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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: October 2006

The Perfect Storm

The third time is the charm, they say. Indeed, on their third bid at the World Series in three years, the Cardinals got it right. Against all odds. Good things always happen when you least expect it. There must be some sort of physical law which says that the less you expect something, the more likely it is to happen. And vice versa. We all saw it firsthand two years ago.

On October 16, 2004 Red Sox were routed by Yankees 8:19, they were down 0:3 and when the next game came, they were trailing the Yanks yet again at bottom of ninth. It was exactly at this moment, when no person in his right mind would bet a penny on Boston, that their ultimate victory was born.

That is why they also say it is the darkest before the dawn. So this year, when the Cards nearly squandered their hefty lead in the regular season and entered the playoffs with a measly 83-78 record, all experts - and sadly some fans too - were expecting an early exit at the bats of the Padres, and if not Padres then certainly the Mets. But I was fairly certain that this rocky September had been a blessing in disguise and that it had indeed marked that darkest moment that comes before the dawn.

It was as if the stars have magically aligned to produce the least likely outcome of these playoffs. It was New Busch's inaugural season. Through completely random channels, I met two more Cardinals' fans this year - which in the greater DC area is not as trivial as you might think. On the team itself, several players came of the disabled list, closer Jason Isringhausen was injured relinquishing his seat to Adam Wainwright, bullpen got a considerable face lift with lots of young blood pumped into its veins and many key players finally started showing some teeth. This October was clearly the biggest coincidentist I have ever seen.

At the end, it all came together in one perfect storm and this blog, which started documenting the adventures of the Czech national soccer team in the World Cup, ended up celebrating the Cardinals' triumph in the World Series, which, by the way, happened on 10/27 - the jersey numbers of manager Tony LaRussa (10) and his best World Series hitter, Scott Rolen (27).

When LaRussa came to St Louis in 1996, he actually demanded this specific uniform number to show his determination to win the 10th World Series title for the Cards. Well, 10 years later he did. Congratulations!

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World Series: Game 5

Wow!!! Not only it happened, but it happened in St. Louis.

Who would have thought a month ago that this group of misfits can go all the way? With stars Pujols, Edmonds, Rolen and Carpenter being more than matched by Eckstein, Spiezio, Belliard, Miles, Wilson, Taguchi and Molina on one side and Suppan, Weaver, Reyes, Wainwright, Kinney, Looper and Flores on the other. If there ever was a team effort, this was it. Molina and Rolen hitting over 0.400, unsung heros stepping up to the plate in crucial moments (still remember Spiezio and Taguchi against Mets?), LaRussa pulling one ace after another from his play book of tricks and several pitchers throwing their career performances.

Jeff Weaver was saving his gem for the moment when his team needed it most. For the last game of the World Series. He will always be remembered for this game. How he was striking out one Tiger after another for the total of NINE strike-outs. How he threw to 3rd in the 4th to oust the runner in the scoring position. How he caught a comeback ball in the 6th. Jeff the Magic Weaver.

And Adam Wainwright, 25, must have had nerves of steel. I wouldn't be able to pour myself a cup of tea in the roar of the fans. He showed his mortal side too by allowing a hit and a walk, giving the Tigers hope for a game turning hit. You could feel how the wind of psychological pressure blew his pitches slightly off-course. It is nice to have a closer who is actually human. If I was in his shoes, I would have a heart attack. Fortunately, he composed himself just in time to give Brandon Inge little chance for any mischief. Boiling Busch was ready to explode.

So the Cards will no longer have nine titles under their belt, but I will love them anyway. Confetti time! Fireworks over Mississippi!

Tonight the World Series dreams will be sleeping on a king size bed. And Kenny Rogers who could have pitched but was saved for the hypothetical Game 6 against Carpenter can now play chess instead with Jim Leyland.

Favorite comic moment: After Pujols fell on his back in the 7th to make a play in the field, Weaver filled in at first base, caught his flipped ball and got an important out by vigorously stomping on the bag as if demonstrating a move of some arcane Norwegian dance.

