It was the best of teams, it was the worst of teams, it was the age of veterans, it was the age of youth, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of frustration, it was the season of blown saves, it was the season of come from behind wins, it was the spring of disaster, it was the fall of hysteria, we had every team ahead of us, we had a postseason invitation, we were all going direct to a happy flight, we were all going direct to Milwaukee – in short, this season was so much like a long past one, that some of its noisiest bloggers insisted on its being received, for good or for bad, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
And somewhere, Charles Dickens is rolling his eyes at my terrible adaptation of his brilliant words, but yet, they do describe what we have seen recently.
With the outcome of the NLCS still to be determined, I thought it might be a good time to take a look back, and make a few observations.
1. The first baseman, one of the best of his era, got off to such a terrible start to the season. Was he injured, or was it just age catching up and we are witness to the beginning of the end of career decline. His contract was up at the end of the season, and there was some question as to whether he would finish his career in St. Louis. Perhaps that weighed heavy on his mind. But the mid-season turnaround – what an impressive finish to his season. He carried the team into postseason, and if not for that slow start, would be considered for the NL MVP award.
2. The Bullpen. What an amazing turn around. It was in such disarray at the start of the season. Nobody quite knew their roles. Several players tried to close out games, unsuccessfully. The manager tried some young pitchers, and they were soon sent back to the minors to work on their craft. The constant reliance on veterans proved to be disastrous, and they were soon sent off in a trade. Heck, one of them was older than dirt, why was he even on the team. But some restructuring turned one of the biggest early season disappointments into a huge asset, and they played a key role in getting the Cardinals into postseason.
3. The veteran ace of the staff struggled early. Had he lost his stuff ? Oh, the velocity was still there, but his command didn’t quite seem right. Sure, he wasn’t getting much run support, and that led to a rather misleading win/loss record. But still, was he done, had we seen the last great game from our star ? Then came something magical in August and it was like a totally different pitcher on the mound. He won game after game, and along with the big first baseman, carried the team into postseason on his right arm. If there was ever a pitcher you wanted in a big game, he proved once again that he was the guy you wanted on the mound.
4. Then there was the young lefty. Oh, what an amazing talent. Brilliant pitches, at times unhittable. He could get righties out, and lefties rarely stood a chance. But at the same time, he could lose it all of a sudden. He didn’t deal with adversity well and had a tendency to lose focus when things turned ugly. Maybe it was his youth, he had certainly pitched more innings than any time in his career. There were concerns about his durability, but a strong finish in September seemed to put our minds at rest. We were looking forward to him in the rotation, alongside the ace, for many years to come.
5. The wily veteran that a lot of folks had given up on. He had been injured, and many thought his career was over. He put that all aside and turned in one of the best performances in his career. Like the ace and the young lefty, he saved the best for September and was a huge contributor to that amazing September run.
6. Closer ? What closer. The manager had spent the season auditioning many for that role. There was an exciting young right hander that threw hard – absolutely electric stuff, and he carried much of the burden until the end. Finally, a most unconventional right hander took over the job – unconventional in the sense that he had only one pitch. He tried to throw others to set it up, but did so unconvincingly. At the end, he went back to his main pitch and perfected it. That’s how he took over as the closer. If the Cardinals got a lead late, he was the man that brought the win home. And with every save, we got more and more comfortable with him on the mound.
7. The Trade. The key to the turnaround in August and September was a midseason deal that nobody liked. Oh, it totally divided Cardinals Nation. We sent away an absolute fan favorite and got nothing in return. One bright side, there were some relievers thrown in the mix, at least we got rid of them. But this was a trade that the general manager would live to regret. Fire him, run him out of town – he knows nothing about baseball.
Until at the end of the season and we look back on that trade as the turning point. Gone was a player who, while popular, wasn’t contributing. In his place came a missing piece to the puzzle. It took a while for the new players to settle in, but when they did, the team started winning. Now, the deal is looking very good. We’ll still withhold judgment for a while, but for now we like the trade. The Cardinals would not be in postseason without it.
8. The young outfielder. He was a very likable young man, but there were questions about him being able to play every day. He was nowhere near the defender that his predecessors had been, but he played hard. There were also questions about his production at the plate. Certainly, he was more consistent than the player he replaced, but he was more of a singles hitter, and didn’t hit for a lot of power. He had been tried a few times with limited success.
He turned out to be just what the Cardinals needed, both at the plate and in the field. He was a big part of the Cardinals late postseason run.
9. And then there was the September to Remember. Oh, what an unbelievable comeback. Everybody thought the Cardinals were finished in August, and even as late as mid-September. In spite of playing some of the best baseball at the end of the season, it also took a colossal meltdown from a very good team ahead of them for the Cardinals to get into postseason. And there was also a third team lurking in the background, making things very difficult. The end of the regular season would turn out to be one of the most exciting in history, and everybody will be talking about it for the next 50 years, or more.
Yes, 1964 was such an amazing season. Oh wait, you thought I was talking about 2011. Oh, I was. No wait. I’m all confused.
If you remove the individual names, it is scary how similar the two seasons were. Through August and September, we used the memories of that remarkable 1964 pennant race to give us some reason to stay engaged with the current team. Reason to hope, to believe. And now, with a 3 games to 2 lead in the NLCS, perhaps even reason to expect. Now we can breathe a little easier and take some pleasure in how truly similar these teams were.
