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Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Brad Lidge and the homer we'll never forget

By Jack Moore

Sunday night, Brad Lidge, former Astros and Phillies reliever, announced his retirement from baseball.

I imagine when most players retire, there's a debate among the highlight show producers as to which moment to run with the story. They settle on a few seminal ones -- a championship, a game-winning play, something to show the athlete at his or her best.

Finding a definitive moment for most athletes with lengthy careers is difficult. There is no discussion for Lidge. The mind streaks back to the 2005 National League Championship Series. Game 5. Lidge on for the save to launch the Astros into their first World Series. Two outs. The tying runs on base. Albert Pujols, the game's greatest hitter, at the plate.

Everybody saw Pujols blast the go-ahead home run straight out of Minute Maid Park, on to the train tracks. It was more than a home run. The look on Lidge's face was unmistakable. It was as if his career flew out of the stadium with the baseball.

* * * *

Throughout human history, stories have been central to our societies. They define us, from religion and history to the most basic of tales between families and friends. Each of these stories is a variation on a small collection of basic plots. The epic quest. The search for vengeance. Ascension from rags to riches.

The fall from grace.

The stories we find in sports are no different. In the tale of the greatest champion or the scrappiest competitor or the incredible choke artist, a deep enough reflection reveals the same fables the ancient cultures told. Like any effective narrative vehicle, sport is capable of communicating the most basic human experiences.

* * * *

Lidge
The home run we'll always remember: Albert Pujols off Brad Lidge in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS.
Pujols' home run off Lidge has a longevity beyond the play's championship impact. The blast sent the Cardinals and Astros to a Game 6, but one brilliant start from Roy Oswalt (7 innings, 3 hits, 1 earned run, 6 strikeouts) ended the Cardinals' season. All of a sudden, the Astros were four games away from a World Series championship.

Lidge didn't pitch in the Astros' Game 6 victory. The specter of Pujols' demoralizing blast loomed throughout the buildup to the Astros' World Series matchup with the White Sox.

Scott Podsednik, the second World Series batter Lidge faced, in his first World Series appearance, hit a walk-off home run just six days later to win Game 2. Lidge managed 1.1 clean innings in Game 3 but the Astros lost in extra innings, and needing to hold on for dear life in Game 4, Lidge gave up the winning run in the top of the eighth to give the White Sox the sweep.

The following 2006 season was a disaster. The Astros stuck with Lidge as closer and he saved 32 games, but nobody should be fooled by the bulky save total. "Lights out" Lidge posted a 5.28 ERA. He allowed a career high 10 home runs and walked a batter nearly every two innings. Lidge blew 14 saves between 2006 and 2007 and was out of town by 2008.

The story fits too well. The magnitude and majesty of Pujols' home run was so destructive that Lidge, one of baseball's elite relievers, was shattered. One of the prevailing themes of life and sports shines through: Time at the top is precarious and fleeting. One misstep, one false moment and it all comes crashing down.

To Lidge's credit, he recovered. The lasting image of his career -- of his accomplishments -- should be of him recording the final out of the 2008 World Series with the Phillies, a playoff campaign in which he allowed just one run in 9.1 innings and struck out 13 batters, following a regular season in which he recorded 41 saves in 41 opportunities. It should be of his All-Star bids in 2005 and 2008. His career -- a 3.54 ERA and 122 ERA+ in over 600 games -- is worth celebration.

But that home run in 2005 won't ever go away, although not as a slight to Lidge. It would be tremendously unfair to call it at all representative of Lidge's talent.

No, that home run sticks in our minds and persists on TV broadcasts because it is one of baseball's most pure storytelling moments. It lives on because anyone who has experienced failure, anyone who has fallen from on high can peer back and see themselves in Lidge. Those seeking the top can find a warning, a reminder of how fleeting success can be once attained.

It lasts because there was a bit of all of us in Brad Lidge on that mound back in October 2005, one of humanity's essential stories distilled into competition. It lives on because it's one of the most human tales sports -- not the humans who play them, but the play on the field itself -- is able to tell.

And after all, we are our stories.

Brad Lidge
Lidge got his redemption in 2008, when he got the final out as the Phillies won the World Series.
Jack Moore runs the Disciples of Uecker blog about the Brewers and contributes to FanGraphs.