I feel like flying to Houston and giving everyone a hug.
See, I've been there. It's a special club, and not really in a good way. When you get punched in the stomach by a sporting event -- I mean, truly walloped -- you're never quite the same afterward. The Red Sox have won the World Series; I even wrote a book about it called "Now I Can Die in Peace." But that's the thing: You never truly have peace. The strangest things end up triggering painful memories, the stuff you thought had been buried long ago.
During the ninth inning of Monday night's Cards-Astros game, I wasn't hoping the Astros would win. I was hoping they wouldn't blow it. There's a difference. Weird things happen when you haven't won in a long time; the poor Astros have never even appeared in a World Series. After a while, in that situation, you start expecting to lose. Then one of those seasons rolls around when good things keep happening, and they keep happening, and you wait for the other shoe to drop ... only it never does. Eventually, you reach a point that Houston fans reached Monday night -- you drop your guard, assume everything is different this season, give in to the moment -- and that's when sports can truly crush you. It's happened to me. I didn't want it to happen to them.
And yes, I saw it coming. Before Eckstein's at-bat in the ninth, I remember thinking, "This has to rank among the happiest crowds I've ever seen at a baseball game." They were three levels beyond ecstatic. They could smell it. They were headed to the World Series. Then Eckstein bleeded out a grounder for a single. You could hear the subtle change inside the ballpark, a slight shift in sound and demeanor.
Uh-oh. These are the Astros. Keep your guard up.
I knew that sound. Knew that feeling better than anyone. Lidge started having trouble throwing strikes against Edmonds. Suddenly, people weren't screaming and waving those towels anymore. You could feel the wheels slowly starting to squeak. Pujols was on deck -- nobody wanted any part of him. They started showing those awkward shots of the guys in the dugout, or the people in the stands, everyone with that frozen, "Oh, my God" face going. When Edmonds walked and Lidge seemed rattled enough that Phil Garner felt obliged to visit the mound, the terror alert was officially raised to red.
Now Pujols was digging in with one of those, "He better not hang a slider" looks on his face. If that wasn't scary enough, Fox showed a "St. Louis Cardinals: 39 comeback wins in reg. season" graphic. And this is where I hate what happened to me as a sports fan, because I don't think normally about this stuff anymore. Even before the first pitch to Pujols, I was sitting there thinking about the following five things...
1. Eckstein's single was just like Gary Carter's single in Game 6 of the '86 Series at Shea -- seemingly innocent, but not really.
2. Lidge has already thrown eight pitches that could have recorded the final out -- five away from the number of pitches Schiraldi and Stanley threw before the Mets tied Game 6.
3. The situation bore an eerie resemblance to Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS, the last time somebody blew a series-clinching ninth inning at home (Angels-Red Sox, aka the Dave Henderson Game). That series had policemen on horses protecting the field even before the final out (just about the biggest jinx ever), as well as tortured Angels manager Gene Mauch staring blankly from the dugout (saddled by his own immense baggage from Philly's '64 collapse) and a franchise that had never made the World Series. This series had the Astros still hoping to break their 43-year drought to make their first World Series as well as a brutal history of home losses in the NLCS (1980 and 1986). No horses, though.
4. Al Michaels announced the Hendu game 20 years ago; during the latter stages of Monday night's Astros-Cards game, he was announcing "Monday Night Football" at the same time on ABC. Warrants mentioning.
5. Roger Clemens was in the dugout for the Hendu Game, Game 6 at Shea ... and Monday night's game. Also warrants mentioning.
There was one other thought, of course: Please don't let Lidge throw a strike to Pujols.
Why do I think of these things? Because 1986 and 2003 wiped me out, that's why. You never truly get over it. When the Sox won the Series, I always assumed that the scars from Game 6 and the Grady Little Game would heal. Well, they don't. That's why they're scars. Last winter, about two months after the Red Sox won the title, I stumbled across a replay of Game 6 on ESPN Classic and ended up watching most of it. I couldn't pull myself from the television. That's the thing about scars -- they never go away.
So I was fearing the worst, and I'm not even an Astros fan. Two pitches later, Pujols crushed a hanging slider about 900 feet to give St. Louis the lead, followed by the worst sound in sports -- a sellout crowd shrieking in horror, followed by a prolonged, wailing-like noise, followed by a creepy silence where you only hear the visitors celebrating. When Magic made the famous sky hook against the Celtics in the '87 Finals, we made that sound in the Garden, followed by that same wailing and the same silence, and you could actually hear the Lakers congratulating Magic on their bench. That's how quiet it was. Same for the Angels-Sox game -- Al Michaels finishes the first part of his call ("And it's gone!"), followed by the wailing and the silence.
