On July 1, 1973, Reds catcher Hal King hit a two-out, three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning against the arch-rival Los Angeles Dodgers. It erased a 3-1 scoreboard deficit and prevented the Reds from sliding twelve games behind LA in the National League Western Division. The HKM is widely credited in Cincinnati lore as the turning point for the Reds’ 1973 season, which ended in a trip to the playoffs by an early model of the Big Red Machine. In subsequent seasons, Reds fans have searched for a HKM like a holy grail.
Many of us speculated that Brandon Phillips’ walk-off home run against the St. Louis Cardinals on July 15 was the 2011 HKM. Turned out it wasn’t.
Yes, both Stubbs and Phillips hit dramatic, crucial home runs. But each lacks the one quality that to me defines the HKM — it started a winning streak. In 1973, the Reds followed the HKM with another win that day and the next against the first-place Dodgers. They won four in a row and 10 of the next 11. They beat Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins and Phil Niekro along the way. They finished with a 60-26 streak, caught the Dodgers on September 3rd and never really looked back. (Somehow they managed to do all this without once batting the CF first or the SS second).
After Phillips’ blast last week, the Reds lost the next night to the Cardinals and four of their next six games. No winning streak, no HKM.
And Drew Stubbs’ home run last night didn’t — couldn’t — start a winning streak because the Reds had won the day before.
If the 2011 Reds do maintain their momentum of the last two games and overcome their three opponents in the NL Central (as well as overcoming their inconsistent hitting and the deep abyss of Dusty Baker’s in-game managing) their HKM will be Jay Bruce’s lead-off double in the bottom of the sixth inning against Atlanta on Saturday. That surprising hit started a scoring avalanche, turning a 2-1 deficit into an 11-3 victory.
Both Hal King and Jay Bruce were left-handed pinch-hitters, King for catcher Bill Plummer and Bruce for pitcher Homer Bailey. Plummer was the starting catcher because it was the first game of a Sunday double-header. Johnny Bench had actually pinch hit earlier in the inning for Davey Concepcion and was walked by Dodger pitcher Don Sutton. Bench and Tony Perez, who had doubled, scored on the King home run.
Both Hal King and Jay Bruce were unlikely heroes, although for different reasons. King was a third-string, light-hitting catcher. He finished the year with a .186/.286/.465 line and only 20 total bases. Bruce, a considerably better hitter, was an improbable star Saturday because he was so sick that he had to be replaced immediately by Mike Leake because he couldn’t keep running the bases.
Both hits screamed down the right field line. I was actually at Riverfront Stadium that July day, 38 years ago, with my Dad, sitting in the front row down the first base line. King’s home run screamed about 20 feet off the ground, over Dodger first baseman Bill Buckner’s head (yes, that Bill Buckner) and of course, I swear, just past me. Jay Bruce’s line-drive double bounced off the right field fence.
Then again, the Reds might lose 3-out-of-4 to the Mets and we’ll have to keep waiting and hoping for a 2011 Hal King Moment.