MINNEAPOLIS — Denny McLain was the original Adam Wainwright, and Mickey Mantle the original Derek Jeter.
Twitter and ESPN did not exist on Sept. 19, 1968, when the New York Yankees met the Detroit Tigers in a game of little significance at Tiger Stadium, before a modest crowd of 9,063. The Tigers had clinched the American League pennant in the final year before divisional play, while the future Hall of Famer chased an elusive goal in the final days of his career.
Mantle, who retired the next spring, had 534 homers, tied with Jimmie Foxx for third on baseball’s career list. Mantle had not homered in almost a month. The Tigers were leading, 6-1, in the eighth inning, with McLain well on his way to his 31st victory, when McLain decided to do the aging Mantle a favor. Catcher Jim Price approached the mound as the crowd cheered Mantle. McLain, the ace right-hander, clued him in.
“When I got there, Denny said, ‘Hey, big guy, should I let him hit one?’ ” Price told The New York Times in 2009. “I said it was a great idea. Mickey was always nice to me.
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“So I went back behind the plate and Mickey, like he always did, was tapping the plate with his bat when I said, ‘Want us to groove one for you?’ ”
Once Mantle realized Price and McLain meant it, he said, according to Price, “High and tight, mediocre cheese.” Cheese is baseball parlance for a fastball.
Accounts vary on how many pitches it took McLain to put it in Mantle’s wheelhouse, but Mantle eventually homered. Mantle lessened the stigma of McLain’s gift by hitting No. 536, his last, the next day off Boston’s Jim Lonborg in the Bronx.
“What we did was a gesture to a great player at the end of his career,” Price told The Times. “It was offered by the pitcher — it was his suggestion — and Mickey went along with it. We’d already clinched the pennant. I don’t feel that I did anything wrong at all.”
So what of Wainwright? Shortly after coming out of Tuesday night’s All-Star Game, Wainwright told about 30 reporters outside the National League clubhouse that he intentionally grooved the 1-0 fastball Derek Jeter slashed down the right-field line for a first-inning double. He did not appear to be kidding. Wainwright bounced the first pitch to Jeter.
“I was going to give him a couple of pipe shots,” Wainwright said. “He deserved it. I didn’t know he was going to hit a double or else I would have changed my mind. I thought he was going to hit something hard to the right side for a single or an out. I probably should have pitched him a little bit better.”
Asked to confirm he meant to give Jeter something to hit, Wainwright added: “I was hoping it would be the first pitch and he would take it. Then I would say, all right, I piped him one and he didn’t swing, so I could go to it. But I spiked it in the dirt. I gave him one more shot, and unfortunately he didn’t miss it.”
Wainwright’s comments circulated quickly through social media, creating a firestorm. Wainwright later said he was joking, telling reporters he faulted himself for any miscommunication.
The hit proved significant. Mike Trout, the game’s Most Valuable Player award winner, tripled Jeter home, and Miguel Cabrera added a two-run homer in the three-run first inning as the American League won, 5-3.
It was a 3-3 game in the fifth when Trout, facing St. Louis Cardinals reliever Pat Neshek, doubled home the eventual winning run. Wainwright said Trout and Cabrera hit tough pitches.
“Cabrera is a Nintendo-type player, he is so good,” Wainwright said. “That ball is on the white line chalk inside off the plate. Nobody keeps that ball fair. The pitch to Mike Trout was off the plate away.”
Jeter, who added a bloop single to right before leaving the game in the fourth inning, handled a question about Wainwright’s original comments with his usual grace. “If he grooved it, thank you,” he said. “You still got to hit it. I appreciate it if that’s what he did. Thank you.”
If Wainwright did Jeter a favor, he has company, at least in folklore.
In 1963, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Don Drysdale, a Hall of Famer, supposedly threw a fat fastball for his former teammate Duke Snider, then with the New York Mets and approaching the end of his career, to hit out.
Some observers believed Chan Ho Park grooved Cal Ripken Jr.’s home run in Ripken’s final All-Star Game appearance in 2001 in Seattle, even though it happened in a scoreless game and it was Park’s first (and last) All-Star appearance. Park never confirmed his intentions.
Though Jeter, 40, will retire after this season, he certainly is not limping to the finish the way Mantle, Snider or even Ripken did.