Thursday, July 4, 2013

June 17- St. Louis Cardinals

Somewhere in my quest to write about and publish stories that took place on their actual date for this New Era Cap blog I really fell off the wagon with this hat. For some crazy reason I thought the original idea I had for this post took place much later in the season, around the end of August/early September, but boy was I wrong. In fact, I should have written about this cap on June 3rd if I was going to be accurate about things, yet here we are on June 17th, a little over two weeks late. Damn it! So with that, I have two stories for you. The first of which is a personal story and the second is one that took place on a much earlier date and really should have been my main focus as it has to do with two records which may never be broken. But first, the hat.

I picked this St. Louis Cardinals cap up from the Lids in Eugene, Oregon in June of 2010. I’ve always fancied navy blue and figured it would be the best option for my collection as, at the time, I only set out to acquire one cap per team. The Cardinals first introduced this cap in 1992 as a throwback to the hat I wrote about on May 1st, but instead this one featured the same-sized “STL” logo on their current game caps. From 1992 through the present the Cardinals have worn this cap for all of their road games while occasionally adopting a third cap which I will cover later in the year. What’s really coincidental about both of my stories is that, not only did they both take place on the road; they both took place in the same stadium. What are the odds?

As I mentioned above my first story takes place on June 3rd, 1998 on a warm spring day in Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium. If you read my post from yesterday you might remember that I had mentioned that the last game my father and I had gone to prior to 2011 took place in 1998. Well, this is that game. I was a few days away from completing my freshman year of high school at Centennial High School in Bakersfield, California when my father decided to pull me out of my Spanish class for a special trip. As we drove home he let me know that I needed to change into something nice as he was taking me on a business trip with him, so I had to look somewhat presentable. I grabbed some slacks and a nice shirt, which met his standards, and we jumped in the car without him letting me know what where we were going. As we pulled onto Highway 99 he reached into his pocket and pulled out tickets to that night’s Cardinals versus Dodgers game. I thought it was an awesome surprise, but unfortunately there was one thing that I was disappointed about that my father knew as well, Mark McGwire wasn’t playing that night. Talk about the worst luck in the world; throughout the entire 1998 season McGwire played in 155 of the possible 162 regular season games. Three of the seven games he missed that season took place during their series against the Dodgers in LA. At that point in the season McGwire was at 27 of his eventual season record-breaking 70 home runs. Just imagine what he would have finished at had he played in those seven, let alone three games.

Anyway, my father was working for Southern California Gas Co. at the time, in between his tenures with Pacific Gas & Electric. One of his jobs was to entertain and bring in new clients. Most of the time it involved long afternoons of golf at fancy clubs, but in this case it involved baseball, my specialty. We somehow didn’t get caught up in a great deal of traffic on the way down and we pulled into Chavez Ravine about two-and-a-half hours before the game started as my father had access to “The Stadium Club,” the semi-fancy restaurant which sits near the first base side foul pole. My dad’s client and his son met up with us there and we enjoyed a ridiculously amazing meal before the game started. Everything is set up buffet-style, which features a mountain (not an exaggeration) of Dodger Dogs as the centerpiece. Needless to say, even after I got my fill I still stuffed my pockets with as many Dodger Dogs as I could. The other thing that stuck out to me was that the Dodgers were playing Game 1 of the NBA Finals (Utah Jazz versus Chicago Bulls) on the jumbotron throughout batting practice, which should have featured McGwire hitting dingers, but no dice.

About 35 minutes before game time we headed down to our seats… which were third base side, four rows up from the field and about 15 yards to the left of the dugout. It was pretty ridiculous. The people who had seats to the left and right of us didn’t show up until around the second inning, and that was the moment when I realized how much crazier the night was going to be. To our left sat Dan Lungren and his wife Bobbi. Who is Dan Lungren you might be asking? Well, if you’re not from California I don’t expect you to know, but if you are, and don’t know then shame on you. Lungren was the Attorney General of California at the time and had been serving at that position since 1991. In ’98 however, he ran for governor as the Republican representative, but lost to Democrat Gray Davis, who was then recalled in favor of Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003. Funning thing about the Davis recall is that he is only the second governor to have that happen, the first being Lynn Frazier of North Dakota… in 1921. From what I remember Lungren was a nice guy. We chatted a little bit about baseball, but nothing too memorable outside of little trivia tidbits and such. I think he was more focused on the “of age” voters that sat around him instead. The person sitting to our right left me in a slight state of shock when he sat down, but I made sure to keep my mouth shut and not make an ass out of myself. That person? Billy Zane. 

Rather interesting timing on that one too as “Titanic” had been released just six months prior, but was still kicking ass in theaters, so it’s not like there was anyway I didn’t know who he was, even though I was familiar with his other body of work including “Dead Calm,” “Sniper,” “Demon Knight,” “The Phantom” and of course the “Back to the Future” trilogy. Three things that I swear happened that I wasn’t expecting:

1. He was more than willing to chat it up with me about “Demon Knight” as I’m a huge “Tales from the Crypt” fan.

2. He shared his package of Starburst with me.

3. He laughed his ass off when my dad’s client’s kid asked the ball boy Freddie for a ball, which was rejected, to which I shouted, “Son! We can do this the easy way or the hard way,” in a slight southern accent. Not only was it Zane’s most memorable line from “Back to the Future II,” but it also got Freddie to toss me a ball.

