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denkinger, 20 years on

if it happened today, we'd say something like this: "denkinger's blown call lowered the cardinals' win expectancy from 89.3 percent to 68.5 percent."

but we didn't talk like that in 1985; didn't think like that. our only thoughts were that a call had been blown and a World Series lost. no other thoughts. only pain.

it's been long enough now -- 20 years -- that we can think and talk about denkinger with some semblance of reason. we can accept today what we couldn't for years: that the cardinals, denied a crucial out, thereupon lost their nerve -- and, in due course, a Series game and a world championship. that simple.

we may also be ready to come to grips with what we, as fans, lost that ungodly half-inning. until game 6 of the '85 Series, the cardinal nation had never known fear -- but we've been looking over our shoulders ever since. to this day, denkinger haunts.

and why wouldn't it? that was the first time in baseball history that a team had taken a lead into the last half-inning of a series-clinching game and blown it -- an unprecedented reversal. the same thing would happen again (and far more spectacularly) just one year later, when the boxos came within a lone strike of beating the mets; and the postseasons since have brought us the marlins' game 7 / bottom 9 rally vs cleveland, as well as the dbacks' walkoff game 7 heroics against the yankees. those subsequent instances -- and other 9th-inn turnarounds in non-clinching Series games (think joe carter's and kirk gibson's dingers) -- tend to blur the sense of numb gut-shot shock that we felt after game 6 in '85. we know now that teams can and do rally from postseason near-death experiences, but we didn't know it then; it hadn't happened in any of the 82 previous Series. our win expectancy was 100 percent; loss expectancy, 0.

and let's be real honest: our loss expectancy was 0 from the start of the '85 Series. after outfighting the mets for the nl east crown and coming back in stirring fashion against the dodgers to win the pennant, we expected to crush the royals, a 92-win team with a second baseman batting cleanup. and when stl went up 2 games to 0 in the Series (on the road no less) . . . . well, come on. i remember after game 2 -- the cardinals' third last-at-bat triumph in four games -- that i actually felt sorry for the royals and their fans. they didn't inspire the hatred new yorkers and angelenos did; it wasn't as much fun to beat them. i also felt a sense of sorrow that the joyous season was drawing to a close. the train was going to pull into the station, hallelujah -- but we would all have to get off. the ride was over . . .

oy. i cringe.

the cardinals themselves likely harbored no such feelings. they were too busy scuffling for hits against kansas city's superior pitching. the players knew they were in a fight, 2-zip lead or no. but even if they took nothing for granted, they still had to feel humiliated, even shamed, over being the first team to snatch defeat from victory's maw in such a manner -- after the thing was already all half-chewed and soggy. the cardinals had to watch the tubs of champagne get wheeled out of the clubhouse after the loss; they had to peel back the prophyllactic tarps from their lockers, bone dry, and put on their clothes. bubbly on ice became ice on the loins. a very painful lesson indeed.

it has stayed with the franchise and insinuated itself into nearly every postseason since. anyone remember game 7 against the twins in `87, when there was another blown call at 1st base -- tommy herr thumbed out on a pickoff despite kent hrbek's obvious defensive interference? next half-inning danny cox got himself ejected (shades of andujar), and the twins took the lead for good. . . . and when the cards took that 3 games to 1 lead on the braves in 1996, did we act as if we thought it'd hold up? for another group of fans, the '96 collapse might have produced a decade of heartache. but we hardly even felt it; we were still throbbing from denkinger.

that half-inning even hovered over the walkoff playoff-enders in 2001 and 02, which both conjured visions of the bedlam at royals stadium after iorg's walkoff single. i don't think the win expectancy of cardinal fans has ever recovered from the denkinger call. we can summon brave words, but our actions belie them. i give you two moments: in game 5 of the '96 playoffs, ozzie smith -- who'd already announced his retirement -- came to the plate in the 7th inning with stl trailing 11-0. it was likely his final at-bat of the game, and the nlcs would shift to atlanta for games 6 and (if nec) 7; but there was still a World Series to play, right? and the cardinals still led the nlcs 3-2, right? but the crowd -- and we were the diehards, the schmucks still sitting there watching an 11-0 blowout -- rose and gave ozzie his farewell ovation anyway. as if we didn't really expect any more baseball to be played at busch that year.

the second moment came in last year's Series, when jeff suppan had his alzheimer's moment on the basepaths in game 3. it happened in the 3d inning of a 1-0 contest; tough break but hardly a game-breaker, eh? hah. you could feel the life go right out of the stadium, even watching on tv 1,000 miles away. it wasn't but a couple innings more before fox's microphones started to pick up the "lets go red sox" chants. . . . .

i can already hear the howls of defensiveness, so let me be clear: i am not disparaging cardinal fans, either you or myself. i'm just pointing out what is obvious but hard to own up to: denkinger still haunts us. and we can't put that ghost to rest less'n we admit it still haunts us -- and that it can still make us lose our nerve, as it did to the cardinals back in 1985.

cardinal nation didn't lose its nerve in games 6 and 7 against the astros last year; the crowds at busch were thunderously loud and engaged throughout two tense battles that both had extremely uncomfortable moments. maybe our win expectancy's back on the rise. maybe we're almost there. maybe this is the year we'll reclaim what we lost in the bottom of the 9th on october 26, 1985.

81 orta 0 on / 0 out hit
68* balboni 1st / 0 out hit (after clark muffs foul pop)
46 sundberg 1st 2d / 0 out forceout 1-5 (bunt)
61 mcrae 1st 2d / 1 out passed ball
44 mcrae 2d 3d / 1 out ibb
46 iorg full / 1 out hit
* if orta called out, win expectancy = 90 pct

win expectancy data courtesy the chris shea / phil birnbaum win expectancy finder