By Harry Cummins
It has been 46 years since the night shortstop Bobby Valentine booted a routine double play grounder in the ninth inning of a 4-2 California Angels win over the Boston Red Sox. No ordinary error, it would minutes later launch Nolan Ryan into the American League record book and leave me with a dangling question for many decades hence.
Let me set up for you one of the most dramatic record-breaking performances in MLB history.
Ryan and the Angels would take on Boston that much anticipated August night in 1974. Both starting pitchers, Roger Moret of the Red Sox and Ryan had both lost no-hit bids in their previous starts. Ryan was two outs away from his 3rd no-hitter just a week prior in Chicago. Despite 13 strikeouts, he lost the no-hitter, then his shutout, and then the game. The man who, a year earlier, had set the MLB record of 383 strikeouts in a single season, was on a mission this night.
The first-place Red Sox entered the game with the 2nd highest batting average in the American League at the time (.271) and a 4 game lead in the A.L. East. Ryan fanned 4 of the first 5 Boston hitters and racked up 9 strikeouts thru the first 4 innings. Something special was happening.
Thanks to a 3-run home run by Bob Oliver just inside the left-field foul pole in the 4th inning, the Angels cruised into the ninth and final frame with a 4-l lead. Ryan had registered 17 punch outs by then, striking out the side 3 times.
Carl Yastremski lead off the ninth inning for Boston and drew a base on balls after falling into a 2 strike hole. Ryan again got 2 quick strikes on the next batter, Dwight Evans, before surrendering a single. Ryan then fanned Rick Miller to record his 18th strikeout, tying the American League record set in 1938 by Bob Feller. A youngster leaped from the stands and raced to the mound to shake Ryan's hand.
Ryan gathered himself and faced Doug Griffin with thoughts of the blown game last week under eerily similar circumstances fresh in his memory. Griffin had 2 of the 6 hits surrendered by Ryan on the night.
Once again Ryan put the hitter in a two strike deficit. Griffin hit the next pitch on the ground, straight at Angels shortstop Bobby Valentine. All of us in Anaheim Stadium at that moment were in accord. Bobby Valentine would never have an easier chance in his life and would turn two to seal the win for California and their flame-throwing right- hand pitcher.
The downside of such a moment would mean that Nolan Ryan would not get his chance to tie the Major League record of 19 strikeouts in a 9 inning game set by Cy Young award winners -- the Mets' Tom Seaver and Philadelphia's Steve Carlton.
However.....Valentine booted the the ball! 9,345 euphoric fans in attendance begin to think the same thing. He did it on purpose. Valentine, of course denied such a suggestion in post game posturing. If the error was intentional, it was also very courageous. It was a miscue that could brand Valentine as a legendary goat unless Ryan could wiggle out of the resulting jam. Personally, I was never so happy following an error on a major league field.
Ryan then fanned pinch hitter Bernie Carbo for his 19th strikeout of the night. A woman ran from the stands to the mound, planting a kiss on the new MLB record holder while the stadium scoreboard flashed the magnitude of the moment.
With the game still hanging in the balance, Ryan faced Rick Burleson to try and nail down the final out with his 20th strikeout. Ryan quickly racked up 2 strikes on Burleson, the only Red Sox to not strike out on this historic night.
With the entire stadium on their feet, Burleson lined out to right field on Nolan Ryan's 170th pitch of the night. Ryan had thrown 115 strikes and 55 balls. He walked only two Red Sox hitters. Sixteen of his 19 strikeouts were swinging. Only months earlier in 1974, Ryan had thrown a reported 235 pitches over 13 innings in an extra innings win over these same Red Sox.
"In those days," Ryan once told the Los Angeles Times, "I was my own closer."
Today, Nolan Ryan is enshrined in the baseball Hall of Fame. Bobby Valentine, the No. 5 overall pick in the 1968 MLB draft, went on to play for 3 more teams before managing the 2000 Mets to a World Series. Ironically, he ended his turbulent managerial career in 2012 with the Boston Red Sox. Today, he is the athletic director at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.
If I had to guess, I'd say this story just might bring back a sly smile to his face.
'Come on Bobby...you can tell me....'