THE SMASHING OF PRECEDENTS
GAME SIX, NCLS: Houston
Astros 5, St. Louis Cardinals 1
(Starmen Snatch the Pennant Back in Six)
Maybe the Houston Astros have secured
the point that this is supposed to be the decade
in which baseball teams rich in extraterrestrial
frustration are supposed to bury their curses,
actual or alleged, at long enough last. If they
have, the 2005 World Series is going to send the
nation's Valium bill even higher percentage wise
than mine was sent thanks to the 1986 Series.
Entrants to no World Series in the
life of the franchise, the third of the first
four expansion teams to get to the mountaintop,
the Astros meet the Chicago White Sox, winners
of no World Series since the Bolshevik Revolution,
alumni of only two Series since. And already the
Astros have a spiritual edge on the White Sox.
Never mind the Four Marksmen of
the Apocalypse who shut down what proved to be
a band of feeble Angels, the White Sox didn't
have to overcome what precedent called the insurmountable
shock. The 21st Century's first decade is becoming
one of doing what you are not supposed to do to
get to the mountaintop, of turning sacred cows
into the one thing they are truly worth—steak.
Roy Oswalt must have hungered for
the biggest sirloin he could slice Wednesday night.
Already at one in the land of the giants with
his back-to-back 20-win seasons, Oswalt merely
started by making sure he had a full can of Raid
to keep the human cockroach, David Eckstein, at
his distance, and he continued by doing everything
in his power to keep the St. Louis Cardinals from
hitting more than four balls out of the infield.
In truth the Astros began such doings
at just about the moment they fastened their seat
belts on the team flight to St. Louis Tuesday.
It turned out that catcher Brad Ausmus found the
perfect way to shake off the Monday night shell
shock: mischief. He slipped to the pilot's cabin
and prevailed upon the pilot to make an in-flight
announcement, something to the effect of takeoff
clearance awaiting the passage of Albert Pujols's
bomb through and out of the local airpsace.
Even Brad Lidge had to laugh.
Now wait a minute, fer Crissakes,
as Casey Stengel would have said. Was Pujols not
supposed to have pronounced the Astros' death
sentence? Do teams arising from a strike away
from wait till next year not go on, normally,
to finish what they restart? Do teams upended
from a strike away from the mountain top not,
normally, take what is coming to them meekly enough?
So said precedent such as the 1985
Los Angeles Dodgers. They were an out away from
the World Series when Tommy Lasorda in the top
of the ninth decided he had nothing to lose letting
Tom Niedenfeuer pitch to Jack Clark with first
base open. The Dodgers had nothing left come the
bottom of the ninth. Did they ever think about
hunting Stengel's old backyard in nearby Glendale
in search of the ball Clark hit over the 110 Freeway?
The California Angels got closer
than the Dodgers a year later, a strike away from
the World Series, when Donnie Moore sent Dave
Henderson the same pitch the barely-known Seattle
reject had been fouling off, a nasty, knee-high,
away enough splitter. And this time Henderson
sent it away enough over the left field fence.
The Angels managed to tie it up again in the bottom
of the ninth, and that bought them only the honor
of Henderson in the top of the eleventh re-breaking
the tie, this time for keeps, with a sacrifice
fly off Moore. The Angels made for Fenway Park
to play two listless games sending the Red Sox
to their own one-strike-away calamity.
That was last century, this is current
century, and if its first decade has been nothing
else it has been the Age of Precedents Overthrown,
not to mention the Age of Curses (Actual or Alleged)
Those formerly star-crossed Angels
started it, plunging magnificently enough through
the 2002 postseason and inflicting a little transdimensional
shock en route, for a change. Now a near-forgotten,
castaway utility man, cut from the sinking Mariners
at mid-season, Scott Spiezio three years ago was
the Angels' angel of mercy, five outs from a San
Francisco Series triumph, when he fought Felix
Rodriguez a seven-pitch mini-epic, Rodriguez threw
him an eighth pitch low and in, and Spiezio hit
it high and out into the right field seats. Two
innings and three more runs later, "We'll
see you tomorrow night!" One night later,
Angels in the Promised Land.
