The New York Yankees had one of baseball’s greatest dynasties from 1996-2003, where they made six World Series appearances and captured four titles. In 2001, the Yankees led game seven 2-1 and were three outs away from defeating the Arizona Diamondbacks to claim a fourth straight title. Future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera proceeded to blow the save and cost New York the championship. As gut-wrenching as that loss was, what if I told you that Rivera’s World Series losing blown save saved a Yankee’s life?
Enrique Wilson’s name might not jump off the page to you, but the utility infielder was of great importance to the Yankees during his stint in New York from 2001-2004. Primarily a bench player, Wilson often found his way into the lineup specifically against one pitcher, Red Sox’s ace Pedro Martinez. Wilson was Martinez’s kryptonite; he batted .364 against the Boston right-hander in 35 career plate appearances.
So what happened back in 2001 with Wilson, the World Series, and Rivera’s blown save? As I mentioned, the Yankees were oh so close to defeating the Diamondbacks for their 27th title. Had the Yankees won, there obviously would have been a World Series parade down the Canyon of Heroes in the following days. A native of the Dominican Republic, Wilson scheduled a flight back to his home country for after the parade. Since Rivera blew the save, Wilson simply changed his flight to one a few days earlier. Not a big deal, right?
As it turns out, the flight Wilson would have boarded had the Yankees won never made it to the Dominican Republic. American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into the Queens neighborhood of Belle Harbor shortly after takeoff. All 260 people on board the plane passed away from the crash, along with five more people on the ground.
“I am glad we lost the World Series, because it means that I still have a friend.” said Rivera after learning about the incident. In the 32 postseason series Rivera played in, he allowed only 13 runs, 11 of those earned. The Yankees’ closer was truly untouchable in the playoffs. For his career, Rivera was 8-1 with a microscopic ERA of 0.70. He could not have hand-picked a better time to have an off day on the mound.
Mariano Rivera is baseball’s all-time saves leader with 652, but his biggest save of all saved a life, not a baseball game.
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Diyral Briggs was an underdog before he ever set foot on an NFL football field. The Bowling Green linebacker went undrafted in 2009 in a linebacker class that featured pro bowlers Brian Orakpo, Brian Cushing, and Clay Matthews. Early on in his career, Briggs learned a successful stint in the NFL is earned, not given.
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Like Robinson, Doby’s contract was bought from the Negro Leagues’ Newark Eagles. Doby played under the alias “Larry Walker” in the Negro Leagues because he was still in high school when he debuted. Cleveland Indians’ owner Bill Veeck wanted to integrate baseball in 1942 but was denied by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. It wasn’t until Happy Chandler took over that Robinson and Doby were signed.
The Indians bought Doby from the Eagles for $15,000, making him the first African American player in the American League. Veeck saw Doby as someone who could control his emotions on the field while being a feared bat in Cleveland’s lineup.
Doby made his debut for the Indians on July 5, 1947 against the White Sox in Chicago, less than three months after Robinson debuted. Not in the starting lineup, Doby debuted as a pinch hitter and struck out. It was what happened before the game that was more notable.
Many of Doby’s teammates did not give him a warm welcome. “I walked down that line, stuck out my hand, and very few hands came back in return. Most of the ones that did were cold-fish handshakes, along with a look that said, ‘You don’t belong here,” Doby recalled.
It was not until second baseman Joe Gordon offered to play catch with Doby during warmups that Doby was finally treated like a member of the team. Wouldn’t you know it, Gordon and Doby ended up becoming very close friends.
Doby was primarily a second baseman and shortstop, positions occupied by Gordon and player-manager Lou Boudreau. As a result, Doby wound up at first base for his first career start on July 6 without a first baseman’s mitt. Multiple teammates denied Doby’s request to borrow a glove, including regular first baseman Eddie Robinson. Robinson only gave Doby his glove after being convinced by Indians personnel.
With Gordon and Boudreau patrolling the middle infield, it was Doby’s only start of the season. Doby would get no more than two plate appearances in any game the rest of the season while occasionally coming in midgame to replace Gordon or Boudreau.
