• Should Tony LaRussa return as manager?
Hall of Fame basketball coach Chuck Daly famously quipped, “At some point, they just stop listening to you.” Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog left the Cardinals halfway through the 1990 season precisely because he felt the team — a band of veterans led by Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, and Terry Pendleton — no longer responded to his leadership. Has LaRussa’s time come?
The last four seasons aren’t exactly an endorsement for a 16th year at the helm for the manager who now ranks third alltime in victories. Even in the championship season of 2006, the Cardinals faded down the stretch (they actually played sub-.500 baseball over the season’s final five months). LaRussa brings a culture of intensity to the clubhouse he oversees, and to the decisions he makes before, during, and after games. It’s rubbed some prominent players (like Scott Rolen) the wrong way, and made it difficult for young players to crack the lineup and develop the kind of trust LaRussa requires before giving a player a significant role. (A clash with Colby Rasmus this season grew far too public before being resolved.)
It’s hard to imagine Cardinal management forcing LaRussa out. The likely scenario is a “mutual” parting of ways. Less likely is LaRussa agreeing — at age 66 — to adjust the culture he’s created in respect to four years of baseball he’d admit haven’t achieved expected heights. A possible successor: longtime third-base coach Jose Oquendo, who managed Puerto Rico in the last World Baseball Classic. Oquendo, it should be noted, gets along quite well with Pujols.
• Extend Albert Pujols’ contract . . . whatever it takes.
The Cardinals will certainly pick up their 2011 option on Pujols’ contract. The question, though, is will they extend the deal for the game’s greatest player before he can become a free agent after the ’11 season? (Imagine finding your dream home, just on the market. The last thing you’d want to see is an open house. The Cardinals have essentially 12 months to prevent an open house on their greatest player since Stan Musial.)
Pujols will earn $16 million in 2011. The Phillies’ Ryan Howard will make $20 million next season. So the conversation begins at the higher figure. In measuring Pujols’ impact on the franchise, the number of fans who flock to Busch Stadium from far and wide to get a glimpse of Pujols alone . . . you have to figure his impact is worth $25 million a year. The only variable may become the length of the contract. Letting LaRussa walk would be somewhat uncomfortable. Allowing Pujols to leave would be catastrophe, both on the field and at the box office.
• Find speed . . . and get it on the field.
Whiteyball may be dead these 20 years, but the Cardinals have been a plodding, station-to-station baseball team for six years now. Since the 2005 season, St. Louis has had exactly one player steal as many as 20 bases (Cesar Izturis stole 24 in 2008). The great Pujols leads this year’s team with all of 13, and he steals bases less with speed than guile. Three-run homers are great, but they are lightning in a bottle. A team with speed at the top of the batting order — to say nothing of in the field — can generate rallies with as little as a base on balls. The solution to this area could be tied in with the next item on the checklist.
• Find production in the middle infield.
The two-year Skip Schumaker experiment at second base has had some ups, but Schumaker can build a long career as a utility player, spending time in the outfield and supporting an everyday second-baseman. As for Brendan Ryan, he plays a great shortstop, but a .220 batting average cannot be carried . . . unless some pop can be found at second base.
The Cardinals are forced to hope third-baseman David Freese fully recovers from his ankle surgery. If he does, the team will have marked improvement at the hot corner, where Felipe Lopez and Pedro Feliz played all too often this season. In addition, St. Louis must find a middle-infielder who might approach a .400 slugging percentage. In the National League, two holes in the batting order (counting the pitcher), can be hidden, but not three.
• Revamp the bullpen . . . entirely.
On July 6th at Colorado, the Cardinals entered the bottom of the 9th inning with a 9-3 lead. Nine runs later — six of them allowed by closer Ryan Franklin — the Cardinals left the field losers. The current St. Louis bullpen — led by Franklin, Kyle McClellan, and Jason Motte — strikes fear in the heart of no batter. Only Motte averages a strikeout per inning pitched.
Three members of this year’s Memphis Redbirds have earned consideration for a bullpen job in St. Louis next season: Fernando Salas, Adam Reifer, and Eduardo Sanchez. Franklin has had eight games this season in which he’s given up at least two earned runs. Not the kind of line you see on a closer’s resume. The next time St. Louis wins a postseason series, it won’t be Ryan Franklin recording the final out.
It was the definitive “grandkids moment” in the 30-plus years of my life as a baseball fan. You know the kind: You look at a fellow fan after it happens and shout, “I’m gonna tell my grandkids I was here!”
September 15, 2000. AutoZone Park. Game 4 of the best-of-five Pacific Coast League Championship Series between the Memphis Redbirds and the Salt Lake Buzz (top affiliate at the time of the Minnesota Twins). The Redbirds led the series two games to one, and had led Game 4 until a collision of players under a pop fly in the top of the ninth inning allowed two runs to score for Salt Lake, tying the game at three and sending it to extra innings.
With two outs in the bottom of the 13th, 20-year-old Albert Pujols strode to the plate, playing only his 12th game at the Triple-A level. Pujols had already made a name for himself within the Cardinal system, earning Player of the Year honors in the Class-A Midwest League, where he’d hit .324 with 17 homers and 84 RBIs in 109 games for Peoria. He had been promoted two weeks earlier when the Redbirds lost their star leftfielder, Ernie Young (and his team-leading 35 homers and 98 RBIs) to the U.S. Olympic team in Sydney. The p.a. announcer at AutoZone Park -- introducing the young star to Memphis fans for the first time -- called him “Alberto” Pujols.
