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Just Off-Camera

"They respect you if you write. The dumber the world gets, the more the words matter." -Dan Jenkins

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

A Rivalry In Six Pitches

When you talk about baseball rivalries, it's always Yankees-Red Sox, especially at ESPN, which is just about equidistant from Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. Most fans of those teams have a genuine animosity for the other, kind of along the lines of how the star linebacker/homecoming king in high school and the president of the math club treated each other.

You know, the meathead always was bullying and taunting the geek, and even though everyone knew it was wrong, he still always came out of every altercation on top. Meanwhile, the geek would plot and scheme and put down the meathead to his friends, but when push came to shove, he really never was able to do anything about the situation.

Baseball's second rivalry, Cardinals-Cubs, is nothing like that at all. Instead of festering dislike, there's a gentlemanly respect about the rivalry, kind of like how you might imagine two Renaissance swordsmen would approach their sparring matches. Sure, they both want to win, but it's the sporting nature of the competition that is ultimately what counts.

Last night, I saw a game that turned that thinking on its head. Or at least tried to.

The game itself was terrific, a 5-4 Cards win in which the Cards took a 3-0 lead, the Cubbies came back and tied it soon after, then the Cards jumped ahead again only to have the Northsiders fall just short, in typical Cubs fashion.

It shaped up to be a good game, what with the rivalry and all, but even the pitching matchup - Chris Carpenter and Carlos Zambrano - was a good one. Here's two pitchers who were slotted as the fourth starters on their teams at the beginning of the season, but they've both been the best pitcher on their teams. Carpenter is making a very strong case for the NL Comeback Player of the Year award.

Zambrano is a young pitcher and already an All-Star, and he's quickly earning a reputation as an extremely arrogant pitcher. Think Pedro Martinez threatening to stick a fastball in Jorge Posada's ear - that's Zambrano's style. He certainly didn't disappoint last night.

The main event was Zambrano vs. Jim Edmonds, and the drama unfolded throughout the game. Start in the top of the first, when with two outs and a man on first and Edmonds at the plate, Zambrano plunks him with the first pitch.

The next time Edmonds comes up, in the top of the fourth, he's got a runner on first again, and this time he takes Zambrano's first pitch and hits it over the ivy, putting the Redbirds up 2-0. As Edmonds rounds the bases - after he had briefly hesitated to admire his blast - Zambrano has a few words for him. My guess is that they were not in English and that you wouldn't learn them from your middle school Spanish teacher. That exchange led to the benches emptying (as per usual baseball practice, no punches actually thrown) and warnings being issued to each dugout.

Edmonds comes to the plate again in the sixth inning, this time with the score tied 3-3. Like his other plate appearances, this one is a quick one, although it takes more than one pitch. This time it's strike one (looking), strike two (looking), strike three (swinging at a nasty breaking ball). Zambrano decides to emphasize that he is now rolling along, so he borrows a page out of Dikembe Mutombo's book and gives Edmonds the head-shaking, finger-wagging don't-bring-that-weak-stuff-in-my-house glare.

So what happens the next time up? Well, Edmonds is in the on-deck circle watching Scott Rolen bat in the eighth, and Rolen cracks a two-out, two-run homer to put the Cards up 5-3 (and give them the eventual win), and as Rolen rounds the bases, can Edmonds be thinking anything other than, "Thanks for spotting us the lead, but you put a bullseye on my arse?"

And true to the script, Zambrano fires the next pitch right into Edmonds's butt. Zambrano gets ejected; his manager, Dusty Baker, goes with him, and Trey Wingo and I and the rest of the crew in Studio A are cracking up, because there was no other way Edmonds's plate appearance was going to go.

Quick recap: Six pitches - first pitch plunking, first pitch homer, three-pitch strikeout, first pitch plunking. Great baseball.

Of course, if I'm Carlos Zambrano's teammate, you better believe I'm going to tell him to dial it back a couple notches. Antics like that are only going to end up with a few fastballs aimed in my direction.

It's just too bad MLB butchered the schedule and made today the last meeting between these two rivals this season.


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