It's awful. It's an awful, disorienting sound.
And I hate to say it, but teams rarely rally back from that moment. In my "Levels of Losing" column from three years ago, Monday night's nightmare qualifies as a full-fledged Stomach Punch (Level 2, one from the top) for Astros fans -- it only would have been worse if they were one strike from winning the World Series. Given the circumstances and the history of Houston's franchise, Pujols' homer has to rank on the short list along with Mookie/Buckner, Hendu, Grady Little, Sid Bream, Jose Mesa, Earnest Byner, Scott Norwood, Steve Bartman and every other ultra-excruciating defeat that can be described in two words or less. The true Stomach Punch losses are the ones you never see coming, the ones that make you say things like, "I may have to call in sick for work" and "I'm skipping that exam, I can't function."
Of course, in that same column, I created another level just for this precise situation -- the "Dead Man Walking" game (Level 7). After blowing Game 5 of the ALCS, the Angels were finished -- they flew cross-country to Boston and lost the final two games by a combined score of 275-2. At least that's what it felt like. They were never in either game. During every other comparable situation in recent baseball history (Game 7 of the 2003 NLCS and Game 7 of the 1985, 1986 and 2002 World Series being the most memorable), the reeling team couldn't bounce back. That's why it's a Dead Man Walking Game: Maybe you still have a chance ... but really, you don't.
(Note: There's one exception here -- the D-Backs' rallying back from the Byung-Hyun Kim/Yankees debacle during the 2001 World Series, although the last two games were in Arizona, and they didn't have enough of a franchise history for their fans to even fully understand what had just happened -- the Arizona fans were like the Mexican fans watching the Cardinals-Niners game two weeks ago. I'm not even sure those Arizona fans understood the basic baseball rules during those games, so I'm not counting them. You can make these decisions when it's your theory. Back to the column.)
Sadly, the rest of the Astros-Cards series seems predictably depressing (unless you're a St. Louis fan). Not only are the Cardinals back at home, not only have they been handed a second life, but out of every sport, baseball hinges on emotion and momentum more than anything else. In the NBA, teams can lose the most devastating game possible and bounce back two days later as a completely different team (like the Nets after Game 3 of the 2002 Boston series). That doesn't work in baseball. Once you have the momentum, the other team has to take it back. And they can't do that when they're reeling on the road and wondering what the hell just happened. That's why I believe the Astros are finished, just like that '86 Angels team was.
And yes, I hope I'm wrong. Actually, I would love to be wrong. As the e-mails started pouring into my mailbox from Astros fans last night -- some venting incoherently, some wondering what they did to deserve the Pujols homer, others wondering if they were stupid for still thinking the Astros had a chance -- I could feel the despair seeping through my laptop screen. A local named Amar summed it up best: "I was there [at Minute Maid], and the electricity in the air when there were 2 outs until just after [Pujols] unloaded the big guns was just something I can't describe. In fact, I can't type any more. I feel too sick."
Amar, I know the feeling. You could even call me an expert. And according to my research, your team is cooked unless they can create a new Level of Losing for the Cardinals -- the "Reverse Dead Man Walking" Game on either Wednesday or Thursday. Then again, stranger things have happened ... after all, the defending champions right now remain the 2004 Boston Red Sox. If that doesn't give you hope, I don't know what does.
Hang in there, Houston. You never know.
While we're here, some random thoughts about the baseball playoffs...
• When it comes right down to it, you can never have enough close-ups of Kelvim Escobar's unpopped whiteheads and Jose Contreras' digging for gold in the dugout. Thank you, Fox. Thanks for thinking of us.
• Since Bartolo Colon didn't play last week, I didn't get any Andre the Giant e-mails, but I did get a number of e-mails from astute readers making the Lou Piniella-Larry Flynt connection -- which was a little disappointing because I was fired up to make that joke in this space, but what can you do? If Lou comes back for the World Series, they need to stick him in a wheelchair for the pregame opening to complete the effect. And by the way, I actually enjoyed having Lou in the booth; he kept McCarver in check and he always seemed one shaky play away from screaming, "Oh, come on, that's a BLEEPING BLEEP CALL!" Come on! What a crock of BLEEP!"