Wearing the number 6 on his back -- a sacred number to Cardinal fans who worship at the altar of Stan Musial -- Pujols stood in against Salt Lake’s David Hooten and worked the count to two balls and two strikes. Then he changed Memphis baseball history. Pujols connected on the next pitch, perhaps a little later than he intended but on the sweet spot of his bat, arms fully extended. The line drive sailed down the rightfield line and started hooking toward foul territory, only to sneak just inside the foul pole. Game-winning, championship-winning, name-making walk-off home run by Albert Pujols. Redbirds radio voice Tom Stocker screamed into his microphone, “Touch every base, Albert! Touch every base!!”
Thus ended the inaugural season at AutoZone Park, reminiscent of Mazeroski in ’60, Carter in ’93. A crowd of 11,703 witnessed the first Memphis baseball championship in 10 years, and the first ever at the Triple-A level. But we really had no idea -- yet -- what we’d seen.
Instead of being a feature attraction in Memphis the next season, Pujols made the 2001 Cardinal team out of spring training, and by the All-Star break (he was named to the National League squad) Pujols had turned Ray Lankford, Jim Edmonds, and even Mark McGwire into supporting players for St. Louis. With Pujols on his way to one of the finest rookie campaigns in baseball history -- .329 batting average, 37 home runs, 130 RBIs -- I began thinking that those 11,703 fans the previous September had seen the baseball equivalent of Marlon Brando strutting the stage of a Des Moines community theatre.
Ten years later, Pujols has three National League MVP trophies on his mantel. Barring an epic late-season slump at the plate, Pujols will this year become the first player in baseball history to reel off ten straight seasons with a .300 batting average, 30 home runs, and 100 RBIs. Babe Ruth didn’t do it. Lou Gehrig didn’t do it. Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Musial himself . . . none of them did it. The argument could be made that Albert Pujols is a Hall of Famer before his 31st birthday.
My two daughters saw their first Pujols home run at AutoZone Park in 2004, during a Cardinals preseason exhibition game. They saw him hit another at the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis, during the championship season of 2006. But neither of those shots -- however memorable -- has a seat painted bright red to commemorate where the ball landed. Just inside the rightfield foul pole at AutoZone Park, standing out against the thousands of green seats that fill the rest of the ballpark, is just such a marker. My daughters have sat in that seat. Perhaps someday their children will ask why it’s painted red, and they’ll be told stories of the great Pujols, of all the records he’s broken and championships he’s won. But rest assured, if Grampa is there, the conversation will begin with September 15, 2000.
While its parent club staggers toward the end of a deflating, disappointing season, the Memphis Redbirds are headed back to the playoffs. Having won 11 of their last 14 games to (barely) catch the Iowa Cubs, the Redbirds will host Oklahoma City Wednesday in the first game of a best-of-five series to decide the Pacific Coast League’s American Conference champion.
Memphis won a thriller in 15 innings Sunday in Des Moines, then came from three runs down to beat the Cubs behind a 9th-inning home run by Mark Hamilton on Labor Day to tie Iowa for a PCL-best 82 wins. Memphis advances by virtue of a better record in divisional play.
The playoff bunting at AutoZone Park will be a colorful contrast to the mood these days in St. Louis, the Cardinals having recently lost eight of 10 games to the National League’s bottom-feeders (Pittsburgh, Washington, and Houston) to all but exit the NL playoff race. The Cards’ struggles have every member of Cardinal Nation wondering what the next off-season will bring. And the armchair criticism includes an ugly take from above on the franchise’s farm clubs. The following passage was included in a lengthy overview of Cardinal concerns written by beat writer Joe Strauss (posted Monday on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch site):
“Rather than rely on organizational talent, [Cardinal general manager John] Mozeliak imported released players Randy Winn and Aaron Miles and exiled third baseman Pedro Feliz. [Pitching coach Dave] Duncan offered a brutally honest assessment in June when he insisted the system could not support a championship club . . . .
"Strong opinion exists in the major-league clubhouse that Memphis and Springfield do not project an impact position player in the next two seasons. Should this demand rethinking a strategy that has largely neglected minor-league free agents the last two seasons?”
If your name is Allen Craig or Tyler Greene or Evan MacLane or P.J. Walters or Daniel Descalso, the sentiments of Mozeliak, Duncan, and (one must presume) Cardinal manager Tony LaRussa must be fuel for competitive fire. These five players will be seeking a second straight PCL ring, while the Cardinals — behind the likes of Winn, Miles, and Feliz — now rely on help from other teams to merely contend for a wild-card playoff ticket.
There’s an overlooked skill in baseball, one that tends to get discounted as various “tools” are measured in a hitter’s value, or as arm strength and an out-pitch become the only qualifications for a big-league promotion. The overlooked skill is winning. Knowing how to win. Knowing when to win. Knowing a game isn’t over until your club has made 27 outs (sometimes more, as the Redbirds proved last Sunday). If you watched the Cardinals score two runs in three games against the lowly Astros last week, you saw a team that has forgotten an ingredient to winning. If you listened to the Redbirds come back late in that do-or-die game at Iowa Monday, you recognized a team that knows only winning.
The LaRussa Way has long been to go with veterans on the bench. While Jon Jay managed to land the rightfield job in St. Louis this season (only after Ryan Ludwick was traded to San Diego), the Cardinals have left the likes of Craig, Greene, and Descalso in Memphis. Unable to find an “impact player” in Memphis, the Cardinals are leaning on Winn, Miles, and Felipe Lopez to support Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. Consider these numbers: Through Sunday, Winn, Miles, and Lopez had combined to play in 3,596 big-league games. They have combined to play in a total of seven playoff games (all of those by Miles, with the Cardinals, in 2006). Whatever skills that trio might offer, winning doesn’t jump out.
The Cardinals’ worries are for next month, next winter. This week, this month, the Memphis Redbirds and its band of overlooked winners will aim to further endear themselves in the hearts and minds of Mid-South baseball fans. And if those fans are the only ones to notice the skills that separate them? Just check the National League standings.