Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Busch Stadium Memories (Part Two): Sabes, the Unit and Reality

Two-time Cy Young Award winner Bret Saberhagen

Dreams die hard.

Sometimes reality comes ripping by you at 90 miles an hour. I came to this conclusion at Busch Stadium in 1995.

July 26, 1995: Cardinals 3, Mets 2

Will and I were in St. Louis for the National Sports Collectors Convention, and it just worked out that the Mets were in town. Naturally we were at Busch when the gates opened and hustled down to the box seats to watch batting practice.

But even better, we saw Bret Saberhagen tossing in the bullpen. Busch used to have the bullpens in foul territory along the stands, and you could get right up there and stand maybe 10 to 15 feet from the pitcher.

Saberhagen was really airing it out, and we were stunned by the velocity. The slap of the ball into the catcher’s mitt echoed throughout the empty ballpark.

It’s one thing to sit deep in the stands and watch a pitcher hurling from the mound. But it was another to stand just a few feet away and watch Saberhagen throw some gas.

"Sabes" was in his waning days as a Met.

After a couple throws we went down by the catcher to try to get a batter’s perspective. That was probably as close as we were ever going to get to standing in a major league batter’s box.

Again, we were amazed at how fast the ball came. We couldn’t understand how a batter could see the ball, judge where it would pass through the strike zone, decide to swing and actually move the bat through the zone in the fraction of a second it took for the ball to leave Saberhagen’s palm to reach the plate.

Could I hit Saberhagen's heat?

It’s a series of calculations and movements that have to occur in the blink of an eye — or less.

“At what point do you decide to swing?” Will said. “Is the ball still in his hand? Is he still in the delivery?”

We all harbor dreams that we could dig in at plate and get a hit one off these guys. That day I came to the conclusion that I wouldn't be able to make contact with one of Saberhagen’s pitches if I went up there with a piece of plywood instead of a bat.

We didn’t know it, but It also was one of the last times Saberhagen would appear in a Mets uniform. He was 5-5 with a 3.35 ERA in his fourth season with the team and was soon traded to the Colorado Rockies.

On the light side, you can always find something interesting and new at the ballpark. We noticed that a group of guys in our section would be cheering or groaning at the end of each half-inning, and it didn’t seem to be connected to the game. Journalists are nosey by nature, so we asked what they were up to.

Turns out at the end of an inning, the pitcher or the fielder who made the last out will throw the ball on the mound for the next pitcher to pick up. Sometimes the ball will stay on the dirt of the mound; sometimes it would roll onto the turf. These guys were betting on which would happen.
As for the game, the Mets came up short in the tenth inning, the fifth game of a six-game losing streak. We sensed it would be a long day when the line-up included the likes of Rico Brogna at first, Tim Bogar at short and Alberto Castillo catching.

Not only were Cardinals players better, I think their coaching staff would have polished off the Mets that day – it included Hall-of-Famers Lou Brock, Bob Gibson and Red Schoendienst.

Big Mac and Busch Stadium in sand at Fair St. Louis.

July 5, 1999: Cardinals 1, Diamondbacks 0

This was probably the best-pitched game I’ve ever seen in person. And it jsut goes to show that you just never know what will happen in baseball.

This game should have been a rout, with studly Randy Johnson going up against Jose Jimenez, entering the game with an unimpressive 4-8 record.

The Big Unit performed as promised, throwing a four-hit, 12-strikeout gem. Sadly for him, Jimenez hurled the game of his career, holding the Snakes to two hits and a walk while fanning nine

The Unit, in his first year with Arizona, was enroute to the second of his five Cy Young Awards and led the league with 354 strikeouts and NL-best 2.48 ERA.

Jiminez, on the other hand, finished 5-14 and was shipped the Colorado the next season where he became a servicable reliever.

Both players threw complete games — something you never see — and Mark McGwire got one of the Cardinal hits and scored the game’s only run.

McGwire had bashed his 70 homers the year before and was the toast of the town -- as evidenced by his likeness shaped out of sand along with the city's other landmarks at Fair Saint Louis.

It was a swelteringly hot afternoon when my son Andrew and I made the trek from Illinois, where we were visiting relatives. But the fair was in full swing and we took part in some of the festivities and enjoyed watching military jets roar past the Arch as part of the the annual air show.

Taking in the view at Busch

In Other Words...

Bad Guys and Uniforms, Too: Blogging buddy Metsradamus is an excellent writer, and his recent post about an all-time team of Mets villains is both on the nose and wickedly funny. Check it out here.

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