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Through Amalfitano's eyes, history has unfolded

From The Catch to Gibson's blast, baseball lifer has seen special moments firsthand

Joe Amalfitano is a star witness to baseball history. He didn't just see some of the game's most enduring moments in person. Amalfitano experienced them from what amounted to a front-row seat -- or even better, in most cases.

Amalfitano was a rookie with the New York Giants in 1954 when Willie Mays made his famous over-the-shoulder catch in Game 1 of the World Series. Seven years later, Mays borrowed a bat from Amalfitano to hit a record-tying four home runs on a Sunday afternoon at Milwaukee. Having migrated to the Cubs, Amalfitano was the next-to-last batter Sandy Koufax retired when the legendary left-hander threw his perfect game in 1965. Amalfitano stayed in the game as a coach after his playing career ended in 1967, and while coaching third base for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988, he was the first man to greet Kirk Gibson after his epic World Series home run.

Amalfitano's other experiences during 61 years in professional baseball include playing on the Giants team that opened Candlestick Park in 1960 and on the inaugural Houston Colt .45s expansion club in 1962. He also coached for such dynamic personalities as Leo Durocher and Tommy Lasorda. Now 81, Amalfitano remains active in the game as an assistant in player development with the Giants, serving as a roving instructor and special assignment scout.

Few possess a treasure trove of baseball experiences as rich as Amalfitano's. During Spring Training last month, he sat down with to share his memories of Mays' mastery, Koufax's masterpiece and Gibson's moment.

The Catch
Where: Polo Grounds, New York
When: Sept. 29, 1954
What: World Series Game 1

Video: Greatest World Series Moments: No. 9

Because he signed a valuable five-figure contract with the Giants early in 1954 -- "You could tip the guy in the men's room with that money today," he said -- Amalfitano had to spend his first two professional seasons in the Major Leagues, according to the rules of that era. He joined the talented yet inexperienced group of "bonus babies," who rarely left the bench. In fact, Amalfitano received only five plate appearances that season and struck out in four of them. Thus he had no chance of seeing action in the World Series when the Giants won the National League pennant and advanced to the World Series against the Cleveland Indians.

Given the Polo Grounds' cavernous dimensions (the center-field wall stood 483 feet from home plate), the Giants' bullpen was situated in fair territory in right-center field. It was there that Amalfitano sat, relegated to the role of bullpen catcher, when Vic Wertz drove a Don Liddle pitch to impossibly deep center, apparently far beyond Mays' reach. The Indians had runners on first and second with nobody out and the game tied at 2 in the eighth inning.

"Willie bolted, and all of a sudden from where I was, he started to drop it down a gear, which told me, 'He's tracking it, he's got it,'" said Amalfitano.

Amalfitano also saw Mays pound his glove, a Say Hey Kid gesture which meant that a catch was imminent.

Mays indeed grabbed the ball before whirling and throwing toward the infield. Larry Doby, Cleveland's runner on second base, tagged up and advanced only to third, testifying to the strength of Mays' throw.

"He planted his back foot, popped it back in there and his hat fell off," Amalfitano said. "There's that famous picture of him laying down there like he was doing pushups. How can you ever forget that? I can't."

Four four-baggers
Where: Milwaukee County Stadium
When: April 30, 1961
What: San Francisco Giants at Milwaukee Braves

Mays wasn't in the Giants' lineup for the series finale against Milwaukee. A serving of ribs he had devoured with roommate Willie McCovey the night before made him nauseous. But Amalfitano loathed the idea of the game's finest all-around player sitting idle.

Said Amalfitano, "I asked him, 'What are you, from 1 percent [healthy] to 100 percent?' Mays replied, 'Maybe 70.'"

As Amalfitano related, he told Mays, "Well, your 70 percent is going to be better than whoever goes out there for their 100 percent."

An encouraged Mays decided to take batting practice and determine whether he was fit to play. Due to his subpar physical condition, he used a 35-inch, 33-ounce Adirondack bat that he had given Amalfitano.

