As far as anniversaries go, no one really cares about anything other than round numbers.
And when you’re just one year away from a 40th anniversary, well…it stands to reason that next year will bring about a far greater celebration than this year will.
But I don’t care. I’m celebrating anyway – because it’s the anniversary of a game so crazy it should be celebrated every year on August 24.
You see…it was on August 24, 1983 that Tippy Martinez of the Orioles picked off three Blue Jays in one inning.
Younger fans might read that sentence and agree that, yes, that must have been crazy to see. But that was really just part of the story of that wild Orioles victory in their 1983 championship season.
Three pickoffs in an inning is truly crazy, but that game featured so much more.
But let’s take a quick look back at all of the craziness.
After losing out to the Brewers for the American League East division crown on the final day of the 1982 season, the Birds – and new manager Joe Altobelli – were in the thick of another pennant race in late August of ’83.
Heading into the game vs. Toronto at Memorial Stadium on August 24, the O’s trailed the Brewers by a half-game for the division lead while the Blue Jays were just a game behind the Orioles.
The game proceeded normally for most of the evening, with Jays’ starter Jim Clancy carrying a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning.
But Clancy allowed John Shelby to reach on a one-out bunt single and then issued a two-out walk to Lenn Sakata before being relieved by Dave Geisel.
Geisel promptly gave up back-to-back run scoring singles to Benny Ayala and Al Bumbry, and the game headed to the tenth inning tied at three.
Just one problem, however.
Altobelli had emptied his bench in the late innings…and in the desperate ninth inning rally.
Backup catcher Joe Nolan had pinch-hit for starting catcher Rick Dempsey in the seventh…and then was removed for a pinch hitter himself in the ninth. This left the Orioles without a catcher.
Third baseman Todd Cruz was lifted for a pinch hitter in the seventh, prompting Altobelli to move Rich Dauer across the diamond from second to third. But when Altobelli pinch-hit for Dauer in the ninth…this left the Orioles without a third baseman.
Here’s how the Baltimore Sun reported the defensive configuration – and manager Altobelli’s thoughts on it – in the next morning’s newspaper:
“Altobelli ran in Benny Ayala to bat for catcher Joe Nolan…that left Altobelli without a catcher, and it also left him praying for a 3-run homer by Ayala.
“I wasn’t thinking of a base hit by Ayala,” Altobelli said. “I was thinking of a 3-run homer. But with Sakata running on first, I hit my fist in my hand to show him he would catch. Out there, he couldn’t argue with me.”
Altobelli had to scramble more than a little bit to field a team in the top of the tenth.
Sakata was told he would move from second base to catcher, as his playing that position in Little League apparently made him the most qualified of the remaining players.
Outfielder John Lowenstein was moved to second base to fill Sakata’s vacancy and outfielder Gary Roenicke was moved to third base to take over for Dauer.
Simply put…it was a mess.
Of course, that crazy defensive alignment didn’t matter at all when Cliff Johnson hit the first pitch of the tenth inning from reliever Tim Stoddard far over the center field fence for a home run.
After Barry Bonnell singled, Altobelli pulled Stoddard in favor of Tippy Martinez. And then the fun really began.
Martinez then picked Bonnell off of first base. One out.
Dave Collins was next and he drew a walk…but was picked off of first base. Two outs.
Willie Upshaw then reached on an infield single…and he, too, was picked off of first base. Three outs.
From the Sun: “I knew they were anxious to get going, so thank God for Lenny,” Martinez said with a grin. “I was really just thinking about making as many throws to first as I could.”
Here’s what Sakata told the Sun: “I didn’t want to throw…I didn’t want to give away my secret weapon, the one-hop throw to second. Actually, it would have been interesting to make the throw, but I’m afraid I would have broken my fingers. I hadn’t caught since Little League, and when I crouched down, I was a little tight. After the first pitch, I was even tighter.”
But when Cal Ripken blasted a solo home run to lead off the bottom of the tenth…it looked like Sakata might have to put the catcher’s gear on yet again.
Or would he?
Eddie Murray then drew a walk and was moved to second on a groundout. The Blue Jays next opted to issue an intentional walk to John Shelby, putting men on first and second with one out in a 4-4 game.
Gary Roenicke then whiffed for the inning’s second out, bringing to the plate none other than catcher Lenn Sakata.
And what did Sakata do?
He hit a game-winning home run, of course. Because that seemed like the only way to bring that wacky tenth inning to a proper conclusion.
From the Sun: “The Birds and manager Joe Altobelli could chuckle about all the craziness because the catcher – Sakata, that is – ended a weird game that will be fodder for bar-room talk for nights to come on a dramatic, 3-run homer off reliever Randy Moffitt with two out in the 10th inning.”
As for the ridiculousness of having Sakata catch, well…as usual, John Lowenstein may have offered the best line of the night following the game. When asked if he was available to catch, Lowenstein told the Sun: “I’ve caught enough to know that if the need ever arose, I could not catch.”