Walking in from the bullpen at Riverfront Stadium that muggy Wednesday evening, Rick Wise knew he was in for some trouble. He’d been fighting the flu for days. In his previous start at Shea Stadium, he’d wheezed through five innings, allowing seven hits to the light-hitting Mets in a 6-5 loss to his Phillies. He still felt lousy.
“But it was my turn to take the ball,” Wise says. “So I was going to take the ball, because nobody much cared if you were feeling 100 percent. If it’s your day, it’s your day. “
The bullpen session had been terrible. His warm-ups before the bottom of the first were just as bad. Somehow, he induced Pete Rose and George Foster to ground out, and struck out Lee May. He walked to the figuring dugout he’d just gotten away with larceny.
“It felt like my ball was stopping midway to the plate,” Wise recalls over the telephone with a chuckle from his longtime home in Beaverton, Ore. “I mean, I had nothing.”
Larry Bowa, playing shortstop that night, backs up that memory.
“Practically a funny game, though,” Bowa says. “The nights you feel terrible, sometimes those are the nights you do something amazing.”
Across the next 90 minutes that June 23 of 1971, the heat helped Wise, sweating away his misery. Cincinnati, defending NL champs, was scuffling that year but still the Big Red Machine of lore: Rose, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, May, Hal McRae. But they were also jumpy, hacking at lots of first pitches.
Meanwhile, Wise did what pitchers have always longed to do when allowed to take a slot in a batting order: help his own cause. In the top of the fifth, Ross Grimsley hung a high slider and Wise drilled it over the left-field fence, turning a 1-0 lead to 3-0. He retired the first 16 Reds he faced, then allowed a walk to Dave Concepcion. Usually a fly ball pitcher, he handcuffed everyone; Only five balls left the infield.
“But you always knew one thing when you faced those Reds,” Wise says, “you never could score too many runs against them.”
So Wise did what he could to help: Leading off the eighth, he worked a 2-0 count against Clay Carroll, then looked down to third-base coach George Myatt who immediately turned his back. “I took that as a green light,” Wise said. And when Carroll grooved one, Wise clobbered that, too.
“One of those nights,” Wise says.
“Just thrilling to watch,” says Bowa.
It was more than that. It was, unquestionably, one of the greatest games a player ever enjoyed. In the ninth, one out to go, Pete Rose slapped a full-count fastball straight into John Vukovich’s glove at third. Think of it: A no-hitter. Two home runs. Ninety-four pitches. Against the most celebrated offensive team of the 1970s. All in a tidy 1 hour and 53 minutes.
The DH came to the American League two years later, and will inevitably become law in the NL, too – and could be permanent by the time the next CBA is ratified. And that will make it official, and forever.
June 23, 1971: The best day a pitcher ever had.
“It’s very proud of that game,” Wise says, still amazed in his voice 49 years later. “The only player in history to throw a no-no and have two home runs. You’re really something. ”
Wise was no fluke with the bat. He hit six homers that ’71 year, 15 for his career. One of his biggest disappointments was playing four years for the Red Sox (leading them with 19 wins in 1975; winning epic Game 6 in relief) and never got a crack at Fenway’s left-field wall.
“It feels like you could just tap it over that monster,” he says, “and as a pitcher, it’s certainly well aware of that. Broke my heart to never take aim at it. “
Wise had a terrific career, 188-181 across 18 seasons with five teams, including his first-ever win on June 21, 1964 – a nightcap of a Father’s Day doubleheader in which Jim Bunning pitched a perfect game against the Mets in the opener.
“Rick was a battler,” Bowa says. “He was trading the next year straight-up for Steve Carlton and you look at that now differently than you did then. They were two very good pitchers. It seemed like an absolute even trade. “
But even Lefty, for all 329 wins and 4,136 strikeouts, never had a day quite like Rick Wise did on June 23, 1971. Because nobody ever did.
“I just wanted to give my team a chance to win every time I pitched,” Wise says, and no pitcher has ever better lived up to that credo. And none will ever.