"It was too light for him," Amalfitano said. "I used it in batting practice because it was heavier than mine and I could try to get my hands going. When I hit it right in BP, the ball would go farther. It had two or three knots in the barrel and a nice wide grain."

Mays had his bat du jour and put himself in the lineup, both at Amalfitano's urging.

Facing Milwaukee right-hander Lew Burdette, Mays homered in the first and third innings. He lined out to center field off Moe Drabowsky in the fifth inning before homering again off Seth Morehead in the sixth, a three-run drive that put the Giants ahead, 11-3.

"After the third one, he said, 'Don't let anyone touch that bat,'" Amalfitano said.

Mays again homered off Don McMahon in the eighth to conclude the scoring in the Giants' 14-4 victory. He became the seventh Major Leaguer since 1900 to hit four homers in a game.

Mays continued to use the lighter bat when the Giants played their next game two days later at Chicago's Wrigley Field. But he got jammed with a pitch and broke it.

Sandy is dandy
Where: Dodger Stadium
When: Sept. 9, 1965
What: Chicago Cubs at Los Angeles Dodgers

Video: 9/9/65 [email protected]: Koufax fans 14 in perfect game

As the ninth inning neared and the string of zeros lengthened across the scoreboard, Amalfitano sensed that he would be summoned to pinch-hit. He had gone 2-for-2 against Koufax earlier that season. Sure enough, when the ninth inning arrived with Koufax protecting a 1-0 lead, Amalfitano was told to grab a bat. He hit for Don Kessinger with Koufax needing two outs to complete his perfect game.

Amalfitano believed that Koufax would throw him a first-pitch curveball. That conviction grew as he stepped into the batter's box and Koufax shook off a sign from catcher Jeff Torborg, then another, and another, and another.

"He started adding, subtracting, multiplying," Amalfitano said. "I thought, 'He's shaking to the curve.'"

Naturally, Koufax fired a fastball which Amalfitano took for a strike. He looked back at plate umpire Ed Vargo and Torborg and said, "That ball sounded inside." Vargo and Torborg laughed. Two pitches later, the laughter had long since faded as Amalfitano struck out.

Retreating to the dugout, Amalfitano encountered another pinch-hitter, Harvey Kuenn, who would retire as a lifetime .303 hitter.

"How's he throwing?" Kuenn asked.

"He's getting it up there," Amalfitano warned.

Kuenn was unfazed: "Wait for me. I'll be right back."

Five pitches later, Kuenn was Koufax's sixth consecutive strikeout victim, and the perfect game was entrenched in history.

"Back-door slider"
Where: Dodger Stadium
When: Oct. 15, 1988
What: World Series Game 1

Video: '88 WS, Gm 1: Gibson's pinch-hit, walk-off home run

Given the frequency of the replays of Gibson's pinch-hit, two-run walk-off homer off Dennis Eckersley to beat the Oakland A's, 5-4, one would think Amalfitano would be much more recognizable.

"The only trouble is, they cut it out when he gets between second and third," Amalfitano said.

At least Amalfitano had plenty of time to react. With injuries to his left hamstring and right knee, Gibson was forced to hobble around the bases. Amalfitano realized that, as third-base coach, he had a chance to be the first person to congratulate Gibson -- if he stood his ground. His instinct was to join the masses at home plate.

"All hell broke loose," Amalfitano said. "All the guys came out of the dugout. I was going to home plate and stopped and said, 'Wait a minute, this one's going down in history.' So I went back to third and shook his hand."

Amalfitano pounded Gibson once, then twice, in triumph.

"He said to me, 'Back-door slider, Joe,'" said Amalfitano.

That was the pitch which Dodgers scout Mel Didier told players that Eckersley would throw to left-handed hitters on a full count. Amalfitano praised Gibson: "He had the aptitude and the attention to remember what was said the day before in the meeting."

Chris Haft is a reporter for Read his blog, Haft-Baked Ideas, and follow him on Twitter at @sfgiantsbeat.
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