Favorite play: Unfazed Weaver getting his 3rd out in the 6th after a misplayed flyout threatened an unexpected snarl and must surely have thrown off his concentration

Score: Cards 4, Tigers 2

World Series: Game 4

Holy Sabertooth Tiger! This was a thriller.

After two back to back eight-inning chokers, Jeff Suppan offered the Tigers' offense a little breather and was given an honorable discharge in the 6th. By that time the Tigers have bitten three times and for a while that seemed to be enough, except for the fact that Lady Luck was galloping around the stadium in a bright red cape tonight. Scott Rolen must have known that when he attempted that risky double in the 4th to beat the glove of Placido Polanco by a margin ordinarily reserved for downhill skiing.

My friend Courtney says that David Eckstein is the least talented Card and that's why she loves him. Well, tonight she has a reason to open a bottle of the best Chateau de la Gardine she can find. Eckstein was 4 for 5 and hitting like a hammer on amphetamine. When Curtis Granderson slipped en route to Eckstein's seemingly easy flyout, he had no idea that this is just the beginning of a big nightmare for the Tigers' fans. Nor did Eckstein know that this was the lesser of the two kisses Lady Luck chose to impart on his cheeky plays tonight.

At the bottom of the eight, the game tied at four a piece, he hit another ball hard. Craig Monroe sprinted, dove for it, stretched out his hand and... just missed it. The ball kissed to the top of his glove and glanced off onto the green turf, whose vast expanse it apparently desired more than the tight living quarters of the glove's inside. When FOX paused that play, it looked like the ball had gently alighted on the mitt's webbing and balanced there for a moment, pondering whether it should yield to the Coriolis force or not. It seemed suspended in the air, like a prima ballerina frozen in a taut pose, impatiently waiting for the conductor's cue to continue her dance.

Well, the ball skipped off, Miles skittered in and Wainwright brought the ship safely to the harbor. But it was a wild saber dance on high seas tonight.

Favorite comic moment: The Tigers' reliever Fernando Rodney picking up Taguchi's easy bunt and in the heat of the moment throwing it just high over the shocked first baseman Sean Casey as if challenging him for a catching jump

Favorite play: when Preston Wilson singled in the 7th, Pujols ran over second base and out towards third, attracting the attention of Tigers' cut off man (who tagged him out) and buying So Taguchi enough time to score the go-ahead run

Score: Cards 5, Tigers 4

World Series: Game 3

Kenny Rogers is so October 22.

After two low profile appearances against the Mets, Cardinals' turbo-pitcher Chris Carpenter took the center stage with the ferocity of a Maori warrior and hurled one uncompromising spear after another at suddenly toothless Tigers. It was his first World Series appearance and he relished the occasion with a sparkling 3-hitter that caused a steep temperature drop in the greater Detroit area.

Unlike in their series with Boston, when the Cards shot most of their balls into the waiting gloves of Red Sox players, this time around they\ir whole line-up was finding cracks in the Tigers' defense. When Jim Edmonds chipped in with a projectile that sneaked past the first base into the no man's territory, giving Pujols and Rolen plenty of time to score, the Cardinals' odds at baseball betting shops soared to new heights.

Favorite comic moment: at the bottom of 7th, the Tigers' reliever Joel Zumaya threw a comebacker at the phantom Third Baseman, who let the ball pass right through his phantom body into the foul territory, allowing the Cards to chalk up two more runs. The actual third baseman, Brandon Inge, was standing few yards to the left of the base at the time of the incident, apparently inspecting the state of the Busch Stadium's new turf. Knowing the poor catching abilities of phantom Basemen, he made an attempt to return to the third base, but by the time he got there, the whimsical ball was rolling towards the stands to the tune of "Catch Me If You Can"

Favorite play: with the precision of a sniper, David Eckstein hit a ground ball which not only zipped right past the pitcher, but also sauntered between the second baseman and the shortstop with such elegance that you could almost hear the ball saying "excuse me" as it squeezed into the innfield

Score: Cards 5, Tigers 0

World Series: Game 2

Kenny Rogers is blazing.

