The Game After The Storm

It was 10 years ago tonight—July 19, 2006—that I had the best seats I’ve ever had for a baseball game, and it was one of the wildest nights I’ve spent at the ballpark.

My brother, who at that time worked for Anheuser Busch, which at that time was one of the better employers in St. Louis, somehow secured the AB Diamond Box tickets for that night and he gave them to me. Right next to the Cardinals’ dugout, just behind the photographers’ well. Truly amazing seats.

IMG_3568IMG_3573Unfortunately, as the players were finishing their pre-game warmups, the skies darkened, and it was clear—from the gray clouds in the background and from the weather radar that was put up on the scoreboard—that it was going to be a while before any baseball was played. The players rushed off the field, and, as the rain started to fall, the fans left the stands for relative safety inside.

 

As you can see from this video, “relative” is the operative word. The wind was whipping at near-tornadic strength, it seemed, and somebody got clobbered by this trash can. I was somewhere in that crowd, safe from the winds and the flying dumpsters.

IMG_3581The storm finally ended, and it was time to assess the damage. Unfortunately, the tarp covering home plate had been ripped up by the winds, so a long time was spent making repairs to the batters’ boxes. Finally, things got under way. The Cardinals played well; “Jimmy Baseball” Edmonds hit a home run, and they ended up beating the Braves 8-3.

(The night didn’t end so well for us, however; we got home to find that our power had gone out in the storm, along with much of the surrounding area. Luckily for us, though, it came on again the next morning. We’ve definitely had worse outages.)

A Not-So-Fictional Character

mets logoIn 1984, Jean and I flew to New York for my friend Geoff’s wedding. Our U.S. Air flight back to Chicago had a stopover in Pittsburgh. As we arrived at our gate at La Guardia, there was an unusual buzz in the terminal; the gate people were all smiling, and  there were lots of people signing autographs.

Before too long, we figured out that the autograph-signers were members of the New York Mets, gathering at the airport for their next road trip. And when it was time to board the plane, it turned out that they were on our flight, going to Pittsburgh for a series against the Pirates.

I had an aisle seat; across the aisle from me was a guy I didn’t initially recognize, but next to him was Keith Hernandez, who just a year earlier had been dealt from the Cardinals to the Mets in a very controversial trade. During the flight, while the other players were chattering and joking much of the time, Hernandez was for the most part pretty quiet in his seat, doing the crosswords and other puzzles in the paper. Also during the flight, I figured out that the other guy in our row was pitcher Mike Torrez.

Mike-Torrez
Mike Torrez as a Met (photo from Mets360.com)

It just so happens that the Mets had just wrapped up a series with the Cardinals in New York. As I read in my own paper, the previous day was a particularly tough game for the Mets: Torrez pitched a great game, giving up only one run over eight innings, but the Cardinals’ pitcher, Dave LaPoint, did even better, with a nine-inning shutout, and the Mets lost 1-0. (I love the Internet; it took me about 15 seconds to call up the box score for the game.) Even more heartbreaking for Torrez, it dropped him to 0-5 for the season, and it was one of the last games he played in the majors; he ended up being released by the Mets just a few weeks later and his career was all but over.

I didn’t make him feel any better, as you’ll see in a minute.

This was in the days when St. Louisans still liked Hernandez. He’d had a great career with the Cardinals, and was a leader on the team that one the 1982 World Series. We didn’t know, in 1983, why Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog wanted to trade him so badly that he took only two nobodies in return. Early in 1985, however, Hernandez was implicated in a cocaine scandal, and we all found out what it was that Herzog had suspected. All kinds of revelations hit the fan around the time Hernandez was forced to testify in court. One thing that Herzog said I thought was funny; he said that rather than taking a leadership role with the team, Hernandez would sit in the clubhouse and do crossword puzzles.

That’s my Keith!

That was the smallest of the revelations; Hernandez didn’t have much nice to say about Herzog in return, and he quickly went from a tragic hero to Public Enemy No. 1 in St. Louis.

Anyway, back to the plane ride. I was talking with Torrez a little during the flight, about what, I can’t remember. Probably about the rarity of them taking a non-charter flight. When we landed in Pittsburgh, all the Mets got up to get off, and I mentioned to Hernandez that we missed him in St. Louis. “Well, there are some things we can’t do anything about,” he said.

The thing is, Torrez was also a former Cardinal; he came up in the Cardinals organization, in fact. But that had been a long time ago; he bounced around to quite a few teams during what was a pretty successful major league career. If I knew about the Cardinals connection in his past, I didn’t remember it then. So there I was, literally talking right over Torrez—a former Cardinal—and telling Hernandez the Cardinals missed him. That couldn’t have felt good for Torrez, who was already undoubtedly miserable after the previous day’s game.

