Through the lifting fog of morning sleep he became aware of the void – what should have been there and wasn’t. His eyes opening slowly, the six year old looked at the night stand, was comforted, and closed his eyes again in the lovely sleep of a child in summer. He knew his mom had come in –as she always did this time of year – and removed his Wilson ”Mickey Mantle” Autograph baseball glove from his left hand and the small transistor radio from under his pillow – exactly where they were when he fell asleep last night, and the night before, and the night before.
Too young to know or care about the science of AM radio transmissions, he knew only that KMOX boomed the voices of the Cardinals, Jack Buck and Mike Shannon, into his bedroom every night, interrupted only by the random static of the lightning of a distant thunderstorm that flickered to the north – heat lightning, his dad called it. He’d listen to their descriptions of the games and, as every kid has done at one time or other, imagined himself on the mound in clutch situations, saving the big game or being mugged at the plate after hitting that dramatic walk-off home run. He could hear Jack’s voice in the ear of his mind like it really happened, and see it as clear as a street light as midnight.
Buck, tensely – “Isringhausen looks in, gets his sign, comes set, and delivers. Swing and miss, and that’s a winner!” or “Isringhausen steps in against Gossage, the game on the line. Gossage looks in, gets his sign, comes set and delivers,” CRACK “and there’s a long fly ball to deep left field, back at the track, at the wall, and that’s a winner as Jason Isringhausen corks one into the Yankee bullpen to win the World Series in the bottom of the ninth!”
Jason was – is – the pride of Brighton, Illinois. They knew early on that he had talent. A young with an abundance of God-given athleticism, it was apparent that he might go far, and he did. Drafted by the Mets in 1991 after playing for Lewis and Clark Community College in nearby Godfrey, he made his pitching debut in The Show in July 1995 against the Cubs. He turned in a dominating seven complete innings, giving up only two hits offset by six strikeouts. The Mets had a phenom, but Jason still hadn’t reached the pinnacle of his baseball career.
That would come in 2002 when he was signed as a closer by his beloved Cardinals. He returned home to the Mecca of Cardinal Nation, circular, familiar Busch Stadium. How many times had he been here as a kid awed by the enormity of the city and the stadium that held his heroes? How many times had he had the dreams of stardom in this hallowed place? How many countless late nights had he spent in bed in Brighton, curled up with that little radio and the voices of Jack and Mike coming from this place – his Field of Dreams? This now was his pinnacle. This was as good as it could get. Family and friends could see him pitch with the birds-on-bat on his uniform shirt, and that meant more to him than any contract, not that he wasn’t paid well for his services, but God he was happy to be here.
I’ve been down on Izzy of late, although certainly not with the venom of many. Far more disappointed than angry, I knew something had to be wrong because Jason Isringhausen is simply too professional, too competitive to pitch the way he has of late and be healthy. As more information surfaces about his arthritic hip, his 33 saves appear miraculous, his 10 blown saves now nuanced – somehow softened - by the physical debilitation. This worsening recurrence of a similar problem last year is serious for Izzy and the Redbirds.
When I first read reports, including the fine piece by Rick Wilton here in The Birdhouse, that Izzy’s left hip may be so eroded as to end his career prematurely, my first thoughts were of the child in summer. Jason Isringhausen has spent almost his entire life – certainly his adult life – focused on baseball.
How crushing it must be to think that at age 34 this might be the end of all that he has known since he was a child. The fun, the friends, the locker room camaraderie, the dream come true – done. I hope that’s not the case, but regardless I feel for a man who has actually lived the dream of some many of us and who now looks out over the precipice of life without his treasured, worshipped baseball.
We should all be so blessed, and we should all take pause to reflect on his pain, both physical and emotional. That’s what good Cardinal fans would do.
Rex Duncan can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.