WITH THE FINISH LINE IN SIGHT, BASEBALL'S FINALISTS REACH FOR THE TUG OF DESTINY
Every champion has a belief system, a marriage of fate and faith. It could be a slogan: only "Idiots" could defy such long odds and such a long-term curse last year. It could be an appendage: the electric arm of Josh Beckett, who pitched the Marlins to victory over the Yankees in 2003, or the gimpy legs of Kirk Gibson in 1988. It could be something as monumental as 86 years of futility, or something as incidental as Giants manager Dusty Baker giving Russ Ortiz a game ball as a souvenir in the midst of Game 6 of the 2002 World Series-the Angels made note of the dis and used it as incentive to come back in that game and take the Series. Back in 1973, Tug McGraw coined the slogan, "Ya Gotta Believe!" His underdog Mets eventually lost to the A's in the Series, but he was right-and he proved it seven years later when he helped will the Phillies to the first championship in their storied history. For all the talk of Moneyball, the game remains Heartball. As talented and focused as major leaguers are, they still need something or someone to give them motivation and confidence. (How much you wanna bet that at least one player on every team has "Live Like You Were Dying," by Tug's son Tim McGraw, on his iPod?) Now that the league championship series are upon us, we thought we'd take a gut check of a few of the contenders and spotlight some of their reasons to believe. -STEVE WULF
Land of Oz
Mothers clutched their children. Fathers stared skyward and braced for the commie missiles. A city recoiled in fear.
Oh, wait. It was only the Chicago fire commissioner, with a wink-wink from Chicago mayor-and White Sox fan-Richard J. Daley, having a little fun with the air-raid sirens after the Go-Go Sox clinched the American League pennant in Cold War 1959. As for the Series against the Dodgers, Daley, a.k.a. The Boss, declared, "We'll win it in four."
They lost it in six and haven't been back since. And they haven't won a World Series since 1917, two seasons before the "Black Sox" cursed the franchise by throwing the 1919 Series. As NBC's Earl says: "Karma."
See, if you're going to believe in the Sox, you gotta understand their history. They haven't suffered the same locust plagues as the Cubs, but they've suffered. Since the fire commish scared the hell out of everybody in '59, you've got your 1983 ALCS appearance (four games and out), your 1993 ALCS (six games and out) and your 2000 ALDS (three games and out). Forty-six years of nothing. And no billy goats or Bartmans to blame, either.
But Ozzie Guillen doesn't give a rat's backside about curses, Soxless Octobers or commies. He doesn't care if you believe in the White Sox, because all that matters to him is that he believes in them. And that they believe in each other.
Guillen and the fellas already swept the team that reversed its own curse a season ago. You know the Red Sox story: the grounder through Buckner's 7 and 10 pins. Bucky Frickin' Dent. The Curse of the Bambino. So if the Red Sox can scrape away 86 years' worth of barnacles off the U.S.S. Cursed, why can't the White Sox brush away 88 years' worth of plaque buildup?
The answer is, they can.
"What the Red Sox did last year, to me, is the most amazing thing in sports," says centerfielder Aaron Rowand. "They had to overcome more than any team ever has in any sport. What we have is a history that I don't think is comparable with what they had to go through." Or as David Wells, who's played for both the White and the Red Sox, puts it, "The White Sox never had Babe Ruth."
Guillen, shortstop of the 1993 playoff team, understands the history too. He coached third base for the 2003 world-champion Marlins, so he also understands the possibilities. The Marlins were down three games to one to the Cubs in the NLCS, and then won three in a row, including the final two games at Wrigley, to clinch the pennant.
Most of all, Guillen understands this team, these players, this moment. Without Ozzie calling the shots, could the White Sox have won 99 regular-season games, Justin Gatlin'd their way to a 15-game lead on Aug. 1, brushed off injuries to Frank Thomas and closer Dustin Hermanson, survived their mid-September free-fall, and swept the world-champ Red Sox? Doubtful.
To believe in the White Sox, you must first believe in Guillen. The front of the T-shirt catcher A.J. Pierzynski wears under his jersey reads, Ozzie Ball Means ... Then on the back it says, Heart, Brains, Balls. The Sox play with all three. On the seamhead stat front, no team in the majors had won more one-run games than the White Sox. Only one team that made the playoffs had hit more home runs (Yankees) or had stolen more bases (Angels).
"We got guys who can run," says Pierzynski. "We got guys who can hit home runs. We got guys who can catch the ball. We got guys who can pitch. Anytime you have those combinations, it's going to lead to success. Not only that, we have guys who believe in each other. That's the biggest thing, to believe, hey, we can do this."
If the White Sox do win the Series, cover your ears. After all, The Boss' son, Mayor Richard M. Daley, runs Chicago these days. And he's got an itchy air-raid finger.
After the Astros clinched the NL wild card on the final day of the regular season, closer Brad Lidge was so happy, he accidentally dropped an f-bomb on television during the postgame celebration. His teammates then devised a fake press release from the commissioner's office, chiding him and fining him $25,000. Lidge fell for it. "He's the nicest kid," says manager Phil Garner. "He never swears. All he wanted to do was apologize to Drayton McLane. He wanted everyone to know that's not like him. We believe him."
And, much more important, the Astros believe in him.
Every time the 6'5", 210-pound righthander trots in from the Minute Maid Park bullpen, the scoreboard flashes LIGHTS OUT LIDGE. The crowd goes wild, and a calm settles over the Astros. "When Brad comes in," says Astros lifer Jeff Bagwell, "game over."
