I pause to wipe the stinging sweat out of my eyes, and take a look at our team … and the heat must be playing tricks on my brain.
Perhaps I have passed out and am dreaming of an alternate universe, one in which the 2007 Cardinals are going toe-to-toe with NL contenders like the Brewers and Padres. One in which Kip Wells and Anthony Reyes look like pocket aces, and Joel Pineiro is a legitimate wildcard. One in which the NL Central race is tightening like a net, and the fish at the top are flopping and squirming under the light of the sun. Any of those things might have happened in somebody's idea of reality, but all of them at once?
And then there's this fever dream that I had just last night, of Rick Ankiel wearing the uniform without bursting into flames… playing in our outfield without a gaping rent opening up in the earth to pull him back down to a deep and personal hell… hitting a three-run home run to ice the game and the series, bringing enough noise and bedlam to Busch III that the cast bronze figure of Stan Musial might have turned slightly, wondering what the fuss was about.
This heat, this fever must be broken by the silent cool of technology. I put my head in the refrigerator, and then sit down to turn on the cable TV. Sure enough, it all happened. Every bit of it. But with air-conditioned sobriety, I can see that this isn't quite the same Rick Ankiel. Where the old Slick Rick was equally ablaze with potential and fury, this one is older and keener, and appears weathered and leathered in the way of an old/young cowhand – his face appears to have been rubbed bright, rather than This heat, this fever must be broken by the silent cool of technology. I put my head in the refrigerator, and then sit down to turn on the cable TV. Sure enough, it all happened. Every bit of it. But with air-conditioned sobriety, I can see that this isn't quite the same Rick Ankiel. Where the old Slick Rick was equally ablaze with potential and fury, this one is older and keener, and appears weathered and leathered in the way of an old/young cowhand – his face appears to have been rubbed bright, rather than This heat, this fever must be broken by the silent cool of technology. I put my head in the refrigerator, and then sit down to turn on the cable TV. Sure enough, it all happened. Every bit of it. But with air-conditioned sobriety, I can see that this isn't quite the same Rick Ankiel. Where the old Slick Rick was equally ablaze with potential and fury, this one is older and keener, and appears weathered and leathered in the way of an old/young cowhand – his face appears to have been rubbed bright, rather than corroded, by the elements he's faced.
A blast of cool air jogs my memory of the stories of Rick's minor league success, of a man who could be Jeff Francouer's older brother, with all of the power (and lack of plate discipline) of the Atlanta Brave phenom. Rick struck out twice (against Padres' twirler Chris Young, no shame there) in a hitless 0-for-3 start to his new career, and he reached far out over the plate in smiting his first major league hit as a position player over the wall. Getting to that ball, like getting to the very plate itself under the glare of the lights and the press of 40,000-plus fans, was a feat of daring.
Rick's first trick capped a hat trick of wins against the Padres, an NL West opponent that the Cardinals have some recent history of dominance over, and continues a stretch of hot play at home, in which the Redbirds have won six of eight from teams with records over the .500 mark, many in dramatic fashion.
Road-worn and Weary
"Great, just great," the Los Angeles Dodgers must be thinking.
You see, the boys in blue have had more than their fill of the Midwestern heat index, both on the temperature and humidity scales, and in their baseball competition. The Dodger bats have wilted in the heat, as they somehow managed to get shut out in three consecutive games, extending a losing streak to six games while tumbling well out of the first-place perch they once held, before finally breaking the skid Thursday in an extra-inning affair.
This is the first triple-blanking for the storied Dodgers since the 1966 World Series against Baltimore, so the reports go. That it came at the hands of the Cincinnati Reds, who own the secondworst ERA in the National League, was surprising, and that it happened while playing in the homer-happy Great American Ballpark was downright disheartening.
In addition to the Dodgers' batting woes, their starting rotation – which looked so good on paper back in April – is in shambles. Brad Penny is still pitching lights-out, but prized free agent Jason Schmidt never found his fastball, and has been shelved for the year while the doctors attempt to figure out what went wrong. Randy Wolf has been DL'ed as well, and Derek Lowe has been tender of late, leaving our old friend Brett Tomko and a host of miscellanea to make up the difference.
After hitting a high point of 13 games above the median and spending most of the run-up to the All-Star game in first place, the Dodgers limp into town a mere four games over .500, and separated from our profoundly disappointing Cardinals by a mere five games in the NL standings. As this tiny slice of Rome was burning, the Dodgers' brass fiddled furiously through the trading deadline, refusing to make any significant deals beyond the shuttling of two unwanted players for one another – utility infielder Wilson Betemit for long reliever Scott Proctor.
One might expect the buzz around L.A. to be decidedly negative, but a recent scan of the LA Times' Bill Plaschke's latest column suggests that – and he sounds as though he was forming the words for the first time – the Dodgers' front office may have done the right thing.
Lest you think that these are eager pats on the back from a dedicated homer, this anointment comes from a columnist who stood at his pedestal and mounted a high-profile crusade against the previous GM Paul De Podesta, ultimately ending in his firing. Plaschke not only took on the man, he aimed his lance at the mighty institution of Sabremetrics in the process, for (among other crimes against baseball) justifying a deal that trades away a "clubhouse guy" like catcher Paul Lo Duca for a potential ace in Brad Penny, in the middle of a playoff drive.
We Are the Youth Gone Wild
Plaschke's newfound optimism, and that of the Dodger fans in general, is not centered around the hope that this team has what it takes (minus a bandaid or two) to win it all in 2007. The hope is for the core of young talent that this team now has, and its ability to lead the team into contention from 2008 and on.
Indeed, this Dodger team matches up well against the Brewers and Diamondbacks for the title of "best-stocked young teams" in the National League, with catcher Russell Martin having a breakout year with the bat and on the basepaths, slugging Matt Kemp and toolsy Andre Ethier already in the outfield on at least a part-time basis, and swe e t - swing ing J ame s Lone y entrenched at first base, and with Chad Billingsley ahead of schedule in his contributions to their starting rotation. The list of grade-A prospects stretches even longer, to the point that the list of September call-ups may be even more anticipated in Tinseltown as the "Fall Movie Preview" issue of Entertainment magazine.
This collection of young talent already has some observers making breathless comparisons to the 1997 Dodger team, which featured five consecutive winners of the Rookie-of-the- Year award. (I'll give you Mike Piazza and Erik Karros, can you name the other three?)
Unfortunately, this profile of youth is only half of a two-faced professional franchise. The other half of the team draws unfortunate comparisons to the bloated, aged, top-heavy rosters of former contenders like the Giants and (ulp) Cardinals. While the spotlight shines on the youngsters, the dark side of the moon is occupied by the likes of Jeff Kent, Nomar Garciaparra, Juan Pierre and Luis Gonzalez, all well past their primes but still able to cash a mighty paycheck.
If anything, these next couple of weeks may see this Dodger team go into full-scale restocking mode in attempts to pass a few of these unseemly large contracts through waivers. The race for this team is increasingly in 2008, no matter how flawed the 2007 Padres and Diamondbacks might be.
This is exactly the path that many in the local media have called on our ownership to take. And so Cardinal fans are faced with a puzzler – if they root this team on to victory this weekend, are they forestalling the arrival of young sparkplugs like Brendan Ryan? Are they foreshortening the time in the outfield for Rick Ankiel? Will our team be beaten to the waiver-trade punch tomorrow by the very team we try to beat today? Or is this "playing for ‘08" an unnecessary killjoy – in our heataddled minds, can we resist the urge to go all in with the momentum we appear to be building, and make one last crazy push toward the finish before blowing up this team for good?