Trouble is Brewing

22-year-old Prince Fielder is approaching 30 home runs and 80 RBI in his rookie campaign, and also leads the Brewers' qualifiers in batting average with a .276 mark.

When I moved to St. Louis, I was already past my adolescent years, so I had never experienced the local tradition of kids having a joke to tell when trick-or-treating on Halloween. Usually the jokes are pretty corny, like "Why is six afraid of seven? Because seven-atenine!" (cue rimshot). What in other cities and other times is a pagan celebration of terror, fright, and candy-hoarding greed had become a Henny Youngman routine performed by seven-year-olds. I don't know when this started, or why, but I think it reflects on the generally good-natured sweetness, or wellpreserved innocence, that seems to permeate the social fabric of this area.

This is the same good nature that has led Cardinal fans to be uncommonly accommodating and supportive toward their team and even their opponents.

I admit to being swept up in this spirit at times, though it does not come naturally. I took part in a stadium-wide standing O for Tony Gwynn once, when he hit a rare home run that marked a significant milestone in his hall-of-fame career. The homer gave the Padres the lead in that game, but who cares about such trivialities? I have also stood and cheered Larry Walker for a sorry strikeout – it was his first at bat for the home crowd since arriving via trade in 2004's World Series run.

Visiting teams have long known of this phenomenon, that traveling to St. Louis was like passing through a bubble of some sort that insulated our baseball crowds from the screeching, jeering masses in other away games. A malcontent like the Anaheim Angels-era Jimmy Edmonds seemed to know that St. Louis could provide an opportunity to reinvent himself, that with a few good acts all could be forgiven.

It may, then, come as a shock to the Milwaukee Brewers to arrive at the close of this year, and hear the hue and cry erupting from the red plastic seats.

Our inherent good nature may have left Cardinal Nation undefended against a true horror show like the one we're witnessing, and that the Brewers are now invited to participate in. Chokes have replaced jokes, gasps have replaced laughs, and tremendous boos have replaced cheers as the official sounds of early Autumn.

The "Phold" and the "Choke"

Scribes across the country are recalling the Phillies "Phold" of 1964 that saw the Cardinals come from 6.5 games back to win the pennant on the season's last day. It's an amazing story just by its sheer improbability – a division-leading, 90-win club suddenly and shockingly loses 10 in a row to fall into third place in the last week of the season, as though "Steve Blass syndrome" were a communicable disease that an entire clubhouse could become infected with. Philadelphia manager Gene Mauch was a baseball lifer, an ardent believer in fundamentals and "small-ball," and fielded the kind of scrappy, resilient team that St. Louisans would have otherwise admired if they weren't so busy cheering its demise.

The 1964 Cardinals benefited, and perhaps buoyed by the unbelievability of what they had just been through, romped to a 4-3 World Series victory over the Yankees.

That the 2006 Cardinals, managed by a baseball lifer in Tony La Russa, are now subject to the proverbial "other end of the stick" is full of delicious irony for Philadelphians – especially as their own team surges toward the wildcard. Sportswriters, who love a train-wreck story above any other, are even willing to put the saga of Terrell Owens aside for a moment to have a say on the goings-on here.

Cardinal fans have been royally disappointed with their home nine this season, but a large number have had the good graces to weather their team's inconsistency with polite silence rather than outright hostility. But the spark of hope, of "anything can happen once you get to October," has found precious little oxygen lately. For some, a fatalism is setting in, like that of a dying man who decides to befriend the circling birds rather than wave them away. For others, especially those who remember the antics of 1964 first-hand, this attitude is unthinkable, especially while we still control some element of our own fate.

Magic Numbers

The Cardinals' magic number had been five for a full week since we left Milwaukee little more than a week ago, seven days that seemed to stretch on for a near eternity. But with Wednesday's dramatic 4-2 win over the Padres, we have a new grasp on our destiny – by winning out we can close the door on the surging Astros and cap the pens of all the sportswriters foretelling a historic collapse.

For the Brewers, the only magic numbers they are chasing are a few individual milestones. This is a team that has been pouring on the runs lately – after touching home plate only 7 times in their home series win against us, the Beermakers tapped the Giants' pitching for 37 runs in four games.

22-year-old Prince Fielder is approaching 30 home runs and 80 RBI in his rookie campaign, and also leads the Brewers' qualifiers in batting average with a .276 mark.

Bill Hall has nearly doubled his career best in home runs with 33 this year, and with an outstanding series could threaten 100 RBI – all this coming in his age 27 season, which has been often touted as the point when many hitters reach their offensive prime. (Albert Pujols turns 27 this coming January – look out world!)

Lefty starter Chris Capuano has an opportunity to earn his 12th win and post back-to-back winning seasons, following his 18-12 breakout last year.

Staff ace Ben Sheets can even his record at 7-7, putting a positive face on what has been a sad season for the 29-year-old pitcher. However, to make this mark, he will have to exorcise some demons of his own – Sheets has a career record of 4-13 against the Cards, including 0-2 with a 6.43 ERA against us this year. This is by far his worst mark against any team, and subtracting these starts, Sheets would have a 57-56 career record, better than the highly-sought (and very highly paid) AJ Burnett, now of the Toronto Blue Jays.

More eight-inning games

Most terrifying for Cardinal fans, the Brewers have a real closer. Since arriving in the Carlos Lee trade with Texas, Francisco Cordero has dominated with 16 saves in 16 chances, with three wins thrown in for good measure. He has an ERA of 0.77 in the national league, with 27 strikeouts against only 14 hits in 24 innings pitched, and before giving up a run against San Francisco, had thrown the relief equivalent of a one-hitter across nine scoreless relief innings.

The thought of facing yet another shut-down guy, another gameshortener, may have the Cardinal hitters squeezing their bats even tighter and the Cardinal manager breaking even more pencil leads as he writes out the fateful lineup card. The Cardinals have suffered a ridiculous amount of one-run losses of late, with the Padres' Trevor Hoffman, the Astros' Brad Lidge – cough, sorry, er – Dan Wheeler, and Cordero himself figuring strongly in each of the decisions.

We do not have the same luxury, and have not all year. While Jason Isringhausen's most recent tenure in the ninth inning had Cardinal fans buying up all the antacid in town, in his absence Cardinal fans have been buying rope.

This means we may see La Russa pinch-hitting for matchstick-swinging Yadier Molina in the fifth inning rather than the seventh. We may see four pitchers warming up simultaneously in the sixth rather than the eighth. La Russa in full-blown October mode is scary enough, but with this added intensity, nearly anything is possible.

As the captain steers the ship through the oncoming storm, we can only lash ourselves to the gunwales and pray to the mercies of the baseball gods, who appear none-too-pleased with the rancorous goings-on at Busch III. Perhaps they tried to get our attention with that massive "gust front" – literally, a fifteen-minute hurricane – that arrived just as the first pitch was about to be thrown on July 19th, a vicious and visceral sensation of being swept out of a baseball stadium. Or, perhaps the wheel of karma is coming around on us for our triumph in '64.

If either disaster reenacts itself on the diamond this weekend, I wonder how much of our famous goodwill will be able to withstand the blast.


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