• I had trouble taking the Astros-Cards series seriously because of Minute Maid Park -- between the 300-foot homers to left field (like Lance Berkman's ridiculous homer Monday night, which almost seemed like a check swing) and the hill in center, it's just a little too gimmicky for my liking. For instance, one of the key plays in Game 4 was Tavarez's climbing that hill for an inning-saving catch in the eighth. Sure, it was fun to watch -- but wasn't that the equivalent of Tiger making a key putt on 16 in the Masters, only if there was a windmill in front of the hole (like a miniature golf course)? Would that ever happen? I didn't watch enough of this series, but I heard a rumor that they put a temporary alligator pit in right field for Game 3. Was that true?
• Note to everyone who ever televises the clinching play of a playoff series -- it's much more fun to watch the wide shot of the guys jumping on one another and congratulating one another for five minutes then replays of guys reacting to the final out. You have to trust me. And while we're here, if you can't give me at least two angles of the dugout exploding on every huge playoff home run, give the baseball rights to someone else. That's an absolute essential.
• Which reminds me, has there ever been a team less excited for a season-saving homer than the St. Louis Cardinals? La Russa didn't even uncross his arms! Thank God this wasn't a sports movie, they would have had to re-film it. Unbelievable. I think La Russa has low levels of carbon dioxide pumped into the St. Louis dugout so nobody disturbs him during the game. Just a deadly boring team. I want to see them win a World Series just to see if they would (A) pour champagne on one another, or (B) shake hands and agree to bring two bottles apiece to their respective homes to celebrate quietly on their own terms.
(Note: I love rooting against La Russa and have no idea why. Even read Buzz Bissinger's La Russa book just to be annoyed by him some more. I think it's solely because of the announcers and writers who constantly talk about what a genius he is, but it also might be his hair. It's one or the other.)
• Did you notice that Pujols, who's allegedly only 25 -- even though his 25-and-under stats dwarf the 25-and-under stats of pretty much everyone in the history of baseball -- is already going bald? Nobody's questioning this? Even John Cusack and Nic Cage had hair when they were 25.
(Put it this way: If Pujols is 25, and LeBron is 20, and Freddie Adu is 16 ... I'd like to announce that I turned 28 last month.)
• Question: Does Frank Thomas count for Ewing Theory purposes this season? Was he relevant enough to qualify, or was he too washed up? What about Jeff Bagwell, who's only in this playoffs in spirit? Does he count? Was he even good enough? I'm ruling "no" for both, but I'm willing to accept counter-arguments. With that said, what would be stranger than the Red Sox winning in 2004 without Nomar, followed by the White Sox winning in 2005 without Thomas?
• But seriously ... have playoff beards ever not been enjoyable? This could and should be the gimmick that saves the WNBA next season.
• When Fox was showing famous Houston fans ready to celebrate during the ninth inning of Monday night's game (Nolan Ryan, the Bushes, etc.), was anyone else disappointed it didn't cut to Bob Watson, Cesar Cedeno and William Devane inexplicably standing at the top step of the Astros dugout together? Couldn't they have flown them in? And where was Tanner?
• Yet another question: Is A.J. Pierzynski the most annoying professional athlete in recent memory? He's like the Rick Barry of this generation -- everything he does seems annoying for some reason, even his interviews. You can see why the Giants and Twins couldn't stand him. I don't even think he's a bad guy, he's just one of Those Guys. If you played at a $25 table in Vegas with him, he seems like the guy who would say stuff like "Wow, you're way up right now, huh?" and scream "Whammy!" every time he was dealt a blackjack. And he wouldn't even know he was being annoying, so his friends would think of convoluted ways to ditch him, stuff like, "Hey, A.J., I'm gonna go walk around, get some air, I'll be back in 10 minutes" ... and then they would scurry to another casino. That's A.J., right?
• After 11 days of playoff baseball, the "Prison Break" ads and Fox hyperbole have blended together to the point that I keep expecting the announcer to say, "Monday on 'Prison Break,' Lincoln Burrows is ready to break out of jail! But he wasn't counting on one thing -- getting shanked in the liver by special guest star Ozzie Guillen! That's an all-new 'Prison Break,' Monday on Fox!"
• And speaking of Ozzie, belated congrats to the White Sox and their fans -- fun team, fun season, and they took care of business when it mattered, starting with the sweep against Cleveland to end the season and continuing through the Anaheim series. Let's hope they're playing the Astros on Saturday night.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine and his Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available right now on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.