Every Unhappy Family is the Same


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.

But not this year. I can't criticize the job he's done with his erratic offense and crazy-quilt pitching staff. I think when Darryl Kile died, LaRussa became a three-dimensional figure again. He became a leader, a guy from whom everybody else could glean a sense of stability and purpose. Or maybe he just had the sense to stand down while such unlikely characters as Jim Edmonds and Matt Morris turned into leaders around him. Either way this Cardinals outfit is more focused and less flappable than any of the LaRussa teams that preceded it. And after years of living down what they did to young arms like Morris and Alan Benes, LaRussa and Dave Duncan have done a hell of a job with this pitching staff, which is composed of the kind of veteran journeymen they seem to do best with. Woody Williams, Garrett Stephenson, Chuck Finley, Andy Benes--well, do I need to say any more than "Andy Benes" to make my point? (As for Rick Ankiel: Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown.)

I wanted to ask you about Kelly and Gardenhire. Specifically about the chemistry of the transition. What do you count as Kelly's main legacies to this team, pro and con? And what about Gardenhire--where's he similar in approach to Kelly on the field or off, and where's he different?

I'll leave you with Dave Marsh's idea of the funniest joke in the world, which he sent along after seeing our exchange here yesterday. I'm pasting this verbatim from his email; it'll be almost like hearing him tell it himself.

A bassist and a drummer go camping. They're in the woods awhile and they're a little bored so the bassist says, "Look I'm gonna go off on my own for the day. We'll meet up here tonight. Just to break the routine, OK" The drummer looks doubtful but he goes along.

Just before dark, the bassist returns, bedraggled. He's gotten turned around and had to wade through a swamp and cockleburrs and up and down some very large and rocky hills to get back to the encampment. The drummer greets him, all full of cheer. "Waht'd you do today?" he asks. The bassist tells him, then asks, "What did you get up to?"

"Man," the drummer said, "just over that ridge, about mile or so from here, there's a railroad track. I guess the trains must run through only a couple times a week or something. Anyway, I got up there and I found this girl tied to the tracks, and I untied and we had all kinds of sex for the rest of the day."

"Really," says the bassist. "Did she give you head?"

"Aw, I never could find her head."

Okay, so here's what I'm getting at: You know and I know there's a Rorschach aspect to this whole favorite joke thing, and I think that's why you're running from it. I believe it was Rilke who said that our fears are dragons guarding our greatest treasures. (Although doesn't that augur for leaving your dragons right where they are? At least that way somebody's guarding your treasures. Better you're denied them than somebody else sneaks in and nabs them, wouldn't you say?)

But the point is, that's not the point. You tell me yours, I'll tell you mine.


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

Bless you, sir, for eating up so much of the clock tonight. I'm whupped and breaking down with the first cold of the season, so this is going to be pretty much a one-sided exchange.

I gutted out the Giants/Cardinals game on the couch, but once again it wasn't much of a game. I found myself at one point in the later innings browsing through the personal ads in the back of City Pages. Lots of entertaining reading back there, of course. My favorite tonight was the sadsack who described himself as "Lincolnesque." Bet that draws the ladies like dogs to vomit. You're a big Lincoln guy: What kind of a woman is likely to be attracted by that description?

Anyway, as you acknowledged, so much for tonight's game. You knew and I knew that the Cardinals weren't going to come back even when the score was 3-0, and what does that say about the kind of team it is? How hard are the St. Louis fans on Tino, by the way? I actually feel sorry for the guy.

That's not a very good ballpark for him to hit in, is it? It's impossible to feel sorry for Tony LaRussa. He is to managers what Tim McCarver is to announcers--Tim McCarver's stoic, brooding, ballet-loving vegetarian kid brother. Cheer up, Tony. Turn that frown upside down and you'll have a smile on your face, as one of my teachers used to tell me. Every year the guy looks more and more like Emmet Kelly in a baseball uniform. You mention his love for the idiosyncratic managerial move. My favorite was the time he decided to *bat the pitcher eighth.* How is it that move didn't revolutionize play in the National League?

