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For Straker, There Is No Victory but Self-Satisfaction

October 22, 1987|THOMAS BOSWELL | The Washington Post

ST. LOUIS — The justice that occasionally stumbles into our affairs, preserving the deserving who've been neglected, toed the rubber Tuesday night in Busch Stadium and protected Les Straker.

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. But it might not have been that way. With some 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. This fine fellow was a former most valuable player, and that superb gentleman has been an all-star every season.

When the starting pitcher for the Twins 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, Aug. 5-11, 1985?" Or "Tied for Pioneer League lead in shutouts in 1978?"

Until Tuesday evening, those were the highlights in Straker's mental scrapbook. So the announcer simply said, "Pitching for Minnesota, Les Straker, who spent 10 years in the minors."

Straker is a humble, honest and handsome man who prayed for help before this game, then gave another prayer of thanks afterward -- grateful 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 national 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 will 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 years 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 only had one complete game, and that might have been the shortest in history -- 4 1-3 innings in a rain-shortened game.

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 of Frank Viola and Bert Blyleven. Straker has simply reiterated how proud he is to be here -- a long way from both Venezuela and all those years in Eugene, Billings and Waterbury.

Especially, he was proud that Manager Tom Kelly had the confidence to use him after the way the Detroit Tigers strafed him in short order in Game 3 of the AL playoffs. "I was nervous then," explained Straker, who walked or fell behind every hitter in sight. Tuesday evening, he vowed he would 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 has always had, so he knew, for once, he had a fighting chance. Asked if this was his most courageous game ever, 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'll do his best.

Beautiful, yes, but hardly unblemished. A potential two-run Cardinals home run curved foul by 2 feet and landed in the lap of the fan next to the foul pole. One umpire reversed another's call and removed Vince Coleman from first base. Kirby Puckett made a stunning catch to steal a St. Louis double. Four times Straker left Cardinals stranded in scoring position in a scoreless game. Ozzie Smith, Tommy Herr (twice), Willie McGee and Tony Pena -- he got them all when he needed to most.

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 that 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, to protect that 1-0 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 even a smidgen in a pinch.

"I always want to go all the way," said Straker, who only threw 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, in the interests of justice, how many would really have prefered to see Straker left in, perhaps to lose? Hadn't he done enough?

Those first six zeroes in the Cardinals 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.

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