A ROAR AND A LUMP
The wise Bart Giamatti once described baseball as a game designed to break your heart. And he was right. Three Sundays ago at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, I received a dose of heartache I havent been able to shake since. Trouble is, the pain was delivered on the verge of the kind of exhilaration that makes baseball so brilliant . . . and keeps us coming back for more.
This particular visit to the House That Brock Built was an extra special one. It was my 1-year-old daughters first exposure to the epicenter of Cardinal Nation. The magnitude of the event didnt exactly register for Elena. (Her nap between the seventh inning and the top of the ninth was a perfect metaphor for the home teams offense during that stretch.) But considering the torch first carried by my grandfather will someday be hers to share with her big sister, this gusty matinee affair was a very big game for Elenas father.
Seeking to sweep the Colorado Rockies, St. Louis dug a hole with some less than stellar pitching from Woody Williams. Despite a three-run second inning and a two-run homer from Marlon Anderson, the Cards entered the bottom of the ninth trailing, 8-5. The Rockies sent their converted closer, Shawn Chacon, to the hill to face the bottom of the Cardinal order. Elena stirred in my arms just about the time Chacon began his warm-up pitches.
Anderson went down on strikes. Catcher Mike Matheny followed with a bloop single to right, but when pinch-hitter Ray Lankford -- an old, familiar friend -- whiffed, the Cardinals were down to their last out. I rose to my feet, Elena still at my hip. The bags were packed, a family of four ready to start the 280-mile drive down I-55.
Tony Womack doubled into the rightfield corner. Then, after falling behind in the count, Reggie Sanders drew a walk. Bases loaded now . . . tying run at first. And the buzz started.
Aura is a hard thing to define, particularly in sports, where its an overused description for coaches, trophies, and certain celebrated venues. But Albert Pujols is developing an aura about him. The Cardinals 24-year-old superstar -- now a $100 million man -- is doing to a baseball what 10-year-olds will to a birthday pinata. And the expectations among his army of followers is growing with his unprecedented numbers. So the stage was set, right before my sweet Elenas eyes.
Pujols fell behind Chacon, 0-2. He fouled off two (three?) pitches, the drama intensifying with every delivery. One more strike . . . Colorado wins. A home run (grand slam!) from Pujols . . . the Murtaughs dont need transportation back to Memphis.
On Chacons fifth (sixth?) delivery, Pujols drilled the ball to rightfield. (Eerily similar to the ball he hit on September 15, 2000, to win a championship at AutoZone Park.) The crowd of 35,000 rose to its feet, a roar rising with the punished spheroid. And I held Elena tighter than I ever have, for fear of dropping her in celebration. Then . . .
The ball was caught. Colorado rightfielder Kit Pellow snared the ball just as his back smashed into the padded wall in front of the Cardinals bullpen. The collective exhale from the crowd would have lifted a small airplane. And just like that, Elenas first trip to Busch ended in defeat.
I take these things -- these moments -- way too seriously. And Im convinced Elena deserved the extra three feet that ball should have traveled. Shed be hearing the story of Mr. Pujols game-winning grand slam so often shed have it memorized before her 10th (5th?) birthday. But it wasnt to be. Theres little doubt that the wind -- blowing from south of the stadium, in from rightfield -- directed that ball into Pellows glove. What in the name of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome is Mother Nature doing deciding a baseball game?
Rare is the baseball player who makes spectacular outs. I had somewhat of a lump in my throat as we began our drive south. The lump came from imagining how very close Pujols had come to delivering yet another memory Id carry -- and share -- the rest of my life. But the more and more I thought about it as the sun began to set, the more I recognized that this is precisely what he did.