Last night was a real treat. With the Springfield Cardinals tied for first place in the division and a handful of games to go, a pennant race atmosphere usually makes for a good ball game all on its own. Throw in Jess Todd, Springfield’s latest phenom pitcher with a 0.83 ERA in 7 games and 43.1 innings pitched, and you’ve got a perfect night of minor league baseball. But that wasn’t all…no, sir. Todd threw an impressive game, but he was not the starter. That honor went to none other than Jason Isringhausen of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Izzy, the Cards’ all-time saves leader, pitched 1 2/3rds innings on loan from the big league club. His second appearance in what appears to be a short rehab assignment was truly fun to watch. The grizzled veteran warmed up in front of giddy Springfield fans drooling at the bullpen rail, each one of us just happy to have the opportunity to see one of the game’s best this close for less than MLB prices.
As he threw his pre-game assortment of pitches, the difference between a AA pitcher and one like Izzy was clear. His effortless motion, fluid mechanics, and pinpoint accuracy was impressive, and the break on his curveball was eye-popping…but I have a confession to make. As amazing as it was to see Izzy up close and personal, he was not my favorite part of the evening. No, it wasn’t Jess Todd either, nor was it the carnival-like antics of the all-too vocal Beer Man roaming the stands. In all honesty, I have to say my favorite part of the evening was when a few of us noticed two casually-dressed observers near the back of the bullpen.
At first, I couldn’t tell who they were – one in sunglasses and a loosely fitting white button-down shirt and the other in a green t-shirt and jean shorts – but a grinning fan up the rail from us soon rescued me from my ignorance. “Hey! That’s Mabry, man! That’s Mabry!”
I leaned over to get a good look at the shades-sporting man in the white shirt and sure enough, there was John Mabry. “Who’s the other guy? The one in the green shirt,” I asked. The man from St. Louis to my left said, “That’s Matheny.”
“Mike Matheny!?” I said. At that moment, a kid no more than 10 or 11 years old yelled, “Hey, Matheny!” The man in the green shirt turned our way…and the crowd froze. We were caught in the gaze of greatness. This was the man that exemplified St. Louis Cardinals baseball. When you hear the phrase “Play like a Cardinal,” he’s the man you think of. The man who’s defensive prowess behind the plate was legendary. The man who taught Yadier Molina. The man who caught Jason Isringhausen when he came over from the Oakland Athletics. The man who, perhaps single-handedly, both fulfilled and defined the expectations of Cardinals catchers for years to come. And now, he was looking directly at us – and we all lost our nerve.
As the throng of bird watchers stared back at the man, the myth, the legend that has become Matheny, we were speechless. Mike was watching, waiting for one of us to “make a move” now that we had his attention, but none appeared ready to answer the call. That is…except for me.
Cautiously, so as to appear non-chalant about the affair, I raised my right arm. My fingers, unaware of what they were doing and acting as if they had a mind of their own, split into a salute-like imitation of a peace sign – “What’s up?” I was saying. “Good to see ya'” It was all I could muster…but it seemed to be enough. Reaching his hand high in proud recognition of his followers, Matheny waived back. It was…exhilarating. The Matheny had responded. He had graced us with his recognition. “Did you see that?” I said to my patient and ever-encouraging fiancee. “He waived at me! Matheny waived at me!” I felt ten years old again.
As we headed for our section a few minutes before the game began – feverishly dashing for our seats so as not to miss a single pitch thrown by Izzy – I thought of how it felt to be ten again, and I thought of how refreshing it was to see a ten year old yell out to a player who played years before he could possibly have remembered, much less admired. It made me proud of Cardinals Nation.
There is a massive portion of baseball fans, myself included at times, that are seriously lacking in baseball education. In a time when most wonder “What are they teaching these kids today?,” Cardinals fans are teaching their children about baseball and the legends that have come before them. Standing there in that group of bird watchers, it was the ten year old kid among us that recognized and appreciated the man before him. Mike Matheny wasn’t the game’s best hitting catcher. He didn’t hit for a high average or for power…but he was special to Cardinals Nation. And Cardinals Nation remembers…
Okay…so I get a little emotional about Cardinals players…what can I say? And I just found out I get to see Mark Mulder pitch in Springfield this Saturday…whew…should be a fun weekend of Cardinals baseball, fellow bird watchers!
Congratulations to Braden Looper As I sat in Hammon’s Field watching the Springfield game, I could just make out one of the TVs near the third base line concession stand. The scoreboard said St. Louis was in the bottom of the 9th with 2 outs and a 10 – 0 lead…and I could have sworn I just saw Braden Looper on TV. “Is that Looper?” I said. “I think he’s still in…I think he’s going for a complete game!” How true. Braden pitched a 3-hitter to bury the Reds ten to nothing. Congrats, Loop.
Albert-less Cards Cruise The Cardinals cruised to a ten to nothing victory the day after losing Wainwright and Albert Pujols for at least 3 weeks each. That’s character. When Albert went down, I quickly dove into his 2008 stats on baseball-reference.com, hoping to find something encouraging. Maybe Albert’s performance this year was not THAT significant when compared to our team’s winning percentage. Maybe he was having one of those years where he hits a lot but in a losing cause. Not so. A quick glance at his stats made it all too clear just how important he is to our team. Losing him hurts…but it hurts a lot less when the team explodes in a statement game like last night. This team is here to stay regardless of who is pitching or hitting.
Ank the Tank is Back on Track Ankiel came back this week…and promptly lifted a bomb to right field. He came into last night’s game and did the same thing in the first inning. Maybe a bit of time off is just what he needed to escape his most recent slump. Maybe, just maybe, the baseball gods are smiling down on us after all. I mean, let’s think about this…yeah, we lose Albert, but we get back a rested, ball-crushing Rick Ankiel just in time to help pick up the slack. Sure, we lose Wainwright…but today brought the surprising announcement that Mark Mulder could finally have a shot at pulling off a sooner-rather-than-later comeback. I’m tellin’ you, guys…this season feels special…I don’t quite know how special, but clearly someone up there likes us.
Colby Rasmus Continues to Show Why He’s Our Number 1 Prospect Rasmus started slow, but no one has been hotter than he’s been in the last few weeks. After an 11 or 12 game hitting streak, Rasmus continues to terrorize AAA pitching. He’s doing well, and the organization is able to breath a sigh of relief…but I still think he should remain in AAA until ’09, and possibly even start the year there then. We have plenty of outfielders at this level, and trading some away will only force our hand on a Rasmus call up that could easily go south when he enters one of his trademark adjustment period slumps. When the Rasmus era begins, it should begin carefully and with all parties involved ready for the transition.
Springfield is the New Union Station With all the rehabbing pitchers passing through, Hammon’s Field feels a bit more like Union Station than it does a ball field (and the background train whistles only add to the feel…love that whistle!). Springfield has now seen the likes of Matt Clement, Mark Mulder, and Jason Isringhausen and soon expects to see Chris Carpenter appear in a Springfield uniform. As far as position players are concerned, only Brendan Ryan has made a brief stop at Hammon’s, but if Albert Pujols decides a few AA games could do his timing some good, we may just see the closest thing to an L.A. riot in the heart of the Ozarks.