John Sullivan has lost track of how many baseballs he caught during his 35-year professional baseball career. Certainly tens of thousands. Maybe even hundreds of thousands. But the man known as Sully will never, ever forget the one he snagged on Oct. 23, 1993, at precisely 11:36 p.m. in the Toronto stadium then known as SkyDome. For at that moment, the longtime Dansville resident and onetime Rochester Red Wings catcher didn't merely get his hands on a baseball. He caught a piece of history.
Sullivan was a coach warming up a pitcher in the Blue Jays bullpen beyond the leftfield wall that autumn night when he heard the crack of a bat and saw a baseball streak over his head. It bounced once before ricocheting off the back wall of the pen and into his catcher's mitt.
"Barely had to move my glove,'' the 72-year-old recalled recently.
Sullivan was too caught up in the bedlam of the moment to realize its significance at the time. Ball in hand, he and his fellow Blue Jays tore off for home plate to join in the celebration of Joe Carter's World Series-winning home run.
It wasn't until about an hour later, after the fireworks had stopped exploding and the champagne showers had ceased and the media herd had left the home team's clubhouse, that Sullivan was able to put things into historical context. For only the second time in the 90-year history of the Fall Classic, a World Series had ended on a home run. Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski, who beat the New York Yankees in the 1960 Series with a bottom-of-the-ninth, Game Seven blast, was the only other player to accomplish the feat.
Representatives from the Baseball Hall of Fame were in Toronto that night, hoping to return to Cooperstown with artifacts from the monumental finish. One of them asked Sullivan if he knew the whereabouts of the ball. The Jays bullpen coach played dumb.
"I had stashed it in my locker because I wanted Joe to have it, and then he could decide what to do with it," Sullivan said. "Once things died down in the clubhouse, I called Joe over and told him I had something for him. When I gave him the ball, he was all smiles."
The historic homer put an exclamation point on that Series triumph against the Philadelphia Phillies and on Sullivan's career. He had been a baseball lifer. During his 14-year playing career-including 116 games in the majors-he wore the uniforms of 13 different teams. In the summer of 1969, he donned the Red Wings double knits, batting .253 with four homers and 44 runs batted in for manager Cal Ripken Sr. It was during that season that Sullivan had an opportunity to experience the friendliness of Dansville, wife Betsy's hometown. After his playing career ended in 1972, the couple decided to make the Livingston County town their permanent home.
Sullivan was able to spend his falls and winters there, but his springs and summers would be spent coaching and managing in minor-league burgs such as Kings-port, Tenn., Waterloo, Iowa, and Omaha, Neb. Everywhere he went, his teams won, and in 1979 his stellar work was rewarded when he joined the Kansas City Royals as a bullpen coach. He spent a season with them and then two seasons with the Atlanta Braves before hooking on with the Blue Jays.
One of the highlights of his life came in 1992 when the Blue Jays won the World Series. Sullivan was not a man to show his emotions, but he couldn't keep them in check after the Jays defeated the Braves.
"There were tears in his eyes," recalled Toronto's ace reliever Duane Ward. "I'll never forget his words. He said, 'Son, I've been waiting 34 years for this moment. You can't believe how good I feel.' We hugged each other. I felt so good for him."
Weary of the travel and stymied by arthritic joints, Sullivan decided the next year would be his last. And what a swan song it was. "I couldn't have written a better ending," he said.
Jim Bouton wrote that he spent his whole life gripping a baseball only to find out in the end that it was the other way around. And so it was with Sullivan. The spring after his retirement from the Jays, he began volunteering as a baseball coach at Dansville High School. Next spring will mark his 20th consecutive year of helping young people learn about the game and how it's a metaphor for life.
Sullivan still enjoys baseball's chess-move challenges. The old catcher, coach and manager loves watching games on television and deciphering what's going to happen next. "It's funny. I'll say something to my wife about how so-and-so is probably going to throw such-and-such a pitch, and then the announcers will say the same thing, and she'll start laughing," he said. "I can't help it, but I guess I enjoy managing the games from my living room."
As he watches the St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox tangle in this year's World Series, he thinks back to his own Series experience, especially the unforgettable October night that remains as vivid as 20 seconds ago, rather than 20 years ago.
On that night, Sullivan made the most memorable stab of his life. He grabbed a piece of history.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak's 16th book, a collaboration with rock 'n' roll legend Lou Gramm titled "Juke Box Hero," is available at amazon.com and in bookstores. He provides analysis following Bills games on WROC-TV and is a correspondent for USA Today SportsWeekly.
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