Gaetti 'gust' wind-aided, but it counts

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ST. LOUIS - Tony Gwynn watched the ball leave Gary Gaetti's bat, and figured it for an out.

''From right field, it looked like he was a little in front of that pitch,'' said San Diego's swing sophisticate. ''He kind of one-handed it. But it kept going and going.''

''I didn't think he got enough of it,'' said Brian Johnson, the Padres catcher. ''But early in the game, the wind was blowing pretty good. He got enough of it to get it in the jet stream.''

Now there's a novel excuse: The St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Padres in the first game of their Division Series on account of the prevailing breeze.

On a blustery Tuesday afternoon at Busch Stadium, an unassuming fly ball assumed cosmic significance and the Cardinals assumed a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five playoff. Gaetti's first-inning fly carried like that feather in Forrest Gump, producing a three-run homer and the decisive blow of a 3-1 victory.

''I knew I hit it pretty good, but you never know,'' Gaetti said. ''I can't say right off the bat that I knew it was gone.''

A ballplayer spends a lifetime preparing to perform in October, only to find himself its pawn. Dodgers catcher Mickey Owen was defined by one pitch that got past him. The most memorable moment of Tony Kubek's career was when a ground ball glanced off a pebble in Pittsburgh and struck him in the throat.

Usually, it's an out

Had it not been for Gaetti's Gust, Padres pitcher Joey Hamilton might have been working on a shutout Tuesday afternoon. Mid-afternoon starts might suit television's schedule, but they can be brutal on bats.

''That's probably the toughest time to play in this ballpark,'' Gaetti said. ''The only thing that made it bearable is that the sun set somewhat in the south. I think that it helped that we scored early because there were a couple of times later in the game when it was really tough to see.''

Nine times out of 10, Gaetti's blow gets caught short of the warning track. Tuesday, it was the shot heard round the baseball world. The wind made it possible. The afternoon shadows helped it hold up.

Sometimes, a guy gets lucky.

Sometimes, fate likes a practical joke.

One out from the end of Tuesday's drama, Cardinals reliever Dennis Eckersley was obliged to face the aforementioned Gwynn, who represented the go-ahead run.

Among the members of the pitching profession, Tony Gwynn is not the guy you want to see at the plate in that particular situation. He won his seventh batting title Sunday, and earlier on this afternoon had collected two hits against St. Louis starter Todd Stottlemyre.

Eck slams door

Determined not to give Gwynn anything he could drive, Eckersley tried to keep his pitches as far away as possible. He worked the outside corner for a called strike, then a ball, then another called strike, then another ball. With the count at 2-2, Gwynn hit a hard foul down the left-field line. Then, after satisfying himself that he had not broken his bat, he smashed a missile up the middle.

''I really wasn't expecting the ball to come back at me,'' Eckersley said. ''If I had, I wouldn't have thrown the ball so hard.''

Cards' lucky day

Eckersley reached for Gwynn's liner reflexively, as much out of self-preservation as defensive purpose, and he happened to stab at the right spot. The bullet-ball struck his glove and stuck there.

''I hit that ball right on the button,'' Gwynn said. ''The ball caught him more than he caught the ball.''

As he grabbed the ball for the game-ending peg to first base, Eckersley's expression suggested the Publishers Clearing House people had just appeared at his door.

''I got real lucky there,'' he said. ''I had no time to react. It just sort of went in my glove. Thank God.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Oct. 2, 1996.