And he exudes confidence through all of his pores. Apparently, sometimes that confidence condensates on his palm in the form of a pitchy substance. But whatever it was that everyone saw on his hand, tonight it would have been easier to penetrate through the concrete walls at Fort Knox than through his vicious flamethrowing.

Weaver didn't pitch badly, but next to Rogers he looked like an apprentice watching the master. Although the way he got himself out of bases loaded no out in the 2nd was quite entertaining. He put up a fight where he could, but Rogers imposed his commanding presence on every single moment of the game. And you could feel that this was no fluke. He must have been born that way.

After Rogers left, the Cards had exactly one inning to make things happen. That was not much time, especially after Pujols and Spiezio struck out. But Rolen - one strike away from game's end - showed some cloudy bones and hit one into the right field. Encarnacion then reached on an error and Edmonds doubled for the first run. All of a sudden - still with two out - Cards were churning up hits like there was no tomorrow. Wilson loaded the bases and Molina could make the Tigers caterwaul in horror with one well aimed shot.

But that deep hole into which the Tigers were being lured remained a dream. Molina grounded out and the Tigers leaped right over it. A pity Tony didn't pull a power-hitting rabbit out of his baseball hat. There were a couple of those sitting on the bench.

Favorite comic moment: Tiger's closer Todd Jones didn't quite handle Encarnacion's comeback hit, desperately sliding Polanco tried to throw the ball to first, but was able to merely push it towards it, allowing Encarnacion to reach the base before the slowly rolling ball

Favorite play: Aaron Miles controlling the ball with his chest the way soccer players do and starting a double play at the bottom of 2nd

Score: Cards 1, Tigers 3

World Series: Game 1

The Number Nine holds its protective hand over the fate of the St Louis Cardinals.

After all, they bagged exactly nine World Series titles to date and their name spells exactly nine characters. Twice this season, the Cards went into an eight-game skid (something that hasn't happened since 1988) and in both cases managed to win the ninth game. On the second occasion, the victory came at the hands of a rookie pitcher Anthony Reyes, the same pitcher who cool-headedly sewed up their nearly-lethal seven-game tear in September.

So when I looked at the World Series stats and realized that the Cards were having an eight-game losing streak on the road, and the National League had suffered eight consecutive losses and Tony La Russa had a personal losing streak of eight as well, I started hoping against hope that a miracle was in the works. And when the long NLCS with Mets forced Tony LaRussa to start this year's Fall Classic with the most inexperienced of his pitchers, I became almost certain that Anthony Reyes and the Number Nine would combine their powers to conjure up a memorable game.

And they did indeed. Reyes, with fashion-defying knee-high red socks, took the game into the ninth inning with the poise and assuredness of a weathered veteran. There he gave the reins of the game to the reliever Brad Looper, who had obviously fun finishing it off.

Reyes, who is known to iron the bill of his cap, thus also ironed the Cardinals' bill of health and skillfully exorcised all the ghosts lurking in the team's psyche after the Boston massacre two years ago. Once he got past the nervous first inning, he mailed his good bye card to seventeen consecutive batters, mostly using the reliable 95mph express service.

Favorite comic moment: Scott Rolen steam-rolling into the loitering third baseman Brandon Idge in what looked like a perfectly executed ice-hockey body check; I could almost hear him scream: "Dibs on Ribs!"

Favorite play: Pujols testing his hamstring injury on two base steal following Verlander's botched pick-off attempt

Score: Cards 7, Tigers 1

The Power of Randomness

Now that the Cardinals are to make their second World Series appearance in three years, I really get to appreciate my baseball serendipity.

