My favorite TLR story
One of the things I’m most often asked when people ask about my job is what it was like to cover Tony La Russa. In short, it was terrific much more often than it was terrible, but at different times it was both. I wrote about that in some detail for MLB.com tonight as part of our package on the Cardinals retiring La Russa’s number. You can check out that story here.
Slightly less often, I’m asked if I have any particular favorite TLR stories. And I have a few. But I have one favorite, even though it was no fun at all at the time. And since it’s too long to fit into the story I’m writing for the site, it goes here.
The background: It was early April of 2003, a season that likely still gives many Cardinals fans heartburn. Jason Isringhausen was on the disabled list, and TLR and Dave Duncan were scrambling for ways to close out games. After a 3-0 start, the Cardinals had lost four out of five, with three different relievers taking losses already.
Matt Morris was the starter in Houston in the Friday night opener of a big early three-game series. Six days earlier, Morris had pitched one of the best games of his life, eight shutout innings with 10 strikeouts against those very same Astros, only to see the bullpen blow a 1-0 lead in the ninth.
If you know anything about TLR, you probably have an idea of where this is going already. He loves gritty everyday guys, and he loves reliable closers, but there’s nobody he loves more than his stud starting pitchers, his “stallions” (as he called Morris more than once). One blown win for Morris was more than enough. So on April 11 at Minute Maid Park, Morris wasn’t going to have another win taken from him, no matter what it took.
Well, it took a lot. Morris had a much harder time facing Houston for the second time in a week, but he battled. There were some loud outs, some balls hit right at guys, things like that. Morris entered the ninth with a 2-1 lead, having allowed four hits, but if ever a box score line was deceiving this was it. He was getting hit pretty hard, but he was battling his way through it. Still, he’d been staked to a 2-0 lead in the first and he’d made it stand up.
As a beat writer, the game up to this point was therefore a gift. Bullpen is battered, so big-hearted ace steps up and takes the team on his back, battles through a tough outing even on a night he doesn’t have his best stuff, etc etc. It’s a slam dunk angle, and Morris was usually a good interview to boot. The game was even going to finish in a shade over two hours. Seriously, about as perfect a setup as you can have as a beat writer.
Cut to the ninth, and the heart of the Astros order coming up. Geoff Blum flies out to center. Jeff Bagwell flies out to deep right — it’s a scare, but it’s an out, and Morris is one out from the CG and the win. Then Lance Berkman pokes a groundball single to keep the inning alive.
That brings up Jeff Kent, a man who hit Morris hard over the years and one of those guys who just always scares you. Morris falls behind 1-0, then 2-1, then 3-1. This is getting very scary, very quickly. Then, boom. Two-run, walk-off jack from Kent. Astros win. Morris, left in to finish his own game, takes the loss.
I bang out the new game story as fast as I possibly can, since I have to have one version in before I go downstairs to get quotes. I do the best I can to turn “Morris takes team on his back” into “Morris gives all he has, but it’s not quite enough,” then hurry downstairs. I’m reframing the whole story in my head as I go to the clubhouse, but really, the basic gist of much of the story is still going to be the same. Morris still gave a really game effort, still survived a heck of a gutty showing despite not having his best stuff.
The gamer, in short, is still largely a cap-tip to Morris, just with the acknowledgment that he was asked to give a little bit more than he had. Understandably so, given the circumstances. There really was little reason to quibble with the decision. It was just a bad spot for TLR/Duncan/Morris be in. Sometimes it happens.
So the various media types make our way downstairs as quickly as we can. Joe Strauss of the Post-Dispatch actually had to do so much re-working of his game story that when the clubhouse opens and we go into TLR’s office, it’s just me and a local Houston radio guy. I let him lead the questioning, and immediately regret it.
His first question: “Dramatic ending, wasn’t it?”
And it was on.
“I don’t think dramatic’s the word. It’s disappointing,” the manager responded.
Then there were a couple of questions about the decision-making progress to stay with Morris and about the rivalry and about Tino Martinez, who had injured his finger.
And then I started asking my questions. I don’t remember EXACTLY how I framed the first one, but it was basically about how even though Morris had allowed a lot of hard contact, he battled, how he was “on the edge” of trouble all night. Tony didn’t let me finish the question. He jumped. (edited for a family blog)
“You think those were little league hitters up there? They’re gonna make some contact. There was one run on the [bleep] board. You think he was on the edge? If that’s what you saw, that’s what you write. I think that’s so full of [bleep] it’s not even worth commenting on, so I ain’t gonna comment. One run into the [bleep] ninth inning and he’s on the edge? I tell you what, you ought to cover the next league up from this one.”
I tried to explain that I meant it as a compliment, but at that point there was no salvaging. He was off and running.
“I don’t agree. So just take your opinion and… I already told you what I think of your opinion. So don’t try to explain it to me because I don’t agree with it.”
And it was done.
And “the next league up from this one” lasted as an inside joke among Cardinals beat writers for a decade.
Congrats, Tony. Seriously.