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Let’s Watch Some Old Baseball, Vol. One — September 3rd, 2003

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Here’s an idea I had. Let’s see how it goes over.

Danny Haren throws a pitch Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Hey there. It’s Monday. You know what I don’t like? Mondays. Maybe it’s just that I’ve absorbed so very much Garfield over the years, but Mondays always just feel shitty, you know? Probably just the Garfield thing.

On the other hand, you know what I like? If you said, “I’ll bet you like that song about Rasputin by Boney M, the German disco group from the late 70s put together and produced by Frank Farian, the recording impresario-slash-con artist most famous for later engineering the life-destroying lip sync experiment known as Milli Vanilli,” then, um, well yes, you’re right. I do, but that’s a really, oddly specific thing to guess, and I’m not sure how or why you knew that about me. Also I’m not sure we should hang out anymore.

However, if you guessed ‘baseball’ then yes! You are correct, and also doing a really excellent job of playing your part as the imaginary voice answering me in this rather contrived-sounding (but, ironically, completely improvised, as is 99% of what I write, which is probably why it’s almost always sprawling and messy and I would have to imagine frustrating to read for someone with any kind of sense for proper structuring), opening to an article. So thanks for that.

So I had an idea the other day for a new feature I’m going to try introducing here, and see what everyone thinks. It’s not going to be a regular feature even if it catches on; I’m not thinking of making Movie Mondays like I do System Sundays or anything like that. But as a maybe every once in awhile recurring feature? We’ll see how it goes.

See, the thing is, I like baseball, as I said just a moment or two ago. Mostly that means new baseball; for six months out of the year most nights I tune the television to Fox Sports Midwest and watch at least part of whatever contest the Cards are engaged in that evening. But I also like old baseball. Not to the extent of having a huge collection of old taped games from the 80s like Hardcore Legend, but I do at least occasionally queue up YouTube and search for a random baseball player whose name I vaguely recall, just to see what turns up.

Sometimes, like when I desperately wanted to go back and see if Randy Tomlin’s delivery was as weird and extreme as I remember, the search doesn’t turn up much. (What said search did turn up is the fact Tomlin is apparently the sort of person who likes to talk about his faith, which if you know the sort of person I am you’ll know was not at all my cup of tea.) Other times, like when Bob Welch died young a few years ago, the search turns up a great little clip from the ‘78 World Series, before I was even born, in which a 21 year old Welch strikes out Reggie Jackson, himself a bit past his prime but far from done with the game, after an epic at-bat that saw umpteen foul balls. (It also reminded me there was a Bob Welch who was a mediocre blue-eyed soul singer from the 70s, whose biggest hit was “Sentimental Lady”, which sounds like a rejected Robert John B side. And then the name Reggie Jackson triggered something in the back of my brain, and I had to figure out who did “Seasons in the Sun”, which turned out to be Terry Jacks, rather than Reggie Jacks as I briefly thought it to be.)

So anyway, here’s what we’re going to do today: we’re going to watch part of an old baseball game (well, old-ish, anyway), and then I’m going to write some things about it.

The game in question happened on the third of September, 2003.

via Jeff Agrest:

The 2003 season is probably the least-remembered team of that great run of Cardinal teams from 2000-’06, and with good reason. The 2000 season was the arrival of Jim Edmonds and Rick Ankiel’s all-too brief season in the sun, 2001 saw Albert Pujols ride in on a white horse (or maybe a white F-150?), 2002 was the death of Daryl Kile, the trade for Scott Rolen, a 97 win campaign, and a trip to the NLCS. We get to 2004 and you have a near-perfect baseball team, 2005 gets you 100 wins the second year in a row, and 2006 is, at last, a championship season. By those standards, 2003 was basically the Cardinal version of a disaster.

What is a bit funny is that the 2004 club is remembered as a juggernaut that clubbed opponents to death, but in fact the ‘03 club actually had a slightly better offense. That ‘04 monster scored 855 runs in the National League, but the 2003 team scored 876. (Team wRC+ was even between the two years.) The difference, of course, between an 85-77 record and missing the playoffs in ‘03 and a 105 win steamroller in ‘04 was the pitching. The 2004 Cardinals allowed almost 140 fewer runs than the ‘03 club did, 659 vs 796. That 2003 campaign was, however, perhaps the finest of Albert Pujols’s entire career, as he posted a 184 wRC+, smacked 43 homers, and hit .359/.439/.667 overall. He was worth 9.5 wins above replacement that season, and afterward signed one of the all-time great bargain extensions, a seven-year, $100 million contract that seemed huge at the time for a third-year player but essentially set up the team’s fortunes through the 2011 title run.

