Some ballplayers leave their fans with single, signature moments to remember, and some of those moments are brilliant: Willie Mays, his back to home plate, catching Vic Wertz's fly ball in the far reaches of centerfield at the polo grounds; Kirk Gibson winning the World Series with a pinch hit homerun, then limping around the bases like a guy who'd have been more comfortable in an old-timers' game.
For fans of the Philadelphia Phyllis and former relief pitcher Tug McGraw, the moment came with the last out of the 1980 World Series, when McGraw struck out Willie Wilson to win the series for the Phils: an outcome nobody had seen before, and that nobody has seen since.
There followed an apparently spontaneous celebration that was not exactly spontaneous.
After Tug McGraw died of a brain tumor at 59 on Monday, ESPN re-told the story of how McGraw had conspired to create the image that would stand for the Phillies' most glorious day. In the car on their way to the ballpark that day, McGraw and Phils third baseman Mike Schmidt had figured that if McGraw won the game, whoever mobbed him on the mound following the final out would be immortalized on the cover of sports illustrated. In the noise and elation of the victorious moment, McGraw recalled the conversation. He looked to Schmidt, at third base, inviting him to be the first Phil to jump into the arms of the only World Series-winning pitcher Philadelphia had ever had.
According to tug McGraw's former teammates, the pre-determined jump was as much a part of the reliever's make-up as the clutch performance. He was having us all on. He was, perhaps, also laughing at New York Mets fans as well as with them when he insisted "ya gotta believe" in a team that had been hopeless a few years earlier, but that won the World Series in 1969. McGraw may have been as surprised and delighted as the fans he exhorted that time around, and in '73 as well, when the Mets finished three games over .500, then made it all the way to the seventh game of the Fall Classic.
Tug McGraw's numbers are not likely to get him into the hall of fame, and it is safe to say that unlike Cal Ripkin, Jr., Tug McGraw did not inspire his teammates and opponents to name their children after him, although I did know a Mets fan in New York years ago who named her dog "Tug."
No matter. Tug McGraw left his fans any number of images by which to remember him, and the ones that didn't find him smiling, found him laughing.
This program aired on January 10, 2004. The audio for this program is not available.