*****

So why am I writing about this now, almost 29 years later? And what’s the point of that title?

Well, I’m currently reading the book Shoeless Joe, by W.P. Kinsella. You know this book, even if you’ve never read it. It’s the book that the movie Field of Dreams was based on. I’m loving the book, just like I love the movie, every time I watch it. Say what you will about Kevin Costner, but the guy has made three fantastic baseball movies. (What’s the third one, you ask? For The Love Of The Game. Check it out sometime.) Anyway, Field of Dreams is one of my all-time favorite movies, and although there’s no way I can judge the book objectively, it’s shaping up as one of my favorites also.

The funny thing about the book is how Kinsella uses real people as characters. The reclusive author that Ray “kidnaps” in the movie is a character named Terrence Mann, but in the book, the character is J.D. Salinger. Yes, the J.D. Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye. And in the book—in the scene I’m reading right now—when Kinsella and Salinger get to Fenway Park to watch a baseball game, the Red Sox pitcher is … you guessed it, my not-so fictional flying buddy, Mike Torrez.

In the book, he gives up two homers and a triple in the first inning.

Torrez was the Rodney Dangerfield of baseball: despite a a 17-year career with 185 wins and a World Series ring, he just never got any respect.

Ready Or Not, Baseball Season Starts In One Week

I had some time before work this morning, so I took a walk around downtown to take some pictures. I gravitated toward Busch Stadium to see how “Ballpark Village” is coming along, visit the statue garden, and see if the yard looked ready for baseball.

Well, it might be ready, but it’s hard to tell underneath all that snow. Yesterday, St. Louis got hit by a freakish snowstorm, with lots of wet, heavy snow—up to a foot in some areas. We got eight or nine inches at home; downtown looked to have a little less, but still a pretty good load for Palm Sunday.

The Cardinals’ season starts a week from today, but their home opener isn’t for a week after that. That should be enough time to thaw the place out.

As usual, please feel free to click on any image below to see a larger view.

List: Top Five Story Songs — No. 3

3. Sunday, Bloody Sunday, by U2.

October 27, 1985: Denkinger screwed up, and the Cardinals were ticked. After the nightmare finish to Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, it was easy to see that Game 7 was going to be a powder keg. The only question was, who was going to set it off?

I previously wrote about the finish of Game 6 here.  Oh, and also here.

The next afternoon, Sunday, the day of Game 7, I was searching for a song that might capture my apocalyptic mood and get me emotionally prepared to watch the game that evening. I was thumbing through my record collection, and came to the album War, by U2.

AHA!   There’s a song called New Year’s Day on that record that was just right: from the very first distorted piano chord, the song draws you in with a taut, gritty tension that won’t let you go. It was perfect for what I was feeling that day.

I went to put it on … but New Year’s Day was the second song on that album; the first, which I’d forgotten about, was even MORE perfect: Sunday, Bloody Sunday.

“I can’t believe the news today,” the song begins. “I can’t close my eyes and make it go away.” And truly, the news was unbelievable. The Cardinals, with one of their best lineups ever, were supposed to coast through that World Series against the Royals, who were—let’s face it—pretenders to the American League crown. But after that awful finish to Game 6, there they were, all even, going into the deciding game at Kansas City’s home field. Their backs up against the wall, as the song says.

And yes, there was an egregiously blown call by the umpire, but the blame for the Game 6 loss falls squarely upon the Cardinals, who completely fell apart at the end. And worse, their reactions after the game indicated that they were going to spend the whole day Sunday fuming about the umpire, rather than focusing on Game 7.

(OK, readers who are not sports fans—and I know there are a few of you out there—may think that this violent, militaristic song and desperate imagery might be a little over the top when discussing a game. But we’re talking about the World Series here. And the St. Louis Cardinals. In the 1980s, baseball was all St. Louis had.)

So yes, the tone of this song was absolutely perfect. Even the title was exactly right: Sunday, Bloody Sunday. It was clearly going to be bloody. My prediction before the game—I’m not boasting; it was about the easiest prediction one could make—was that it was going to probably be an ugly, blowout game, with at least one person being ejected. I held out a slim hope that it would be the Cardinals on the upper side of the blowout, that “anger can be power” and they’d come out energized against the Royals. And yes, there’s even a tiny note of hopefulness in the song: “We can be a swarm tonight.” But deep down inside, I knew it would probably go the other way.

