- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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HOUSTON -- Tony La Russa looked all screamed out when he walked into his postgame press conference, his eyes tired, his voice weary. An hour before, La Russa had been the first Cardinal to be ejected from Game 4 of the National League Championship Series; Jim Edmonds would later get tossed.
But now, in the press room, the manager sounded dejected. Year after year, it seems, the season plays out the same way for the Cardinals. Strong play in the regular season, then too many injuries in October, too much enemy pitching, disagreements with the umpires. No championship.
St. Louis is just one game away from being eliminated after losing Game 4 to the Astros, 2-1. With baseball, La Russa said flatly, "There's some real great things about it. And there's some things that absolutely stink."
What La Russa clearly betrayed, with his actions, but wouldn't say, was that on this day, he thought home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi had performed his job terribly. He and Edmonds were the first manager-player combination to be ejected from the same game since Mike Hargrove and Dwight Gooden were tossed from Game 4 of an American League Division Series game on Sept. 30, 1998.
"I'm ready to discuss anything about the game," La Russa said. "Anything involving umpires, you know, there's nothing you should say after, next day, next week, next year."
La Russa did say something about an umpire, unprompted, a couple of hours before the first pitch of Game 3: "I have to tell you, my biggest concern -- not my biggest concern, but a concern -- is the home plate umpire, Wally Bell. [Roger Clemens] has so much command; he's like [Greg] Maddux; he's going to pitch on the edges. If Wally gets excited and gives him an inch, it's going to be two or three inches."
Bell's strike zone was a non-issue in Game 3, but some veteran baseball people in Minute Maid Park wondered if La Russa's tactic was advisable -- first, in questioning an umpire's work, and secondly, in raising an issue that might distract his players from the work at hand. Edmonds indicated after Game 4 that he was unaware of La Russa's pregame comment, adding that he hoped it was not a factor in the umpiring in Game 4.
It did get ugly, with pitchers and hitters from both sides griping about Cuzzi's strike zone, looking back, asking questions. When Brandon Backe walked David Eckstein to open the game, he moved halfway to home plate to question Cuzzi about the location of the final pitch.
La Russa came out to talk to Cuzzi after the top of the second inning, presumably to ask him about the strike zone, and the Cardinals' manager became more agitated in the middle innings, once screaming at Cuzzi after a call; Cuzzi never looked in his direction.
Everybody was a little more tense, anyway; the Cardinals needed this game badly, and with both teams struggling offensively and at the mercy of the generally strong pitching in this series, the momentum of every at-bat seemed to turn on one or two borderline pitches. La Russa recalled what baseball executives "tell us about certain latitudes you get in postseason play, because you're supposed to be emotional and try and win this."
The score was 1-all in the sixth, and Albert Pujols singled with two out for St. Louis, but was stranded. The Astros put two runners on in the sixth and failed to score; by game's end, they were 2-for-31 in this series with runners in scoring position.
Houston manager Phil Garner inserted Orlando Palmeiro as a pinch-hitter to lead off the bottom of the seventh, and Palmeiro drew a walk, with Jason Marquis pausing a couple of times on the mound after close calls.
Craig Biggio bunted toward first, and Marquis chased the ball, intending to pick it up and retire Biggio. But after reaching down with his glove, he dropped the ball. Everybody was safe: First and second, nobody out.
Chris Burke flied to left, and Lance Berkman was up next, and Marquis appeared increasingly upset with Cuzzi's ball-strike calls. After throwing a fastball that Cuzzi called ball four -- Marquis turned and stared into the Cardinals' dugout -- and that might have been confirmation enough for La Russa, who started screaming at the umpire.
Cuzzi pulled off his mask and yelled something back at La Russa, who waved his arms and continued to shout. Then, Cuzzi ejected him, the first ejection of a manager in a postseason game since Red Sox manager Jimy Williams was tossed during the 1999 American League Championship Series.
La Russa came out and continued arguing, until crew chief Tim McClelland stepped in, literally; every time La Russa tried to step around McClelland, a massive man, McClelland would move into his path, the two men making contact repeatedly. La Russa seemed to take issue with that, as well, before departing.
"I thought our ballclub used restraint for two-thirds of the game," said La Russa. "It went too far."
La Russa paused, carefully considered what he was about to say, and again muffled himself. "You can fish around all you want to, I'm not taking the bait," he said.
The Astros had the bases loaded, and after La Russa's argument ended, Garner inserted Willy Taveras as a pinch-runner for Palmeiro. When Morgan Ensberg flied to center, Taveras tagged up and slid home, tapping the plate with his left hand just ahead of the throw, his speed perhaps making the difference between safe and out on the play.
The Cardinals had the potential tying run on base in the top of the eighth, Edmonds at the plate. With a count of three balls and one strike, Edmonds started to step into a swing, but leaned back from Dan Wheeler's fastball inside, checking his swing. Cuzzi called the pitch a strike, and Edmonds was dumbfounded.
He stepped to where Cuzzi was standing behind home plate, and according to Edmonds, he asked Cuzzi where the pitch was. And, according to Edmonds, Cuzzi's response was, "Don't you come back here and (bleep) argue with me."
To which Edmonds said he responded: "The ball's not a strike. You called a ball a strike. Do a better job than that."
And at that point, Edmonds said, Cuzzi told him he'd blown his chance to back off and was ejected.
The rest of the Cardinals were livid when they saw Edmonds thrown out of the game, David Eckstein and others screaming at Cuzzi. Edmonds said he hadn't sworn at Cuzzi before his ejection -- "I didn't need to, I didn't have a chance," he said -- but he aimed a barrage of profanities at Cuzzi as he departed.
"I wasn't trying to make a scene," said Edmonds. "I wasn't being loud. I wasn't trying to show him up. ... I don't think we lost control at all."
Major League Baseball declined to make Cuzzi available to reporters to respond to Edmonds' version of his ejection, just as it issued a no-comment from Bell on Saturday, before actually consulting Bell with a request. In prior postseason series over the years, umpires have been brought into press conferences to explain calls, but it could be that the debacle that erupted in Chicago last week -- and the widely panned explanation from umpires that followed -- has MLB more leery about having umpires speak publicly about their decisions.
John Rodriguez stepped in as a pinch-hitter for Edmonds with a full count and hammered a drive to center field, driving Taveras two steps up the embankment -- but Taveras got there for the catch, ending the inning. "I just hit it to the worst part of the park," Rodriguez said.
The Cardinals opened the ninth inning with back-to-back singles from Pujols and Larry Walker, but Pujols was cut down at home on a chopper to third. Walker took third when the Astros failed to call time out after the play at the plate, but again, the Cardinals failed to generate even a run-scoring fly ball: John Mabry grounded to second and Houston turned a quick double play, ending the game.
Other than Edmonds, the Cardinals mostly dodged questions about the umpires after the game. There are more pressing issues, with St. Louis down three games to one, and the Cardinals talked bravely, reiterating how strong the will of the team had been all year. Pujols answered questions calmly, politely, with a smile. "How do we stay relaxed?" he mused. "We show you tomorrow."
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is available in paperback and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.