I hate to admit it to you, but I really was secretly rooting for the Cardinals this year. My old family allegiance, of course, is to the Cubs, but I admired the way St. Louis battled through all the adversity. And I also miss Jack Buck. It's funny you should mention him. I also thought of him during tonight's game. I met him once as well, and he seemed like a damn nice guy. I met Ernie Harwell a few years ago and I'd have to say he's easily the gentlest soul I encountered around a baseball stadium. I looked forward to the Tigers coming to town every year so I could say hello to him again. One of my favorite experiences at the Dome was watching Ernie in the press box one day, praying out loud with an old friend right in the middle of the National Anthem. Herb Carneal is another wonderful guy, and we've already had a pretty good foreshadowing here of what the future without him will be like, and it ain't good.

You ask about Kelly and Gardenhire. I'm not sure what you mean by the chemistry of the transition. Transition to chemistry is more like it. Kelly hated to hear that word. Gardenhire's clubhouse character is defined by it. I still don't quite understand how the passing of the torch went in that deal, but it seems pretty clear that Gardenhire was anointed by Kelly, which I don't quite understand. Two guys couldn't be more unalike, and I honestly don't think there are very many similarities in them as managers.

There is, obviously, a Kelly legacy, and plenty of it is decent stuff that Gardenhire has appropriated: play hard and play nine innings, respect the game, earn everything, nobody's bigger than the team, etc. Everybody spouts those old cliches, of course, but Kelly *demanded* that players live by them, which is what made him unique, and also what made him such a pain in the ass. He was a titan of passive-aggression, which is something that Gardenhire will never be accused of. He kept a large, dark, and crowded doghouse, and Gardenhire has torn that down. Considering how deeply the Kelly mindset had infected the organization, I've been frankly amazed by how quickly things have changed under the new guy. I guess essentially T.K. gave these guys a trial-by-fire introduction to the big leagues, and that made them a tougher and tighter team, and also made them uniquely qualified to recognize what a breath of fresh air Gardenhire is.

I've been to more games this year than ever before--with any luck I'll hit 70 by the end of the season--and I've never heard Gardie run down a player, which is something Kelly did all the time. Gardenhire literally talks to everyone; Kelly talked to no one. In the two years I spent around Kelly he was never even remotely civil to me--not one time. Gardenhire is generous with his time, and virtually always civil. Here, actually, is the short answer to your question: Though I never questioned his baseball knowledge or command of in-game strategy, Kelly seemed like a dick and a genuinely unhappy guy. Gardenhire seems like a good guy, and a genuinely happy man. I think that makes him a better manager for this group of players.

As for Marsh's joke--it's way funnier than the funniest joke in the world. What's with this challenge, by the way? Why do I have to go first? I fucking hate jokes. I couldn't give you a joke off the top of my head if you put a gun in my ear. I don't remember jokes or dreams. Ever. So what does that say about me? I like my humor in the form of stories and anecdotes; I like satire and stuff like Spike Jones. I lied, by the way, I do remember one joke, so that must be the funniest joke in the world, right?

This goes way back. There was this awkward teacher in my junior high who apparently fancied himself a comedian, and this one year he did a little routine in the annual talent show. He obviously wrote his own material. He was crucified by merciless 12 year olds. I can only remember one joke from that routine, and for years whenever me or any of my old buddies would utter the first line we would all collapse with laughter. It was even funnier when we discovered pot.

Here, then, is the funniest joke in the world, courtesy of Mr. Schwange:

"One day I was on the bus and this stranger next to me introduced himself as 'Tex.'

'Why is it,' I asked him, 'That they call you Tex?'

'Well, because I'm from Texas!' the man said, and tipped his cowboy hat.

'I guess you'll have to call me 'Minnie,' then,' I told him.

'Pray tell, why is that, my friend?' he asked.

'Because I am from Minnie-Sota!'"