Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

Keeping the faith II

In Baseball, Long form on November 8, 2011 at 9:32 pm

I had given up in the seventh inning. By the seventh inning, you have a good sense of how a game is going to end. If a team has been up by a lot through seven (or has looked flat through seven), it’s probably going to stay up (or it is probably going to stay flat). The Cardinals had looked bad through seven innings. They were only down 7-4, but given the way they had played so far, that three-run deficit seemed insurmountable. The Texas Rangers were going to dance on the immaculate grass at Busch Stadium as they celebrated the first World Series Championship in franchise history. The Cardinals were going to lose, and I couldn’t watch it.

I turned off the television in my small, spartan apartment in Columbia, Mo. and sighed. I had heard that after Buckner’s error in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, thousands of Bostonians silently walked the paths of Boston Common — spirits as lost as their dreams of a championship. When St. Louis finally lost this game, the quad at the University of Missouri would swell with the silent, shuffling figures of Cardinals fans, their red caps and shirts still visible under the dim glow of the sidewalk lights. There would be no words, no sympathetic nods — just the soft, muffled sounds of thousands of sad footsteps.

I didn’t want to be near those people. I didn’t want to be near anything that would remind me of baseball. It was hard getting over a loss in any World Series, but it would be much harder to get over losing this World Series — and it was going to be a hell of a lot harder if I had to be surrounded by a thousand people as despondent as me. The freshly printed shirts, with phrases like “Wild Cards,” “Rally Squirrel” and “2011 National League Champions,” would taunt me, conspicuous reminders of a season that had seemed so improbable and would be so ignobly concluded. No, I would get as far away as possible from those images. I would go to the one bar in Columbia that never showed sports on its one television. I put on my coat and went to the door. But before I stepped outside, I paused. I went back to my bedroom and put on my faded, beaten, road blue Cardinals cap

I drove, I tried to rationalize away the pain of losing: It was a great run. I gave up on them in August, and they proved me wrong. They gave me another month of baseball, damned good baseball. And I just wanted them not to embarrass me. But the rationalizing accelerated, faster and faster, until I wasn’t consoling myself anymore — I was angry. Then they won the wild card, and I just wanted them to steal a game from the Phillies before they won the pennant, just to show the East Coast fans that we deserved to be in the playoffs. But then it went to Game 5 and Carpenter pitched the game of his life and beat Halladay 1-0 and we were in the NLCS. And then I just wanted to make it respectable against the Brewers, but they kept winning and they beat the Brewers and won the pennant and then they won the first game of the World Series and I couldn’t believe they had gotten this far but could they actually win it all? And then Motte blew the save in Game 2 and maybe they wouldn’t win after all but that was okay because they won the pennant and at least we’d have that flag flying but then they beat up on the Rangers in Game 6 and I knew the Cardinals would win because you couldn’t stop that kind of offense and then Holland nearly pitched a shutout in Game 4 and La Russa melted down in Game 5 and blew the bullpen all to hell and now it was Game 6 and the Rangers were going to win and the Cardinals had made me believe. They made me believe and cheer and applaud and try to will every Cardinal hit out of the park and it couldn’t end this way. It couldn’t end this way.

The bar was small, warm, dimly lit, a bit dank and nearly empty. It was a bar for numbing your pain straight out of central casting. That it had $1 beers was a bonus. (I would need them.) The bartender passed me two cans, and as he did, he shot me the subtlest look of understanding — I was the first, but I would not be the last tonight. I planted myself at a small table near a window with red neon lights that cast a crimson glow on my face. I turned away from the window and caught a second, brighter, light out of the corner of my eye. I looked and saw the bar’s one television. It was tuned to the World Series. The one bar in Columbia I knew wouldn’t be showing the game was showing the game. With my hand braced against my forehead and my eyes staring into the off-season, I felt like Rodin’s lesser-known sculpture — The Commiserator. I sent a text message to a friend asking for the score: 7-5 Rangers in the eighth inning. I told him to send me a text message when the game ended. I couldn’t bring myself to watch it, but I had to know when it was over. All I could do was wait.

But that text didn’t come. I waited, fighting the urge to look at the television and see the bitter end. But the text didn’t come. I imagined the face of each Cardinals hitter making every conceivable out to end the game, and the jubilant Rangers storming home plate and swarming Neftali Feliz as 47,000 St. Louis eyes glistened with tears. But the text didn’t come. Two more Cardinals fans, wearing hats and home white jerseys, walked in and stood uneasily at the bar to watch the game’s final moments. But the text didn’t come. The Cardinals were going to lose, but couldn’t they at least do it quickly? I heard a single clap, then two cheers. I looked at the two newcomers as flashes of hope crossed their faces, their hands outstretched in fists and both bobbing on their heels. I turned to the television and saw one Cardinal cross home plate. Then another. David Freese slid into third base and sat on his knees and looked into the Cardinals dugout with a look of utter determination. The score was tied 7-7. My phone vibrated. I picked up the phone with apprehension and read the message: “This is a crazy game.”

