Baseball's Providential Twists

Washington is still abuzz about Harriet Miers, but other areas of life — like this month’s baseball’s playoffs and World Series — also demonstrate how people can become either instant stars or goats. A new book by Mike Robbins, "Ninety Feet From Fame," pulls together fascinating stories of players who came up just short of baseball glory.

For example, go back 25 years: Do you recall Willie Mays Aikens, the Royals first baseman who in the 1980 World Series went eight for 20 with four home runs and six walks? Probably not, because Kansas City lost to Philadelphia in six games and no one much remembers Aikens’ heroics. His career continued to roll along until 1983, when at age 28 he was suspended by Major League Baseball for using cocaine.

Aikens returned the next year but wasn’t the same player and soon drifted out of the majors, then out of the minors. By the early 1990s, he was a 300-pound crack addict. In 1992, an undercover narcotics office asked him to help her get some drugs. When Aikens complied, he was jailed and then sentenced to more than 20 years, where he still is.

Or, go back 45 years to 1960, when the Pirates and the Yankees split the first six games of the World Series. In game seven, New York led by one run with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning, but Pittsburgh backup catcher Hal Smith homered with two men on, and suddenly the Pirates were three outs from victory.

Smith’s blast could be remembered as the most important home run in World Series history, except that Pittsburgh blew the lead in the top of the ninth — and Bill Mazeroski hit his famous game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth. As author Robbins notes, "Hal Smith did everything required of him to be a World Series hero; it just didn’t work out that way."

Real old-timers will remember Lou Gehrig, who said in 1939, facing a fatal disease, "I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." But Jack "Lucky" Lohrke, who played in the 1951 Series, gained his nickname in 1946 when a bus carrying the Spokane team of the Western International League plunged 500 feet off a mountain road. Eight ballplayers died, and most of the rest were badly injured.

Why was third baseman Lohrke ever after that incident dubbed "lucky"? He had been on that bus, but 50 miles before the crash received word that he’d been promoted to San Diego in the Pacific Coast League. He immediately left his teammates to head south, and one season later he was in the major leagues.

So many major league careers depend on providential twists. Forty years ago, Tony Oliva played in the 1965 World Series as a star outfielder with the Minnesota Twins. He finished in the top three in the American League batting race in seven of his first eight full seasons in the majors, making the All-Star team each year. But halfway through the 1971 season, when he was batting .375, the then-30-year-old Oliva tore cartilage in his right knee diving for a ball. He was never the same after that.

And some of the most promising never get to the World Series. Hall of Fame shortstop Ernie Banks, of course, played 19 seasons without tasting postseason excitement. But look at Lyman Bostock, the California Angels outfielder who hit .311 during his first four seasons in the majors.

On Sept. 23, 1978, Bostock was riding in the backseat of a car when a man pulled up alongside and fired a shotgun into the vehicle. The man later said he was trying to hit his wife, sitting beside Bostock. But he hit Bostock, instead, and the ballplayer died the following morning at age 27. The killer was found not guilty by reason of insanity.