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30 years ago Steve Jeltz made Jim Rooker walk home

On June 8, 1989, the Phillies pulled off one of the unlikeliest comebacks in team history.

In 1989, the Phillies were in the midst of some very dark times. They were six years removed from their last playoff appearance, the farm system was barren and the big league club was playing last place baseball. They also played their home games at Veterans Stadium, not exactly the most enjoyable place to take in three hours of base balling.

But 30 years ago today, June 8, 1989, the Phillies treated fans to a game they would never forget — a day in which the name Steve Jeltz would be etched into Phillies lore forever.

In Pittsburgh and nationally, the contest between the Pirates and Phils that day is known as “The Jim Rooker Game.” But in Philadelphia, it’s the game in which light-hitting shortstop Steve Jeltz shocked everyone by hitting two home runs, one from each side of the plate, leading the Phils from a 10-0 first inning deficit to a 15-11 victory.

As the Phillies entered play on June 8th, they were staring down the barrel of another lost season. They were 20-34 in last place in the six-team NL East, 11 games behind the eventual division winning Chicago Cubs. Just prior to the Pirates coming to town, they had suffered through an 11-game losing streak.

But the Pirates were also bad. They were in the midst of a seven-game losing streak that began on May 31, the last game of a home stand against the Cincinnati Reds, continued through a three-game sweep at the hand of the Mets and then the first three games of their four-game series to the Phillies. The entered June 8 with a record of 21-33, just one game better than the Phillies.

These were two bad teams going at it, although the Pirates were a team on the ascension, as evidenced by the lineup they threw out there against the Phils in the series finale.

Barry Bonds LF

Jose Lind 2B

Andy Van Slyke CF

Bobby Bonilla 3B

Gary Redus RF

Jeff King 1B

Rey Quinones SS

Junior Ortiz C

Bob Walk SP

The Phillies meanwhile, went with this lineup...

Randy Ready 3B

Tom Herr 2B

Von Hayes 1B

John Kruk LF

Juan Samuel CF

Dwayne Murphy RF

Dickie Thon SS

Darren Daulton C

Larry McWilliams SP

And right from the start, it looked like the Pirates were going to have the Phils’ number.

Larry McWilliams, the Phils’ starter, was a swing guy in 1989, alternating between a relief role and a being a starter. The 35-year-old lefty appeared in 40 games for the Phils that year, 16 of them starts, and went 2-11 with a 4.10 ERA and a 3.51 FIP. He struck out just four batters per nine innings and walked 3.7, and would eventually be traded to the Royals later in the season.

McWilliams was overwhelmed by the young Pittsburgh lineup. Andy Van Slyke and Gary Redus hit RBI singles in the 1st, and Rey Quinones hit a two-run double to make it 4-0. That brought on Steve Onteveros, who pitched just six games for the Phillies in ‘89. This was his lone relief appearance, and it did not go well. He gave up a walk, an RBI single to the pitcher, Bob Walk, and then a two run homer to Barry Bonds to make it 9-0. The Pirates tacked on another run in the inning to make it 10-0 after one inning of play.

McWilliams’ final line read one-third of an inning, six earned runs allowed on four hits and two walks. Ontiveros was charged with the remaining four runs in the inning.

It was at this point Pirates radio color man Jim Rooker entered the picture. After the Pirates went up by 10 in the 1st, in the middle of the seven-game losing streak, in the final game of their road trip before heading home, he turned to his broadcast partner John Sanders and said, “If we don’t win this one, I don’t think I’d want to on that plane ride home. Matter of fact, if we don’t win, I’ll walk back to Pittsburgh!”

Jim Rooker was a former Major League pitcher who played from 1968 to 1980, playing for the Tigers, Royals and Pirates. He became linked to Pittsburgh after winning the World Series with the “We Are Family” Pirates in ‘79 and was their color commentator from 1981 through 1993. He spent some time with ESPN from 1994 to 1997, and is now an author of children’s books!

The Phillies, on this night, would make Rooker eat his frustrated words.

Facing Walk, who started Game 1 of the World Series for the Phillies in 1980 by the way, Randy Ready led off the bottom of the 1st with a walk, Tommy Herr lined out and Von Hayes then hit a two-run bomb to make it 10-2. But this was still a laugher. The Pirates didn’t need to worry. An 8-run lead? Insurmountable.

All remained quiet until the bottom of the 3rd, when Von Hayes hit his second homer of the game, with Steve Jeltz on first. That made it a 10-4 ballgame, still in just the 3rd inning. But the Pirates still had a six-run lead, and the data suggests the Pirates still had a 95% chance of winning the game. Certainly, Rooker wasn’t concerned.

