ST. LOUIS -- The justice which, occasionally, stumbles into our affairs protected Les Straker Tuesday night in Busch Stadium.
In a few days, probably, in a few weeks, certainly, what Straker did here Tuesday evening in the World Series will be overlooked, since his Minnesota Twins lost to the St. Louis Cardinals, 3-1, in Game 3. Yet, with better relief, America might be singing Straker's name now. So, let's hum a little anyway.
Before this game, every starting player was introduced to the crowd of 55,347 with citations of previous glory. When the Twins' pitcher was announced, the public address announcer was stumped. He could find nothing in Straker's entire history worthy of mention on such a stage. Could he say, "Southern League player of the week in 1985"? Or "Tied for Pioneer League lead in shutouts in 1978"?
Until this cold evening, those were Straker's highlights. So, the announcer simply said, "Pitching, Les Straker, who spent 10 years in the minors."
Before this game, many players joked about how their millions were faring on Wall Street. "Kent Hrbek sold his Mercedes today," said Minnesota Manager Tom Kelly. "Yeah, and I'm going to play winter ball, too," said Hrbek.
Meanwhile, Straker, a rookie making the minimum $65,000, was back in the clubhouse praying. Afterward, he prayed again, giving thanks that he had been delivered from embarrassment and had made his nation and his family proud. As the first Venezuelan to pitch in the Series, he felt a burden of responsibility in that baseball-loving land.
"Now, I don't have to worry about those 10 years," said Straker, who shut out the Cardinals through six storm-tossed innings of constant crisis and left with a 1-0 lead. "I think they are very happy in Venezuela. My job I did tonight. My family watched on TV. I'll call them as soon as I get to the hotel."
Nights such as this, even bittersweet ones when the team loses, seldom happen to pitchers such as Straker, who had a losing record in half his bush league seasons and who, in this, his rookie year at age 28, was only 8-10. The 6-foot-1, 193-pound right-hander never has pitched a shutout in the majors. Why, Straker has had only one complete game and that may have been the shortest in history -- 4 1/3 innings in a rain-shortened loss.
This is a fellow who writes notes to himself in his glove between innings -- "more weight right leg" and the like -- then reads them between pitches. The World Series is hard enough for master craftsmen, much less rookie apprentices.
This was supposed to be Straker's night as the designated lamb of this Series -- a sacrifice to John Tudor, the Cardinals' best. For days, Straker has been asked if he's embarrassed or angry to hear the Twins called a two-man pitching staff -- not including him. Straker simply has reiterated how proud he is to be here -- a long way from both Venezuela and all those years in Eugene, Billings and Waterbury.
Particularly, he was proud that Kelly had confidence in him after the way the Tigers strafed him in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. "I was nervous then," explained Straker, who fell behind or walked every hitter in sight. This evening, he vowed he'd challenge every Cardinals hitter, live or die with his best stuff. Then, on the mound, he found that "my change-up was dipping and I could throw my curve for strikes." A fastball he always has had, so he knew, for once, he had a chance.
So, he took it. Asked if this was his most courageous game, Straker smiled for the only time in the glum Twins clubhouse and said, "Yeah."
"He's had every injury, every problem, even chicken pox," said Kelly. "But he keeps fighting. I'd want him out there. I knew he'd do his best . . . He pitched a beautiful game."
Beautiful, yes, but hardly unblemished. A potential two-run Cardinals home run landed in the lap of the fan next to the foul pole. One umpire reversed another's call to remove Vince Coleman from first base. Kirby Puckett made a stunning catch to subtract a double. Ten Cardinals came to the plate in four different innings with men in scoring position. Straker retired them all.
Now he's glad he listened to his wife, Thibisay, four years ago when he wanted to retire after knee surgery. But she told him baseball was his gift and his dream. Don't give up yet.
Unfortunately, the aspect of Straker's night that will be most debated is why Kelly took him out with a shutout in hand -- a rare sight in the majors -- especially in favor of Juan Berenguer, who was shelled again, just as he was in Game 2.
Why not let Straker face the bottom third of the St. Louis order in the seventh, then turn to Jeff Reardon in the eighth? Once Berenguer got in trouble, why not call for Dan Schatzeder, a southpaw, to turn around all those St. Louis switch hitters who are weaker from the right side and protect that lead for Straker?
Many will not even begin to buy Kelly's answer -- "that's the way we've done it all year." Meaning Straker tires in the late innings, Berenguer is 8-1 and Schatzeder isn't trusted much.
"I always want to go all the way," said Straker, who threw only 89 pitches. "I was not tired. But I can't say 'Don't' to the manager. This is my first year. He might get upset."
Others in the Twin Cities may be more upset. Nevertheless, how many would really have preferred to see Straker left in, perhaps to lose? Hadn't he done enough? Those first six zeroes in the Cardinal linescore will stay there -- perfect as if Cy Young had created them -- as long as they play the World Series. Perhaps it is not a great deal, but to Straker it will mean much.
Fully deserved. Finely done.