Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 12, 2011)
Baseball fans love to debate the game’s greatest moments, and a series on the MLB Network follows some of the liveliest topics. Prime 9 looks at various achievements and attempts to rank them, with an emphasis on the nine best.
Prime 9: MLB Heroics offers nine episodes of the series. Here’s what it covers. I’ll list the first of the nine achievements in each episode but leave the rest unmentioned so they’ll be surprises. However, I will state if I agree with the number one selections, so regard those paragraphs – which I’ll put in blue print to make it easy to skip them if you choose.
Home Runs: This one starts with Chris Chambliss’s 1976 swat that took the Yankees to the World Series for the first time in years. It includes notes from Chambliss, Yankees PR (1968-1977) Marty Appel, former Yankees manager Joe Torre, Yankees media relations (1996-2006) Rick Cerrone, Red Sox third base coach (1975) Don Zimmer, Elias Sports Bureau Executive VP Steve Hirdt, baseball historian John Thorn, reporters Terence Moore and Ira Berkow, broadcaster Bob Costas, former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, former Phillies manager Jim Fregosi, and players Aaron Boone, Carlton Fisk, Pete Rose, Fred Lynn, Dwight Evans, Hank Aaron, Dusty Baker, Al Downing, Kirk Gibson, Dennis Eckersley, Mitch Williams, Paul Molitor, Joe Carter, Bill Mazeroski, Johnny Blanchard, Ralph Branca, Willie Mays and Bobby Thomson.
Bobby Thomson’s 1951 “Shot Heard Round the World” wins here, and I can’t disagree with its selection. Some of the others are awfully good, though; Mazeroski’s 1960 World Series winner might be better. However, I can’t argue strongly against Thomson.
Unbreakable Records: For this show, we launch with Eric Gagne’s 84 consecutive saves. “Records” offers comments from Lynn, Rose, Thorn, Zimmer, writers Maury Allen, Peter Schmuck, Ray Ratto, Tim Sullivan, Michael Seidel and Tom Krasovic, Sporting News executive director John Rawlings, baseball historian Donald Honig, White Sox GM/Senior VP Ken Williams, President Bill Clinton, and players Luis Gonzalez, Al Leiter, John Smoltz, Joe DiMaggio, Jerry Coleman, Tommy Henrich, Tony Gwynn, Jose Cruz, Jr., Matt Williams, Nolan Ryan, Bert Blyleven, Frank Viola, Doug DeCinces, Mike Scott, Doug Glanville, Dave Stewart, Lou Brock, Billy Sample, Cal Ripken, Jr., Billy Ripken, Wally Joyner, Mark Teixiera, Jamie Moyer, Tom Glavine, and Jim Kaat.
Cy Young’s 511 career wins comes as the most unbreakable record, and I fully agree with that. Some of the others seem to be unbreakable too, but that one’s the biggest lock in baseball. It’s tough enough to get to 300 wins these days, much less another 200-plus past that.
Hitting Seasons: First comes Mike Piazza’s 1997 season in which he hit .362 despite the rigors of playing catcher. We find notes from Leiter, Thorn, Gonzalez, Smoltz, Glanville, Honig, Rawlings, Costas, Hirdt, Glavine, Ratto, MLB Network Insider Tom Verducci, MLB.com senior correspondent Hal Bodley, broadcaster Ernie Harwell, baseball historian Jules Tygiel, and players Bill Werber, Mickey Mantle, Harold Reynolds, Fred McGriff, Bobby Doerr, and Ted Williams.
Babe Ruth’s 1921 season – with 59 HR, a .378 average and an .846 slugging percentage – gets the nod. If we eliminated the steroids issue and took the stats on face value, I might prefer Barry Bonds’ 73 HR/.328/.863 in 2001. However, we must also consider the competition, and given that in 1921, Ruth hit more homers on his own than other teams, I can easily accept him as the winner here.
Best World Series: Here we launch with the 1955 battle between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. The show provides remarks from Coleman, Zimmer, Honig, Thorn, Mazeroski, Evans, Costas, Leiter, Matt Williams, Verducci, Rose, Fisk, Moore, Smoltz, Gonzalez, Glavine, Lynn, authors Leonard Koppett, Henry Thomas, Pete Hamill, and Mickey Herskowitz, and players Vern Law, Darryl Strawberry, Jeff Conine, Tim McCarver, Bernie Williams, Jack Morris, Johnny Bench and Kirby Puckett.
