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He was not safe, okay? He was out. We know this.
He was Jorge Orta. The tag was made at first base by Cards reliever Todd Worrell, the year was 1985, and the game was the sixth game of the World Series.
Ump Don Denkinger blew the ninth-inning call (left), the Royals wound up winning the game, and the Cards blew their cool and lost Game Seven and the Series, too.
Now it's ancient history – so much so that some Cards fans have mellowed to the point that they've actually paid Denkinger to sign a photo of the critical moment, that actually proves Orta was out, at sports memorabilia conventions.
But one Joe Hoffmann decided to dredge up that moment in history, and to remind Cards fans of the year that wasn't, when a single bad call managed to snap defeat from the jaws of victory.
Hoffmann, you may recall, is a Royals fan recently relocated to St. Louis, and a habitue of the Flying Saucer Draught Emporium chain of craft-on-draft pubs. Hoffmann devised a plan to mess with the Cards fans by taking advantage of the Saucer's challenge to drink 200 different beers, and receive the “UFO Club” reward that the bar offers: a commemorative plate with your name on it mounted onto an angled section of wall space (below) the Saucer calls the "Ring of Honor."
Except Hoffmann wasn’t going to put his name on the wall. Oh, no. He decided his plate would bear the name "Don Denkinger" and the caption: "Safe!" And he decided he would get the first plate at the St. Louis Flying Saucer, located at 900 Spruce Street, about a home run shot west of Stan Musial's statue. And he let everyone know it.
Some local beer fiends needed to come up with their own champion to drink three beers a day (the Saucer's limit for this sort of thing) for 67 days, to, at the very least, set up a tie with Hoffmann, so maybe that Denkinger plate wouldn’t be the first one to land on the Saucer’s wall.
They found their man in Richard Haegele, an affable fellow. Haegele likes beer. For more than two months now, he has carved out a chunk of each day to slurp suds at the Saucer. And he, like Hoffmann, was subsidized by a public campaign to defray the approximate $1,000 cost of drinking 200 beers.
These men – and three others that weren't so vested in baseball-centric quests, necessarily, but wanted to be first for their own reasons – drank and drank and drank. And on Day 67, each of them hit the 200 mark.
What to do?
Sam Wynne knew.
Wynne, Certified Cicerone and Assistant Beer Director for the cultishly popular Flying Saucer, knows the excitement of “Day 67.” He has officiated at these sorts of events before.
He knew what challenges – four of them, in fact – lay in store to settle the five-way tie, but the obsessed drinkers did not.
First, he handed out the quizzes. Hoffmann, Haegele, and the rest of the bunch (above) had to answer eight tough questions about beer (and to drink a pint during the five minutes allotted for the quiz). Sample questions included "name five different kinds of hops," "how many gallons in a barrel of beer" (answer: 31), and "What is contained inside the tank in a brewery labeled "hot liquor" (answer: hot water). The winner got 19 out of 28 points. The lowest score dropped out. After Round 1, Hoffmann and Haegele were both still alive.
Then, the fellers had to flip a line of Dixie cups 180 degrees (see Hoffmann, above) and have them land upside-down as quickly as possible (a variation on a college-style chugging game, said Wynne, without the chugging).
The unthinkable happened – Haegele turned in the slowest time.
St. Louis' only hope to stop Hoffmann from carrying out his wicked plan rested with the remaining two beer-swillers. It was time to commence with the nail-biting.
The survivors were tasked with building a "house of coasters." The highest structure would win. Again, Hoffmann (his edifice, above) did not lose.
It all came down Round Four, Hoffmann vs. Whitney Brown. (Not this guy.)
This, says Wynne, is his favorite round, because it's truly a celebration of beer. The combatants had to search their memories and name as many of the 200 beers they'd quaffed (Wynne, holding their respective lists, at right) in the last two months, one at a time. The first man to repeat himself, repeat his opponent, or name a beer he hadn't actually drunk was out.
That first man, after only 10 or so turns, was Brown.
Oh, Lord, Hoffmann won. The Royals fan won.
The crowd booed lustily. Hoffmann beamed.
"I was expecting him to get booed," said Wynne. "He's got five plates at the Saucer in Kansas City, so he’s no stranger to the plate game. And ya know what? I think he would have been disappointed if people didn’t boo. He wanted to be a thorn in people's sides, to be the pariah."
On May 30, when the Royals play an Interleague game against the Cards, Hoffmann will hold court at the Saucer. His victory comes with a $100 bar tab, so he'll have a little party, and there'll be an official unveiling of his plate. And more booing, we’ll bet.
And as long at the Saucer stands on Spruce Street, says Wynne, for years and years, "that first plate is the first thing people will see on the wall."
You got us, Hoffmann (below, victorious).
We’ll just have to console ourselves with our –ahem– ELEVEN World Series victories and counting. Hee hee.
Photo credit: Mike Sweeney of STL Hops.
Editor's Note: SLM just published a video about the Flying Saucer Draught Emporium. It's bouncy, informative, and brief. View it here.