And where were you when
the Red Sox saw and raised . . . well, everyone
else on the star-crossed street? Nobody is going
to top the Idiots, standing one out away from
losing the pennant in four straight, before the
Swipe Heard 'Round The World launched the upending
that dug a four-straight burial of the Empire
Emeritus which telegraphed an anticlimactic
four-game Series sweep.
But the Astros plan to have a lot
of fun trying, and why should they not? Everyone
but themselves knew it was carved in marble, with
no amendment clause, that Pujols's monstrous 0-1,
three-run shot off Lidge Monday night, the flight
of which was interrupted (Brad Ausmus's Katzenjammer
Kids act to the contrary) only by the glass-and-iron
upper wall behind the Minute Maid Park home run
train tracks, was the death blow, a two-game Busch
Stadium burial an apparent formality.
Somehow, however, seeing Lidge stretching
in the bullpen Wednesday night, while Dan Wheeler
went out in a non-save situation to finish Oswalt's
5-1 jewel, flicking off Mark Grudzielanek's two-out
line single over shortstop, no one believed Lidge
would keep his in-flight laughter alive until
that final out was turned. That out sailed off
Yadier Molina's bat into Jason Lane's glove in
right field, Willy Taveras over from center just
in case and hugging Lane toward the infield party.
And somehow, too, it should have
been obvious that there would be a few in-team
competitions for mirror, mirror, on the wall,
who's the happiest of us all. Not even Roger Clemens
dared suggest the Astros' first pennant meant
more to anyone than ancient starmen Craig Biggio
and Jeff Bagwell. But if they were handing out
the hardware for the most ostentatious postseason
champagne shampoo to date, Clemens would have
won it in the proverbial walk, for the lather
under which he doused soul brother Andy Pettitte
and kid brother Roy.
Oswalt the Rabbit would just have
to settle for winning the National League Championship
Series' Most Valuable Player award. Seven innings
of one run, three hit, six punchout, one walk
pitching, shrinking your NLCS earned run average
to 1.29 atop that almost-as-splendid second game,
will do that for you. Biggio would just have to
settle for helping instigate Wednesday night's
mini-romp, slashing a line single to left to send
home Adam Everett from third in the top of the
third for the second Houston run. And St. Louis
starter Mark Mulder would have to live with a
major assist, letting one sail right behind Biggio's
heels allowing Ausmus to scurry home and Everett
to help himself to third, right before Biggio
laid pipe on him.
An inning and an out later, Lane
joined in the fun, when Mulder—destiny was
to grant him a mere four and two thirds innings
with three earned on six hits against him—laid
up a belt-high slider and Lane laid it ten rows
up the left field seats. Two innings later, after
pinch hitter John Rodriguez sent home Grudzielanek
with a sacrifice fly, the Astros might as well
have said, "Don't even think about
it," for the way Everett shoved home Chris
Burke with a squeeze bunt, an inning before Morgan
Ensberg finally checked in with his only hit of
the night, a single up the pipe scoring Biggio
for the fifth Astros run.
Not that their new home will be
anything less than a creature of beauty, but the
Cardinals hoped they might extend incumbent Busch
Stadium's life three more games at minimum, sending
the old girl off with one more World Series conquest
after winning one more pennant in her storied
And Tony LaRussa waved off the Redbirds'
sundry obstructions, noting that those who stepped
in when others had to step down acquitted themselves
nicely enough to get here in the first place.
"It wasn't a health problem," he said
postgame, "it was an Astros problem . . .
I think there's a strong segment of our support
that marks your season with not even getting in
the World Series but winning it, and with that
group we failed. We've got to be more realistic
in the organization. Did we give it our best shot?
I think we did. That's why I congratulate the
Astros. But we got into this thing to win the
World Series, and this is a disappointment."
The Astros have reasons to feel
good and tenuous at once for winning the pennant
on the road. On the one hand, both pennants were
secured in the road ballpark, and only two of
the four division series winners advanced after
winning the set at home. One of those was the
Astros, however, and during the season the White
Sox on the road won one less than the Astros at
home, compared to the Astros on the road two games
lesser than the White Sox at home.
