Bedraggled

I had a long day. Got up at 4:20 a.m., took a flight out of L.A. to San Fran, sat in the airport during a layover, flew all the way to St. Louis, got caught in a furious rainstorm on the way to my parents’ house, changed my clothes, got caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the way to Busch Stadium, finally made it to my wet seats, and settled in for a few hours of World Series baseball …

And I came all the way for that?

I mean, what was that? It was less a game than an intricate torture device designed solely to drive Cardinals fans out of our collective minds. The highlight of the evening was … well, there were no highlights. I guess Renteria’s double off the wall gave me a momentary shiver of pleasure. And Larry Walker’s home run would have been glorious and grand, in a different context.

Right now I feel down, depressed, sad, beat, disillusioned, carried along the four stages of baseball grief — from “let’s win it all” to “let’s at least make it a good series” to “let’s not get swept” to “let’s at least lose with dignity.” I’m not quite at Stage 4 yet. I’m still hoping for a win tonight, one last glimpse of the fine baseball team I followed for the first 173 games of the season. But I’ve tightened my stomach and prepared for the worst.

I said before this series began that no matter what happens, we’ll never forget this week as long as the Cardinals live. And sure enough, I’ll remember that baserunning snafu by Jeff Suppan ’til the day I die. It’s the touchstone for the entire series — equal parts fluky and inept.

You all know what happened: Suppan was on third with no outs, and Larry Walker hit a slow roller to the right side with Boston playing back and conceding the run. And for whatever reason Suppan simply didn’t go home, instead dancing like a yo-yo down the third-base line, seized by a moment of temporary insanity. First baseman David Ortiz made the easy toss over to Mueller and Soup was gunned out. So instead of it being tie game, runner on third (Edgar Renteria moving over from second), Albert Pujols at the dish with one out, it was runner on second, two outs, Red Sox maintain their lead.

How this happened isn’t totally clear. Supposedly third-base coach Jose Oquendo was shouting to Suppan “go go go” and Soup heard it as “no no no,” so he put on the brakes. But this explanation only gets us partway there. After all, any major leaguer worth his salt knows you run on contact with balls hit to the right side and the defense back, and getting bamboozled by your third-base coach is something that shouldn’t happen in any league above tee ball.

The irony, of course, is that the National League team was supposed to have an advantage when it came to pitchers hitting and running the bases. Nope. Worse yet, it was David “Born to DH” Ortiz making the play to nab Suppan. So much for the home-field edge.

Speaking of losing the home-field edge, that one play wiped out the crowd entirely. From the pregame to the first pitch, right through Manny’s home run and Walker getting caught at that plate, the Busch Stadium crowd was totally enthusiastic — roaring, chanting, trying to will the team to victory. But with Suppan’s gaffe, a pall settled over the crowd. I hesitate to use this word, but it seemed almost supernatural, as if it were the Cardinals who were surely cursed. (That reminds me of why Richard Pryor didn’t want to give mouth-to-mouth to a dying man: “Because Death might jump outta him and into me!” You don’t want to be the ones to revive the Sox, because the Curse might just jump outta them and into us!)

Now, I want to be clear about what I said earlier. The blunder at third last night — call it the Suppan Surprise — was emblematic of what went wrong with the Cards last night, but it’s not the reason they lost last night’s game. The reason the Cardinals lost last night’s game was one Pedro J. Martinez. Pedro no longer has that knee-buckling curve he had a couple years ago, nor does he have the same high-90s heater. But I don’t think I’ve ever — and I mean ever, in all my years as a baseball fan — seen a guy change speeds better than he did last night.

He’s mystifying. His windup, arm angle, point of delivery, everything, looks the exact same on a 92-mph fastball as it does on a 76-mph change. Which means if you can get inside the heads of the hitters you’re facing and out-guess them all night long (and make no mistake, Pedro is one crafty bastard), then you don’t need great “stuff” to succeed. The stuff between your ears is all you really need. (Jesus, I sound like I’m turning into Johnny Sain.)

At the end of the day the Cardinals can bitch and moan about Suppan’s blunder, and Larry Walker getting thrown out at the plate, and Scott Rolen continuing his impersonation of Scott Baio, but you’ve got to tip your cap to the team they’re playing. They’re just getting flat-out beat.

Now, one last thing, and it’s the only thing that made it difficult for me to tip my cap to the Sox last night. And that’s the Red Sox fan who was sitting two rows behind me. In fact, there were quite a number of Sox fans around me last night; and yes, they were very loud and not at all bashful about supporting their team. None of that bothered me. What did bother me is the guy who screamed and yelled — I kid you not — on every single pitch of last night’s game. Doesn’t matter whether it was Bill Mueller’s double or a swing and a miss from David Ortiz, this guy was all over it.

Here’s a sample …

Guy (after a weak foul from Johnny Damon): “Way to get a piece, Johnny D.! J.D.! You the man now, J.D.! Give us something! Kick their ass now, J.D.! Wooooooooo!”

or

Guy (after a ball from Pedro thrown a foot out of the strike zone): “That’s right, Pedro! Keep ‘em thinking! Keep ‘em guessing! You don’t come to them, make them come to you! You’re Pedro! Who are they? They’re nothing! Wooooooooooo!”

After a while it became clear that this guy wasn’t rooting for the Red Sox so much as he was rooting for himself. His need to turn every play into an expression of his own obnoxious personality bordered on the pathological. It almost felt like the Cardinals lost to the Sox twice — once in real time, and once to the yutz behind us. Although to be fair, there were two Sox fans sitting to my right who basically apologized on behalf of all Red Sox fans. “Sorry,” one of them said. “You’re getting a bit of Fenway and the Bronx come to St. Louis.” Yeah, maybe even more than a bit.

At the end of the game the fans filed out of the stadium, about as somber as I’ve ever seen a sports crowd. There was no anger, and none of the edginess you sometimes get when the home team is going down in flames and the opposing crowd is eager to rub it in. No, it was just sad. No one thought that this team, that played such beautiful baseball for so many months, would end up in the same discard bin as the ’98 Padres.

As the crowd log jammed in the corridors of Busch, a strange message lit up on a side scoreboard: “Thanks for a great 2004 season.” I’m not sure how it got there exactly. It was either sarcasm, or an omen, or maybe a genuine bit of gratitude for something that’s all but slipped away.

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