ST. LOUIS — Every hotdog has his day, but nobody in this city thought Jeffrey Leonard really deserved four of them.
So, Tuesday evening the fans in the bleachers in Busch Stadium were ready for the San Francisco left fielder who claims he loves to be booed by road crowds and plays better when he taunts and is taunted.
Every time No. 00 ran to his spot in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, the signs rose to meet the four-homer star of these National League playoffs:
00-Nerd. Why Do You Wear Your IQ?
Jeffrey (Make 'Em Wait) Leonard: The S.F. Chump. Who needs a Hac Man; We've got a Jack, Man.
Scumm Babies, bah hummbug.
Go home, surf scumm.
Ozzie Smith: Hall of Fame. Jeffrey Leonard: Hall of Shame.
Once the signs came down, the voices came up. "Jefff-reeey!" they wailed, sarcastically as he struck out on four pitches in the first inning. "Jefff-reeey!" they bellowed, tens of thousands strong and even louder when he went down flailing at another low-away change-up from John Tudor in the third. This was the Tudor who has said for days that he "does not like Jeffrey Leonard" and does not think he is anything more than a run-of-the-mill player. Not a special player like, say, a Tudor.
At first, Leonard looked up into the crowd, encouraging attention, as he had in Games 1 and 2 when he hit monstrous home runs far over the 414-foot sign in Busch's center field. But, after those strikeouts, his head went down. "Pull your hat down even lower," bellowed Bill Price, a fan all in red. "Even your mother couldn't love that face."
That was one of the nice comments. Curiously, the man two seats down from Price, and right behind Leonard's position, was the same fan who in 1981 taunted Garry Templeton, then the Cardinals' shortstop, so badly he made obscene gestures and tried to climb into the stands. And ended up suspended and traded for Ozzie Smith.
If any player has symbolized the audacity of the Giants in this series, it has been Leonard, who, in 11 seasons with three teams, has, frankly, never lived up to his potential. After roaring through the minors with averages like .324, .330 and .365, he lit up the National League for a .290 mark his very first full season in Houston.
Then, for a decade, nothing much. Once, he hit .300. Twice, he had 21 homers. But, mostly, the numbers added up to a marginal player who usually promised, or perhaps boasted, more than he delivered. An even 100 homers in 11 years isn't greatness. Even this year, down the stretch, Leonard went 40 games without a home run.
However, when Leonard gets hot (as in angry), he can carry a team for a week. When Manager Roger Craig benched him for Game 1, that lit the fuse. When a lefty subbed for injured Danny Cox, Leonard got to start and exploded -- four homers, seven hits and 10 times on base in four games.
Just when the Giants, who lost 100 games two years ago, and haven't been to the World Series in 25 years, needed bravado, they accidentally turned to Leonard, who wants desperately to be a leader any way he knows how, rough-hewn though his style may be. So, one flap down, strutting around the bases in the most ludicrous parody of a home run trot in years, Leonard became the Giants' instant symbol. "Somebody's gonna pay," he said, after being hit with a pitch. And, the next day, a friendly gale carried his can of corn over a short fence and dern if he hadn't won another game.
It's been the Giants' mixed blessing to be identified with Leonard more in this postseason than they ever have been in regular season life. Will Clark led the team in homers, Mike Aldrete in average and Candy Maldonado in game-winning hits. Six Giants homered and drove in runs more frequently than Leonard. In the clubhouse, he's part inspiration, part embarrassment. Almost by default, the Giants have picked up his tone of voice -- belligerent.
When a bully's bluff gets called, it can be doubly deflating. That's why this game was so important to San Francisco. Even that quiet, gentle country horseman, Craig, has taken a swaggering tack. Asked for two days who his Game 7 starter would be, he always said, "We're only going to play six games." Is that any way to talk about Tudor, a fellow who has won 43 of his last 53 decisions?
When pressed, Craig named Atlee Hammaker, but did so without relish. "I've got him here, I pay him $48 per day meal money, pay his hotel room, I might as well use him," Craig said. "I saw him on the plane. I don't know how he got on. His wife was coming here, and I guess he said he'd better come with her." Amusing, yes. But not really a vote of confidence, either.
Still, the Giants entered the late innings on a cool night with a chill along the competitive spine. Things were going subtly wrong. Maldonado, for the second time in the series, played a liner into a dunk-and-cover-your-face triple when he lost the ball in the lights. This time it hurt when Tony Pena (a catcher, no less) gambled on Jose Oquendo's puny fly and scored because of an atrocious Candy throw.