So let’s talk about the third of September.

The Cardinals, amazingly, would manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory on that day, eventually losing 8-7 to the Cubs despite holding that 6-0 lead at the end of the sixth inning. The culprit was, of course, the bullpen. At some point last year when we were in the midst of the Greg Holland Disaster, I wrote a column in which I tried to find the worst Cardinal bullpen performances of recent years as a point of comparison. The fact that two of the pitchers who made that list — Esteban Yan and Russ Springer — both came to us courtesy of the 2003 season should tell you all you need to know about how poorly things went in the late innings that year.

El Birds finished that day one-half game out of first place, falling out of first place for the final time that season. The two teams played five games in a row at Wrigley Field to open September, less than a week after the series at Busch immortalised in “Three Nights in August”. The Cubs stormed back to win this game with three runs in the bottom of the sixth, three runs in the seventh, and two in the eighth. The two big goats of the game were Springer and Jeff Fassero, both allowing home runs to Cub players that had huge impacts on the game. On the morning of September third, the Cardinals had a half-game lead in the division. By the afternoon, they were a half-game back of the Astros, and the deficit only increased from there. By the middle of September they were looking at a five-game hole, and it was only Houston and Chicago dueling it out for the division title.

Thoughts on what we just watched:

1. I had forgotten how close to the end of his career Fernando Vina already was by this point, and didn’t really give it much thought until the announcers discussed just how hard it was to walk Vina in 2003. For most of his career, Vina put up solid batting lines for a middle infielder by being very hard to strike out and walking roughly as often. His typical season looked something like a walk rate in the ~7% range, and a strikeout rate in the ~6.5% neighbourhood. In 2003, though, Vina had a tough time staying on the field, which is why that summer was the summer of Bo Hart, and only posted a walk rate of 3.9%. That ‘03 season was Vina’s last in a Cardinal uniform, and his second to last in MLB. He moved on to the Detroit Tigers for the 2004 season, appeared in 29 games, and was probably just thankful he managed to miss the Tigers’ ‘03 nightmare.

To me, Fernando Vina will always be the incredibly cool guy hanging out with Nelly and the St. Lunatics in that Jermaine Dupri remix video. But this game was already almost the end for Fernando, meaning I now have to go and listen to both “Welcome to Atlanta” and Abba’s “Fernando”, because that’s how my brain is wired.

2. I miss baseball where 91 was a decent fastball, and every third batter didn’t strike out. Just saying.

3. For all the hate Mike Matheny received for pretty much his entire time here — which was basically all deserved — let us never forget that Tony LaRussa, lionised for his brilliant bullpenning in plenty of corners still, let Jeff Fassero face six batters in a row, including multiple right-handed hitters.

4. Speaking of Fassero, holy god was he bad in 2003. Once upon a time, Jeff Fassero had been an excellent lefty starter for the Montreal Expos, putting up back to back five-win seasons in 1996 and ‘97. (The latter was actually after being traded to the Mariners, but Fassero had also been really good for the Expos from ‘93 to ‘95, as well.) By the time he got to the Cardinals at the ‘02 trade deadline, though, he was way, way past his prime, and the 2003 season was a disaster. He somehow managed to throw nearly 80 innings despite giving up almost two home runs per nine innings. I suppose when the whole bullpen is on fire it’s tough to single out Jeff Fassero, but he was very much a pile of oily rags that year, and the Cards’ brain trust just kept running him out there 62 times.

5. Hey! A Smashmouth song! Their cover of War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” is a song I have always had a soft spot for, and really their whole debut album, which stands as an odd relic of third-wave ska, back before Smashmouth figured out what would make them successful and turned into the All-Star guys. (And then much, much worse things after that.)

Also, hey, there’s Todd Wellemeyer! Young Todd Wellemeyer, in his rookie season, when he was supposed to turn into a firebreathing relief option to complement Kyle Farnsworth. His career never really did get rolling, despite his obvious talent, and the man with the grandest shoulders in baseball ended his career in 2011, having failed at one last comeback attempt with the Cubs, and amassing just 0.4 WAR in his eight-year big league odyssey. It’s worth mentioning that the 2008 season, when he made 33 starts for the Cardinals as part of a truly dire pitching staff, was the best of his entire career.

6. Seeing young Dan Haren, and remembering he would become perennial dark horse Cy Young contender Dan Haren in other uniforms, still hurts. That being said, he really shouldn’t have been sent out to begin the sixth inning, with Sosa-Alou-Simon-Ramirez coming up. Again, the awfulness of the ‘pen and the stress of playing five games in four days, with a doubleheader the day before this, no doubt played a huge role in that. But still.