The 1975 Reds/Red Sox tilt gets picked as number one. That’s a good choice, though I would’ve selected number 2: the 1991 Braves/Twins Series. Without Fisk’s iconic Game Six home run, I don’t think 1975 places so high.
All-Star Moments: For this program, we begin with Cal Ripken, Jr.’s 2001 game, the last one of his career in which he homered in his first at-bat and won the Game’s MVP. In this one, we find thoughts from Cal Ripken, Bodley, Billy Ripken, Lynn, DeCinces, Rose, Strawberry, Schmuck, Harwell, Costas, Gwynn, McGriff, Conine, Verducci, Bernie Williams, Gonzalez, Honig, Ted Williams, Maury Allen, writers Nick Cafardo and Richard Justice, broadcaster Ed Randall, former Orioles manager Earl Weaver, former Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, Commissioner Bud Selig, and players Dale Murphy, Cecil Cooper, Mel Stottlemyre, Ray Fosse, Willie Horton, Bo Jackson, Bill Melton, Carl Hubbell and Barry Larkin.
This time, the 1934 game in which Carl Hubbell struck out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simons and Joe Cronin five straight gets the nod – and I agree. I figured it’d be number one, and I think it’s the right choice.
Comebacks: In this show, we open with the 1929 Philadelphia A’s World Series resurgence against the Cubs. We hear from Thorn, Honig, Costas, Bodley, McCarver, Verducci, Thomson, Schmuck, Evans, Stottlemyre, Strawberry, Lynn, Zimmer, Phillies historian Rich Westcott, Rockies manager Clint Hurdle, writers Art Thiel and Tom Krasowic, broadcaster Rick Rizzs, and players Jay Buhner, Vince Coleman, Mike Blowers, Don Sutton, Wally Joyner, Mookie Wilson, Reggie Jackson, Bucky Dent, Ron Guidry, Kevin Millar, and Dave Roberts.
The episode picks the 2004 ALCS in which the Red Sox came back from 3-0 against the Yankees. Given that I loathe the Sawx, I hate to agree, but I must. They were down to their last three outs in Game Four but won that one – and the next three, the first time in MLB history a team came back from a 3-0 playoff deficit. I still have nightmares about that awful event.
Pitching Seasons: Here we go with Steve Carlton’s 1972, in which he won more than 45 percent of the Phillies’ games that year – along with a 1.97 ERA and 310 strikeouts. We see Westcott, Evans, Eckersley, Reggie Jackson, Appel, Dent, Honig, Henry Thomas, Hirdt, Tygiel, Blyleven, Moore, Smoltz, Glavine, Gwynn, Stottlemyre, Zimmer, Baker,
former Braves Executive VP/GM John Schuerholz, Costas, Evans, Hirdt, Thorn, former Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst, and players Robin Roberts, Mike Schmidt, Johnny Bench, Gaylord Perry, Jim Fregosi, Dallas Green, Willie McCovey, Billy Williams, Ozzie Smith, Ralph Kiner, Larry Andersen, Bob Gibson, Tony Perez, Fergie Jenkins, Bob Feller, Eckersley, Bernie Williams, Reynolds, Cafardo,
This one uses Pedro Martinez’s 2000 season. That was a surprise, though I suspect Martinez got an era-related boost, since he had an awesome year a) in the DH-based AL and b) in the midst of the steroid era. I would’ve gone with Bob Gibson’s 1.12-ERA 1968, especially since it climaxed in a World Series win.
Regular Season Catches: That’s an unusual choice for a theme, and it opens with Derek Jeter’s July 1, 2004 extra innings snag against the Red Sox. The show provides remarks from Bernie Williams, Cal Ripken, Jr., Randall, Reynolds, Blowers, Rizzs, Randall, Sample, Blyleven, reporters Marty Noble, Nick Peters and Sweeny Murti, former Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly, former Giants manager Roger Craig, former Giants pitching coach Norm Sherry, and players LaTroy Hawkins, Jacque Jones, Torii Hunter, Barry Bonds, Dewayne Wise, Mark Buehrle, Chase Utley, David Wright, Aaron Rowand, Kevin Mitchell, Rex Hudler, Mike Pagliarulo, Gary Matthews, Jr., Lance Berkman, Michael Young, Luis Alicea, Mike Macfarlane, Darin Erstad, and Tim Salmon.
