One Glorious Day?
So the final part of the lineup card was decided upon. On Sunday afternoon, September 29, 1963, Johnny Paciorek was going to make his long-anticipated major-league debut. The players had to be at the stadium by 10:30 am, so Johnny had to go to an early mass at Saint Vincent Catholic Church. Holy Communion was always a first consideration. A heartfelt, dedicated effort to perform simply for the “glory of God” was the prayerful purpose for which all his motivation was inspired.
He was at the ballpark at 10:00 am, mentally ready and soon to be physically primed to perform at his highest level of competency. All necessary stretching and warm-up exercises and throwing were completed. After pregame batting and fielding practice (outfield and infield), Johnny was ready to experience the “thrill of a lifetime.”
The Colts were the home team, so they took the field first. And of course, the first person to be seen, sprinting out to his position in right field, was Johnny P. After a little “catch” with the center fielder, Ivan Murrell, Johnny’s arm and body were ready to expend all the energy necessary to give a masterful performance for all the 3,899 fans in attendance. (From the start of the game until its finish, there was never any thought given whatsoever about his back!) He was there for the duration, and his only consideration was to be and do the best and the most that he can.
The game began with nineteen-year-old Chris Zachary on the mound; twenty-one-year-old John Bateman doing the catching; nineteen-year-old Rusty Staub at first base; twenty-year-old Joe Morgan was playing second base; twenty-year-old Glenn Vaughn was at shortstop; and Veteran Bob Aspromonte rounded out the infield at third base. The outfield consisted of twenty-one-year-old Jimmy Wynn in left; nineteen-year-old Ivan Murrell, from Panama, in center field; and eighteen year-old John Paciorek was in right field.
The top of the first proved relatively uneventful, with only a hit batsman making it to first base. But as Johnny viewed every situation, there was always some circumstance ready to avail itself for someone to make a great play. He was constantly looking for it! He could just imagine a base hit to him in right and the runner on first thinking that he might test the arm of the rookie. Johnny was ready! Nothing materialized, so the top of the first produced no heroics to speak of—except perhaps Johnny’s sprinting to the third base dugout, to beat Aspromonte down the steps!
The bottom of the first proved even less eventful, as Vaughn, Morgan, and Wynn succeeded each other with consecutive outs while Rusty languished patiently in the “on-deck” circle. The second inning began within what seemed a heartbeat, but Johnny raced to his position with intent to do something of a more productive nature.
He didn’t have to wait long because the Mets’ first batter launched a fly ball to right field. It didn’t look or sound like it was hit that well. But Johnny’s propensity for throwing some grass into the air before every pitch revealed the wind blowing out to right. He thought it might come out farther than originally expected. As he paused momentarily, he could detect that the ball was carrying deeper and to the line. He moved back initially then darted to his left and caught the ball on the warning track. Good catch, and the fans showed their appreciation with a round of applause.
The next batter made an out, and the third batter of the inning hit what could have been the first hit of the game. It was a blooper over the right side of the infield. Second baseman Joe Morgan was giving chase. At one point, Joe called for the ball. But Paciorek—realizing that the wind was blowing out and the play would be difficult for Joe—raced in, called off Morgan, and made the running catch.
(Johnny had a knack for getting “the jump” on any ball hit, because it was part of his daily practice ritual during batting practice, before every game. He didn’t just shag balls like most of the others in the outfield while pregame batting was taking place. He deliberately watched the batter’s swings and eventually gained an uncanny sense of the direction and the impact of the balls off the bat.)
The fans applauded as the half inning ended. Those would be the only “putouts” Johnny would have for the entire game. He later would field cleanly two balls that were hits: one, a line drive single, and the other, a “bloop-double” down the right field line.
(Even though he didn’t see much action on defense, that condition would never stop Johnny from hustling to back up plays in both the outfield and infield. He would race toward first base in case the third baseman or shortstop overthrew a ball to first base, or toward second base on double plays starting from the left side of the infield. The same with the outfielders adjacent to him! He never allowed a base runner to advance if he could help it. In Johnny’s mind, an outfielder doesn’t get many chances during a nine-inning game, so he who would be “great” can’t afford to miss any opportunity to help his team. Selflessness is a key component to defining the ideal outfielder temperament. He cannot hesitate to expend his energy in any situation, even when the play is obviously not within his immediate “sphere of influence.”)
Racing again to the dugout, Johnny knew he would be batting fourth this inning. He couldn’t wait to get his hands on his bat. Rusty made an out to begin the Colts second inning, while Aspromonte reached first. Murrell also made an out, and the moment Johnny was waiting for finally arrived.
I hit ’em then, I’ll hit ’em now. This is where I belong, here I’ll stay, were the thoughts calmly resonating through his mind.