7. Felix Sanchez, the pitcher who allowed the grand slam to J.D. Drew, would appear in only three total major league games. His career stats are 1.2 innings pitched, a 10.80 ERA, two strikeouts, three walks, and that one very big home run allowed. And then, just like that, it was over.

8. We were also already coming to the end of J.D. Drew’s time in a Cardinal uniform at this point; the Most Hated Man in Philly had less than a month left with the Redbirds. Drew had been a regular with the Cards since ‘99, but was seemingly perpetually hobbled by injuries. He never appeared in more than 135 games for the Cardinals, never collected 500 plate appearances in a single season, and yet still managed a 5.6 win campaign in 2001, in just 443 trips to the plate.

He would be traded after the ‘03 season, going to the Atlanta Braves for a single year and then hitting free agency and heading out to the coast with the Dodgers in 2005. His 2004 season was one for the ages, as he set an easy career high in plate appearances with 645, walked more than he struck out (18.3% to 18.0%), and posted 8.6 wins above replacement by dint of a 162 wRC+ and outstanding defense in right field for the Braves. Drew had Mike Trout’s talent, but really didn’t seem to give much of a shit about baseball most of the time. I’m sure that’s not true, and it’s the sort of thing I try never to say about players now, whereas fifteen years ago I probably said it loudly and often, but I’ve never been able to get past that impression of Drew, more than probably any other player I’ve ever watched play the game at the highest level.

However, it was the J.D. Drew trade after the ‘03 season that set up so much of the Cards’ success over the next several years, which is worth remembering. Jason Marquis might have often been a very frustrating pitcher to watch, but he was a big part of stabilising that 2004 rotation along with Chris Carpenter, allowing the Cardinals to reach those heights which seemed almost unimaginable when Jeff Fassero was making six starts in 2003. Ray King was...fine. He certainly helped anchor the bullpen with a couple seasons of competent LOOGY work. And, of course, it was the Drew deal which brought Adam Wainwright to the Redbirds, giving the Cards their ace for big chunks of the decade from 2007-’16.

9. I spoke earlier about Tony LaRussa leaving Haren in the game too long, and then screwing the pooch with his usage of Jeff Fassero, but this game was really a classic Dusty Baker Special, watching Matt Clement struggle, struggle, struggle, and still just be left to twist in the wind by the toothpick man himself, determined that no starting pitcher, no matter how obviously gassed or even entirely spent, should ever throw fewer than 120 pitches in a game. Obviously, Dusty rarely had great bullpen options to whom he could turn — witness my earlier paragraph on Felix Sanchez, and the fact he came in and immediately walked and homered his club into a huge hole — but he never could look at his pitcher, see that the wheels were beginning to come off, and actually take proactive steps to save the game, rather than keep rooting for the guy to grow some hair on his nuts and nut up and man up and toughen up and some other quick cliche about bearing down and pushing through adversity and learning to will to win to oops, we’re down six to nothing now.

Speaking of, I honestly hadn’t though of Matt Clement in several years, but he was once upon a time a pitcher I found strangely interesting. Clement was, at this point, in the middle of a three-year run with the Cubs which saw him post the three strongest seasons of his career at ages 27, 28, and 29. He was worth 10.6 wins over those three years, then headed off to Boston for one good year, one bad-slash-injured year, and then his career was over. He actually ended his career in the Cards’ minor league system, trying to come back from shoulder surgery, but it just didn’t work out for him. He was the 2008 version of 2009 Rich Hill, whom the Cardinals also brought in to compete for a rotation spot and was beaten out, barely, by Jaime Garcia as he emerged from Tommy John of his own to become one of the better left-handed starters in the game for a few years.

Clement ultimately had a solid MLB career, as he made 30+ starts seven years in a row from 1999-2005, but he spent much of his time working at the absolute height of the home run era, and his raw numbers are tough to look at and remember the context of the time. That run in Chicago in his late twenties was unquestionably his peak, and he was basically the Cubs’ version of Woody Williams during that ‘02-’03 Cards-Cubs rivalry spike.

There’s a reason we’ve all mostly forgotten the 2003 Cardinals — those of us old enough to actually remember them in the first place, that is — but it’s worth remembering it wasn’t all darkness and Jeff Fassero appearances that year. It was the peak of Edgar Renteria’s career, arguably the greatest season of the best hitter most of us will ever see in a Cardinal uniform, and only the briefest of lulls between an NLCS team and three more straight Championship Series appearances from 2004 to ‘06. This game, on September 3rd, was the death knell of an incredibly painful season. But like Bob Ross and my signature says, you have to have the dark to show the light.