It was the top of the eighth inning of the second game between the Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants last weekend. Cy Young hopeful Chris Carpenter had just given up the third run to the Giants and was in danger of losing for the first time since something like the last time the Cubs won the World Series. Careful. That may be an exaggeration. My point is that Carp has enjoyed a long streak of starts without a loss and that was now in jeopardy as he stood to lose the game.
My phone rang and I knew who it was. Through the garbled transmission of a cell phone inside a concrete casing filled with 45,000 people, my buddy Jeff was calling from Busch Stadium. Let's set the record straight. His first purpose in calling was clear – I'm at the game, Rex, and you aren't. "What do you want, Jeff?" I groaned. "That La Russa is a freakin' idiot!" he shouted. "Why would he leave Carpenter in there for so long? He always does that to him, especially late in the game. What's wrong with La Russa?!"
I tried to reason with him but should have known better. I told him that the Cardinals are in the midst of a long, unbroken stretch of games and that La Russa needs to conserve the strength of his bullpen. Besides, at that point the innings-eating Carpenter had just broken the 100 pitch barrier and really wasn't looking that tired. The guy's a competitor of the first order. If he has the strength left to do so, Carpenter would rather clean up his own messes.
"Now you're just trying to be reasonable!" Jeff shouted. "La Russa always leaves Carpenter in for too long and he's wearing him out!" "Jeff, all I can tell you is that from watching the game on TV, you might be able to argue that Carpenter was left in for one batter too long, but that last hit was a seeing-eye scratch single up the middle. It certainly wasn't ripped and Carpenter looked OK up to the end." I said, knowing it was all in vain.
Jeff is like so many other fans, although he is more dangerous because he has a cell phone with unlimited minutes. With 2,191 wins under his belt and ranking third in career wins among managers, Tony La Russa is a proven quantity. As a skipper, he is without parallel among active managers. He is now trailing the iconic Sparky Anderson by three wins. Yet, given his historic record, fans can't wait to second-guess him. Then, other fans love to second-guess the fans who second-guess Tony.
When I hung up the phone, my wife looked at me with her baleful expression and said simply "Jeff?" "Yes," I said. "He's at the game again." She was right on the money. "He calls you every time he goes to a game just to remind you that he's there," she said. It makes me mad because when I'M at a game and I try to call HIM at home or work, he never answers the phone. I don't have that luxury. I've got two daughters away at college and every time the phone rings I rush to it, certain that it is the Dean of Students informing me that both are being expelled immediately for some horrific disciplinary violations.
The game progressed. Into the bottom of ninth it went, and Yadier Molina (Oh, how we've missed you, Yadi!) smacks a three-run homer to make the score 4-3. Down still by that run, John Rodriguez singles and I'm thinking "Pinch run for him, Tony. He's learned base-running from Albert." Sure enough, out of the dugout pops the more proficient Hector Luna to pinch run. Next up is the versatile Abraham Nunez, who singles, advancing the runner to third. Albert pops out and that brings in Jimmy Baseball, Jim Edmonds, with two outs.
With that unmistakable lash at a high fastball,
The phone rings. Is it the Dean of Students or, as we both correctly guess, Jeff? I pick up the phone and don't even offer a hello. "How does La Russa look now?" I ask. "He's a freakin'GENIUS!" Jeff roars over the crowd sounds. "I don't know how he does it!" I offer my own perspective. "Tell you what, Jeff, I think I prefer having Tony manage the Cardinals than you. How about maybe you take over the Royals. They could use your help." Jeff laughs and we both hang up. He's probably finishing up that last cold frosty one.
Jeff is like a lot of those TLR wannabees. They may pick a spot here and there, but in the end their nemesis and object of their verbal darts usually pulls these things out by working his pitchers just so, tweaking the line-up slightly, forcing just the right match-ups at critical times. I, for one, gave up long ago on second-guessing Tony La Russa. In my book, he's a freakin' baseball genius – albeit human – and there's no other active manager I'd rather have running the Cardinals. Now if I can just get Jeff to answer his phone the next time I'm at a game...