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Eating with the enemy: Don Denkinger comes to St. Louis


ST. LOUIS -- Don Denkinger is a nice man. Only a nice man would come to the St. Louis Baseball Writers dinner to be the resident villain at a night that honors the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals. You will note that the 1985 Cardinals did not win the World Series. Many people in St. Louis will tell you that Don Denkinger is the reason they did not.

But there he was on Monday night, sitting in the back row, right next to Todd Worrell at the largest head table in all of sports award nights. The dais or platform or head table or whatever you want to call it was four rows deep. There had to be 50 people up there. It's like this every year. The first row is for the Baseball Writers. The second row is for the big stars -- Albert Pujols, Ozzie Smith, Lou Brock, Whitey Herzog and so on. The third and fourth rows are for those Updike called the "gems of slightly lesser water*" -- for those players and personalities who contributed and occasionally starred, for those names that rattle our nostalgia, for a couple of minor leaguers who may someday become stars, for an umpire who missed a call.

*"Gems of Slightly Lesser Water" would be a GREAT name for what many people like to call the "Hall of Very Good" (and what I have called the Hall of Fame Jr.). It would be for those people who for one reason or another are not quite in the Baseball Hall of Fame but played a big role in baseball history.

"Where you going on vacation this year, Bob?"

"I'm taking the family to South Euclid to see the Gems of Slightly Lesser Water."

"Wow, what will you see there?"

"Well, of course, there's the Hall of Baines Professional Hitters Wing. You've got the Crafty Lefty Wing of Scattered Hits. You can get dirty in the Kuiper Diving Stop. You can see plaques for Roger Maris and Don Larsen and Norm Cash and Pete Reiser and Dwight Gooden and a bunch of others in the 'Brilliant For a Time' Hall...."

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 Ricky Gervais isn't available to host, and Billy Joel and Tina Turner aren't popping in to sing the music from Oliver.

*What? Colby Rasmus was named the Cardinals Rookie of the Year? No way! And who won this year's Bob Broeg Award?

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, Vince Coleman recalled that Herzog promised to get him a Cadillac if he went 5-for-5 his rookie year. Well, Coleman in his second game in the big leagues went four-for-five with a double a triple, a run scored and two RBIs against Pittsburgh.*

*Funny thing is that Coleman remembered also stealing four bases that day... and he did not steal any bases. He was caught stealing by Tony Pena the only time he attempted to steal. It's common -- human even -- to confuse games and remember things out of order and mash achievements together. Still, you would think four hits in his second game in the big leagues would make that day crystal clear. Coleman would not steal four bases in a game until late September at Montreal.

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.

"You know," Willie McGee would say, "I remember Whitey promising to buy me a Cadillac when I got five hits, too. But I never went to him to collect."

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Whitey Herzog on his one power hitter, Jack Clark: "I could tell blindfolded when Jack Clark was taking batting practice because the others sounded like they were hitting underwater."

Whitey Herzog on his team's power: "Every year, we tried to break Maris' record... as a team."

Stuff like that. Tony La Russa went to the microphone and ripped the writers, like he always does. That always plays well with the crowd. Lou Brock talked about how the winner of the "Lou Brock Stolen Base Award" never shows up (Michael Bourn did not show up this year, either) and so he has a collection of Lou Brock Awards in his trophy case. Mark Buehrle announced (again) that he hopes to play for the Cardinals someday.

Jack Clark -- who will definitely be played by Alec Baldwin in the movie -- was cheered by the crowd as he managed to say a few words about baseball without calling Mark McGwire a fraud. He read the crowd correctly. Bob Costas made a couple of benign McGwire jokes ("I could tell right away that Mark was no longer juicing as soon as he came to the interview because we are now the same size") to blank stares and a few angry murmurs. McGwire, himself, did not attend.

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. Steve Balboni singled -- something Steve Balboni did not do often (in his career, when he did not hit home runs, Bye Bye hit .181; he only hit 395 singles in more than 3,440 plate appearances). There was a botched sacrifice. A passed ball. An intentional walk. A Dane Iorg single. And suddenly, the Denkinger call was infamous.

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.