And if the Astros have any more
miracles to work, they are about to step into
the arena where miracles mean the most. They can
have yet another precedent to smash if they want
one, courtesy of their fraternal National League
expansion twins. The 1969 Mets opened on the road
for the pennant and the Series, winning both at
home. And after they dropped the first Series
game on the road, the Mets swept the next four
from a team of Baltimore Orioles that compares
quite reasonably, on paper, to this year's White
Sox. That would be one precedent the Astros should
wish not to overcome but to equal. And raise,
Thursday, October 20
SORT OF CITY
The World Series is coming, Chicago.
You know that. When you walk down
those steaming October streets on the way to the
greasy spoon, you God damn well know it. You talk
of nothing else. When you eat kielbasa, when you
eat cheeseburgers, when you eat that fifty dollar
vegan dinner, that hundred dollar steak, suck
on cigars or cigarettes or a joint before the
party, you know about the White Sox. You knew
it was coming, you did, you've got piles
of scorecards and ticket stubs and your favorite
player's had a great season, a great playoff
series. You've read every article there
is to read, and you know what? All this week,
you'll read more. About Ozzie and the pitchers
and beating the Angels and Red Sox and Indians
and Twins. You'll read stuff until it comes
out your ears and flows out your mouth to anyone
who'll listen. And everyone will listen
just as everyone will repeat what they read and
heard and figured out all their own. You won't
care a whiff.
Because the World Series is coming.
I wish I was there. Right now and
with a ticket in my pocket, collar turned up to
the Lake Michigan winds. With that ticket in my
pocket and wondering about the game. Bring binoculars?
Eat before hand? Peanuts, beer, a scorecard? Maybe
I shouldn't waste my time, I'll want
to see the game. I check my ticket against the
map of the stadium. We're up there all right.
One pal says bring the camera, the other gives
you a look like you're insane. But I'll
score it. Take pictures of the rowdies.
I would walk down Chicago's
streets and think to myself of the coming championship,
of the victories and the parades and the swarming
in the field. Right now, it's still yours.
There's no losses yet, just the promise
of glory. The giant board blowing up, the fireworks,
the sirens, the roar and the bite of a hot dog
on a cold night. The swig of beer. The swig of
something more potent.
Chicago, remember this dreamworld.
Remember last night's dinner,
each conversation swollen with promise. The air
is perfect now in Chicago, because it's
Chicago's. That traffic that's so
damned awful… it's a badge, isn't
it? God damn right! The traffic is something to
be proud of, the dog shit on the streets, Cabrini
Green, new Comiskey. Especially new Comiskey.
You hope they bring on Houston just
so you can show off your ugly stadium. Because
it's yours Goddamnit, its yours. This is
Chicago and these are the White Sox and we're
in the World Series. So fuck you, whoever you
are. We beat the tar out of everyone to get here.
This is a concrete box, but its ours.
Algren said it was "An October
sort of city, even in spring." Now it's
an October sort of city when it's supposed
to be. By Saturday, the fight will begin. You'll
remember, always, where you were when so-n-so
hit his homer, when blast-it-all struck out to
go down by a couple, when they win it all. When
When they lose, the wound will heal,
eventually. When the win, the ennui comes back,
around December. You'll go back to work,
you'll have to wash that WORLD SERIES
CHAMPIONS shirt and it will never look or
feel the same way again. The team will dissolve,
the harmony amongst your fellow citizen will dissolve.
The Southside will be the Southside and Comiskey
Comiskey, and if they don't win again…
The daily grind will begin to grind
Not now, though. Now, as the sunlight
gets thinner, the days grow shorter, we anticipate
when the nights will be broken by arclamps, hiding
the stars for baseball. When what we think we
want more than anything still has the power to
move us. When every man, woman, and child who
wants it can be a White Sox, and this is when
the White Sox are invincible, and we beat back
life for a little while to soak in the accidentaly
beauty and wonder of this sport. When it becomes
us, and we become it. When the cliches become
true, and truth is in the calculus of a silly
Chicago: you're lucky. I wish I
Wednesday, October 19
"OH, MY GOD . . .
