Sunday, May 08, 2005

busch nostalgia 2: of hague and taylor

some people write memoirs about the wars they fought in, the lovers they bedded, the scientific knowledge they pursued and contributed to humankind. i write about the baseball games i’ve seen. at busch stadium.

this is 2d part in the series; read part 1 here and the part 1 addendum here. those posts, and this one, made possible by retrosheet, where box scores never get yellow and brittle and krinkled up.

it’s august 1970. busch stadium is four years old, i am seven, and the cardinals are suffering through their worst season in more than a decade. a seven-game losing streak heading into the all-star break drops them from 3rd place, 4 games back, to fifth place, 9.5 back. they open the 2d half of the season 2-10, and late july finds the cardinals 16 games under at 41-57, dead last in the nl east — behind even the montreal expos, a 1½ -year-old expansion franchise.

hard to believe that less than two years ago the cardinals were coasting to their second consecutive pennant. but this lineup bears no resemblance to that of the invincible 67-68 team. the #3 and #4 hitters from that team left after the cards’ loss to detroit in the ’68 world series — roger maris into retirement, cha-cha cepeda to atlanta in a trade for joe torre. then, just days after the 1969 regular season ended, two more everyday players were sent packing — curt flood and tim mccarver to philadelphia for richie allen, in the transaction that heralded the death of the reserve clause.

the departure of flood and mccarver, up-the-middle anchors for all three of stl’s 1960s pennant winners, has changed the look and feel of the team. erstwhile pitching-and-defense specialists, the cardinals have become sluggers, led by the 28-year-old allen and 29-year-old joe torre. both drive in 100 runs in 1970 (the cards’ first such pairing in one lineup since the 1964 championship team), while torre and brock give the cardinals two 200-hit men, the first time that has happened since 1963 (musial’s last season). allen’s 34 homers are the most by a cardinal since musial’s 35 in 1954, and the most until jack clark’s 35 in 1987. the ’70 cardinals will pile up 744 runs, the highest-scoring lineup since 1963. no cardinal team will outscore them until 1985.

the reverse pattern holds, unfortunately, for the cards’ pitching. they will allow 747 runs in 1970, the most since 1955 — and a figure not to be topped for 28 years, until 1998. think that through again: the 1970 staff is the most scored-upon in a 43-year period between 1955 and 1998 — the most porous staff, essentially, for the entire 2d half of the 20th century. just two years earlier, the cards yielded only 472 runs — nearly 40 percent fewer — while leading the league in era; they led the league again in ’69 while allowing only 540 opposition runs to score. but steve carlton’s 1970 era is up a run and half over 1969; nellie briles’ is three runs a game higher, and even gibson is less sharp, giving up a run a game more this year than last. he’s still gibson — will win his 3d cy young this yr with a 23-7 mark, 23 cgs and 274 ks — but he won’t be throwing 13 shutouts as he did just two seasons ago.

by the morning of august 8 the cards have pulled themselves back into fifth, ahead of montreal and only 8 games under .500 (51-59). they are three games into a 16-game homestand that will bring five teams (nearly half the league) to town. montreal is here now; the cards beat them in the series opener last night (gibson’s 15th w) and on this saturday afternoon will start a 22-year-old righthander named harry parker, pitching in his major-league debut. he’s facing mike marshall, 0-5 with a 4.25 era. these are the expos in all their reeking expansionness — one good player (rusty staub), one colorfully named one (coco laboy), and 23 guys named staehle and gosger and boccabella to fill out the other 23 uniforms. triple a-ish players; but then, parker’s a triple a pitcher, and the expos have at him. they bruise him for 4 in the third to go up 4-1; the cards get the 4 right back in their half to regain the lead. it’s still 5-4 when parker departs with two on and one out in the sixth; he stands to earn the victory. but pinch-hitter mack jones (now there’s a good name for an expansion player) clouts a chuck taylor pitch into the alley to knock in parker’s two baserunners, then scores on a squeeze play. again the cardinals answer immediately, tying the score at 7s with two runs in the bottom of the 6th. there it remains until the top of the 9th, when — with two out and nobody on — the ’spos string together four singles off taylor and al hrabosky and harvest three runs.

claude raymond (3-6), mtl’s fourth pitcher, comes on to close out the game. but twice already this afternoon the cards have counterpunched immediately following mtl rallies, and they make like to do it one more time. leron lee leads off with a walk and jose cardenal bats a single up the middle; raymond seems to redeem himself by picking cardenal off first, but then he throws the ball away in the ensuing rundown and everyone’s safe, men at 2d and 3d. brock chases home one with a groundball, and a second scores on a single by pinch-hitter carl taylor (chuck’s brother). that makes it 10-9 montreal and brings rightfielder joe hague to the plate.

hague reached the majors a generation ahead of his time; if he played today he’d be a moneyball exemplar. his strengths are plate discipline (walk rate of .129 in a very short career) and pop (career .160 iso power); his career secondary average of .300 dwarfs his career BA (.239). but this is 1970; bill james is still in the army or wherever, and nobody owns a pocket calculator, much less a computer. we don’t have fancy metrics with which to evaluate baseball players; don’t need ‘em either, goddammit. we’ve got batting average, hr, and rbis — what the hell else does anyone need to know? joe hague starts the day at .274 with 8 hr and 37 rbi, not the kind of numbers that get a 26-year-old borderline prospect established as a big-leaguer . . . . but hague’s obp is .364 (if they only knew!) and he’s slugging .421 — a 786 ops, not at all bad for the day. he will finish the year with 5.58 runs created per 27 outs, an offensive winning percentage of .604 . . . .

ah well, like i said, it’s 1970 and nobody cares. we care only that hague is 2 for 5; that he doubled home the cardinals’ 7th (and tying) run in the 6th inning; and that another double would tie it again. hague seems to oblige, launching a raymond pitch on a high, nine-ironish flight toward the right-field corner. i can still picture the arc — "phat air," as they say (or did last month) on espn2. staub races that way but finally runs out of room; it’s over the wall, and the high-scoring, poor-pitching cards have an unbelievable 11-10 victory. this is the first walkoff homerun i have ever witnessed, the first thrilling bottom-9th comeback . . . . .for all i know they are the first such events in the history of the cardinals, even the history of major-league baseball, so shocking do they seem to me. i can’t shut up about it; for the next couple days every kid on the block has to hear me recap the 9th inning, while my older brother (who had a little league game or something that day and missed the excitement) lurches back and forth between jealousy and embarrassed disgust. i don’t care; let him suffer. to my 7-year-old mind it seems imperative to milk the experience now, because what are the odds i’ll ever attend another game as remarkable as that? probably never see the like again as long as i live. . . . . .

. . . . . or maybe i’ll see it happen all over again three days later. of which, more asap.

viva el birdos