Let’s go back quickly and match up the players, places and events.
1. Albert Pujols and Bill White. White had been a huge contributor to the Cardinals since coming over from the Giants. He tends to downplay his defense when interviewed, but he was one of the better defenders of his era. He did get off to a terrible start in the 1964 season, and it was related to a shoulder injury. After seeking vast amounts of medical care, he tried some unconventional methods. He got better in June and turned in a powerhouse of a second half of the season. If not for Ken Boyer’s dependable play all year long, White might have won the MVP. While not a free agent, players in that era were generally on year-to-year contracts.
2. The story of the two bullpens were eerily similar as well. Both struggled early and were blown apart and rebuilt as the season went on. In 1964, Bobby Shantz and Lew Burdette were the veterans that struggled, Shantz more than Burdette. They were the Trever Miller and Miguel Batista of that team. Both would be traded to the Cubs, although in different deals. Shantz was part of the Lou Brock deal, and Burdette was traded two weeks earlier for Glen Hobbie. Ron Taylor, the hard throwing right hander, played the role of Fernando Salas. Perhaps a bit of a stretch, Mike Cuellar was 1964’s version of Eduardo Sanchez with absolutely electric stuff – some of it seemed to defy the laws of physics.
As for the young additions that rounded out the bullpen transformation, Gordie Richardson was the Marc Rzepczynski of the era and Bobby Richardson was the Lance Lynn.
3. This one is pretty easy. Of course, I am talking about Bob Gibson and Chris Carpenter. There was a huge difference in the two as Gibson had yet to establish his credentials as the ace of the staff. Larry Jackson and Ernie Broglio had those honors. But Gibson made Cardinals fans forget those two names with what he did in August, September and October of 1964. As Chris Carpenter did this year. Instead of establishing his credentials, Carpenter had to reclaim them. There were lots of questions entering August, but the former Cy Young Award winner left little doubt as he won game after game. If there were any questions still lingering at this point, just check the box scores from the last game of the season and NLDS. Those were vintage Bob Gibson games. Ace credentials returned, just as he had left them a year earlier.
4. Of course, the young lefty of today is Jaime Garcia, but who is his 1964 counterpart ? That would be Ray Sadecki. Nearly every superlative we hurl in Garcia’s direction was said about Sadecki in the early 60s. And much of the same criticism. Both are/were amazing talents. And both could suddenly get distracted like a 5 year old when noticing a grasshopper. Garcia took the mound for Game One of the NLCS and Sadecki got a similar call in the World Series.
5. This one might be a bit tricky. Kyle Lohse (2011) and Curt Simmons (1964) were the unsung heroes of their team, toiling in the shadows of the stars ahead of them in the rotation. Both had broken into the majors with a different team, and did so with a lot of hope and expectation. Of the two, Simmons delivered with the Phillies before injuries put his career in question. The Cardinals took a chance on him when no other team would, not unlike Lohse’s free agency experience, and it worked out well for the Cardinals.
6. Jason Motte and Barney Schultz. Each was somewhat of a one dimensional pitcher. Motte has his explosive fastball and Schultz the floater (knuckleball). Each would show other pitches, but none were as effective as their signature, so they went and perfected it, throwing it where the hitters just couldn’t hit it. Motte worked his craft as a setup man behind Salas for most of the season, while the veteran Shultz toiled in the minors hoping to extend his career. Both took over the closers roles late, Schultz being recalled just before the postseason eligibility deadline.
7. By now, you have probably figured out “the trade”. In 1964, it was actually a bunch of trades, but the big one was the Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio deal. It was just as unpopular, perhaps even more so, than the 2011 deal that sent Colby Rasmus to Toronto for a bunch of parts. Where the 1964 deal brought a transformational player in Brock, the 2011 trade was more subtle, but no less important to the season success. The Rasmus deal fixed a weakness in the starting rotation when the addition of Edwin Jackson allowed Kyle McClellan to move to the pen. The additions of Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel proved most valuable as the bullpen was called on, night after night. The 1964 Cardinals do not win the NL Pennant without Brock and the 2011 Cardinals are not in a position to reach the same goal if not for the Rasmus deal.
8. Jon Jay and Mike Shannon. Both fan favorites, but there was a lot of question about whether either player could be an every day contributor. It took some time, but both have silenced the doubters. What they lack in physical ability, they more than make up for in determination and effort. It remains to be seen whether Jon Jay can continue as a broadcaster when his playing days are finished, but his entertaining twitter activity suggests that he might be able to do just that.
9. And finally the run to the finish. The 1964 Cardinals battled with the Phillies and Reds down to the last game of the season. It took a combination of great play, an epic collapse and a bit of luck to win the NL Pennant. Just as it did with the Wild Card in 2011. In this case it was the Atlanta Braves that collapsed, but let’s not forget the San Francisco Giants who did their best to play the role of spoiler until the very end. The finish to the 1964 season was one of the greatest in baseball history, until that very same thing happened in both leagues in 2011. It wasn’t just the Cardinals and Braves – the Tampa Rays and Boston Red Sox had quite a battle themselves. We can argue whether competing for a wild card is on the same level as a league championship, but the indisputable fact is that the end of the 2011 regular season was a very special moment, and fans all across the country watched it happen.
So much for the similarities, there are some big differences between the two teams, but I think I should leave that for another day. As always, thanks for reading – and Go Cardinals.