Editor's note: As we enter the 2020 baseball season Hall of Famer Rick Hummel is presenting STLtoday.com subscribers with a look back at 10 of the most memorable games he's covered.
Here's the Commish's pick for No. 10. April 10, 1980, Opening Day.
For those who call baseball boring, and there are still those rank holdouts, a celluloid of Thursday's ninth inning at Busch Stadium should be made required viewing.
There may be 161 more games and 177 more days left this baseball season, but the essence of the sport will never be conveyed more graphically than Cardinal pitcher Pete Vuckovich conveyed it, with a supporting cast of Pittsburgh Pirates batters Tim Foil, Dave Parker and Willie Stargell and more than 45,000 howling, stamping bystanders.
"It was like (Cardinals coach) Jack Krol told me afterward," said catcher Ted Simmons. "This is the way they play ball in September. There was a whole lot of tension out there."
In case you were under quarantine Thursday and missed the game, the broadcast, the myriad of television film clips and your neighbor's phone call, here's what you need to know: With the Cardinals ahead of the defending world champion Pirates 1-0 in the top of the ninth, Vuckovich allowed a pinch-hit single to Lee Lacy and a walk to Omar Moreno.
Then he proceeded to strike out Foil, who last year was the most difficult hitter in the National League to make endure that ignominy. Then he struck out two of the game's most dreaded hitters, Parker and Stargell.
Simmons turned toward the Cardinal dugout and shook his fist in triumph. Vuckovich, who had said this was to be just another game, was dreamy for an instant and did nothing.
"Forty-five thousand people. After the pall reached the plate and the call had been made, I thought, 'Man, then he reacted, too.' I always look to see what Teddy is doing. I saw he was happy so I figured I might as well be happy, too."
Vuckovich and Simmons slapped hands on high and then they were engulfed by teammates. But the most telling reactions came from the Pirates; from Stargell, who struck out three times, and from Parker, who was handcuffed by an up-and-in fastball. They had come away losers in this Russian Roulette spinoff but were glad they had played. "Sure, I'm mad I didn't get any hits (each team had only three)," said Stargell. "But you've got to give credit to the opposition. This damned guy wants to be a good pitcher and he is."
Stargell tried to explain what it was like facing Vuckovich, who has more varieties in his repertoire than your favorite ketchup. "The only way I can say it is that you (the reporters) should have had a bat."
Parker gave Vuckovich the most meaningful accolade one athlete can give another. "He's a 'gamer,'" Parker said. "He can play on my club any time."
Vuckovich, a free-spirited but highly competitive sort, may be the most popular Cardinal since Lou Brock, considering the thunderous peals of "Vuke, Vuke, Vuke" that rocked everywhere Thursday.
"I think it's because I just consider myself a down-home boy," said Vuckovich. "I'm your typical 27-year-old guy who spent four years going to school in the Vietnam-war era. I've taken a lot of crap along the way but that's politics and I don't want to get into politics. I consider myself a basic guy. I just happen to throw baseballs."
To the point of 32 consecutive scoreless innings counting exhibition games and squad games Vuckovich has thrown baseballs. "I started thinking about playing major league baseball when I was eight years old," Vuckovich, a native of Johnstown, Pa., said. "If I stay healthy, I can be around here a long time. I know what's going on."
To what extent?
"I'm not one of those guys around the country who labels ballplayers. The media does that. If people want to call me good, fine. If they want to call me horsefeathers, fine. If you can pitch, you can pitch."
Were he not playing ball today, Vuckovich said he probably would be teaching elementary school. "But I never liked those books too much. Or hopefully Bethlehem Steel would give me a job like everybody else in my hometown."
Vuckovich struck out nine and walked only two as he protected the lead given him in the second inning on Bobby Bonds' walk, a double to left by George Hendrick and Bonds' sprint around the bases and hook slide at the plate.
He pitched hitiess ball for five innings before permitting a one-out single to Phil Garner in the sixth on a "Laredo breaking ball, you know, south of the border breaking ball." The translation is that Vuckovich went sidearm with the pitch and hung it.
"Better file the Laredo," advised pitcher Bob Sykes.
But only in the ninth was he in, trouble. After Vuckovich had struck out Foli for the second time in the game, manager Ken Boyer jogged to the mound to talk to Vuckovich. The latter said he did not recall anything too pungent from that, conversation.
"But then my mother and dad have been making profound statements for the last 15 years and I don't remember any of them, either."
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