Standing tall, in a slightly open stance, with his bat held high (the same stance he had since high school), gave him the sense that he could see the ball clearly as well as feel relaxed. He probably presented a posture that might be intimidating to some pitchers. (His stance was quite contrasting to those of Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub, and Jimmy Wynn. He could detect their better sense of balance, but he could not, at this point in his career, feel confident enough to copy their styles.)
Larry Bearnarth was a young right-handed Mets pitcher who looked to be quite formidable. But in Johnny’s eyes, it didn’t matter how good he was. Paciorek decided that anything the pitcher could do would not intimidate him. He would look for any pitch over the plate, fast or curve. If it was over the plate, he was going to give it his best swing.
Bearnarth’s first pitch was a fastball strike, and Johnny strode into it and let everyone know he doesn’t take a first-pitch strike merely to check it out. He swung hard and fouled it off to the right (he may have been a little late). The Mets’ pitcher followed with three straight balls before Johnny swung at another fastball strike and pulled it on the ground down the third base line. (From his high stance, Johnny could somehow sense that he might not be able to get under and drive a good, low fastball. It wasn’t like high school, where no pitcher could blow a fastball by him.)
On the next pitch, Bearnarth missed the outside corner, and Johnny was credited with his first major-league base-on-balls. He then raced to first base, as he customarily did. He was already thinking about what could possibly happen next. And he wanted his body to be ready to apply itself with “full speed ahead.”
Three pitches later, with Aspro on second and Johnny on first, John Bateman slammed a shot to right field, over the head of Mets’ Kranepool. With two outs, Johnny and Aspro were running on contact—Johnny telling himself instinctively that he was not stopping until he crossed home plate.
Aspromonte scored easily, and the speeding Paciorek, close on his heels, also scored standing up. Bateman ended up on third base with a triple. Pitcher Chris Zachary stranded Bateman at third. But the Colts had a two-run lead as the third inning was about to begin. Johnny couldn’t be more grateful for this opportunity to have so much fun!
The Mets scored one run in the top of the third and three more in the top of the fourth. They took a 4–2 lead into the bottom of the fourth. The Colts started their part of the inning with three quick singles by Staub, Aspromonte, and Murrell. Ivan
got his first big-league hit by laying down a perfect bunt on the third base line. That left bases loaded with no outs, and Johnny was coming to bat for his second chance.
He walked his first time up and was still looking for his first base hit. Paciorek thought, Just put the ball over the plate, and I’ll be swinging.
Bearnarth’s first pitch was a ball, outside. His second pitch was hit by Johnny’s bat down by the trademark. But Paciorek “muscled” it over the shortstop’s head for his first major-league base hit. He drove in Staub from third base and Aspro from second. (Although there was no lack of confidence anywhere in Johnny’s mind or demeanor, he sensed that his long stride, from his open-stance position, didn’t always allow his front foot to plant into the ground quickly enough to swing on time. Morgan, Staub, and Wynn had shorter strides.)
The score now tied 4–4, John Bateman came to the plate with Murrell on second and Paciorek on first. A base hit by Bateman scored Murrell and gave the Colts a 5–4 lead, while sending Paciorek to second. Bearnarth was pulled from the game, being replaced by Ed Bauta.
Bauta gave up a bunt single to Al Spangler, who pinched hit for pitcher Jim Umbright. Spangler’s bunt single sent Paciorek to third base. Pete Runnels then pinch-hit for Glen Vaughn and on the first pitch hit a fly ball to right field. The speedy Paciorek “tagged up” immediately and scored his second run of the afternoon, making the score 6–4. The Colts scored again, making it 7–4, before the inning ended.
The Mets scored nothing during the top of the fifth. But in the bottom of the inning, the Colts again came alive with Aspro leading off with a triple. Ivan popped up for the first out. So with one out, and Aspromonte on third base, Paciorek came to the plate again with a chance at another RBI.
Bauta’s first pitch was a curveball, low and away. Even though Johnny was anxious to get another RBI, he didn’t “bite.” The second pitch was also low, and Paciorek patiently held up. He was waiting for a pitch in his “wheelhouse.” With the count now 2–0, Johnny anticipated a fastball from Bauta and was ready to connect. The Met pitcher was a seasoned veteran and probably knew Johnny was ready to “tee off” on a fastball. So he threw a curve for a strike that Paciorek didn’t swing at (his first called strike).
With the count now 2–1, Johnny was looking for any pitch over the plate. The next pitch was a fastball, and Johnny seemed to be jammed. But he managed, again, to muscle the ball to the outfield. Aspromonte scored, so Paciorek just got his second major-league hit, and third RBI, of the day. He’s 2 for 2, with a walk, three RBI, two runs scored.
