JULY 28, 2002
CARDINALS 10, CUBS 9
There are few things on earth I love more than a baseball road trip. Visiting ballparks in other cities is one of my favorite pastimes and it would take an almost Herculean feat of suckitude to ruin that. If you remember anything about the 2002 Cubs, you know they were up to the task.
Until that year, I had never made the trek to see the Cubs play at Busch Stadium. So I pitched the idea to my dad and he said, “That sounds like fun,” which was both the first and last time anyone ever used that phrase to describe something in St. Louis. We picked a series at the end of July and bought tickets to all three games because we wanted to spend as many days as possible watching a roster constructed around Todd Hundley and Corey Patterson. I’m pretty sure Cubs lineups from that summer counted as Joy Division lyrics.
The Cubs split the first two games but what I remembered most about the experience was a heat that was so oppressive, I’m surprised Missouri didn’t elect it governor. Summer in St. Louis was all the fun of sticking your face inside a kiln and a baseball game at Busch was a three-hour experience centered around the phrase “I didn’t know I could sweat there.” In 1966, some architect apparently thought to themselves, “Hmm…a city with 95 degree temperatures and 500 percent humidity is the perfect place for an enclosed concrete stadium with no chance of even the slightest breeze!” Busch Stadium was what would happen if a ballpark were designed by Torquemada.
On Sunday night, we settled in for the rubber match, a game that turned out unbearable enough to make St. Louis weather feel like San Diego by comparison. First, though, is it possible to have deja vu about an event two years in the future? Because the evening started in an eerily similar way to the 2004 Cardinals massacre I wrote about in my last entry. Specifically, the Cubs jumped out to a quick six-run lead by bludgeoning Matt Morris in the first three innings thanks to three Moises Alou RBIs and a Patterson three-run homer.
With the Cubs up 6-0, it seemed like my Dad and I were going to see them take the series against the Cardinals. And while that wouldn’t change the fact that we’d still have to endure two more months of the 2002 Cubs, getting to see a thoroughly mediocre edition of our beloveds smack around Tony La Russa in front of the Best Fans in Baseball would be a definite highlight.
Matt Clement was on the hill and had a typical Matt Clement outing, occasionally getting into a spot of bother with walks but then relying on his stuff to emerge unscathed. But then the 6th inning turned into a disaster, just like in this game’s 2004 cousin. Jim Edmonds led off with a single and Albert Pujols followed by bouncing a surefire double play to shortstop.
For some reason, Bruce Kimm wrote in a lineup that night with Mark Bellhorn manning that particular position, and Bellhorn proceeded to uncork a lawn dart that landed about five feet to second baseman Delino DeShields’s left. Edmonds came around to score all the way from first and Pujols took third. The constantly overmatched Kimm then replaced Clement with Jeff Fassero—because a 95 degree night against a division leading-offense definitely called for a pitcher who combined lack of skill with being really old. By the time the inning was over, the Cardinals plated four runs and were trailing only 6-4 with three more innings of Cubs bullpen pitchers to feast on.
But then, lo and behold, the 2002 Cubs offense actually gave Pat Hughes reason to blow four months’ worth of dust off of the State Farm Insurance Runs promo! Several times, in fact! And with some of the most unbelievable plays I’ve ever witnessed at a baseball game:
A Kyle Farnsworth sacrifice fly! A Bill Mueller deep drive to right that glanced off of JD Drew’s glove and over the wall for a home run! But for my money, the most improbable play of the night was how they scored their first insurance run…
A TODD HUNDLEY RBI SINGLE!!!
To give you a sense of the rarity we had just witnessed, this was the sweaty and execrable (swexecrable?) Hundley’s fifth right-handed hit…all season. And just his second RBI from the right side. It turned out that the worldwide computer meltdown we feared on Y2K would’ve actually happened if someone had tried to calculate Hundley’s wRC+. Nonetheless, the Cubs were back up 9-4 going into the bottom of the 9th and now I was certain they were going to win. After all, we had just witnessed a miracle.
One of my favorite things about watching the Cubs on the road is getting to stand and cheer in anticipation of the final out in an opposing team’s ballpark. The prospect of doing it in Busch Stadium only magnified the sense of excitement. Especially because anytime there’s even a hint of trouble for the Cards late in a game, Cardinal Nation instantly transforms into the Best Fans in Traffic. For a place that bills itself as Baseball Heaven, they sure don’t care much for nine innings of it. On this particular night, there were rows and rows of empty seats by the last inning as I awaited the opportunity to bask in a rare Cub series victory. With a five-run lead, how hard could it be?
