Focusing on catcher Mike Matheny’s signal as Albert Pujols took some menacing swings in the batter’s box, Jack Taschner tried to keep his composure.
In just his ninth career appearance as a reliever for the San Francisco Giants that July 8, 2005 night in San Francisco, the hard-throwing lefty was trying to prove he belonged. Now all he had to do was retire Pujols, who was destined to win the first of his three National League MVP awards that season, with the bases loaded,
The count went to 3-0 on the St. Louis Cardinals’ superstar with pitches that were so close that the normally even-keeled Matheny started barking at home plate umpire Tom Hallion.
“Mike comes out and he said, ‘All right, I want your three best fastballs,’ ” Taschner said. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘My three best fastballs against the best hitter in the game? I’ve seen this highlight on ESPN. I know how this turns out.’ ”
Taschner threw a strike. And then another that Pujols turned into a screaming foul to the backstop. And then another fastball that cut in on Pujols.
“He hits a mile-high pop up to left field,” Taschner said. “Off the bat, it had a good sound to it, but he flew out to left.
“So we come off the field and I’ve got to play it down like, ‘That was no big deal.’ ”
The Giants went on to lose 3-1 that night and Taschner didn’t figure in the decision. But now that baseball is behind Taschner — the 36-year-old officer for the Appleton Police Department finished his six-year major league career with a 10-5 record and 5.14 ERA in 222 appearances — he will have stories of that magnitude to tell his three children.
He’s already shared many of his baseball exploits with Gradin, his 10-year-old son. The one that gives him the most pride has nothing to do with retiring a legendary hitter in a clutch situation.
“My son asked me ‘Dad, did you ever take steroids?’ ” Taschner said. “I said, ‘No’ and he said, ‘Why not?’
“And I said, ‘Because of this conversation I’m having with you. Everything I got out of baseball was because of the talent I had. And I expect the same out of you.’ ”
The debate over steroids was again stirred last week when some of baseball’s greatest players, including Barry Bonds, Taschner’s teammate with the Giants, received eroding support in the Hall of Fame voting.
While Taschner declined to discuss specifically what he saw in terms of performance-enhancing drugs during his stay in the major leagues, he did offer some general observations.
Perhaps most surprising is that someone who takes pride in never having submitted to the temptation of steroids has a conciliatory attitude about those who are suspected of having used them. The poster boys for that speculation are Bonds (seven MVP awards) and Roger Clemens (seven Cy Young awards).
“I kind of waver in the middle,” Taschner said. “I think Barry’s body of work before he came to San Francisco said he was already on pace and had shown enough that he was a Hall of Famer. For me, I guess it’s the same with Clemens.
“My issue is that the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame is not the moral compass of the world. I don’t like the way the writers try to uphold this great image of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Stories that have come out about players after they’re done playing, whether it be womanizing or drug use ... pro sports is what it is. It’s not sent down by God to judge others.
“So take the body of work. Were you a great baseball player? Yes. Then you’re in the Hall of Fame. Pete Rose was an outstanding baseball player. No question about it. It goes by your body of work. Not by whether you gambled years later.”
The punishment for cheaters, Taschner contends, should be living with themselves after cheating. As for himself, he feels good about how he handled himself.
As a freshman at Horlick during the 1992-93 school year, he was just 5-foot-2 and not even 100 pounds. By the time he was a senior in 1996, Taschner had grown to nearly 6-foot and he was drafted as a pitcher in the 37th round by the Los Angeles Angels even though he had never pitched a game to that point.
Emil Belich, the late scout, had seen Taschner make some throws to home plate from center field as a junior in 1995 and projected him to have a pitcher’s arm.
By 1999, Taschner was drafted on the second round by the Giants and received a signing bonus of about $500,000. After overcoming a series of injuries, one of which required Tommy John surgery, he had a career he looks back on with pride.
“I can look at myself in the mirror and said I did it right,” Taschner said. “I did it with God-given talent, I did it as long as God allowed me to do it and that was it.”