Sports

2011 World Series Game 1: Cardinals vs. Rangers

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Weather was a factor at Busch Stadium in Game 1 of the 2011 World Series. The tarp was down during the afternoon and the teams did not take batting practice on the field. When the game started it was 47 degrees with intermittent drizzle and a brisk wind. By the time Adrian Beltre fouled the ball off his foot (see how I did that?) in the ninth inning of a 3-2 game it was 44 degrees and wet.

With Game 1 now in the books and the Cardinals leading the series 1-0, we turn our attention to Game 2 and scheduled starting pitchers Colby Lewis and Jaime Garcia. You don’t need to convince baseball legend and Hall of Famer Johnny Bench to watch the 2011 World Series. As far as he’s concerned, the matchup between the Cardinals and Rangers will be a “tremendous” one. Major markets be damned, this is a World Series, complete with star power, story lines and intrigue. Also, a ton of offense.

“If you’re a baseball fan and you saw the playoffs at all,” Bench says, “this is a tremendous matchup. We’ve seen some great games throughout the playoffs and we’re looking to see some great games here with a lot of offense, which I love. There’s going to be a lot of action on the bases, there’s going to be a lot of runs scored, there’s going to be a lot of pitching changes — it may go 4 or 5 hours, but it’s going to be worth it.”

One bat, however, that Bench believes will be silenced in this series is Albert Pujols’. Not because he expects Pujols to falter, but because he doesn’t expect to see Pujols get a pitch to hit. As a catcher who’s called a few “four-finger salutes” in his day, Bench was adamant about how to approach Pujols.

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“You never pitch right at him,” he said. “I don’t care what the situation is. You know, we walked [Willie] McCovey five times in a game. We walked him four times in another game. We walked him three or four times in a game. Hey, he was the only guy we couldn’t get out. So if he gets himself out, that’s fine, but he’s not going to beat me.”

Bench, who is in St. Louis to promote the Pepsi Max Field of Dreams campaign, will be behind the plate to catch the first pitch in tonight in Game 2. It’s a natural position for a man who caught 23 World Series games for the Reds in the 1970s. Naturally, he’d be able to tell me about the atmosphere, namely the weather, as the Cardinals and Rangers readied themselves to play in 40-degree weather in late-October.

Interestingly enough, yesterday my friend and colleague Dr. Roto wrote and open letter to MLB commissioner Bud Selig, pointing out the fact that Game 1 of the World Series presented a weather report not even suitable for the birds. Dr. Roto wrote, “It also stands to reason that teams play in the warm weather all season long, but when the playoffs come around, temperatures are in the 40′s and 50′s instead of the 80′s. Does this make sense to you?”

I asked Bench specifically about the weather and, well, he takes your “it’s too cold to play baseball,” Dr. Roto, and raises you a “we had to walk uphill, both ways, two miles to school… in the rain!”

Bench dismisses any talk of cold weather citing the 1976 World Series at Yankee Stadium played in 32 degrees

“I mean, we played in Yankee Stadium back in 1976 and I can remember it was 32 degrees at game time,” Bench recalls. He then goes on to point out that we’ll continue to talk about the weather, but nothing will be done. “We’ll continue to keep it the way it is,” he says, adding, “The commissioner has done a terrific job over his tenure.” Convinced yet, Dr. Roto?

Bench also adds the “big dollars” into the equation. Fair or not, baseball is a business. The longer the season goes, the more revenue is generated. In fact, it’s also worth noting that the players make the so-called big dollars to play an “extended,” 162-game season, rain or shine. Bench later concluded that aside from a team moving from the National League to the American League, he doesn’t imagine there’ll be any major changes made to the game of baseball, partly because the sport won back a lot of fans during the 2011 pennant races.

“There were a lot of stories that were great for baseball during the pennant races,” Bench said, including the Red Sox and Braves late-season collapses and the Cardinals fighting their way into the World Series in a similar fashion to the defending champs.

“Last year we saw the Padres lose 10 games [at the end of the season] and the Giants come in and win the World Series,” Bench recalls, “like how we see the Cardinals now, coming out of nowhere only to find themselves in the World Series against the Rangers.” Deja vu, anyone?

The 2011 World Series has its own set of feel-good stories and intrigue, as Bench points out. With Ron Washington taking a team whose cleanup hitter wasn’t even supposed to make the team out of spring training to the Comeback Player of the Year, Lance Berkman, who hit twice as many home runs and drove in twice as many runs this season than he did all of last year. Maybe these aren’t the most sellable stories, but as a baseball fan you know how difficult it is to manage a team to back-to-back World Series appearances and how low our expectations were for Lance Berkman coming into the season.

As Bench mentioned earlier in our discussion, it’s pretty clear that this is a baseball fan’s World Series matchup.

I concluded my time with Bench by asking him, of course, about catchers–more specifically, the lack of complete catchers in today’s game. A catcher like Bench, a two-time league MVP and 10-time Gold Glove winner, who hit 389 home runs, drove in nearly 1,400 runs and threw out 44 percent of base runners over his 17-year career would naturally have something to say about the state of catching in the big leagues.

I prefaced the question by pointing out how there were only four catchers in Major League Baseball this past season who threw out at least 30 percent of base runners. Amazing, no?

“You have to remember, there are only 13 catchers in the Hall of Fame,” Bench begins. “Basically, [a complete catcher] comes along once every decade. We’ve got great catching in baseball, but unless they’re hitting in the middle of the lineup they’re not going to be able to put up astronomical numbers. They’re not going to hit a bunch of home runs and they’re not going to capture the imagination of the baseball fans. It’s nothing exceptional,” he adds. “It’s just the fact that they’re still there and we, catchers, have been here for a 130-something years. Catching will never change.”

He did, however, believe that his franchise, the Cincinnati Reds, had two catchers in their system who may both turn out to be those one-in-a-decade type of players.

“We’ve got actually two kids in our organization,” Bench points out. “Devin Mesoraco and we’ve got this kid named Yasmani Grandal, who was a number-one draft choice — he’ll be in Triple-A next year — and these two could be a real good surprise. It’s amazing to have to kids like that at one time. We haven’t had one in so long, I don’t remember, and yet these two kids could be back-to-back in our organization. It’s going to be a real battle.”

Bench also tips his mask to both Buster Posey and Matt Weiters, who he believes has yet to reach his full potential.

We may not have another Johnny Bench playing in the World Series, let alone Major League Baseball, but then again, that’s all the more reason to appreciate just what Bench brought to the game of baseball. He brought “completeness” to the position; A position that seems to peak its head not once in a decade, but once in a lifetime.