And, as we all know, it did: I think the score was 10-0 Royals when I gave up on the game, and both manager Whitey Herzog and pitcher Joaquin Andujar had been tossed. It was probably the worst day in the history of Cardinal Nation.

Bloody Sunday, indeed.

From The Old (New) To The New (Old)

In honor of today’s St Louis Cardinals home opener, I thought I’d put up a few photos of the construction of Busch Stadium.

This is, of course, the third Busch Stadium in St. Louis; the first one was on the north side of town, and the second, opened in the 1960s, was right downtown. The new one was built in 2005 and 2006 immediately south of the old one; in fact, they had to build half of it, and then as soon as the 2005 season was over they tore down the old, round, “modern” stadium to allow them to build the rest of the new, “traditional” ballpark.

I never thought the old stadium was all that bad, and I would have been fine with keeping it for another decade or so. But the new one is an absolute gem.

And who would have thought that the place would see two World Series championship celebrations in its first five seasons?

Anyway, here are some pictures I took while Busch III was being built and Busch II was being demolished. As usual, click the thumbnails for a larger view.

List: Top Five Crushing Disappointments For St. Louis Sports Fans

This is going to hurt a while.

It was supposed to be Mizzou’s year: a team full of seniors who played above expectations all season, ranked No. 3 nationally going into the NCAA Basketball Tournament. They were poised to become the first Missouri team to make it to the Final Four.

But it didn’t happen. Instead, an ignominious loss in the first round to a No. 15 seed, only the fifth time in history that has ever happened. No, this will not be soon forgotten.

Is it the worst disappointment ever for a St. Louis or Missouri sports team? I can’t say that right now—way too fresh. It will definitely be in the top five. The others? Here are a few I can pull from my memory right now.

5) Steve Swisher. It was the end of the 1974 baseball regular season, and the Cardinals had a shot to make the playoffs. But in order for them to make it, they needed the Pirates to lose their last game, and the Cardinals would have to win an earlier-postponed game, and then beat the Pirates in a playoff. It was a longshot, but they had a shot.

Unfortunately, though, the Pirates were playing the Cubs in that last game. And even then, the Cubs were about to win it. I forget the exact circumstances, but it was either the ninth or 10th inning (here’s the box score); there was some kind of dispute or misplay that so enraged Cubs catcher Steve Swisher that he took his glove off and slammed it on the ground. Problem was, the ball was in the glove, the play was still live, and Pittsburgh had runners on base. One of the runners scored, Pittsburgh won the game, and like that, the Cardinals’ season was over. (Steve Swisher later became a Cardinal, but I never forgave him.)

4) The St. Louis Stallions. We were all hyped up; we’d lost the football Cardinals a few years earlier, but that was OK because they were an embarrassment. By the mid-90s, St. Louis was poised to land an expansion NFL team. We had a new stadium all planned out, and even a name for the team: the St. Louis Stallions. But when the NFL made the announcement of its expansion team, it was Jacksonville, Fla., that got the nod instead of St. Louis. Jacksonville! We ultimately had to resort to stealing a team from Los Angeles.

3) Tyus Edney. Mizzou was looking surprisingly good in the 1995 NCAA tournament; they’d beaten Indiana in the first round, and were beating up on No. 1 seed UCLA in the second round, dominating for basically the whole game. Their bracket had had several early upsets, and if Mizzou could pull off the upset over UCLA, they had a clear path to the Final Four.

But with 4.8 seconds to go, UCLA was within one point. They inbounded the ball to guard Tyus Edney, who raced untouched the length of the court for a layup. Wikipedia called it “one of the most famous plays in NCAA Tournament history.” Game over, season over, and yet another early exit from the tournament for the Tigers.  UCLA, of course, waltzed down that path that had stretched in front of Missouri, and the Bruins ended up winning the national championship that year.

2) Super Bowl XXXVI. You also read about it here. The Rams were an even better team that season than the team that had won it all two years earlier, and they were playing a Patriots team that had come out of nowhere, a team that, except for one Super Bowl appearance more than 15 years earlier, had spent its whole existence in NFL obscurity. It should have been a cakewalk for the Rams. But somehow the Patriots made a game of it, and as the clock wound down toward the final gun, there was Adam Vinateri, kicking the field goal that Rams fans will never forget.

1) 1985 World Series. Like those 2001 Rams, the 1985 Cardinals had probably their best lineup in years, and were playing a team they should have dominated. They took a 3-2 lead into the sixth game of the series, needing only one more win to clinch the championship. But we all know what happened. An umpire’s bad call near the end of Game 6, and then a complete physical and emotional collapse in Game 7, and they had lost the World Series to the Kansas City Royals.

