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Pickoff play in 1974 a unique World Series memory

Because guys who started the baseball season pitching for the 51s apparently will get you only so far, this World Series might be remembered as being more anticlimactic than memorable.

Fox tried to do its part. It replaced analyst Pete Rose, who apparently had some autographs to sign for a fee, with Kevin Millar. But then Daniel Murphy, who had hit a bazillion home runs against the Dodgers and Cubs in the tournament’s early rounds, let a little nubber go under his glove, paving the way for yet another come-from-behind victory by the Royals.

Maybe uber Mets fan Jerry Seinfeld thought “Buckner!” when that ball went under Murphy’s glove, in the way he thought “Newman!” when something bad happened on his TV show.

I’ll bet he didn’t think “Washington!” as in Herb Washington.

Herb Washington was the only designated runner in baseball history. A world-class sprinter, he had been signed by Charlie Finley, the eccentric A’s owner.

During the 1974 World Series, which also was sort of anticlimactic — the A’s won their third consecutive crown by beating the Dodgers in five games — he ignominiously got picked off first base in the ninth inning of Game 2, the only game Oakland lost.

For some reason, that play is etched in stone and ascribed in indelible Sharpie to my baseball cortex. Every year at this time I chat about it with colleague Keith Rogers, who covers military matters and the Nevada National Security Site for the Review-Journal.

Keith let it slip that he and Herb Washington were teammates on the track team at Michigan State.

“Since the hurdlers and the sprinters would take starts out of the blocks every morning, I ran against Herb on a twice-daily basis,” Rogers said of the 1972 Michigan State tracksters, who finished second in the NCAA indoor championships. “He beat me to the first hurdle every time except once, the morning he flew back to East Lansing after setting the world record (in the 50-yard dash) in Toronto. I think he must have been a bit hung over.

“That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.”

Until a couple of weeks ago, when the Michigan punter totally messed up the end of a football game against the Spartans, you could have made a case that Herb Washington getting picked off first in the World Series was one of the more memorable plays in Michigan State sports history.

Not only was Herb Washington an ex-Spartan, so were Mike Marshall, the guy who picked him off, and Steve Garvey, the guy who made the tag.

“Herb didn’t run sideways too well,” his old track pal Keith Rogers said.

Here’s what Curt Gowdy (Wyoming) and Vin Scully (Fordham) had to say on TV as the play unfolded:

Curt: “He’s the only man in baseball — and it could only happen with the Oakland ballclub — where they hire a man to do nothing but run. Herb Washington, a world-class sprinter, holds the indoor record in the 50- and 100-yard dashes. He is now running for Joe Rudi at first base.”

Vin: “Marshall, for a right-hander, is very quick in coming over to first base. So if Herb Washington, representing the tying run, tries to take too much of a lead, he would be susceptible. Marshall can come over there in a hurry.”

Does that Scully know his baseball or what?

Marshall stepped off the rubber … one … two … three … times. He was the cat, Washington the mouse. Herb leaned, Mike fired a kinesiologic laser to Garvey.

Out!

The Dodgers’ faithful roared. Herb Washington punched the dust around first base. He was out from there to the 101 Freeway.

Washington stole 29 bases in 45 attempts during the 1974 season, which isn’t that good. The A’s released him during the 1975 season. He never batted or played the field. There was one game against the Angels when white-hatted Alvin Dark, the Oakland manager, asked Washington if he wanted to pinch hit for Angel Mangual or somebody similar. Nolan Ryan was pitching for California. It was twilight. Herb said ‘No thanks, Skip.”

The last thing I could find written about Herb Washington was last year, when he appeared at a 40-year anniversary celebrating the A’s juggernaut. The story said he had been a successful businessman, that he owned a bunch of McDonald’s franchises and a small piece of the Cincinnati Reds.

In speaking of Reds speedster Billy Hamilton, he told reporters there’s still a place for speed in sports, and then he said there probably will never be another Charlie Finley. So there probably will never be another Herb Washington. Especially not with these 12-man bullpens.

But when Addison Russell pulled a hamstring against the Cardinals, Cubs skipper Joe Maddon, who is considered something of a baseball savant, added former San Diego State speed merchant Quintin Berry to Chicago’s playoff roster. Berry had a grand total of one at-bat for the Cubs this season. But in 2012, he had swiped 21 bases in 21 attempts for the Tigers.

Unfortunately, as discovered by the Cubs and their loyal legions when the Mets and all those former 51s swept Chicago out of the postseason, you can’t steal first base.

If that were possible, Herb Washington might have made the Hall of Fame. And then when Pete Rose had a prior commitment, Fox might have called him to spar with Frank Thomas.

— Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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