COULD A CURSE BE WORSE?
Its one of the strangest emotions Ive ever experienced. Sitting seven rows behind the St. Louis Cardinals dugout in Busch Stadium for Game 3 of the World Series Tuesday night, I was at the one place on the face of the earth where I most wanted to be . . . and with my father no less. And I was absolutely suffering.
Time heals, they say. And with baseball history -- as it unfolds, particularly each October -- the invigorating wins and throat-squeezing losses blend together in a tapestry unlike any other sport can claim. So the 2004 Cardinal season -- with 112 wins, counting the postseason -- will be near the top of the bittersweet category as fans do their mid-winter recollecting.
The Boston Red Sox ended the most fabled and talked-about curse in American sport (was the curse not merely a convenient excuse for 86 years of losing?). And they did so in a fashion that earns them a permanent spot (wild-card status, be damned) among the games truly great teams. To come back from three games down against the mighty Yankees of New York, and to beat the Bombers in Babes House, and once behind a pitcher whose red sock was the precise shade of the hurlers hemoglobin . . . the stuff of legend. Put Curt Schillings name not beside, but ahead of the Splendid Splinters, Yastrzemskis, Fisks. After all, it was he and not they who brought New England to heights their own gridiron Patriots can only approximate.
And what of those Cardinals, the first National League champion to call St. Louis home in 17 years? Imagine having a date to your senior prom with the prettiest girl in the county . . . and showing up with the largest zit your nose could accommodate. Heroes became clowns for St. Louis in this Fall Classic (dare we call it that?). Jim Edmonds, it could be argued, won both Games 6 and 7 of the NLCS, the first with an extra-inning home run, the second with a circus catch in centerfield to save two early runs. Against Boston? He had all of one hit, a bunt single in Fenway.
Scott Rolen drilled the home run that beat the indomitable Roger Clemens in that NLCS Game 7. Against Boston? Nary a hit. Albert Pujols hit .500 in the NLCS, with four home runs. He wasnt able to so much as dent the Green Monster in a ballpark made for him.
And then theres Jeff Suppan. As Cardinal Nation roars for his head over the pitchers base-running blunder (the enmity is better directed at third-base coach Jose Oquendo), remember how he clinched each of the previous playoff series for the Cardinals, and how he out-pitched a first-ballot Hall of Famer to win the pennant. A clown, yes. But with a heros cape still in his wardrobe.
Just as baseball history is written in the language of heroics, its texture is thickened with heartache . . . and collapse. Poor Tony LaRussa has been witness to the execution three times, now, first at the hands of Kirk Gibson in 1988, two years later when swept by an outmanned Cincinnati club, and now under a lunar eclipse at Busch Stadium. Heres hoping hes back for 2005. Facial blemish aside, he danced with the partner he brought.
Im a third-generation Cardinal fan. My grandfather never took my dad to Sportsmans Park to see the great Musial, much less to see a World Series contest. With the help of more friends than I can count, Dad and I pulled it off Tuesday night for the 18th World Series game to be played at Busch Stadium since it opened in 1966. We could see Stan the Mans pearly whites as he threw out the first pitch, caught by none other than Bob Gibson. (Oh, but if we could have had Gibby on the hill that night!) But legends, alas, arent replicated by the will of a father and son. Legends are made by retiring 14 consecutive batters to take your team within nine innings of a world championship. This night belonged to Pedro Martinez and the Bosox.
After the game, Dad and I shuffled over to Mike Shannons restaurant, across Market Street from the stadium in downtown St. Louis. Budweiser, of course, was the salve. Packed within this eatery -- decorated wall to wall with, what else, baseball history -- were fellow members of Cardinal Nation. Damp from the rain, and some tears. Still dressed almost entirely in red, many of their caps with the fancy World Series logo newly attached. Knowing what was surely imminent, my spirits (so to speak) were near rock bottom.
But like the Grinch after stealing every last item from Whoville, I noticed something truly odd about my extended family of Cardinal loyalists. They were smiling, laughing even. Shaking hands and allowing the scattered Red Sox fans to soak up Cardinal Country for a night. You see, they knew -- as do my dad and I -- there will be another Cardinal game. Another win, even. Perhaps, Id like to believe, another championship.