NLCS GAME FIVE: St.
Louis Cardinals 5, Houston Astros 4
(Redbirds Shrink Rocketmen's Lead, 3-2)
That train whistle sounding through
Minute Maid Park can sound as lonesome as a backwoods
crossing along a dark dirt road, especially if
you are the visiting team and your pitching ace
has just been taken over the scoreboard.
But if you hear a surge of multiple
buzzing segue in as the whistle begins to fade,
and you are a pitcher who has only allowed one
home run against you in this ballpark before,
you can feel so lonesome you could cry when you
don't feel so furious you could wrap a bat around
the head of any Houston Astro thought to be a
Or, you could send your own resident
pest up in the top of the ninth, down to your
final strike before wait 'till next year, and
have him all but shove a base hit through a pair
of diving Houston infielders on the left side.
Then, you can have your next man wring out a base
on balls. And then, you can have your number one
hammer pound one over the tracks on which that
train rides upon the Astros' bombs.
When Lance Berkman squared off against
Chris Carpenter in the bottom of the seventh Monday
night, with the St. Louis Cardinals ace still
up 2-1, and Craig Biggio (safe when a tweener
hop played off third baseman Hector Luna's glove
heel and chest) and Chris Burke (a hit-and-run
single through the hole at second, sending Biggio
to third) on ahead of him. Carpenter pumped Berkman
something that tailed back over the plate at the
knees, and Berkman pumped it on a rising line
the other way into the left field porch.
And the Minute Maid audience dared
to believe in the plateau of their collective
scream that the Astros were now a mere six defensive
outs from starting the World Series in the city
where the franchise was awarded in the first place,
forty-five years to the day earlier. The Astros'
bullpen could have been forgiven for thinking
it could shift from defensive to attack pitching,
after Andy Pettitte's gallant start had left his
mates a 2-1 hole in six and a third and Chad Qualls
spelled him to quell another David Eckstein-instigated
Cardinal threat in the top of the seventh, turning
it over to Mike Gallo (erasing Larry Walker on
one pitch to open) and Dan Wheeler in the eighth.
Perhaps from desperation did Cardinal
manager Tony LaRussa hand off to his closer, Jason
Isringhausen, for the bottom of the eighth, the
idea seeming to be that if Isringhausen could
deliver precisely what he went forth to deliver,
two innings of shutout relief, the Cardinals could
make it difficult if not impossible for the Astros'
long-time-a-coming party to pull the first cork.
First the Cardinals had to find
a way around Brad Lidge, in search of saving his
fourth consecutive LCS game and becoming the first
since a former LaRussa charge, Dennis Eckersley
in 1988, to save four LCS games in any order.
And it came down to Eckstein with two out in the
top of the ninth and the Redbirds down to their
final strike. Not an Astro fan alive believed
a thing but what they were going to the mountaintop
at long enough last.
Do you think the Los Angeles Angels
are still happy with the swap they made winter
last, letting Eckstein walk and signing Orlando
Cabrera, who did as little to prevent a lost Angel
pennant as Eckstein was about to do trying to
interrupt if not prevent a first Houston pennant?
"He's not going to just give
up an at-bat," marveled former Arizona Diamondbacks
manager Bob Brenly, in the Fox Sports analyst's
chair, "whether it's a B-game in spring training
or an elimination game in this LCS here. He's
going to give you everything he's got every minute
he's got that uniform on."
On one ball and two strikes, he
snuck one between Adam Everett diving right from
shortstop and Morgan Ensberg diving left from
third base, each trying to plug the hole, Eckstein's
roller seeming to admonish, "Don't even think
about it, boys." Up stepped Jim Edmonds,
and down to first base on five pitches he strolled,
not a syllable of reproach toward any umpire passing
his lips this time around, and Albert Pujols checked
in, swinging on and missing a first pitch slider
that dropped to the dirt like a roller coaster.
Pujols then swung on a second pitch
slider hanging right over the tee and drove it
right up and out off a window frame post above
and behind the tracks on which that lonesome whistleblowing
home run train crawls on the home team's bombs.
