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HOUSTON -- Forget Desperate Housewives or Jon Stewart's spat with Tucker Carlson. Now this was Must See TV -- a night Bud Selig couldn't have scripted, even if he had David E. Kelly writing for him. Monday I sat in the outfield auxiliary press box at Minute Maid Park in Houston, just above and to the right of Tal's Hill, and experienced one of the most exhilarating nights in baseball history with one eye on the virtuoso pitching duel between Brandon Backe and Woody Williams in Game 5 of the NLCS and the other fixed to the 12-inch TV set in front of me as it aired the epic, War and Peace-sized Yankees-Red Sox Game 5 of the ALCS.
On a perfect baseball night like this you make concessions. You forgive FOX for feeling the need to cut to a shot of a despondent Red Sox fan every three seconds. You forgive the Astros for inexplicably blaring the idiotic rendition of I'm a Believer!, as sung by the annoying donkey from Shrek, on the stadium speakers as the game moved into the bottom of the ninth tied 0-0, nearly ruining all the drama. And you forgive your friend back home in New York for not TiVo-ing Desperate Housewives like you asked.
At nearly half past 10 o'clock (central time), a little more than 20 minutes after David Ortiz bounded into the mosh pit of exuberant Red Sox players in Boston, the typically stoic Jeff Kent flung his helmet into the air as he neared home plate after his walk-off home run pushed the Astros to within one game of their first World Series appearance. I had never seen a stadium erupt like this. But I should have expected the bedlam: Only Arlington has waited longer than Houston's 43 years for its first World Series.
Yes, I have over the last few weeks written more in this space about the Astros than Maureen Dowd has about President Bush's handling of Iraq, but bear with me for at least another week. It feels like I've spent more time this year in the Houston clubhouse than I have in my living room in Manhattan, and so luckily, there are more storylines to these Astros than in a Robert Altman film, and the biggest has been Carlos Beltran's postseason .
Before he came to Houston in a trade in late June, Beltran was an immense talent stuck playing in front of sparse crowds in Kansas City. He was Al Pacino performing at a local dinner theater, Bruce Springsteen jamming in a high school gymnasium. Last weekend in Houston, the sensational five-tool center fielder loudly announced himself as baseball's best all-around player.
This postseason, Beltran has put up numbers that make Daunte Culpepper's current fantasy stats look modest -- a 1.697 OPS, 1.154 slugging percentage, eight home runs -- and has pulled off a number of Barnum & Bailey defensive gems. As FOX has probably told you more often than Jeanne Zelasko changes her hairdo, Beltran's eight home runs tie Barry Bonds' record for most in any single postseason --- except it took Beltran about half as many as Bonds' 17 games to reach the mark. Beltran's unprecendented October has made him a focal point for the playoff media horde. Sunday afternoon in the Astros clubhouse, a throng of reporters swarmed Beltran after he golf-swinged the game-winning home run off Julian Tavarez in Game 4. As I elbowed my way to (unsuccessfully) get a soundbite from Beltran, I couldn't help but recall an afternoon in Kansas City last April when I interviewed Beltran in peace, without any B.O. from reporters leaning over me.
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Beltran told me that he had spent the offseason studiously watching a video his agent had given him that consisted solely of Bonds' at-bats. Beltran watched the tape over the winter months, carefully observing Bonds' signature patience at the plate. "In my career," Beltran said then, "I haven't been too patient at the plate. That's one thing I hoped to work on. I feel a lot more comfortable now. I just have a better idea of pitching patterns, what pitches to take and when to swing. This year I just feel better, a lot more prepared mentally." He added, prophetically, "I think I can have a good year."
Beltran, 27, is not a particularly dynamic interview, but there may not be a more thrilling player on the field. Watching Beltran's preposterous horizontal grab of a seventh-inning Edgar Renteria line drive was worth the price of admission. Beltran is also a thrill to watch on the bases. He attempted 45 steals this year and was caught three times. Phil Garner has shrewdly put Beltran second in this high-powered lineup, ahead of Jeff Bagwell and the scorching hot Lance Berkman. Walking Beltran intentionally is asking for trouble.
But has Beltran become such a threat that you pitch around him like managers avoided Bonds two years ago in the postseason? "Our Bonds treatment was we challenged him when they're playing," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said yesterday. "We don't like telling our players they're not good enough to get hitters out. You treat him with respect. Also, if you look at what's happening behind Beltran, there's a lot of reasons you have to pitch him tough and pitch him careful. You have some very tough outs, a lot of producers behind him."
With momentum and the postseason's hottest player on their side, the Astros march to St. Louis. As I write this, Garner has yet to announce who his Game 6 starter will be, but the feeling in the clubhouse was that he was leaning toward Pete Munro over Roger Clemens, who would be pitching on short rest. That would be the right choice. The Astros would have the edge over the Cardinals in a theoretical Game 7 with Clemens on full rest and Roy Oswalt available in the bullpen.
This weekend in Houston I stayed at the Cardinals' team hotel, and yesterday afternoon, as I was leaving for Game 5, I shared an elevator with two wives of Cardinals players who were also on their way to the stadium. One asked the other, "What'd you do today?" Response: "Oh, I bought six pairs of shoes. And this purse!"
Indeed, a thrilling day for everyone. See you in St. Louis ...