On June 8, 1989, the Pittsburgh Pirates scored 10 runs in the first inning against the Phillies, sending 16 men to the plate in one inning. It was only the first inning, though, and the game proved Yogi Berra’s maxim that it ain’t over ’til it’s over.
Although I’m not much of a horse racing guy, I followed the recent coverage of the Belmont and Big Brown’s effort to win the Triple Crown. Obviously, Big Brown—for reasons still unknown—failed tremendously.
This wasn’t what drew my attention to the story. Leading up to the Belmont, Big Brown’s trainer, Rick Dutrow was, shall we say, very confident. Among other things, Dutrow told reporters that he would be “in the winner’s circle when (the horses) get to the quarter pole,” and that Big Brown’s victory was a “foregone conclusion.”
I don’t bring this up just to revel in Dutrow having to eat his words, but rather as example of the dangers of making a prediction without backing it up. Joe Namath looked brilliant guaranteeing his win in Super Bowl III. Rick Dutrow, on the other hand, looked like an idiot.
For that matter, so did Jim Rooker. For the story, it is necessary to go to Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium on June 9, 1989. On that date, the Phillies were hosting the Pirates. Excluding a rain-out, the Pirates had lost seven straight games and were 21-33.
The Pirates jumped all over Phils starter Larry McWilliams. Barry Bonds walked leading off, and after a Jose Lind groundout, the next five Pirates reached base. Manager Nick Leyva pulled McWilliams and replaced him with Steve Ontiveros.
This turned out to be a bit of a mistake. Ontiveros not only allowed all of McWilliams’ base runners to score, but then allowed four of his own. The big blow, such as there can be in a 10-run, 16-trip-to-the-plate inning, came off the bat of Bonds, who cracked a three-run homer.
Although the Pirates left the bases loaded, with a 10-run lead, the Pirates doubtless were unconcerned. They had good reason: By the time the Pirates made the last out of the inning, the win expectancy of the Phillies clocked in at just 1.6 percent
Pirates broadcaster Jim Rooker might not be a devotee of win percentage charts. But he was a former player, a member of the Pirates’ 1979 World Championship team. As such, he knew that 10-run first inning leads were pretty secure. Confident in that knowledge, he made a statement that he would soon regret: “If we lose this game, I’ll walk home.”
You can probably guess where this is heading. For Rooker sitting in the broadcast booth, watching it was probably pure torture, perhaps even more than endured by the Pirates themselves. In the bottom of the first, Bucs starter Bob Walk gave up a two-run home run to Von Hayes, bringing the score to 10-2.
Entering the third, the score was still 10-2, and the Phils’ chance at victory stood at just 2.5 percent. After a walk and another Hayes homer, the score was 10-4 and Rooker had to be at least a little bit concerned.
In the fourth, his namesake result once again proved Walk’s undoing: After he surrendered a base on balls to Randy Ready, Steve Jeltz homered, bringing the score to 10-6, and upping the Phils’ win expectancy to almost 10.5 percent.
In the fifth, Rooker got some relief as Andy Van Slyke doubled in a run. The Pirates lost a chance for more scoring, though, when Van Slyke was thrown out at third attempting to stretch the hit. In the sixth, with Bob Kipper now pitching for the Pirates, Jeltz hit his second home run of the day. This was a three-run shot, and brought the Phillies to within two.
Statistically speaking Rooker still had a good chance at avoiding the 300 or so mile walk back to Pittsburgh. Even after Jeltz’s second homer, the Pirates chance at victory according to WE still stood north of 75 percent. Nonetheless, Rooker had to be concerned that the universe was conspiring to make him eat his words. Jeltz’ two homers represented 40 percent of his career total, and 50 percent of his homer output for 1989.
Predictably, his second homer only served to help open the flood gates. By the end of the sixth inning, the Phils had pulled within one. The Pirates held their lead into the eighth but after reliever Jeff Robinson retired Hayes leading off the inning, he loaded the bases on a single and two walks.
As Rooker watched in despair, Robinson proceeded to throw a wild pitch, allowing John Kruk to score and tying the game. After an intentional walk, Darren Daulton singled and Curt Ford tripled, giving the Phillies an improbable 15-11 lead.
That was a lead they would not surrender, as the Pirates could manage only a ninth inning single. After the game, Robinson told the media that the Pirates’ situation “couldn’t get any worse.” That might have been true for Robinson, who allowed four runs in a third of an inning and took the loss. It also was probably true for the Pirates, who played at just under .500 the rest of the year.
For Rooker, however, things could indeed get worse. Though he did not walk home after the game that night, he was good enough to follow through on his word. During the offseason Rooker completed the walk, taking 13 days to do it. It was not all sore feet and smug Phillies fans, though; Rooker used the walk to raise nearly $100,000 for charity.
There have always been those involved with sports willing to talk a big game, and then capable of backing it up: Muhammad Ali, Reggie Jackson, Joe Namath. Jim Rooker proved once again, on the other hand, that when you open your mouth wide, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll end up sticking your foot in there. And in Rooker’s case, sticking his foot on the roads of Pennsylvania.