American institution that was built by baseball's kings (Ruth, Mantle, Koufax)
and dynasties (Murderers' Row, the Swingin' A's, the Big Red Machine), the
World Series of the wild-card era is the pull of a slot-machine lever, a game
of chance ignorant of form. Regularly populated now with second-place clubs or
flavor-of-the-month teams more than dominant regular-season franchises, the
Series is where unpredictability, not greatness, reigns. And with this 102nd
edition, a very unexpected, unconventional and at times unholy series, the Fall
Classic fell even deeper down the rabbit's hole.
Forget about playing for posterity. The Detroit Tigers and the St. Louis
Cardinals fought over who had the more deserving claim as the official underdog
of the World Series. The Tigers were vying to become the most unlikely champion
of all time, having strung together a record 12 straight losing seasons before
winning the 2006 American League pennant. The Cardinals were competing for the
title of worst world champion of all time, as measured by regular-season
winning percentage; St. Louis had 83 wins, which ranked them 13th among major
league teams this year.
It took only two
games--with the wins split between the two teams, of course--to establish that
this World Series will mock convention and even, if you wanted to know the
dirty little truth about Game 2, insult your sense of reason. The CliffsNotes
version goes like this:
Game 1: The first
matchup of rookie pitchers to open a World Series was won convincingly, 7--2,
last Saturday by the least accomplished Game 1 starter in history--25-year-old
St. Louis righthander Anthony Reyes, he of the flat-brimmed cap, candy-striped
socks, 5--8 record (fewest wins ever by a Game 1 starter) and 5.06 ERA
(second-worst mark). Naturally, now that down is up and up is down in the World
Series, Reyes pitched into the ninth inning for the first time in his major
Game 2: A matchup
of the most itinerant pitchers in World Series history ( Cardinals righty Jeff
Weaver and Tigers lefty Kenny Rogers, who have played for 11 teams combined) is
won convincingly, 3--1, on Sunday by the 41-year-old Rogers, the oldest starter
ever to win a Series game.
What lingered in
the wake of Rogers's eight shutout innings was equally bizarre--the possibility
that he might have cheated. Fox television cameras showed Rogers had a large,
clearly visible patch of a yellow-brown substance near the base of his left
thumb while pitching the first inning. It was gone by the second inning, though
there was some residual discoloration.
After the game
Rogers's explanation for what happened was more baffling than one of his famous
curveballs. He called the substance "a big clump of dirt" that had
collected on his hand while rubbing up a baseball during his pregame warmup in
the bullpen and remained stuck there through an 18-pitch first inning--all, he
insisted, without his being aware of it. When a reporter suggested to Rogers
that it was difficult to believe that a pitcher, especially one who relies so
considerably on touch, would not notice a big clump of dirt on his pitching
hand for such a prolonged period, Rogers replied, "Do you think I'm a
genius out there? I'm not. Once I noticed it, it was off. There are a lot of
ways to get dirty hands out there."
The Cardinals had
their own explanation. A few of them, including utilityman Scott Spiezio, had
seen the Fox telecast in the clubhouse and quickly relayed word to the dugout
that Rogers might be using pine tar to improve his grip, a violation of Rule
8.02 that warrants an automatic ejection and 10-day suspension for applying a
foreign substance to a ball. "Especially on a cold day, it improves your
grip," said St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan after Game 2, which was
played in a sub-40� chill. "And anytime you get a better grip, you can
increase the velocity of the ball or the spin."
With Rogers caught
brown-handed by the camera, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa needed only to ask
the umpires to examine Rogers's left hand, a move that could have altered the
course of the World Series. If the substance had, indeed, been an illegal one,
the Tigers, already down 1--0 in the Series, would have lost their hottest
pitcher in the first inning of Game 2 with St. Louis's best starters, Chris
Carpenter and Jeff Suppan, scheduled to pitch Games 3 and 4 at home.
La Russa, though,
never asked the umpires to inspect Rogers's hand. Why? He wasn't saying.
"It's not important to talk about," he snapped afterward.
Duncan offered one
possible explanation: "If you want to be a [jerk] about it, you can"
ask the umpires to check the pitcher, a suggestion that an accusation of
cheating is outside the protocol of managing, even when cheating is suspected.
(On the other hand, in a regular-season game last year, Nationals manager Frank
Robinson asked umpires to check the glove of Angels reliever Brendan Donnelly,
much to the anger of Los Angeles manager Mike Scioscia. Umpires found pine tar,
and Donnelly was ejected and eventually suspended.)