John Bateman then walked, sending Johnny to second. New pitcher, Tracy Stallard, relieved Bauta. Bob Lillis came to the plate for the first time since he replaced Vaughn at shortstop. Lillis quickly hit a bullet off the glove and past the Mets’ third baseman. Johnny took the opportunity to speed past third and score another run for the Colts. It was his third of the day. The score was now 11–4 (first time this season that Colts had scored in double figures). The fifth inning came to an end.
When Paciorek came up to bat in the sixth, there was one out. A new Met pitcher, left-hander Grover Powell, was on the mound. His first pitch to Johnny was a fastball, and he was ready, taking a hefty cut as he strode into the pitch from his “high, open stance.” Behind in the count, Paciorek took the next three pitches, out of the strike zone.
With a 3–1 count, Johnny was looking for a good pitch to hit. He didn’t want to walk again. Powell fired a fastball, and Paciorek was swinging. Johnny had another good cut but, again, was a little late. He fouled it off to the right and into the stands beyond the first base dugout. With the count now “full,” Johnny was hoping for another strike so he could have an opportunity to make solid contact and show off his power. However, Powell’s next pitch was low, and Paciorek walked for the second time.
While pitching to Bateman, Powell threw a “wild pitch,” allowing Johnny to advance to second. Bateman then grounded out to third, keeping Paciorek at second. Bob Lillis came to the plate for a second time. He looped a single into center field.
With two outs, Johnny was running on contact and, with his speed, scored easily for the Colts’ twelfth run and Paciorek’s fourth. After a third out ended the sixth inning, Johnny sprinted out to his right field position. He felt a little disgruntled over the fact that, although he was doing well in the eyes of just about everyone in the stadium, he had thus far not given any concrete evidence of his potent batting prowess.
I have more natural power than Morgan, Wynn, and Staub, he thought. But their abilities to hit the ball with more authority confounded him. “I would like to bat like they do, but I don’t feel comfortable, except in my tall, opened stance,” he muttered silently to himself.
It seems logical that a low stance would have a stronger center of gravity and provide a quicker means to respond to a variation of pitches. It would also provide a smaller strike zone and better perception, especially if a batter would limit his stride.
“My most powerful hits are those in which I am way in front of the pitch, where I can get under it,” he realized. Because my hands are so high, even when I hit a ball hard, it is usually on the ground, especially low pitches, he thought.
No runs again for the Mets in the seventh. The Colts scored one run in the bottom half but left Paciorek in the on-deck circle while the third out was made by Murrell. While on the bench, Johnny made a point to watch Morgan, Wynn, and Staub batting ahead of him.
The things they had in common were their low center of gravity (lower than Johnny’s), their bats and hands were at the level of a high strike (not above the shoulders), and their bodies were “closed” to the pitcher (not like Johnny’s open stance). Their strides were relatively short, a back bent knee being evident after the hips had turned through the swing.
Joe had an idiosyncratic habit of slapping his back elbow against his side just before the pitch was delivered. Jimmy had his front bent elbow raised up in front of his tucked chin. With eyes peering over his left humerus, his bat lay flat in his top hand, just below his shoulders. After the ball was pitched, he would stride, lower his front arm and shoulder, while his top hand brought the bat perpendicular to the ground. Then he’d quickly flatten it again before he swung at the ball. He looked like a miniature version of Frank Robinson.
After not scoring in the top of the eighth, the Mets’ Powell was going to pitch the bottom half of the inning. The first batter he would be facing was John Paciorek, coming up for possibly his final at-bat. Johnny took a first pitch, strike; he wasn’t expecting a “big-league” slider. He must not have seen a good one before.
The second pitch was a fastball low for a ball, and a 1–1 count. Paciorek swung at the next pitch and missed it. With the count now one ball and two strikes, Johnny thought he’d probably throw a curveball for the “K,” or just “waste one.” Powell threw a curve, but it caught a little too much of the plate. Paciorek had what he thought was his best swing of the afternoon and hit a hard ground ball down the third base line.
The Mets’ third baseman dove to his backhand side and knocked the ball down. As he found the ball and threw it, the speedy Paciorek was already at the bag. Johnny just got his third hit of the day.
Dave Adlesh then pinch-hit for Bateman. Johnny was hoping to score his fifth run of the game. However, his plan was foiled when Adlesh hit the ball back to the pitcher. Powell caught it, turned, and threw to second base for a “force” on the hard-sliding Paciorek trying to break up “two.” The shortstop evaded the slide then relayed the ball to first to complete the double play.
Johnny jogged back to the dugout, disappointed that the Mets got him out, for the first and only time. He didn’t need to worry. It was still a perfect game in all legitimate categories.
I’ll use the off-season to work on a more productive way to swing my bat, as well as get my back in perfect physical condition, he thought as the game ended.
Handshakes and congratulatory expressions of “good-game” by teammates to each other ended an otherwise exciting and eventful experience for all rookies and veterans alike.
Next: Chapter 5 – Post-Game Highlights