Sunday, July 11, 1999

Bowed heads, broken hearts and almosts




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        CLEVELAND — Michael Tucker played the ball perfectly. It was the wall he misjudged.

        The Cincinnati Reds right fielder retreated confidently, his eyes trained on Omar Vizquel's fly ball. He made his jump with exquisite timing and raised his glove high as the ball began its descent and then — THUD — he ran out of room.

        “I thought I had a bead on it,” Tucker said. “Maybe if I had another step. I don't know. I hit the wall. You have to ask somebody who saw it.”

        While Vizquel circled the bases in the bottom of the ninth inning Saturday — his two-run homer bringing the Cleveland Indians an 11-10 victory over the Reds — Tucker lay face-first on the warning track at Jacobs Field. He could not say with any certainty how close he had come to a game-saving catch, only that he had not come close enough.

        He sat on a couch in the visitors clubhouse at Jacobs Field, recounting the play over and over in a soft voice as he picked mechanically at a plastic plate of food. When ballgames end as this one did — with a one-run lead evaporating with two outs in the ninth — the athletes on the losing side can make the gift of speech seem like a supreme act of will.

        Mainly, they sit around with dazed expressions and/or bowed heads, conversing in whispers or not at all. A baseball season unfolds over six months and 162 games, but some of them are so heartbreaking that protocol demands a funereal atmosphere.

Mistakes, misses, agony
        Had Tucker come down with Vizquel's ball, the Reds would have beat baseball's winningest team for the second day in a row and ensured their own first-place standing at the All-Star break. They could have walked off the field confident that they could compete with the best teams. It would have been loud in the dressing room. There might have been laughter.

        Instead the Reds were left to brood on their failures: Mike Cameron's missed catch in the second inning, which facilitated Cleveland's four-run rally; Chris Stynes' error in the seventh inning, first booting a Richie Sexson grounder, and then throwing it away, providing an additional baserunner before Jim Thome's homer; four walked leadoff hitters; All-Star Scott Williamson's second blown save in four days.

        And if losing wasn't bad enough, the game had dragged on for 3 hours and 49 minutes. The Indians have sold out 339 consecutive games at Jacobs Field, but it's hard to imagine anyone staying awake for all of them.

        If anyone needs an additional argument against the designated hitter, consider all the prolonged counts and pitching changes and the reluctance of pitchers to let go of the ball when faced with a lineup without letup.

        “That's a club you can't give extra outs,” Reds manager Jack McKeon said of the Indians.

Vizquel, of all people
        Manny Ramirez, baseball's leading run producer, homered twice against the Reds Saturday. Thome, the bulky All-Star first baseman, hit seventh in the ominous Cleveland batting order. But the decisive blow was struck by a petite shortstop who had produced exactly two home runs in his previous 288 at bats.

        “I thought it was just a pop fly to right field,” McKeon said. “I guess it got up in the wind.”

        “I thought he hit it off the end of the bat,” Reds catcher Eddie Taubensee said.

        Watching the ball fly off his bat, Vizquel was not sure how much to make of his blow. He ran toward first base convinced the ball would remain in play, and that it might be worth extra bases.

        “I didn't hit it that well,” he said. “I saw Tucker running back and back. He was playing so shallow, I would have had a good chance for a triple if it hit the wall. But it happened to leave.”

        These things happen once in a while, though not often with two outs in the ninth inning.

        “Weird game,” Taubensee said. That it is.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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