The pop-psychological phenomenon widely known as “The Mandela Effect” is one of my favorite semi-new terms in culture. The effect, for the uninitiated, refers to a widely held false memory; I find it inconceivable that anyone actually thought Nelson Mandela was dead in the 1980s, as the title suggests, as he quite famously became a head of state in the 1990s, and thus I would rather name it the “Luke I Am Your Father” Effect or the “Hello Clarice” Effect, but it seems I have lost this battle. Maybe the whole thing is meta-commentary and this is a joke I simply do not enjoy. Whatever.
The world of sports has its share of Mandela Effect examples as well. A large percentage of people still believe that when the United States beat the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympic hockey game known as the Miracle on Ice, it was in a Gold Medal game, which is incorrect. A more hockey-savvy group will inform that group that it was actually a semi-final game, which is also incorrect–the tournament was a round-robin in which all of the teams played each other and there was no subsequent knockout stage. And with the St. Louis Cardinals, there is Albert Pujols breaking Brad Lidge.
Most of the story which has been retold countless times for coming up on sixteen years is accurate. In Game 5 of the 2005 National League Championship Series, first baseman Albert Pujols came to the plate against the Houston Astros in a do-or-die situation. The Cardinals, down 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, were trailing 4-2 in a game at Houston’s Minute Maid Park with two outs in the top of the ninth inning. And Pujols was facing Brad Lidge, Houston’s All-Star closer who would later receive MVP votes that season and who had received Cy Young votes the previous season. The inning’s first two batters, John Rodriguez and John Mabry, each struck out swinging, and although this was followed by a David Eckstein single and Jim Edmonds walk, the Cardinals’ odds of victory stood at just 7%, per Baseball Reference. And on the second pitch he saw, the man who would win his first of three National League Most Valuable Player awards a few weeks later absolutely obliterated a ball over the wall in deep left-center field. The Cardinals took the lead and won the game, and although the Cardinals would lose Game 6 two days later, the home run became the defining highlight of Albert Pujols’s career. Everything I have said in this paragraph is accurate.
But the notion that Pujols did irreparable damage to Brad Lidge, at the time a twenty-eight year-old fireballer in the prime of his career, is deeply ingrained in the home run’s lore. If you search “Albert Pujols Brad Lidge” on YouTube, the very first video which pops up, before the official MLB clip of the home run, is a video with nearly half a million views titled “When Pujols Broke Lidge”. The Lidge phenomenon applies disproportionately to the impact of the home run, which despite making an enormous dent in the Cardinals’ chances of winning that game did relatively little to improve their chances of winning the World Series. Have you ever heard about Ozzie Smith and Jack Clark breaking Tom Niedenfuer, or David Freese breaking Neftalí Feliz or Mark Lowe? Can you even name the pitchers who were on the mound for the Boston Red Sox in the 1986 World Series during the infamous Game 6 tenth inning (it was Calvin Schiraldi and Bob Stanley, in case you were suddenly wondering)?
Strangely, the most back-breaking home run that Brad Lidge allowed during the 2005 postseason wasn’t even the one to Albert Pujols, one of the greatest players of his generation, but a far more embarrassing one–a ninth-inning walk-off home run surrendered in Game 2 of the World Series to Scott Podsednik, who had hit zero regular season home runs in 568 plate appearances throughout 2005 (though, to be fair, he had hit one in the ALDS, so maybe he was just on a hot streak), takes the cake. The Pujols home run wasn’t even his most devastating moment in Houston, as he took the loss in the team’s season-ending Game 4 against the Chicago White Sox, though the one run he allowed came courtesy of a single-sacrifice-single sequence rather than a towering home run. And between the two appearances came a lights-out 1 1/3 inning outing in which he struck out three and allowed no base runners. I think you could make a case for any of these three less-than-ideal postseason moments as the Broke Brad Lidge moment; I think I would lean towards the Podsednik home run, but a case could be made that it was indeed the Pujols blast that broke Brad Lidge. Except that he didn’t break.
In 2006, Brad Lidge’s numbers did decline, though a closer look at the numbers reveals that quite a bit of this was bad luck. Coming off two consecutive seasons of relatively normal home run to fly ball rates of 10% and 10.4%, Lidge’s rate ballooned to 16.1%, a mark he would never again come close to hitting, which put him tied for eighth in this largely unpredictive (absence of) luck indicator among 230 pitchers with at least 70 innings on the season. His other metrics, while not quite the superstar level of his 2004-2005 run, were a bit of an improvement from his still very good 2003–his strikeout rate was higher and his walk rate was lower. A 5.28 ERA suggests awfulness; a 3.79 FIP suggests competence; a 3.22 xFIP suggests greatness could be still around the corner.
In 2007, Lidge was temporarily removed as the Astros’ closer, but across the board, his ERA/FIP/xFIP marks were perfectly normal–his 3.36 ERA, 3.88 FIP, and 3.41 xFIP were each healthily better than league average. But the Astros were a team in clear decline, hence they traded Brad Lidge to the Philadelphia Phillies, in a trade which netted the Astros center fielder Michael Bourn, one of the team’s better players of the next half-decade. And it was in 2008 that Brad Lidge had the most heralded season of his career. He recorded an ERA under 2 and a FIP under 2.5. He was an All-Star, finished fourth in Cy Young voting, and received two first place votes for Most Valuable Player (!!!) on his way to an eighth-place finish. By Wins Above Replacement, Lidge was a more valuable player than teammate Ryan Howard, who nearly topped Albert Pujols for National League MVP in a close-call that, had it come to fruition, would be the subject of every single post I ever write. And on October 27, 2008, three years and ten days after Albert Pujols supposedly destroyed him, Brad Lidge struck out Tampa Bay Rays pinch-hitter Eric Hinske to seal just the second championship in Philadelphia Phillies history.
This was, without question, the emotional pinnacle of Lidge’s career. At 32, in 2009, Lidge had a shaky season as Phillies closer, but in 2010, he had a decent season, though he was hobbled by injuries. In 2011, Lidge pitched well when healthy, but he was rarely healthy. He had a rough 9 1/3 innings with the Washington Nationals in 2012 and this was the last time that Brad Lidge pitched in his MLB career. In 2018, Lidge appeared on the National Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, (correctly) received zero votes, and seemingly exists primarily as a footnote to Albert Pujols’s career. Like most relief pitchers, Brad Lidge dealt with inconsistency, but he also had a truly excellent season plus a few quite good ones post-2005, which makes his reputation as being destroyed like a video game boss that explodes at the end of the level confounding. And the reason it’s so confounding is that it makes the overall story worse.
I had most of this post written before it was announced that Albert Pujols was being designated for assignment by the Los Angeles Angels, inviting a whole new wave of nostalgia for the Cardinals legend and a whole new wave of “Remember when Albert Pujols broke Brad Lidge” hogwash. But the moment is exponentially cooler if, instead of Brad Lidge just being some ticking time bomb who could so easily be ground into dust, he was a really good pitcher, because then Albert Pujols hit a home run five million miles in a huge situation off one of the better relief pitchers of his era. If, in your mind, Brad Lidge was the National League’s version of Mariano Rivera, that’s also an exaggeration, but I can at least understand the appeal. But you shouldn’t tell a lie that, while completely harmless, is less enjoyable than the truth.