Look at the box from yesterday’s series-clinching Cardinals win, and you might think that it was Adam Wainwright‘s night.
But ask anyone who was there. Ask anyone in the champagne-soaked St. Louis clubhouse. Ask anyone, in fact, who bleeds Cardinal red. They’ll tell you who the real hero was. And in the end, who else could it have been? What Hollywood screenwriter could have penned a more fitting climax to this run of October dreams than the one written for us — the script starring one Daniel William Descalso?
Never mind the 47,000 souls who were occupying the edges of their seats, and screaming themselves hoarse, for much of this white-knuckle night. When Descalso emerged from the dugout in the bottom of the eighth, a pin dropping would have sounded like thunder. The home boys were clinging on to a four-run lead — and were down to their last chance to pad it. The Pirate on the mound, Mark Melancon, had been all but untouchable for most of the season. And the heart of the Pittsburgh order was lurking in the wings, ready to pounce on an already stretched-to-the-limit Wainwright in the ninth. It was all coming down to this.
Descalso let a Melancon heater sizzle by, high and away. As the next one came barreling in, he cocked his bat and swung: that nice, easy, deceptive swing, the one that St. Louis faithful have come to know and love like a bottle of locally-brewed Budweiser. He missed.
Life for Descalso hasn’t always been as easy as his swing. Growing up as a third-generation Italian-American in the rough-and-tumble outskirts of San Francisco, he quickly learned to field insults and abuse with the same agility he used to chase down grounders. His slight stature — he’s listed, generously, at 5’10” — didn’t do him any favors. And life as the oldest of six siblings made sure that young Dan grew up a lot faster than he might have liked. But whatever troubles the scrappy kid dealt with at home, home is exactly where they stayed once he set foot on a ballfield. Baseball was his outlet — and it wasn’t long before the world started to see just how good he was at it.
After he won a league MVP trophy in high school and then tore up the record books at UC Davis, there seemed to be no ceiling on Descalso’s talent. He was quickly snapped up by St. Louis in the ’07 draft. But his road to big-league glory turned out to have a detour through a long, dark tunnel. It wasn’t until 2011 that injuries opened up a regular job for him in the Cardinal infield, and the line that he posted there in his first full season of work — .264/.334/.353 — wasn’t up to his own lofty standards, to say the least. Descalso’s sophomore campaign was even more of a disappointment, as he produced at a .227/.303/.324 clip that left him among the league’s offensive laggards. He’ll be the first to admit that at times during these bleak days, it was awfully hard to see a real future in his beloved game. But all of that only made what happened next all the sweeter.
What happened next, of course — as any baseball fan with a pulse can tell you — was Descalso’s showstopping performance in the 2012 playoffs. His two-run single in Game 5 of the NLDS, which capped the Cards’ legendary six-run comeback against the Nationals, was instantly recognized as a generation-defining act of postseason heroics. On a team seemingly full of Messrs. October, Descalso had earned his spot at the head of the table with one titanic swing of the bat.
Which explains why there’s no one, as a Cardinal fan, you would have wanted at the plate more than Descalso with last night’s game on the line. No one you would have wanted more than the heart and soul of this club, the man with the potential as high as the Gateway Arch and the past as fraught and winding as the Oregon Trail. And when he finally put his barrel on that third Melancon fastball and lifted it lazily into the crisp autumn air, you could feel the rightness of that moment flow through the stadium like an electric charge.
To the casual bystander, it might have looked like a bloop hit that merely moved a runner from first to third. But to anyone who was there, really there, who felt the goosebumps and tasted the electricity last night, it was as clear as day just how momentous that hit was. Certainly to the crestfallen men in the Pittsburgh dugout, who suddenly felt the pounding of the last nail in the coffin of a magical season. Certainly to Adam Wainwright, across the diamond, who suddenly felt a jolt of confidence that would allow him, in a matter of minutes, to finish off his own magical story. And certainly to Daniel Descalso himself, whose whole life — the hardship, the sacrifice, the disappointment, the redemption, the triumph — seemed to crystallize in that one exuberant sprint to first base.
When I finally elbowed my way through the clubhouse melee to a thoroughly drenched Descalso, he flashed that signature self-deprecating charm that has so endeared him to Cardinals Nation.
“What? I think you’re confused, buddy. All I did was move up a runner.”
Sure, Dan. All you did was move up a runner. That, and move all of our hearts, in ways they hadn’t been moved in far too long. All you did was lift the downtrodden spirits of an entire community. All you did was give us our hope back — the hope we’d been flailing at, like an Adam Wainwright curveball, for what seemed like our whole lives.
“Why are you talking to me? Couldn’t you get Waino or Freezy or someone to talk to you?”
No, Dan. I couldn’t get David Freese to talk to me. But how much does it say about you that even now, in the golden afterglow of your proudest moment — the proudest moment, perhaps, that anyone could hope for in professional sports — that even now, you’re graciously deflecting attention to your teammates?
Leave it to resident sage and de facto team spokesman Kolten Wong, instead, to try to sum up what Descalso means to this club.
“Scals? Uh…yeah, he’s a good guy.”
Can you imagine the Cardinals without him?
“Uh…I mean…he’s had some moments, I guess. Why?”
And that’s the question we’re left with, on this impossible night, with fairy dust seemingly still drifting through the October air. Why, indeed. Why do some people seem to have a greater destiny — a destiny that draws them to the biggest games, the tensest moments, as surely as moths to flame? Why, in short, do some people become you or me, while others become the Daniel Descalsos of the world?
We’ll never know. But for one night, it’s enough simply to watch, and marvel. And to think about how we’ll tell our grandkids.
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