Lidge sank into a crouch on the mound. Pettitte
in the Astros' dugout followed the flight of the
drive, with Roger Clemens sitting balefully behind
him, and said as his jaw hung down, "Oh,
my God . . . "
Carpenter was off the hook for the
Berkman bomb, which had ruined a splendid evening's
work otherwise (one earned run, seven scattered
hits, one walk, six punchouts to that point),
Pettitte had been as game and on game as he had
been all those postseason turns for the Yankees,
and the Astros' bullpen had done its standard
business until Pujols collapsed Lidge and put
the game deeper into Isringhausen's hands.
The righthander found no crueler punctuation than
Chris Burke—the unexpected division-series
winning bombardier, making his bones admirably
as a Killer B in training—launching one
deep to right center that restored the air so
graphically sucked from the Minute Maid chamber
long enough for Walker to pedal back near the
track to snap it shut for the return trip to St.
The Astros receive barely a tenth
of one percent of the ink and font expended upon
such elongated sorrows as those from Anaheim,
Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and
San Francisco. But the Astros are catching up
for extraterrestrial and eleventh-hour heartbreak.
The others (including the Giants, if you count
their years in New York) can say they've been
to the Promised Land and back. The Astros have
not even reached the mountaintop unmolested.
"I just couldn't believe I
did this," Pujols said modestly in the postgame
press conference. The Astros and their fans could
believe it even less, and maybe a little bit more.
Tuesday, October 18
DON'T PLAY AGAINST THE UMPIRES"
GAME FOUR, NLCS: Houston
Astros 2, St. Louis Cardinals 1
How tempting it must seem by now
to paraphrase Casey Stengel, with or without the
inadvertent word reversal: Can't anybody here
call this game? The Houston Astros and the
St. Louis Cardinals seem to the outsider to have
almost as many umpire problems as the Los Angeles
Angels and the Chicago White Sox have had. And
there is a sense that the Cardinals especially
have to walk gingerly when questioned about it
or addressing it on their own.
Fair or unfair, two decades removed
or not, these Cardinals are now faced with the
unpleasant reminders that a different team of
them so overreacted to a flagrantly blown World
Series call that they went from three outs away
from the ring to a seventh game humiliation.
Those Redbirds let Don Denkinger
stay in their heads instead of keeping the Kansas
City Royals out of their hides, and to this day
the best team in the 1980s National League not
named the New York Mets is remembered as crass
chokers rather than the only three-time pennant
winners in the league that decade. These Redbirds
have to do everything they can to keep Phil Cuzzi
and Tom McClelland out of their heads and the
Houston Astros out of their hides.
"This game, there's some real
great things about it, and there's some things
that absolutely stink," said Tony LaRussa,
after the Astros outlasted them Sunday afternoon,
2-1, the Cardinals having to play the final couple
of innings without the boss or their center fielder.
"Normally, when you miss some chances like
they had the last couple of days it comes back
to haunt you. Our organization does a great job
playing against the other side, we don't play
against the umpires."
Perhaps somebody showed him films
of Games Six and Seven, 1985 Series, the anti-stars
of the show a Cardinal team who showed the world
the depths to which playing against an umpire
could drive a team who had no business collapsing
against a club that probably had no business being
in the Series against them.
LaRussa got thrown out of Sunday
afternoon's fun in the bottom of the seventh,
having spent a fair amount of time carping from
the Cardinals' dugout after Jason Marquis, in
relief of Jeff Suppan, walked Astros pinch-hitter
Orlando Palmeiro and, an infield hit and a fly
out later, Lance Berkman to load the bases. LaRussa
carped about the liberal strike zone, yet Cuzzi
had been calling it that way for both sides' pitchers.
As many accuse the breed of liking
to do, the law degree-holding LaRussa refused
to let the debate drop and Cuzzi refused to let
him stay in the game. That's when LaRussa plunged
up from the dugout, needing McClelland to keep
him from turning Cuzzi into calzone. Astros manager
Phil Garner merely sent swift rookie Willy Taveras
out to run for Palmeiro at third, and Morgan Ensberg
hit a straightaway fly off which Jim Edmonds in
center had no prayer of nailing Taveras at the
plate with the second Houston run.