To be honest, the game itself wasn’t entirely memorable other than the fact that Dodgers’ pitcher Ramon Hernandez, Pedro’s brother, pitched a solid seven innings with six strikeouts for the win, and of all the players on the Cardinals to step up and get a home run it was almost 40-year-old Gary Gaetti who took Antonio Osuna deep in the ninth inning. Oh, and Eric Karros had a decent 4-5 game with a home run, but that was standard for Karros back in those days. The Dodgers won 7-4 and as sure as the sun does rise, McGwire knocked #28 in the first game after the series with the Dodgers ended. My dad and I were both a bit heated after that one.

Now, onto the real story…

4/23/1999: It was Game 15 of the Major League Baseball season and the Cardinals were sitting in first place in the National League Central Division. McGwire had done his home run thing the season before as I mentioned above, but the Cardinals didn’t come anywhere near making the playoffs that year. This season then-manager Tony LaRussa wasn’t going to settle for an early offseason.

At the trade deadline of 1998 (July 31) the Cardinals made a deal with the Texas Rangers which sent shortstop Royce Clayton and pitcher Todd Stottlemyre to Arlington in exchange for outfielder Mark Little, relief pitcher Darren Oliver and an up-and-coming third baseman by the name of Fernando Tatis. One of the more ironic parts of this story is that Tatis was the replacement for Gaetti who was dealt to the Cubs shortly after the arrival of Tatis.

At 17-years-old Tatis was signed as a free agent by the Rangers in 1992, but didn’t start playing in the Rangers’ circuit until 1994. For three-and-a-half seasons Tatis bummed around the minors, doing a pretty solid job at that. From 1994-1997 Tatis played at every level from Rookie League in the Gulf Coast League through AAA Tulsa with the Drillers, batting .309 with 57 home runs, 24 of which came in AAA. On July 26, 1997 Tatis made his MLB debut as the starting third baseman against the Chicago White Sox in a 4-1 victory. Tatis went 1-4 with a single and RBI that game. From then on, he was the man at the hot corner.

When Tatis joined the Cardinals in 1998 he started off a little slow, but turned on the offense during his fifth and sixth games with the club as he went 3-5 and 3-6 respectively during a three-game sweep of their division rival the Chicago Cubs. For the rest of the year Tatis hit .287 with eight home runs and 26 RBI to bring his season total to .270 with 11 home runs and 58 RBI. Even though he put up decent numbers in his first full season, Tatis wasn’t even considered for the American League or NL Rookie of the Year award that season. Shame!

With 1999 just around the corner Tatis was given the full-time job at third base, which would end up being his first full season in the Majors with one team. In some cases players have been known to crumble under the pressure; however, Tatis was not one of those players. Leading up to April 23rd Tatis was hitting a modest .250 with four home runs and 11 RBI. The most notable stat to look at is how he started the first three games of the season off with a home run, just like McGwire had done the previous season. But here we are; a shade over two weeks into the season and Tatis’s bat had leveled out… or so everyone thought.

Chan Ho Park was on the mound for the Dodgers that night. He was 1-1 on the season with a 5.29 ERA in three starts. Not exactly stellar after coming off of a 15-9 record with a 3.71 ERA the previous season, but still decent nonetheless.  Park pitched well, if you want to call it that, in the first two innings as the Dodgers built a 2-0 lead off of Cardinals’ pitcher Jose Jimenez. Despite not scoring the Cardinals bats were discovering Park’s weaknesses early as he gave up a few early hits and walks, but not a single run as of yet. As the top of the third inning begun Park did his best to prepare for the worst outing of his career.

Cardinals’ right fielder Darren Bragg kicked things off with a single, which was then followed by a Edgar Renteria hit-by-pitch and then another single by McGwire in which Bragg did not advance past third. One thing that should be noted here is that McGwire was batting in the three-hole, not the cleanup spot like a guy of his stature should be hitting in. That night cleanup duty went to Tatis. The first two pitches Park threw went in for balls. In most cases this early in the game most batters would bother swinging at the next pitch unless it was served up to them. This was one of those cases. Tatis swung with all of his might and lodged a ball over the left field wall to give the Cardinals a 4-2 lead. As it turned out, this would be Tatis’s first career grand slam.

Despite the early rattle Dodgers’ manager Davey Johnson elected to keep Park in the game. Not only that, he kept him in through a solo home run by catcher Eli Marrero, two walks to follow, a bunt single, a reach on error to Bragg which scored a run, a RBI-single to Renteria and a flyout by McGwire. Prior to Marrero’s solo shot JD Drew had grounded out. So now, with two outs, the bases loaded yet again, up walked the cleanup hitter Tatis with a 7-2 lead having all ready hit a grand slam off of the pitcher he had all ready faced eight batters prior. You would think at this point Johnson would have pulled Park for a long reliever. Nope! Tatis battled this time around, getting to count to 3-2. As Park threw the payoff pitch Tatis, a hanging breaking ball, Tatis unloaded, knocking the ball over the left field wall once again, becoming the first player in MLB history to record eight RBI in one inning, not to mention the first player in MLB history to hit two grand slams in one inning. One the more comical inverse, Park became the only pitcher in MLB history to give up two grand slams in one inning. Johnson finally wised up and pulled Park out immediately afterward.

For the rest of the 1999 season Tatis went on to have the best season of his career, batting .298 with 34 home runs, 107 RBI and 21 stolen bases. The most unusual part about all of this is that Tatis didn’t receive a single vote for NL MVP that season, which ultimately went to Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones. Even though Tatis was dealing with stiff competition that season, he was still hosed for even the slightest bit of recognition for what he was able to accomplish that season. I guess on the bright side he’ll always be able say that he made history.

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