last home game there, they played a road game there.
Alas, neither the 1914 nor 1922 October closeout contests were particularly memorable games. Fortunately, Atlanta's 1996 goodbye to Fulton County Stadium was a fantastic affair as Andy Pettitte and John Wetteland shut down the hometown team for a 1-0 New York win. For Atlanta, John Smoltz pitched arguably better, allowing only four hits, and the only run he allowed was unearned.
The Colt Stadium game may have been a better pitcher's duel, but it didn't happen in the grandest of all stages. Given the quality of hitters, this one may deserve the honor of best pitcher's game.
References and Resources
Baseball-Reference and Retrosheet were instrumental in this project, as was Ballparks.com. I also used Bill James' Historical Baseball Abstract for No. 3 on the list
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.