Personally, I was devastated. After that World Series, I vowed to never again take sports so seriously. I never wanted to feel that kind of depression again, over something that’s, arguably, so unimportant.

Of course, if I could tamp down the importance of a sports loss, that would mean the significance of a sports victory would also necessarily be diminished. Therefore, when the Cardinals do return to the World Series and emerge with rings—which didn’t happen for a full 21 years after that ’85 debacle—I’ll celebrate, but I won’t go crazy about it.

I’ll—WE’LL—get over this Mizzou loss. We’ll move past the disappointment we’re feeling now. The next few weeks will be tough, as we watch lesser teams advance through the tournament to the Final Four. But in the end, we’ll put it behind us. Maybe Mizzou will have a strong recruiting class, and have a great season next year and get back into the tournament with a legitimate shot. Or maybe it will take a few years. One day, though, they’ll make it to the Final Four and perhaps win it all. “Every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight.” We just have to be optimistic.

Do I really believe this? No, not today.

It Doesn’t Get Any Better The Second Time

Twenty-five years ago tonight, Kansas City, Mo., game six of the 1985 World Series between the Cardinals and the Royals. I was at home watching on television with my friends Kurt and Sue — my parents were out of town at the Lake of the Ozarks.

It was looking good for the Cards, leading the series three games to two, up by a run going into the bottom of the ninth inning. All they had to do was get through the inning and they’d be world champs for the second time in three years.

You know the story, though. Jorge Orta hit a grounder to first and got thrown out by a step … but the umpire inexplicably called him safe. The name of the umpire — Don Denkinger — has lived in infamy in St. Louis sports lore ever since. The Cardinals fell apart after that call — a pop foul that most first basemen should be able to reach, but Jack Clark couldn’t,  Darrel Porter failing to block the plate, etc. — and the Cardinals lost the game.

At my house, like everyone else in St. Louis, we were stunned. Before long Kurt and Sue made their way home and I was left alone to drown my sorrows. For a while I even listened to sports-talk on the radio. Bob Gibson was on KMOX that night; I still remember, somebody called in and asked what he thought about the designated hitter rule. His typically curt response: “Well, I don’t like it. But then, I don’t like anything right now.”

Later in the night., my sorrows still far from drowned, I made my way back down to the television room to see what was on. In those days (and maybe still today, I have no idea), Channel 5 would rebroadcast the tape of their 10 p.m. news at 1 a.m., for those who missed the earlier broadcast. I happened to catch the beginning of the rebroadcast; the   news anchors were all smiles as the show began, because across the state, the Cardinals were about to win it all. In typical local-news fashion, they gave it “team coverage”: first the sports anchor in the studio, then cut to a reporter standing outside the Kansas City stadium, and then cut to a report inside some St. Louis sports bar to get “fan reaction” … you know the drill.

It was kind of an odd show, besides the fact that I was watching this catastrophe play out on a three-hour delay. Here was Channel 5, showing extended coverage of the World Series game … when of course anyone who cared about the game would have been watching it live on the other channel, not watching pseudo-coverage on Channel 5. But there in the studio, via three-hour videotape time warp, Rick Edlund and his newsmates thought they were reporting on a Cardinals World Series victory.

They couldn’t show any on-field action, because the game was still going on on another network. But with each shot, it was clear the situation was getting worse for the Cardinals. Whoever was standing outside of the stadium was talking about how the Cards were on the verge of winning … and then you could hear a loud cheer going up from the Royals crowd inside the ballpark. At the sports bar, the reporter was talking about the excitement as the Cardinals were going to win it all, but the stunned silence of the fans behind him belied everything he was saying. Like a masochist, I kept watching. When they cut back to the studio, the anchors were still actually thinking the Cardinals were pulling it out. I finally couldn’t watch any more, and crawled off to bed.

The next day, I made the easiest prediction in the world: that night’s game 7 was going to be ugly, and someone was going to be ejected. I was of course right, in spades. The Cardinals came out tight and played maybe the worst World Series game ever. Before it was over, at least two Cardinals — manager Whitey Herzog and pitcher Joaquin Andujar — had been tossed. I was long gone myself before the game was over; as I drove home from my cousin Bruce’s house, I took a detour to drive past my old junior high school; Plymouth Jr. High was in the process of being torn down to make room for new luxury condos. As of that night, the school was a huge pile of rubble. It fit my mood perfectly.

*****

Update: Ah, well, it seems Major League Baseball found the YouTube clip of Denkinger’s blown call that I’d linked to in this post, and had it taken down. I found the image above, which tells the story even more succinctly.