Three Easters ago, at the time when I finally started to begin understanding the rules of baseball, I made my first trip to St. Louis. Shortly after that a colleague of mine suggested that my appreciation of baseball would increase if I chose a team to root for and as one of the candidates she mentioned the Cardinals. Well, with 30 teams to choose from and no obvious candidate at hand, I decided to follow her enthusiasm and go with St Louis.

Considering the fact that I do not have any natural affiliation to any US city, and that my path could have been crossed by any team's fan, I really lucked out. Prior to 2004, the Cards last World Series appearance was in 1987. Yet since then, they have been all over the postseason.

Just consider the following statistic: in the past three years, how many playoff series did the MLB teams offer to their fans? Well, here are the numbers:

8 - St Louis Cardinals
5 - Houston Astros
4 - Boston Red Sox
4 - New York Yankees
3 - Anaheim Angels
3 - Chicago White Sox
3 - Detroit Tigers
2 - Atlanta Braves
2 - Los Angeles Dodgers
2 - Minnesota Twins
2 - New York Mets
2 - Oakland Athletics
2 - San Diego Padres

So thanks to the forces of randomness I got to enjoy eight exciting postseason series. And any baseball fan can tell you that watching the playoffs without your favorite team in them is like driving someone else's Ferrari.

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Optimized for Drama

I imagine that on the day of the last game of the NLCS series, the highest of the Gods of Baseball summoned one of his divine interns and told him: "I have an errand for you to run, Wingy Boy. Go to New York and make the Game 7 between the Cards and the Mets as dramatic as possible." And the Wingy Boy flew to New York and turned the Game 7 into such a hair-raising thriller that he soon landed a permanent position on the baseball Olymp as a Lesser God responsible for transforming the hardy fans into heaps of purple jelly.

As I was hoping, Jeff Weaver stared the Mets offence down for the all important 3:2 lead. In the next Game the Cards hesitated and New York baseball kettle reached the boiling point with the Game 7 coming up at the Shea Stadium.

Mets' blogs were abuzz with hopeful expectations that day, but Cards' pitcher Jeff Suppan decided to remake his memorable Game 7 from 2004 (against Astro's Roger Clemens) into a perfect blogbuster. He took no prisoners and even Endy Chavez miraculous over-the-wall catch of Scott Rolen's homer-to-be didn't do much to throw off his throwing. The Game 7 went into the 9th inning tied at 1.

To set up the nerve-wrecking bottom, offensively inconspicuous Yadier Molina shook the living daylights out of an unsuspecting ball for a two run homer, the most valuable hit of his career so far. If anyone in St. Louis was sleeping at the time, they surely were awoken to the screams of his name.

The rest of the show was directed by Cardinals rookie closer Adam Wainwright. And he made sure that the plot thickened considerably. He was finding his rhythm in fits and starts and by the time he got two outs, the bases were loaded with anxious runners. So it all came to this: game 7, bottom of the ninth, two run lead, bases loaded and two out. And standing opposite to Wainwright is a man with whom the Cards have a giant dinosaur bone to pick. Carlos Beltran, who not only homered against them in this series, but also in the 2004 NLCS, then for the archrival Houston.

I am not sure how much nail mass was collectively bitten off in St. Louis during that at bat. I'd guess several pounds. But Wainwright, completely oblivious to this tissue loss was already warmed up enough. 1-2-3. Bye Bye Carlos and Hello Tigers!

Dulles International Airsport

I am not very fond of jogging at airports. The fashion industry doesn't really design jackets with aerodynamics on their mind, baggage can be a drag on your style and the fellow travellers are not usually cheering as heartily as they would at the track-and-field stadium. But after I had the opportunity to run twice on my business trip to Boston I started thinking that track-and-field repertoire should include disciplines such as orienteering from terminal A to terminal B or sprinting through the concourse with a 25lbs carry-on.

