When Terry Puhl rapped a base hit to right field in the eighth inning of Game 5 of the 1980 National League Championship Series (NLCS), the Melville, Sask., native set a new record for most hits in an NLCS.
It was Puhl’s 10th hit of that grueling, five-game battle between the Astros and the Phillies.
“I got down to first base and they flashed up on the scoreboard that I had just broken Pete Rose’s record (for most hits in an NLCS),” recalled Puhl, “and Pete Rose just happened to be at first base for the Phillies. And he looks at me and says, ‘TP, that’s what records are all about. They’re made to be broken.’”
Unfortunately, Puhl couldn’t savor his accomplishment for long. The Phillies would prevail in that nail-biting contest, winning 8-7 in 10 innings – the fourth consecutive game to go into extra frames – to eliminate the Astros. Puhl finished the NLCS with a .526 batting average and an astounding 1,222 OPS. Thirty years later, it remains the best performance by a Canadian in a post-season series.
“I was seeing the ball well,” said Puhl in a phone interview from his office at Sanders, Morris, Harris Group Inc. in Houston, where he now works as a stockbroker. “The hardest ball I hit the whole series was my last out. (Gary) Maddox ran it down in right centre.”
The fact that Puhl didn’t start the first game of the series makes his performance even more remarkable. The left-handed hitting Canuck began the post-season platooning in right field with Gary Woods. But when Cesar Cedeno suffered an ankle injury in Game 3, Puhl became the Astros’ every day leadoff hitter and shifted from right field to centre field.
“At the end of that series, I was sick for a week. I was in bed for a week because I was so exhausted,” said Puhl. “I was running on three or four hours sleep, because you’re so wound up. You’d be up so late thinking over the last game and then the next thing you know, you’d be up early in the morning because you couldn’t sleep. You were just wired. I think all of that kind of caught up to me at the end and I was literally sick for about a week after that series.”
But despite losing the series and the physical toll it exacted on him, Puhl has fond memories of that post-season.
“That series is just a wonderful memory, not just for myself but for our entire ball club, from what we accomplished, from moving through 1979 to 1980,” he said. “That was just a team that grew together and we still have many great memories. When we see each other, it’s almost like we’re right back there again.”
Setting a record for most hits in an NLCS was something that Puhl could’ve only dreamed about when he was growing up in Melville. He started playing baseball at age six, but rarely competed outside of his hometown. But armed with a strong work ethic and a passion for the game, he evolved into an elite prospect and was signed by Astros scout Wayne Morgan after leading his hometown squad to a national midget title in Barrhead, Alberta in 1973.
After spending parts of four seasons in the minors, he would make his big league debut on July 13, 1977 in front of more than 17,000 fans at the Astrodome. Literally shaking when he took the field, the speedy youngster calmed his nerves enough to record his first hit and score the game-winning run. It proved to be a sign of good things to come for the 21-year-old rookie who would go on to hit .301 that season.
Over the next seven seasons, he would develop into the Astros’ most reliable outfielder. Rarely flashy, the quiet, hardworking Canuck, an all-star in 1978, was once described by manager Bill Virdon as “incredibly mistake-free” and “the most coachable” player he had ever worked with.
Unfortunately this steady, fundamentally sound style may have worked against Puhl. While he owns the third best fielding percentage (.993) by an outfielder (that has played at least 1,000 games) in major league history, Puhl was never rewarded with a Gold Glove.
“That’s really one of my biggest disappointments in the game because that makes no sense,” said Puhl about his Gold Glove snub. “How can I not win at least one? I just think somebody was not doing their job properly. Somewhere along the line, they could have snuck one in for me. I mean, I had two or three years (writer’s note: six seasons actually) where I didn’t even make an error.”
Puhl was no slouch at the plate either. During his 15-year big league career, he hit .280, recorded 1,361 hits, 226 doubles and 217 stolen bases. He still ranks close to the top in most all-time offensive categories amongst Canadian players.
The reliable outfielder worked to obtain his stockbroker’s license while he was still playing, so life after baseball was only a mild adjustment for the Saskatchewan native. In his current role as head coach of the University of Houston Victoria’s baseball team, Puhl continues to be involved with the game.
Despite living in Texas, Puhl, now 54, returns to Canada regularly. In 1994, he was inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame and in 1995 he was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont. He also managed the Canadian national team at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Puhl, whose hits record was broken when the NLCS format was expanded to a best four-out-of seven, finds himself cheering for two of his former teammates this post-season. He’s happy for Nolan Ryan and the Texas Rangers and he’s also cheering for Bruce Bochy and the San Francisco Giants.
“Bruce and I were teammates in Double-A in Columbus, Georgia. We used to go to the ball games together. He’d picked me up in his blue Chevy Nova. I still remember that blue Chevy Nova. The man would drive the car so fast,” said Puhl. “Bruce is a great guy, I’m just thrilled for him.”
Bochy had one at bat in that memorable NLCS 30 years ago. The 1980 Astros reunited to mark the 25th anniversary of the club in 2005, but there was no reunion this year to commemorate the 30th anniversary.
“When they replay Game 5 (from the 1980 NLCS) down here on ESPN Classic, we still always lose that game,” joked Puhl. “I watch it through the first five or six innings, and then I say to myself, ‘You know how this one ends.’”