Aside from baseball, Doby was often booed and faced many challenges like Jackie Robinson. “You didn’t hear much about what I was going through because the media didn’t want to repeat the same story.” Doby said. Except it was not the same story entirely. Playing in the American League, Doby integrated all the American League parks Robinson did not play in. Robinson only played at an American League field during the World Series.
Along with racial slurs and death threats, Doby was also treated harshly on the field. The worst incident Doby recalled was while sliding into second base, the opposing shortstop spat tobacco juice on him. Despite the grief, Doby handled himself with class and dignity.
“I couldn’t react to prejudicial situations from a physical standpoint. My reaction was to hit the ball as far as I could.” Doby did exactly that in 1948, hitting .301 with 14 homers and 66 RBI as he became Cleveland’s starting center fielder. The Indians finished as the top team in baseball with a 97-58 record en route to a World Series matchup with the Boston Braves.
It was Doby who once again hit the ball as far as he could. In Game 4 with the Indians leading the series 2-1, Doby became the first African American player to homer in a World Series game. His 420-foot blast off Braves’ Johnny Sain turned out to be the game winner in Cleveland’s 2-1 victory to grab a 3-1 series lead.
Doby only progressed in 1949 by starting a run of seven straight All-Star appearances. In 1949, Doby was part of the quartet that became baseball’s first African American All-Stars. The quartet included Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, and Roy Campanella.
After his playing days, Doby looked to get into coaching. Once again, Doby was the second man. With the Indians in search of a new manager, Doby was looking to become the first African American manager in the history of the Major Leagues. This time, it was Frank Robinson. The Indians hired Robinson in 1975 while Doby was hired by the White Sox in 1978.
Doby does not have a day where everyone in baseball wears his number 14, or have his number retired across the league, but Doby had the utmost respect for Jackie Robinson. Even though Jackie gets all the credit, Doby never took a jab at him.
There were many dark days for the 1977 Mets, who finished 64-98, with perhaps the darkest day coming on July 13. On a Wednesday evening at Shea against the Cubs, the ballpark and New York City blacked out.
After multiple lightning strikes in the area, Shea blacked out in the bottom of the sixth with Chicago leading 2-1. Mets’ leadoff man Lenny Randle was at the plate when the lights went out, “I thought it was my last day on Earth. I thought God was calling.” Randle recalled.
A native of Compton, California, Randle was used to playing ball in the dark. As the lights went out, Randle swung at the pitch out of instinct and started running after making contact. Running towards second as if the game was still happening, Randle was tackled by Cubs infielders Manny Trillo and Ivan de Jesus.
As the power was going out, Ralph Kiner and Lindsey Nelson were on the radio call for the Mets.
Fans had no reason to leave because the subways were not working, and it was obviously dark. Players entertained fans by putting on a light show. What lights could the players possibly have though? Their car headlights!
Mets players went to the players’ parking lot and drove their cars in through the bullpen gate. They just had to be careful of one thing in the bullpen – bullpen coach Joe Pignatano’s tomato garden! Why would a bullpen coach have a tomato garden? In 1969, Pignatano found a wild tomato plant in the bullpen and took care of it the rest of the season. After the Mets won the World Series that season, Pignatano decided to keep the plant around because he saw it as the Mets’ good luck charm.
After avoiding Pignatano’s precious plant, the Mets drove their cars onto the field and dimly lit the infield. The entertainment did not stop there though.
Infielders Doug Flynn, Bobby Valentine, John Stearns, and the aforementioned Lenny Randle took fake infield practice. Without a ball, the infielders entertained fans by pretending to make diving stops and turning stylish double plays with a little extra panache.
Before the fans figured out their respective ways home, Mets players stuck around to sign autographs for the Shea faithful. That is what baseball is truly all about.
As for the power outage, it was restored 25 hours later, but the game was not resumed until September 16. After tying the game in the bottom of the seventh, Jerry Koosman, who originally started the game back in July, gave up two runs in the eighth and took the loss as the Mets went down 5-2.
But see, stories like this are what makes baseball so great. While New York City was blacked out with looting, arson, and violence going on all over the place, 14,626 were at Shea Stadium watching Mets players put on light shows and flashy infield performances all while eating free food.