First, just as I approached the check-in counter I realized that a couple of important papers got stranded in my car. After a brief consultation with my colleague, I decided to return to the level 1L of the daily parking garage with about 70 minutes left till departure. Gently trotting all the way back, the walkway regurgitated me onto level 3 from which I descended to level 1 only to find that this level is divided and I was clearly in the wrong section. After some creative backtracking I found the appropriate section, my car in it, and the papers in the car. As I started to hurry back, I hoped that God would send a bus. Or at least pause the time. Kind of like chess players do when they hit the clock and the opponent's time start running. And I distinctly felt that this was God's turn to make a move. But I was wrong and when I made it back to the terminal I was wishing that the metal detectors came equipped with a built in shower. Fortunately our flight was late, so my athletic interlude was easily absorbed in the greater scheme of things.

The second opportunity for exercise came about an hour later, when me and my colleague were filling our tanks with Heineken at a small pub just a few yards from the gate - which we carefully checked before we took our seats. However, we had grossly underestimated the bending effect beer has on the perception of time passage. The infamous Heineken Warp! When we realized that our departure time is just minutes away, we dashed on to the nearby gate only to learn that in the meantime our flight was moved to a different terminal and we had about 2 minutes to get there. Yahoo! Back onto the treadmill, this time at twice the speed and accompanied by my colleague. Yet again the day was saved by the United Airlines laxness. The flight was delayed 20 more minutes.

But next time I am flying from Dulles, I am definitely bringing my running shoes.

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Midterm report

The Cardinals' duel with Mets is not as lopsided as commentators had you believe before it started. Tied 2:2 after 4 games, it leaves everything as open as the jaws of a bored hippo.

Game 1 - the Pitching Duel: in the opener Jeff Weaver pitched well, sadly Tom Glavine pitched even better and that was that for that game. Beltran's homer gave Mets a 2:0 win.

Game 2 - the Resurrection: unlikely heroes came out of woodworks in this game. Game seemed lost at the top of the 7th before Scott Spiezio's triple erased whatever little lead Mets head. And then the abominable Mets closer, Billy Wagner, allowed a cast of Cardinals lead by not-so-abominable So Taguchi stage a dazzling production of resurrection in the 9th. Cards won 9:6.

Game 3 - Suppan's Gem: Cardinals pitcher Jeff Suppan will probably have this game framed. Not only he delivered 8 shutout innings, but he also homered - for the second time in his career. Josh Kinney made the closing statement brief and painless. The runs collected at the beginning of the game carried through - the Cards 5:0.

Game 4 - the Nightmare: the moment the Cards ceased to be perceived as underdogs, their performance plummeted. They are clearly not comfortable as favorites. What could go wrong today, went wrong indeed. A pity that those solo-homers didn't have more meat on them. Let's forget this game. Mets won 12:5

My designated luck-carrier Jeff Weaver is pitching tomorrow. That may be the key game.

Rocking the cradle

The highest mountain in Vermont is rocky and bouldery. You don't really need any mountaineering gear to make it to the top, but you do have to watch the rough-hewn trail and pay attention to your balance. Yeah, the one in the checkbook of the gravitational force.

On our last day in Vermont, we took a ride to Mount Mansfield and after a short hike conquered its peak. My friend Jindrich even took his 18 months old baby girl Anna-Lucia, so she could experience the pleasures of drooling in thin mountain air. She rested comfortably on his back in a sophisticated harness and, judging by her contented humming, she was quite captivated by the scenery.

Since Jindrich got tired during the descent, I was entrusted with carrying the baby for most of the way down. Hopping from a rock to a rock on my own was quite enjoyable, because my legs knew what the rest of the body was doing. But having a whimsical baby on my back gave it an unexpected twist.

Every now and then Anna-Lucia decided to lean one way or another in the middle of a climbing maneuver and that, of course, changed the center of gravity of the two-body physical system Backpacker - Backpackee in a completely arbitrarily way. Or at least they seemed arbitrary. Although at times I had the impression that Anna-Lucia was deliberately trying to push our shared center of gravity into locations that were well out of the reach of my feet.

