Eating with the enemy: Don Denkinger comes to St. Louis
ST. LOUIS --
But there he was on Monday night, sitting in the back row, right next to
They sat Denkinger in the top row, far left-hand corner, where, apparently, he would be out of range for most of the night. And it was a long night. These are always long nights. I have been to many award nights in my life -- I have been master of ceremony for a few of them -- and so I know the pace and the lighting and the taste of banquet chicken. Award nights are, by their nature, tedious because they mostly involve kind introductions and grateful acceptances. And these are almost always tedious. The Oscars will try (and usually fail) to spice this up with a funny host, the element of surprise and a few musical performances, but there are no surprises at a baseball writers' award night* and
No, this award night -- all 22 awards -- relies on the wit and stories of the people on stage. Fortunately, Whitey Herzog was being honored, and he offered up some classics. For one,
He would not get five hits in a game that year, but in 1988 he managed five hits against the Reds. He remembered Herzog at that point giving him a toy Cadillac.
Whitey Herzog on his one power hitter,
Whitey Herzog on his team's power: "Every year, we tried to break Maris' record... as a team."
Stuff like that.
Jack Clark -- who will definitely be played by
And the night ended with Albert Pujols thanking the city and telling everyone that his elbow feels fine and the ball is jumping off his bat. That left people with a warm glow. Pitchers and catchers report in less than a month.
But all night, I found myself watching and thinking about Denkinger. I long have thought that baseball -- all sports, really -- are filled with presumptions. In St. Louis, people presume that if Denkinger had made the right call, the Cardinals win Game 6 of that World Series. In Kansas City, people presume that, either way, the Royals were going to come back and win that game. There is no way to prove either point of view, but this does not make anyone less sure that they're right. Royals fans will point out that there was only one out when the winning run scored and that Kansas City came back from oblivion that entire season and that the Royals won Game 7 11-0. Cardinals fans will simply say that the Cardinals won 101 games, and they were leading, and the call was wrong, and that changed history and stifled fate.
And even though 25 years have passed, that call still lodges in the throats of people. Sure, the fury has faded -- it isn't like those days and months after Game 6 when Denkinger was receiving hundreds of vicious letters and phone calls -- but it isn't like everybody has forgiven. When he was introduced at the banquet, he was booed. I suppose an announcer might call them "good natured boos." I'm not a boo-ologist. They sounded like regular boos to me.
A few years ago, I wrote a bigger piece on Denkinger. I went to his house in Arizona, went to lunch with him, talked with him at length about his career, the call, his emotions about it all. He is still emotional about it. He doesn't want to believe that the call defines him. And yet, I think he believes that the call defines him. That's a tough dance.
It's funny: At the moment that it happened, the missed call did not seem especially important. It was the first batter of the inning. The Cardinals still led by a run. They had Todd Worrell on the mound, and he had been unhittable. Then Jack Clark dropped a pop-up.
Denkinger refused to change his telephone number during the deluge of rage. He refused also to apologize -- an umpire, he insisted, can only do his best. People would sometimes joke about it, but it never seemed especially funny to him and it never seemed especially funny to many other people. Five years ago, Herzog invited him to appear at a reunion of the 1985 Cardinals. Denkinger refused: "I'm not coming down there to be insulted." But Herzog gave his personal promise that there would be no insults. Denkinger came. And it was a nice night.
And here, five years later, Denkinger appeared again. There were no insults on this night, either. A few people said nice things about Denkinger, who was a very good umpire. Worrell talked about how he had always hated Denkinger but sitting next to him in the fourth row Worrell found him to be a nice guy. La Russa talked about how Denkinger helped him grow up as a young manager. A lot of people talked about his skill as an umpire and, after all, nobody's perfect.
Denkinger was given a standing ovation by the many people on the dais when he was introduced. The people in the banquet hall, however, did not stand. There were a few of those boos, and then those faded as people seemed to realize that maybe this wasn't the time for boos. There was quiet while Denkinger spoke and the quiet followed by polite applause -- everyone could admire the man for appearing. But as Denkinger walked out of the Hall, I heard this exchange:
"It's nice that he came."
"Whatever. He still blew the World Series for us."
I couldn't tell if Denkinger heard that. I guess it doesn't matter. He's heard it before.