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Friday, December 21, 2007
Updated: December 28, 11:02 AM ET
Vern Ruhle, 1951-2007

By Jeff Pearlman
Special to Page 2

The baseball hung in the air …

… and fell, barely a second passing from the time it left Garry Maddox's bat and landed in the glove of one Vernon Gerald Ruhle, a starting pitcher for the Houston Astros and the man asked to shut down Philadelphia in Game 4 of the 1980 National League Championship Series.

Vern Ruhle
Vern Ruhle, who joined the Reds organization as a coach in 2004, was 67-88 in his major league career from 1974-1986.

Or did it?

With Phillies on first and second and nobody out in the fourth inning of a scoreless game, Maddox's soft bip rose off his bat handle and floated toward Ruhle's left. The pitcher reached out his glove and appeared to have made the grab. When plate umpire Doug Harvey gave the no-catch signal, however, Philadelphia's Bake McBride and Manny Trillo bolted from second and first bases, respectively. Ruhle proceeded to throw to first base for an out as the runners advanced.

Pretty basic stuff, right? Right?

Uh, right?

First-base umpire Ed Vargo said Ruhle did, in fact, catch the ball and therefore what was momentarily a single out was now a double play. As Philadelphia manager Dallas Green and his legions stormed the field to protest, Astros first baseman Art Howe ran to second base and tagged the bag to complete what Houston claimed was a triple play.

Enter: Bedlam.

Phillies yelled at Astros. Astros yelled at Phillies. Green went classic crazy on the umps and the fans went classic crazy on Green.

When emotions cooled, the umpires met with NL President Chub Feeney and -- after a lengthy delay -- decided to send McBride back to second and allow the double play to stand.

Green protested the game.

Astros manager Bill Virdon protested the game.

Ruhle, well, he could only laugh. That was ol' Vern.

"See how long my glove is?" he joked afterward.

"I felt I made the play," he added. "My glove is long and it might have looked like the ball bounced off the ground when it really was just bouncing from the front of my glove to the back. I didn't really feel it, but that's because my fingers are so far away from the front of the glove."

In the end, it mattered little. The Phillies won the game, won the NLCS and, 10 days later, beat Kansas City to win the World Series. But for Ruhle, who in January died at age 55 of complications from a donor stem cell transplant during treatment of multiple myeloma, that game -- that memorably controversial moment -- makes him significantly more than a four-team journeyman with a 67-88 record and 3.73 ERA.

No, it freezes Ruhle in time, back to an era when the Astros dressed their players like Froot Loops boxes and men named Cedeño and Sambito and Ashby temporarily turned gridiron-obsessed Houston into a baseball town and an otherwise forgettable 29-year-old right-hander found himself in the center of a storm.

Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer. You can reach him at anngold22@gmail.com.