It felt like driving Indy 500 with the proviso that every so often the steering wheel makes a small random turn. Quite fun. I think that mountaineering with a live cargo would make a nice addition to the family of extreme sports. With a baby replaced by a pair of dithering penguins.

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Weaving some magic

Two years ago I wrote a little text about the Cardinals in which I used the word "wainwrighting". I learned that word from my Scottish friend Arthur and since it is rather obscure I thought I would never see it again. Wrong. The Cardinals' regular closer Jason Isringhausen got injured and his place was taken by a guy named Adam Wainwright. That's magic.

But when it comes to pitching, I hope that this postseason's magic bearer will be Jeff Weaver. He has improved greatly from the hapless start in July and his Game 2 against Padres was as solid as the oak table in Walt Jocketty's office. So it is kind of befitting that it is he who is going to open the NLCS series against Mets.

In the meantime the Cards themselves seemed touched by a magic wand. After an unmemorable September, they quickly regrouped and by the time they were showing Padres the postseason door, they looked as sharp as in 2004. And getting better by the game.

And I have to admit that this season I actually weaved some magic myself. I put the Cards logo on my iChat icon in the office, I got a license plate with a cardinal (which by the stroke of luck is the state bird of Virginia) and on my TV set I placed a special good luck charm which I brought all the way from Prague. An item whose charming powers can be blocked off only by a concrete wall 16-inches thick and laced with Brad Lidge's cuff-links.

So I better see some magic brewing on the field as well, otherwise I am going to lose all my trust in the supernatural character of this Universe.

The Orange Vermont Werewolf

If you ever hike in Vermont and if you are prone to luck, you may catch a glimpse of a fleeting patch of orange peeking here and there between the trees. You rub your eyes and refocus. Your nostrils bestir. Is this some sort of mirage, a visual delusion incurred by excessive peering into the woods. Well, not really, the chances are that you have just crossed the path of one of the most elusive creatures on the surface of this Earth - the Orange Vermont Werewolf.

The beast looks like a normal garden variety wolf, except for a large orange spot on its back. It is known to eat grubs, gophers, wild boars, beavers, humans and occasionally smoked oysters wrapped in bacon and lamb chops with tzatziki sauce. According to legends, it attacks its victims by howling "Frere Jacques" in a pitch so high that no human ear can withstand it. When provoked, it is also capable of precision spitting fiery razor blades up to the distance of 300 yards.

The Werewolf's DNA has never been decoded although 200 grams of prime werewolf ground meat are located on the top shelf in the Spam Pavilion of the Museum of Unopened Cans. The treasured trophy was donated by a local butcher from Montpellier whose giant meat grinder was unsuccessfully attacked by a werewolf in 1950s. The autopsy showed that the wretched animal was short-sighted and probably mistook the shaking appliance for a female werewolf in heat.

But enough of background information.

I have a friend who lives in Boston, but his in-laws have a family cottage in Stowe, VT, so when he invited me for a visit this weekend I immediately smelled the possibility of an encounter with the mythical beast. My hopes were greatly reinforced when I realized that the moon was full. In fact, it was so full I wished I had brought an illustrated copy of "Howling for Dummies" with me.

On Saturday, we went to see a place about 5 miles behind the Trapp Family Lodge where we could supposedly see live beavers. We bought a pack of lemon laced crackers and armed with two cameras set out into the woods. Well, long story short: we didn't see any beavers, they must have all been holed up in their little burrows, watching the AL Division Series. It almost looked that our hectic trek from the Lake Mansfield Trout Club all the way up to the Taylors Lodge will leave us empty handed. A trek, which didn't result in broken bones only owing to the fact that the 9th Infantry Division of Guardian Angels had a field training exercise in the northern Vermont that day.

