Julio Gonzalez gave me _ and all Cardinals fans _ a Christmas-like gift on Easter.
Now, 30 years later, I’m returning the favor, offering this blog item in tribute to Gonzalez, who turns 60 on Christmas Day.
A seldom-used reserve infielder with St. Louis in 1981 and ’82, Gonzalez is a Cardinals player I’ll never forget. His improbable ninth-inning triple ignited a winning streak that put the Cardinals on the path to the 1982 National League pennant and a World Series championship.
After winning their season opener at Houston, beating Nolan Ryan, the Cardinals erased most of the good vibes from that victory by losing their next three.
On April 11, 1982, a chilly, gray Easter Sunday in St. Louis, the Cardinals were looking to get back on track against the Pirates.
I was among the 14,819 attending that day at Busch Stadium II. The Cardinals led 5-1 after seven innings. But the Pirates scored four in the eighth to tie and a run in the ninth to take a 6-5 lead.
After reliever Enrique Romo retired the first two batters, George Hendrick and Darrell Porter, in the bottom of the ninth, it appeared inevitable the Cardinals would lose their fourth in a row.
When Manager Whitey Herzog sent Orlando Sanchez, a third-string catcher, to pinch-hit for center fielder David Green, it seemed more desperation than inspiration.
Sanchez, though, coaxed a walk.
That brought up Gonzalez, who had entered in the top of the ninth to play third base after Mike Ramsey had been lifted for a pinch-hitter in the eighth. Gonzalez had produced only seven hits for the Cardinals in 1981. Now, he was batting for just the second time in 1982.
With one unlikely swing, Gonzalez turned around the Cardinals’ season.
He tripled to left, scoring pinch-runner Gene Roof with the tying run. Then, he scored the game-winner when Dane Iorg followed an Ozzie Smith walk with a single to left, lifting St. Louis to a 7-6 victory. Boxscore
Inspired, the Cardinals rolled to a 12-game winning streak that put their record at 13-3. That early-season surge helped propel them to their first postseason appearance in 14 years.
Despite his Easter heroics, Gonzalez rarely played after that. But he did finish with a flourish.
On Oct. 3, 1982, in the Cardinals’ regular-season finale against the Cubs at Wrigley Field, Gonzalez entered in the third inning as a replacement for second baseman Tommy Herr. Gonzalez went 4-for-5 and led off the 14th inning with a home run, giving the Cardinals a 5-4 victory. Boxscore
It would be the last at-bat of his Cardinals career.
Gonzalez didn’t play in the 1982 postseason. He was released in December after batting .241 (21-for-97) in 42 games for the ’82 Cardinals. The Tigers signed him and he played in 12 games for them in 1983, ending his big-league career after seven seasons.
For me, though, his only statistic that matters is that Easter Sunday triple. I still remember the feeling of utter surprise and joy at seeing him deliver that hit _ and what it eventually meant for the Cardinals.
Happy birthday, Julio, and merry Christmas.