Jim Edmonds’ 1997 extra-bases robbing dive gets the nod here. Honestly, I don’t have a pick here – I never thought about the subject. Willie Mays’ famous 1954 “basket catch” is the best-known catch ever, but that was in the World Series, so it doesn’t qualify here.
Plays at the Plate: The final episode begins with the 1995 ALDS in which Ken Griffey, Jr., beat home a throw to win a big game. We hear from Rizzs, Buhner, Honig, DiMaggio, Allen, Thorn, Baker, Fisk, Conine, Costas, Torre, Hurdle, broadcasters Dave Niehaus, Pete Van Wieren and Gary Thorne, former Angels pitching coach Bud Black, writer Bill Madden, former Braves manager Bobby Cox, Jackie Robinson’s wife Rachel, filmmaker Ken Burns, and players JT Snow, Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Pierre, Derrek Lee, Derek Jeter, Sid Bream, Terry Pendleton, Troy Tulowitzki, Brian Fuentes, Matt Holliday, and Yogi Berra.
This show’s winner comes from the 1955 World Series in which Jackie Robinson stole home plate. Like the regular season catches program, I didn’t have a real opinion here. I do remember Sid Bream in the NLCS, though, which makes the chart.
A few years back, I watched a DVD called Baseball’s Most Unbreakable Feats. It used a structure similar to Prime 9; indeed, the “Unbreakable Records” episode features nine of the feats from the earlier DVD. Feats was consistently enjoyable, and Prime 9 is a delight as well.
Part of the fun stems from the nature of baseball fandom. Like I mentioned at the start, we love to discuss players and stats and accomplishments across eras. More than any other sport, baseball delights in facts and figures, and its status as a major sport for more than a century makes its history more ingrained in the culture. Sure, the NFL’s now more popular, but it lacks the same background.
This means that we can find many, many subjects to debate; the nine episodes here are “tip of the iceberg” territory, and it’s tough to decide which topics are the most fun. In theory, I should most enjoy the episodes in which I have firm opinions; those shows are most open for me to offer my own thoughts about the series’ selections.
And those programs are delightful. I think the series mostly got it right, as you can tell from the number of times I agree with their top selections. Even when I thought they should’ve chosen a different victor, I couldn’t strongly argue the winner.
However, it’s also fun to see the episodes that discuss topics less well known to me. As I mentioned earlier, I couldn’t offer my pick for the best regular season catch or the best play at the plate just because those aren’t topics that’ve really come to mind much. This means those programs are more educational than some of the others. I don’t need a recap of many of the World Series games or other events, as I already know them well, but a lot of the plays were new to me – or just lost in the mists of my memory.
Actually, the best catches show gets a little monotonous because so many of them are similar. I won’t say that when you see one homer-robbing catch, you’ve seen them all, but there’s a certain sameness that affects that show. It’s still cool to check out the remarkable plays, though.
The home plate based episode is a totally different beast. I assumed it’d be a whole bunch of Pete Rose/Ray Fosse-style slams, but that’s not the case at all. It’s the only show that includes a choice based on a failure, and it also provides a totally quirky one that featured a very young bat boy. Those threw it out of the norm and made it stand out as one of the better programs.
One interesting choice comes from the series’ refusal to let the same player qualify more than once for some of the feats. For instance, Babe Ruth gets only one citation in the best hitting season episode, even though he’d have qualified for more without that rule. I like this decision, as it prevents monotony from occurring; it’d get a little old to just see the same three players dominate an episode.
By the way, if so desired, I think the series could’ve given Nolan Ryan two of the unbreakable records. The show mentions his career strikeouts, but I suspect no one will ever equal or surpass his seven no-hitters; the second-place pitcher had four, and no current player has more than two. If no other pitcher in history could get more than 57 percent of the way to Ryan’s record, there’s a zero percent chance anyone will equal or top him.
But you can disagree, and that’s the fun of Prime 9. It offers its choices for the best ever in various baseball categories, and it doesn’t purport to be definitive. It gives us a good launching point for discussion and debate and throws out many nice insights and details along the way.