At the end of the day though, the Gods took mercy on us. About half way between the lake and the beaver's dam, we espied a flashing orange blotch on the sloping hill above the trail. A thrilling waft of suspenseful expectation percolated down our spine. The critter noticed us. Like a sailboat criss-crossing against the wind, it slowly approached us. Its nozzle sniffed around for a bit and, realizing that we do not carry any oysters, snorted contemptuously. The rest of the body then trotted off to catch some beavers and the nozzle went with it.

wolf

Social Engineering Proposal

According to MapQuest, the driving time between McLean, VA and Stowe, CT is 9 hours and 38 minutes. So when it took us 12 hours and 50 minutes to get to my friend's house in Vermont I knew that the transportation arteries of the Eastern Seaboard are asking for a major heart attack. When you see a sign "Three Lanes Closed Ahead" on a four-lane highway, you know that the comatose traffic crawls to hell. But having a constructive mind, I'd like to propose a slightly non-traditional, mildly objectionable, but 100% functional solution to this problem.

The diagnose is clear - the DC and NYC metros grew way too fat, so let's give the oldest part of this country a little liposuction! I hereby propose that we move both cities deep inland and put a restraining order on their proximity to the Atlantic Ocean.

New York first. Since apples like colder climates, I would suggest to relocate the Big Apple from the Hudson River to the Hudson Bay, somewhere just north of Povungnituk. The New York skyline will look elegant against the cool waters of the Bay and the bears on Wall Street will finally find a habitat they could relate to. The Central Park will segue nicely into arctic tundra and the nearby Fifth Avenue will look much more authentic as a dirt road. Even more so when the New York cabbies are discreetly replaced by moose-drawn caravans with Inuit wagoners. That move itself will simultaneously decrease pollution and increase the New Yorkers' chances of making themselves understood.

With the DC, the situation is more problematic because the country's capital cannot be easily moved into northern Canada. I know, its capacity to absorb major metropolitan areas is virtually limitless, but you can't really run a country with a remote control. So I'd say Kansas.

Capitals should be sitting pretty in the middle of their country (exhibit 1: Brazil). The politicos will probably get a bit cornier, but the stench of their shady deals won't reach the bucolic air of either coast. On the other hand, pigs happily roaming the Capitol Hill will bring a long needed injection of wholesomeness to the scene. And I bet the Corn Beltway will never be jammed. We are not in Washington DC any more, Toto.

With Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore remaining the only major hubs alongside I-95, a trip from Chesapeake Bay to Canada should become a joyful breezy fiesta.

Skipper's Gamble

For the Cardinals' fans, the finale of this years' regular season was a surreal cliff-hanger, involving lots of swearing, nail-biting, praying and head-shaking. Two weeks ago the Cards were cruising on an auto-pilot with a comfortable 7 game cushion (and 13 to play), yet they nearly squandered it away.

In a week which almost made the MLB history, the Astros won 7 straight, while the Birds frittered away just as many, narrowing the gap between the two leading teams to half a game. Since baseball is a game of rigorous statistics, you can actually calculate the odds of that happening by chance. They are daunting: 1 in 16,000.

So like in a good suspense thriller it all came down to the last day, when the Cards hosted Milwaukee and the Astros were camping in Atlanta. With the whole season at stake, the Cardinals' manager Tony LaRussa made a risky gamble, letting the ace pitcher Chris Carpenter rest for the postseason-to-be and leaving the fate of the whole team in the hands of inexperienced Anthony Reyes.

Well, the Cards lost, but so did the spent Astros. Neither team was able to withstand the crushing weight of responsibility. All's well that ends well, however, and thanks to LaRussa's ruse, we will be able to start the division series with our best man on the mound and with songs of gratitude for pinch-hitter Scott Spiezio, whose unlikely triple yesterday made it all possible.

I think that this excruciating snag was actually a blessing in disguise. Unlike the previous two seasons, when the Cards played under the psychological umbrage of 100+ wins, this year they are joining the fray as underdogs. Everyone is raving about the Twins and the Tigers and the Subway Series and that gives the Cards a room to breathe and the coveted "nothing to lose" attitude.

Baseball is all about psychology. No expectations to fulfill can really liberate your wings - so dear Cardinals: here is to your chance to fly far and away!

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