Joe Posnanski once wrote, “Baseball is boring. And then, suddenly, it isn’t.” The Cardinals were dead. And then, suddenly, they weren’t. Just like they had been three times before. Freese didn’t score in the bottom of the ninth, but the feeling inside Busch Stadium and inside my little bar had changed. No longer was this an inexorable march to defeat — the Cardinals were going to win this game. Motte was going to face Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus and Josh Hamilton in the top of the tenth. You’re not supposed to count outs as a fan, but it was impossible not to do so. Kinsler popped out. One away. Andrus singled to center. “Don’t worry, Motte throws harder than any of our pitchers, and Hamilton can’t turn on that inside fastball. Weak ground ball double play to second, and we’ll win it in the tenth.”

I remember watching Game 5 of the 2005 National League Championship Series. After being down to the team’s last strike, Albert Pujols hit the biggest home run I’ve ever seen to put the Cardinals ahead of the Houston Astros 5-3. I can still see Houston closer Brad Lidge crouching down on the mound, knowing that the Astros’ hopes of winning that game had left the field with that baseball. I can still picture Pujols walking halfway to first base, carrying his black maple bat a good part of the way before tossing it aside and beginning to jog around the bases. I still remember how far that ball went — it would have left Minute Maid Park had the roof been open — and I can still remember the silence that fell upon the crowd as what, moments prior, had been certain victory turned into a spirit-crushing deficit. I had wondered what it had been like to be a Houston fan that night.

From the moment it left Hamilton’s bat, I knew the ball was gone. The way he stood at home plate, the way Jon Jay jogged to the warning track and stopped but kept looking up. The silence that replaced the collective hopes of 47,000 fans. I couldn’t believe it. The team had rallied from two runs down in the bottom of the ninth, down to its last strike, only to lose because of a mistake pitch to an injured slugger. I knew what it felt like to be Pujols. Now I knew what it felt like to be Lidge.

I had counted outs when the game was tied, but now I forgot about them. They didn’t matter. Josh Hamilton had ended the game with his bat. The bottom of the tenth would just be a formality. I turned back to my table and stared, occasionally catching a movement from one of the other Cardinals fans in the bar. By now, there were around 10 St. Louis faithful watching what had to be the most painful Cardinals loss in decades. I replayed Hamilton’s home run over and over in my head as I finished my beer, and I missed the quiet claps from the small huddle around the television. But the second round of applause, now combined with brief shouts caught my attention. I looked at the television to see that the Cardinals had pulled within one run with two men on and Lance Berkman at the plate. If this was how it was going to end — with the faintest glimmer of hope — I had to watch it.

Berkman knew something about comebacks. In 2005, he led the Astros during their 18-inning marathon playoff victory over the Atlanta Braves. After a disappointing 2010 season, he won the 2011 Comeback Player of the Year Award. And now the Cardinals needed one more comeback to keep the season alive. A line drive single to center and the Cardinals had tied it up. Twice in two innings, St. Louis had been down to its last strike, only to rally. There is nothing sweeter in St. Louis than October baseball. We would have at least one more inning of it.

I could talk about how Jake Westbrook retired the Rangers in the top of the eleventh inning. Westbrook, the pitcher who had been left off the playoff roster for the divisional series, gave the Cardinals the chance to win it and force the first World Series Game 7 since 2002. But no one will remember that Westbrook pitched like nails in this game. They’ll remember a 28-year-old kid from Kirkwood, Mo. named David Freese. By now I was standing with the other Cardinals fans. It’s clichéd to say there was electricity in the air, but I can’t deny that there was. Everyone in the bar felt connected, each of our eyes viewing the same images as we communed around a single television set. There was nothing else but the pitchers mound and the batters box.

The colors really define the scene. Freese’s white jersey, with its red and gold lettering, set against the brown dirt of the infield. The tens of thousands of red-clad fans, ready to erupt. The green grass of the batters eye. And the small, white ball sitting delicately in the middle, as if it were meant to be there all along. The red, white and blue bunting would stay out for one more day. The red caps and white jerseys would stay out of storage for one more game. October baseball in St. Louis would not end that Thursday night. I wasn’t standing in a bar in Columbia; I was at my house in St. Louis, celebrating with my family. I was in the stands at Busch Stadium, embracing my fellow Cardinals fans. I was on the field, cheering louder than ever before in my life. I was in the press box glowing, as Joe Buck said, “And we’ll see you tomorrow night.”

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  1. […] Nothing scares me more than the fact that you’ve supposedly given up hope in the Cardinals. If I remember correctly, the last time you gave up hope on the Cardinals, this happened. […]

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