Tom “Flash” Gordon took the mound to start the 9th and that was usually good news—if only because every time the PA announced his name, I’d channel my inner Freddy Mercury and respond, “Savior of the universe!” On this night, though, Gordon had no feel, he had no rhythm. The rally started innocuously enough when Fernando Viña hit a grounder up the middle. Bellhorn fielded it with ease but then decided to do a spot-on Shawon Dunston tribute and airmailed the ball five feet over Fred McGriff’s head. The only way Bellhorn could’ve looked more like Dunston on that throw was if he somehow also swung at it. (I kid because I love. Shawon-O-Meter 4 lyfe.) It was an annoying way to start the inning from someone who had no business playing short but I wasn’t too worried.
Miguel Cairo followed by lining a double to left to make it 9-5. Gordon was neither spotting his curveball nor generating swings and misses, but I’d seen Rod Beck get saves with a 75 mph fastball before so this didn’t seem like cause for alarm. But when Jim Edmonds rocketed an RBI single to right to make it a three-run game, I started to think, “OK, all you have to do is get three outs before they score five runs. So…can you get one, please?” One thing was clear: Gordon didn’t have it and Pujols was up next. Sensing he needed to make a change, Kimm went to the mound and signaled for…Antonio Alfonseca.
Which meant we were about to learn the lesson of the night: If you think the solution to your problems is Alfonseca, you’re officially out of ideas.
Even though Pujols was up, the very worst thing he could do was make it a one-run game. Nonetheless, El Pulpo went into full-on nibble mode and eventually walked him on a pitch two feet outside. It’s appropriate that Alfonseca was a six-fingered man because he was quite skilled at taking years off my life. So now—in a 9th inning that started with the Cubs leading by five—the tying run was headed to the plate. And there was still nobody out. Hell. We were in Hell.
I was mentally begging someone…anyone…to just get that damned first out. Somehow, Alfonseca finally obliged by sneaking a slider over the heart of the zone for a called third strike on Drew. Immediately, it felt like a relief. Okay, this inning was scary but we were headed to the bottom part of the lineup and the forces of probability were finally starting to show themselves. Tino Martinez was due up next and by that point, I think even he’d forgotten he was on the Cardinals. Just get a ground ball to anyone but Bellhorn. We could do this.
Naturally, Martinez hit a ground ball past what appeared to be a toppling statue at first base but on second glance turned out to be McGriff. Edmonds scored, it was 9-7, there were Cardinals on first and third, and now the winning run was due up in the person of Edgar Renteria, the man who had walked off the 1997 World Series. This couldn’t be happening. It was completely surreal. Sunday Night Baseball was turning into a David Lynch film. It felt like I should just close my eyes to avert the horror but at the same time, I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing was real. And even then, in the midst of all this chaos, I clung the legitimately not-crazy idea that it was still possible to get two outs and win this game.
After falling behind in the count, Alfonseca decided it was time to throw his trademark pitch: the center-cut meatball. Renteria absolutely obliterated it. We were seated in the third base side upper deck and I can still picture the image of the ball launched in midair and seemingly hanging there forever as I thought, “You have got to be shitting me.” The only surprise was that it was caught by a Cardinal fan sitting above the bullpen and not an empty seat. After entering the ninth with a five run lead, the best pitchers in the Cubs bullpen managed to get all of one out before blowing the whole thing and imploding 10-9.
It was bedlam in Busch. The Cardinals mobbed one another at home plate while P!nk’s “Get the Party Started” blared over the PA. And while the rest of the Cubs trudged off, Alfonseca just stood there, staring dumbfounded at the left field fence it had betrayed him by note being 80 feet tall. Finally, I could take no more and started yelling, “Get off the mound! GET. OFF. THE. MOUND!!” As if that could fix anything.
The BFIB were as unbearable as I can ever remember them being as we slunk our way down the ramps out of the park. They were cheering like they finally found a baseball play even more exciting than a sacrifice bunt. Hundreds of yokels leaving the parking garages beeped the horns on their Chevy Silverados while cranking the volume on their Toby Keith’s Greatest Jingoism cassettes. It was a cacophony of insufferableness.
But what I’ll always remember from this night was what I saw next. As my dad and I walked back to the hotel in a deserted downtown St. Louis, directly in front of us was a Cardinal fan in his mid-forties talking shit to his eight year old Cub fan son, taunting him with that sickest of sick burns: the Completely Useless By September joke. I’m not a believer in a just universe, but I desperately hope that kid eventually grew up to disappoint his father by identifying him in January 6 footage.
We were in shell-shock for the rest of the night. And into the next morning as well, as I recall eating breakfast in a scuzzy Waffle House on the Illinois side of the border and thinking, “This is what we deserve for following this team.” I think the only reason we didn’t get food poisoning was that after watching Alfonseca’s pitching, ptomaine said, “I can’t follow that.”
No. 4—The Most 2004 Cubs Meltdown of Them All
No. 5—Crosstown Classic Commences With Thud
No. 6—Wrigley Field’s 100th Anniversary
No. 7—The 2000 Cubs Make a 6-0 Lead Vanish in 3 Innings
No. 8—2017 NLCS Game 3