Every Unhappy Family is the Same

Cards/Giants Game 2, plus notes on managers

From: Steve Perry
To: Brad Zellar
Subject: Every Unhappy Family is the Same

Doesn't last night's Giants' starter, Jason Schmidt, look like the guy from everybody's high school who pissed in any untended cup of Mountain Dew he ever found in shop class? Grab a yearbook and check it out.

Anyway that's all I'm going to say about the matter. I refuse to mope about my Cardinals' second straight bout of narcolepsy; I refuse to talk about it at all.

Tell you what I *have* thought more than once since these playoffs started: I wish Jack Buck was still with us. I was thinking of him earlier this evening as the game was about to start. There's no way to explain to the uninitiated the role that guys like Jack Buck (or Ernie Harwell, or Herb Carneal) played in the lives of baseball fans who grew up before the age of cable TV. I'm not going to write a memoir about the joy of radio here. But I could. There's just something so intimate and clandestine-seeming about listening to a game in the dark in summertime--the experience can envelop you completely as a kid. To me the avuncular, whiskey-and-cigarettes voice of Buck was the other side of the world calling.

I had the chance to meet him once, when the Cardinals came to town for the Series in '87. I saw him in a hotel lobby and bounded shamelessly over to his side. Despite my abrupt entrance he greeted me as if we'd had dinner together the night before, and took up making small talk about the perennially underachieving Cards teams of my '70s youth. This guy was the reason why, as a kid, I could never answer anyone who asked me the name of my favorite player. Players came and went. My favorite Cardinal was Jack Buck.

I never even held it against Jack when, in his dotage, he defended Tony LaRussa year after year. Typically Tony-Love is a hangin' offense in this little province of Cardinal Nation (and yes, the folks in St. Louis really do call it that, even in the face of my stern disapproval). Tony came to St. Louis in 1996, you'll recall, and led that year's Cardinals to the NLCS, which they coughed up after taking a 3 games to 1 lead over the Braves. The following summer they delivered up three relief pitching prospects to the Oakland A's for Mark McGwire and the rights to any holy relics that might come to be associated with him at a later date.

It was in the ensuing seasons of 1998 and '99 that I came to hate Tony. The way that team was run during McGwire's two monster years was an affront to any real fan of the Cardinals. Everything was about the greater glory of Mark McGwire, beginning with the way management used his star power as an excuse to let the team wither around him--they would still get 3 million asses in the seats, thank you--and proceeding through LaRussa's in-game managing. I remember in particular an interleague game against the Tigers in which Tony effectively forfeited a game-winning run in the bottom of the 9th in order to leave McGwire on base and in the game for extra innings. Frank Catalonotto then homered for the Tigers in the top of the 10th, and the game ended a few minutes later with Big Mac waiting in the on-deck circle. And a part of me was as offended as thrilled on the night McGwire hit his 62nd home run: They stopped the game for 15 or 20 minutes for a ceremony in which McGwire ran to the stands for a group hug with the Maris family and then *took a microphone and thanked the crowd*--by that time I was half-expecting, half-hoping he'd sing "Danke Schoen."

I'm sorry, but the game is supposed to come first, and when Mac reigned supreme in St. Louis it rarely did--in the front office or the manager's office. The organization finally built up the roster and the payroll only in 2000, when team owners commenced in earnest their lobbying drive for new stadium funds. Consequently the team has been pretty good the last couple of years, as their three straight trips to the playoffs attest.

But in the middle of it all there has been Tony--has anyone else managed to look so vacant and so imperious at the same time?--roiling around that dugout like a turd at the bottom of the fondue pot. I won't put you through a full recitation of the facts. Let's just say that conventional wisdom calls Tony a man smitten with his own genius, and for once conventional wisdom is essentially correct. LaRussa is in love with the idiosyncratic managerial move, the one that leaves them scratching them their heads in the press box until three innings later when they see the cunning magnificence of it. In truth Tony is a guy who had a few innovative ideas once upon a time (like the one-inning save specialist) but has long since run out. Most years he's a furtive, cold fish of a man whose fetish for aging utility players who can fill in at four positions and hit .213 is deservedly legendary.

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