Then, in the bottom of the 4th, with Walk still in the game, things started to get a little crazy when Jeltz came to the plate, hitting from the left side against the right-handed hurler, with a runner on.

Coming into the 1989 season, Jeltz had hit ONE CAREER home run in 1612 plate appearances and 537 games and had posted a slash line of .208/.306/.260 for his career. But in 1989... he exploded for four home runs in the clearest indication that the baseballs might have been juiced that season. Jeltz actually finished with a .243 batting average and an OBP of .356 in ‘89, giving him an OPS+ of 101 and a WAR of 1.5 WAR, by far the highest of his career.

Well, Jeltz smoked a Walk pitch into the right-center field stands to make it 10-6 in the 4th, and the Phillies were officially back in the ballgame. Andy Van Slyke would answer with an RBI double in the top of the 5th that made it 11-6, but the Phils showed that, on this random night, they would not be deterred.

A VERY young Darren Daulton led off against left-hander Bob Kipper and worked a walk, Greg Harris executed a sacrifice bunt for some reason, down five runs, and Randy Ready walked. That brought Jeltz back to the plate, hitting right-handed this time. Jeltz then did the unthinkable (Jeltz’ 2nd homer at 43:02).

In two plate appearances, Jeltz had doubled his career home run total by launching a three-run bomb to left-center that made it an 11-9 ballgame.

Jeltz became the 27th National League player and 81st MLB player to homer from both sides of the plate in the same game, and the first Phillie to EVER do it. If you could have lined up every player in Phils history and asked to point out the least likely to do it, Jeltz would have to be at the top of the list.

A few other Phils have done it since then. Another unlikely source, Tomas Perez, became the second Phillie to pull off the feat, in July of 2001. Jimmy Rollilns did it twice, first in 2006 and then in 2011, and Freddy Galvis did it in 2017.

Clearly riding the wave of Jeltz’ two dingers, the Phillies were not done in that inning. Down two runs, Ricky Jordan hit an RBI single later in the inning to make it 11-10.

All remained quiet until the bottom of the 8th. Down a run, facing Jeff Robinson, Von Hayes grounded out, but Kruk hit a single to center and Juan Samuel and Bob Dernier walked. Robinson then uncorked a wild pitch that tied things up at 11-11. Dickie Thon was intentionally walked, loading the bases with one out for a baby-faced Daulton, who came through with the biggest blow of the game, a two-run, Astro-Turf-aided single gave the Phillies an incredible 13-11 lead. Curt Ford (CURT FORD!!!) then followed with a two-run triple that almost turned into an inside-the-park home run that made it 15-11.

Former Cy Young Award-winning closer Steve Bedrosian then shut the Pirates down in the top of the 9th to secure one of the most remarkable victories in Phillies history.

At the end of the day, the Phillies scored 15 runs on 15 hits and 9 walks. Don Carman, who pitched 1.1 innings of scoreless relief, got the victory, Jeltz and Hayes both hit two homers, Jeltz had five RBIs, and Hayes had four, while Kruk went 4-for-5. The Pirates scored 11 runs on 14 hits and six walks.

This game didn’t help either team in the standings in 1989 as both teams left that day with identical 21-34 records. Both would miss the playoffs by a wide margin, however, the seeds of some great Pittsburgh teams were there that day. Bonds, Van Slyke, Bonilla, and Lind were all big parts of the team that would go on to win three straight division titles from 1990-92. And of course there were a couple Phils from the ‘93 team in the lineup here, Daulton and Kruk, and Lenny Dykstra would arrive soon via trade.

Jeltz would play one more season in the Majors, with the Kansas City Royals in 1990, before calling it a career. Jeltz would later go on to do a number of different things outside of baseball in retirement, including a stint as a bounty hunter!

As for Rooker, he didn’t walk home that night but, as a man of word, he did make the trek from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh on foot a few months later. In just shy of two weeks, Rooker and a friend covered the 320 miles between Philly and Pittsburgh. starting at the Vet on October 5 and finishing at Three Rivers Stadium on Oct. 17. ABC’s “Good Morning America” covered Rooker’s departure from the Vet, as the national media picked up the feel-good story of a broadcaster enjoyably making good on his boastful promise. The walk also raised thousands of dollars for the Bob Prince Charities and Children’s Hospital.

The Phillies’ 15-11, comeback win on June 8, 1989, was one of those fun moments from some lost years that seemed to pop up with absolutely no warning. As a kid who grew up watching a team that always seemed so far away from the postseason, these kinds of games stick out in the memory banks. To see Steve Jeltz, the lightest hitting baseball player you could ever imagine, become the first Phillie to switch-hit homers from both sides of the plate in the same game, all while helping the team overcome a 10-0 deficit and force a broadcast to walk across the Keystone State, well, that’s a game worth remembering.