“Cardinal Nation vilified him,” said Jeff Luhnow, the man who drafted him.
In Washington, Kozma’s standing is undeniable. It is here where he has been truly vilified, where months ago he began — then became the symbol of — an angst-filled winter. In St. Louis, his future may be undetermined, because he is technically filling in for an injured veteran. Matheny said of Kozma’s job even last week, “He walks in here every day realizing that he’s got to 1, earn it, and 2, keep it.”
But in Washington, Kozma is forever a villain. Boston has Bucky Dent. Pittsburgh has Francisco Cabrera. Philadelphia has Joe Carter. And as of last Oct. 12, Washington has Pete Kozma.
“I remember the feeling,” Kozma said. “There’s nothing like it.”
It is the feeling of silencing a ballpark, of ending a season. Monday, Kozma and the Cardinals make their first visit to Nationals Park since the decisiveGame 5 of the National League Division Series. That night, they finished off the Nationals in a manner that scars players and teams and fan bases. They came back from an early six-run deficit, back from a two-run deficit in the ninth. They faced five pitches that could have been their last strike.
For many, Kozma, 25, is the player who personifies the Nationals’ collapse because he faced three of those two-strike pitches, and delivered the two-run single that soon gave the Cardinals an astonishing 9-7 victory.
But that picture of Kozma is incomplete.
“After everything he went through, another player would have succumbed,” Luhnow said. “And he didn’t.”
Who’s Pete Kozma?
Luhnow is now the general manager of the Houston Astros. But in the spring of 2007, he was the vice president of scouting and player development for the Cardinals. That June, St. Louis had the 18th pick in the draft. When their turn came up, Rick Porcello, a high school right-hander from New Jersey, remained available. At that moment, at his parents’ house in Owasso, Okla., Kozma had finished taking some hacks in the batting cage. His parents had invited a few friends over to watch the draft. Pete hadn’t bothered.
“I didn’t think there was a chance I’d be taken in the first round,” Kozma said. “I had no idea.”
Everyone in baseball knew of Porcello, because his adviser was Scott Boras, who doesn’t shy away from making historic demands for his players, which gets some teams to shy away from him. Porcello was, by consensus, a top-five talent in that draft. Kozma was not.
“We had Rick Porcello high, as everyone did, but we had concerns, like a lot of other teams did,” Luhnow said. “Pete was the best player on our board. We felt great about taking him. But the poor guy. . . . [The reaction] had nothing to do with him. It had to do with the fact that he wasn’t Rick Porcello.”