Busch Stadium in St. Louis has never looked more like AutoZone Park in Memphis. It's not so much the facade, the concourse, or the downtown setting. Rather, it's the players in uniform for the Cardinals, a team surprising experts coast to coast by playing themselves into contention for a wild-card playoff berth, if not the National League's Central Division title. And in a time of crisis (read: Albert Pujols on the disabled list), Memphis Redbird alumni will play a critical role in determining how long St. Louis remains in contention.
Over the next month, we're very likely to see a Cardinal lineup that consists of the following: Braden Looper at pitcher, Yadier Molina at catcher (or Bryan Anderson, should Molina end up on the DL, too, after being hurt in a collision at home plate Sunday), Chris Duncan at first base, Adam Kennedy at second, Brendan Ryan at shortstop, Troy Glaus at third, Ryan Ludwick in leftfield, Rick Ankiel in centerfield, and Skip Schumaker in rightfield. With the sole exception of Glaus, every one of those players spent significant time refining their craft at Third and Union in downtown Memphis. Add a few pitchers to the mix -- rookie Chris Perez, Randy Flores, and the just-recalled Anthony Reyes, to name three -- and there will be few Cardinal victories that don't come via the bats and arms of players we've cheered here in the Bluff City.
What can we make of all this familiarity up I-55? For one thing, it's a degree of vindication for the much-criticized Cardinal minor-league system. Having gone 114-174 over 2006 and 2007, the Redbirds have been unsightly, so much so that local ownership has stubbornly refused to sign the paperwork that will extend the affiliation with St. Louis beyond 2008. But the cupboard hasn't been entirely bare, not when players like Schumaker and Ryan -- hardly marquee names during their days in Memphis -- are now helping to win games in the big leagues. (Ryan may prove to be Kennedy's ticket out of town, actually. In the second year of a three-year contract, Kennedy's production has nose-dived from the level he displayed over seven years with the Angels, with whom he was the ALCS MVP in 2002. If the hyper-kinetic Ryan can find a steady approach to playing the Tony LaRussa Way, he'll be an everyday middle-infielder in 2009.)=
For most of this decade, the Cardinals rode a wave of imports to the kind of perennial success normally reserved for teams with larger payrolls. Edgar Renteria, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Jason Isringhausen, Mike Matheny, and Chris Carpenter were all critical components to the franchise earning five division titles, two pennants, and a world championship. And they all cut their minor-league teeth for other franchises. But with the departure of longtime general manager Walt Jocketty (now in charge at Cincinnati), the Cardinals appear focused on planting seeds for homegrown stars who can help win now and provide economic flexibility for the occasional free-agent splash. Looking at the current Memphis roster, Colby Rasmus (the organization's top-ranked prospect), Joe Mather (back from two weeks in the big leagues), and Mike Parisi (back in the Redbird rotation after a stint with St. Louis) are just three players all but guaranteed to have two cardinals on their uniform a year from now.
The Cardinals showed considerable character last weekend, rebounding from a 20-2 drubbing by Philadelphia Friday night to win the next two games and take the series from the Phillies. The big blow in Saturday's win was a two-run homer by Kennedy (alas, his first of the season). On Sunday, Reyes earned the win in relief when Ankiel scored with two outs in the 10th inning on a ball hit by Duncan. The location was St. Louis and the packed stadium was colored the red of Cardinal Nation. But the faces and flavor of both wins were distinctly Memphis.