An inning and two outs later, Mark
Grudzielanek on first with a leadoff hit off Astros
reliever Dan Wheeler, Edmonds looked at a count-filling
strike on a high and tight pitch suspiciously
similar to the fourth ball awarded Berkman. Edmonds
said afterward that he said nothing beyond asking
Cuzzi where the pitch was and how he could call
it a strike. On television it looked as though
Edmonds had barked one of the, ahem, magic words
at Cuzzi, who thumbed him faster than the pitch
sailed up into Brad Ausmus's mitt.
John Rodriguez pinch-hit for Edmonds
to finish the at-bat and sent a long fly to the
back of Minute Maid Park. Taveras—staying
in the game playing center field, in a kind of
quadruple switch that moved center fielder Chris
Burke to left, Berkman from left to first, Wheeler
to the mound, and first baseman Mike Lamb out
of the game—ran back to the track and onto
the odd, upward berm at the back of center field
to haul down the fly.
"I'm not trying to get thrown
out of a playoff game," Edmonds insisted
when it was over and the Astros stood a game away
from their first-ever World Series. "I don't
think I was adamant. I said, `I'm just trying
to ask you why that ball's a strike,' and asked
him to do a better job and he threw me out.''
Cuzzi's side will not be known for
awhile at this writing, and neither will McClellands.
For reasons upon which one can speculate at best,
the umpires were kept unavailable for postgame
comment. At least neither LaRussa nor Edmonds
was threatened with a hefty fine. Yet.
Those rounds almost but did not
quite spoil a rather tautly played game, pried
open at first by the Cardinals in the top of the
fourth, when David Eckstein (what a surprise:
a leadoff walk, his second of the game) came home
on Albert Pujols's sacrifice liner to right off
Astros starter Brandon Backe. Larry Walker wrung
out a followup walk, but Reggie Sanders looked
at strike three close and hissed a bit at Cuzzi
before John Mabry—pressed into service at
third base, with Abraham Nunez nursing his still-sore
left knee—flied out to right center.
The Astros waited exactly one out
in the bottom of the fourth to tie it up at one,
Jason Lane sending one into the left field short
porch with one out, the Minute Maid Park acoustics
as usual shaping the home run train's whistle
into a wind-like howl that sounds like death come
calling. Backe held on through two thirds of the
sixth before Pujols's bullet single to left compelled
Garner to bring in Mike Gallo, who got Walker
to hop one to Craig Biggio at second for the side.
Suppan had delivered the Cardinals
a yeoman's performance in his own right, and Marquis
at first picked up where Suppan left off, Ensberg's
leadoff hit a mere interruption to his dispatching
Lamb, walking Lane, punching out Ausmus (looking
almost befuddled at three straight strikes), and
getting Adam Everett to ground out.
Things would not be quite that simple
again the rest of the game. Marquis managed to
strand Everett and Taveras (a pair of two-out
hits) in the bottom of the eighth, but Brad Lidge
managed to survive Pujols (a leadoff single off
Taveras's body in right center) and Walker (a
pulled hit past a diving Berkman at first) opening
the top of the ninth, with a lot of help from
Ensberg, who picked off Sanders's tapper up the
third base line and threw Pujols out at the plate
as Walker ran to third; and, with a lot more help
from Eric Bruntlett, spelling Biggio at second
for the ninth and turning a tight and deft Area
Code 4-6-3 off Mabry's hard grounder for the game.
Like the Angels after the strikeout
heard 'round the world the previous Wednesday,
the Cardinals worked swiftly enough to remind
themselves that there are reasons often enough
why an umpire's dubious call is not half the factor
that an opponent's anything but dubious play is.
"You've got to remember one thing,"
Edmonds said. "There's a good team and they're
playing well, they're playing with a lot of emotion,
and they're beating us. You can't make excuses.
We're not doing the job and they are.''
And "they" are one win
and Andy Pettitte, ailing or otherwise, from the
Monday, October 17