ST. LOUIS- The mock newspaper, “The Onion,” has this headline in its latest edition: “World Series overshadowed by thrilling new MLB labor agreement.” It’s supposed to be comedy, but sadly, it has a ring of truth to it. When Bud Selig and Donald Fehr are the breakout stars of October, you know it hasn’t been a great postseason.
Heading into Game 4 on Thursday night at Busch Stadium, in fact, the World Series had been pretty much a dud, light on both drama and substance. The prevailing images through three games: a dirty hand and a muddy field.
Baseball fever: Catch it.
So the World Series needed exactly what it got Thursday. A game, for starters. What little drama had been building this week might have been totally quenched by yet another rainout.
But this wasn’t just any game: It was a thrill ride, rife with comebacks and breakdowns, rallies and pratfalls, heroes and goats. In short, the kind of crackling good game that should define the postseason, not be the exception to the rule.
By the time it ended with a 5-4 Cardinals victory, there were more vivid moments to be replayed for posterity than in the other three games combined.
The ultimate hero was the littlest man on the field, David Eckstein, whose two-out double in the eighth inning off Joel Zumaya_his third double, and fourth hit, of the game_brought home Aaron Miles with what proved to be the winning run.
“He’s the definition of a clutch player, and you try to give an example of what that means,” St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said. “Hitting against a guy throwing 100 miles an hour, that’s all you need to know, him coming through in that situation. He’s the toughest guy I’ve ever seen in a uniform.”
Detroit left-fielder Craig Monroe missed being the hero by half an inch of leather, laying out full length in a heroic diving effort for Eckstein’s ball, only to have it tick off his glove and trickle to the wall.
Now the Cardinals are on the verge of their first World Series title since 1982, which would make them, at 83 victories in the regular season, the losingest champions ever. That’s a distinction that they wouldn’t mind a bit, considering the alternative. Ask the 2001 Mariners how many of their 116 victories they’d trade for a title.
No team has blown a three-games-to-one lead since, gulp, the Cardinals, in `85, against the Kansas City Royals. (Word to the wise: When discussing that Series with Cardinal fans, duck when you say “Don Denkinger.”).
One of the handful of other teams to squander a three-games-to-one lead was the Cardinals in 1968, against the, double gulp, Tigers. Now that was a memorable World Series, and one particular moment from it would come into play on this misty night.
That occurred in the wild and woolly seventh inning, when Detroit center fielder Curtis Granderson slipped and fell going back for Eckstein’s catchable fly leading off the seventh. The ball sailed over Granderson’s head for a double, setting into motion a sinister series of events that lifted the Cardinals from a 3-2 deficit to a 4-3 lead.
The Granderson play had historical antecedent, his unfortunate slip immediately bringing to mind the infamous misplay by Cardinals center fielder Curt Flood in `68 that, in an indirect sense, helped make all these players very rich.
In the seventh inning of a scoreless Game 7 against the Tigers, Flood misjudged a drive by Jim Northrup, coming in initially only to have it sail over his head for a two-run triple that sunk Bob Gibson and the Cardinals.
Many believe that Cardinals management was so upset with Flood over that play that it led to Flood’s trade to Philadelphia, which led him to challenge the reserve clause, which led to free agency, with led to $252 million contracts.
The other critical play in the inning was an egregious throwing error by Tigers pitcher Fernando Rodney on a sacrifice attempt by So Taguchi that let in the tying run.
It was the sixth error in four games for Detroit, for whom the phrase “own worst enemy” was coined, and their fourth throwing error by a pitcher. Apparently, the difference between pitching and throwing is bigger than you would think.