Lidge learned to close from ex-Astros flamethrower Billy Wagner, and now he's even better than his mentor. "Brad is the best in the game," says third baseman Morgan Ensberg. "It's his job, it's who he is. He's got the build, he's got the personality. He's not a former starter who went to the bullpen. He's the closer."
In 94 2/3 innings last season, Lidge struck out 157, which would have made him the staff leader for 12 major league teams, including the Yankees. In the NLCS against the Cardinals, he gave up one hit and whiffed 14 in eight innings. This year, his first full season as a closer, Lidge saved 42 games in 46 tries, striking out 103 in 70 2/3 innings. He fanned five more in four scoreless innings of this season's NLDS, including two tough frames in the epic, 18-inning clincher over the Braves. "I get a lot of funny looks from hitters after they've faced him," says catcher Brad Ausmus.
Lidge, 28, was an outfielder at Cherry Creek High in Englewood, Colo. "My senior year," he says, "my coach told me that I'd have a hard time starting in the outfield, so he asked me if I wanted to pitch. I could throw 90-91, and I threw strikes, which was good enough for Colorado baseball." He got no scholarship offers until Notre Dame finally called. In South Bend, Lidge started lifting weights and refined his mechanics, and by his junior year, he was throwing 97 mph.
After Lidge was named Big East Pitcher of the Year in 1998, the Astros made him their No. 1 pick in the June draft, but he kept hurting his elbow and shoulder. "We figured it was because he was throwing an overhand curveball," says Astros GM Tim Purpura. So minor league pitching instructor Dewey Robinson taught him a slider. Says Purpura, "He got it in 45 minutes."
Now the Lidge slider is perhaps the most devastating pitch in the game, especially since he still throws 97 mph heat. The low-90s slider has wicked downward movement, much like Robb Nen's in his prime, only Lidge throws slightly harder than Nen did. "He has a pitch no one can see," says Ensberg. "Some guys throw a cutter that goes 90, but it moves horizontally. This goes down."
Behind the plate, Ausmus tries to make sure Lidge doesn't fall in love with the slider and neglect one of the game's best fastballs. "If you know the slider is coming, it becomes more hittable," Ausmus says. "Uh, make that less unhittable."
That's the choice with Lidge: unhittable vs. less unhittable. And that's why, after facing him, it's usually the hitter who walks away swearing.
They don't call second base the keystone for nothing.
Last season, with a double-play combo of shortstop Edgar Renteria and second baseman Tony Womack, the pennant-winning Cardinals ranked 11th in baseball with 154 DPs. When they lost both, plus three-time Gold Glove-winning catcher Mike Matheny, to free agency, GM Walt Jocketty had to rebuild the middle of his defense from scratch. David Eckstein and Mark Grudzielanek were strangers before they signed with the Cardinals two weeks apart last winter. So they spent February and March bonding around the second base bag.
Under the supervision of ex-infielder Jose Oquendo, shortstop Eckstein and second baseman Grudzielanek worked on flips, pivots and pirouettes in Jupiter, Fla. Their mandate was to save a tick here and a fraction there, because time is precious when the goal is two outs per ground ball.
They figured to have plenty of double-play opportunities. Pitching coach Dave Duncan likes hurlers who pound the zone with sinking two-seam fastballs. Newcomer Mark Mulder induced 2.53 ground balls for every fly ball, third in the NL. Chris Carpenter was sixth in the league in ground ball-tofly ball ratio, and Matt Morris, Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan all finished in the top 21.
By season's end, all the hard work Eckstein and Grudzielanek put in last spring and throughout the summer had a tangible reward: the Cardinals led the majors with 196 double plays. Then they turned seven more in their three-game sweep of the Padres in the NLDS. Look beyond the team's well-known attributes-Albert Pujols' bat speed, Carpenter's sinker, Tony La Russa's abrasive brand of brilliance-and the two guys in the middle of the infield are a big reason the 2005 Cards believe they have what it takes to go the distance.
How adept are they at turning two? Consider that third baseman Scott Rolen started only 55 games because of a shoulder injury but still participated in 17 DPs-three more than Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez did in 119 games. Eckstein ranked second to the Pirates' Jack Wilson among major league shortstops with 123 DPs, and Grudzielanek led all second basemen with 108.
Reliever Julian Tavarez, who pitched in front of Carlos Baerga and Omar Vizquel in Cleveland and Luis Castillo and Alex Gonzalez in Florida, thinks Eckstein and Grudzielanek are highly underrated. Says Taverez, "People say, 'Who are those guys?' And I say, 'They're the guys who helped us turn almost 200 double plays.' As pitchers, the first thing we think about is a ground ball, because we know they can turn it at any time."
While Eckstein relies on quick hands and feet, Grudzielanek is a second baseman with a shortstop's arm-a hose, in baseball lingo. That's why Grudzielanek usually covers the bag and makes the pivot when righthanded batters hit the ball back to the mound. "I tell our pitchers, 'Do you want me to take it, or somebody who throws 20 mph harder?' " Eckstein says, laughing.
After bonding in spring training, Eckstein and Grudzielanek became even better pals as the season wore on. Eckstein, a self-professed "boring" guy, is accustomed to going home and crashing after games. So Grudzielanek achieved a major social coup when he coaxed his buddy to attend a team function in September, then treated him to dinner and Sunday Night Football at an Irish pub during an off-night in Chicago. "He's a good man, but you have to force him to go out," Grudzielanek says.
To these guys, forceouts are second nature.