The ghost of Gene Mauch may not be hovering above Busch Stadium, ready to pay an unwelcome visit to Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. But with the Cardinals wheezing in the final days of a potentially devastating finish to the regular season, an increasingly restless La Russa may start hearing strange murmurs in the middle of the night.
The late Mauch managed the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, and his name will always be bordered in cobwebs and black crepe. An otherwise respected and even acclaimed manager, Mauch's reputation took an eternal, irreversible hit in '64 when the Phillies choked on a 6 1/2 game lead with 12 games remaining.
The benefactors of Philly's epic fold were the '64 Cardinals. Perhaps the baseball gods figure the Cardinals owe them one, to balance history's ledger.
Or maybe this is just a bad Cardinals baseball team, running on empty these days more reminiscent of the old St. Louis Browns than the 105-win Cardinals of 2004, or their 100-win sequel in 2005.
-- The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sept. 26, 2006 (via Nexis).
Hindsight is always 20-20, isn't it? You know, and I know, and the 2006 baseball beat writer for the Cardinals knew, all about the 1964 Phillies, still arguably the most famous collapse in all of sports, even after the Mets returned the favor (sort of) in 2007. You know all about Chico Ruiz stealing home (pictured at top) and manager Mauch panicking and throwing his two reliable starters, Jim Bunning and Chris Short, out there on two days rest, and about the World Series tickets for Connie Mack Stadium that are probably worth more today than if they had actually been redeemable.
You also know why Phillies' fans get a sharp pain in the gut when they watch the 2009 incarnation of their team suddently Going Mauch, with a bullpen now down to -- hold on here while I count -- uh, zero reliable arms and the entire team limping down the stretch -- with their line graph threatening to intersect the Atlanta Braves, who apparently will never lose another game in the history of their franchise. Tonight's 8-2 trouncing -- before a sellout crowd at Citizens Bank Park - at the hands of the woeful Houston Astros -- is the punctuation mark on your nagging fears that the Beatles aren't the only 1964 phenominon making a comeback.
Two things. First, a 1964 repeat is still extremely unlikely. Laid-back Charlie Manuel is the bizzaro world version of the tightly wound Mauch, his players already showed what they were made of last year in the way they won the World Series, and the 2009 Phillies' current streak of mediocre baseball still hasn't approached 1964's ten straight losses or what the Cardinals did as they struggled to clinch their division in 2006, losing seven straight games at home.
Which gets us back to those '06 Cards -- my 20-20 hindsight also tells me that after they just barely clinched the NLCentral on the final Sunday, after a 12-17 September, they went on to win the world championship. How'd they do that? Their top players, like Albert Pujols, who hit .333 in the divisional series against the Padres, simply started all over in the playoffs like it was a new season, which of course it is. Like any champion, they had good luck and unlikely heroes, especially Yadier Molina, who hit an epic home run to down the Mets in Game 7 of the NLCS.
But most importantly, the Cardinals took a risk. With bullpen problems not unlike this year's Phillies, St. Louis took a big chance and called on a highly promising rookie starting pitcher, Adam Wainwright, and made him the closer. It would be Wainwright who struck out Brandon Inge of the Detroit Tigers for the final out at the Cardinals won the 2006 World Series. Ironically, the Phillies have the same option of moving their star rookie pitcher, J.A. Happ, to the bullpen, about the only logical chess move they have left. Are you paying attention, Charlie Manuel and Ruben Amaro Jr.?
Are we watching the '64 Phillies or the '06 Cardinals? The next few days, and hopefully the next few weeks, will tell, Either way, it will not be dull.