LONG SEASON AHEAD Life as a Triple-A baseball fan can be perplexing. The more talent you see on the field, the less likely the same faces will appear at the next homestand. And particularly within the structure of 21st century professional baseball, the dichotomy between a major league team and its Triple-A affiliate is such that the performance of one is likely to be the inverse of the other. Based on their first month, the 2003 Memphis Redbirds are not going to be doing a lot of hand-shaking at game’s end. While the starting pitching trio of Nerio Rodrigues, Steve Stemle, and Jimmy Journell has been stellar, this club’s offense is considerably light on the lumber. The Redbirds are at the bottom of the Pacific Coast League with a batting average under .240. Over the course of 27 games in April, Memphis scored no more than two runs 16 times. These are ugly numbers that call into question the Triple-A ecisions being made by the parent St. Louis Cardinals. There was a time when it was critical for every team in the big leagues to invest in its farm system, to build a winner from the root up, so to speak. Not so these days, with the economics of the game so warped out of proportion. Franchises in the “have” category (the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Dodgers, Braves, Mets, and yes, Cardinals) essentially use the rest of major league baseball Ñ the “have-nots” Ñ as their de facto farm system. A club like the Montreal Expos will raise the likes of Larry Walker, Pedro Martinez, and Moises Alou, only to see their products “promoted” to the big spenders, where they wind up starring for the Rockies, Red Sox, and Cubs, respectively. Which brings us to the current situation in Memphis and St. Louis. Take a look at the Cards’ regular batting order and count the players who were cultivated through the club’s farm system. You’ll have to stop at Two: J.D. Drew and Albert Pujols. (And these two are anomalies, each the kind of uber-prospect that needed very little seasoning. Drew played all of 26 games in Memphis before he reached the bigs, Pujols only 14.) The current Cardinals roster was built on “farm systems” in Milwaukee (Fernando Vina), Florida (Edgar Renteria), Anaheim (Jim Edmonds), and Philadelphia (Scott Rolen). Each of these players developed as big-leaguers with franchises who ultimately could not (or would not) pay their market value. The result? A promotion to baseball’s economic elite. With big-league veterans clogging up the roster in St. Louis, Memphis fans are left with a club centered around former major leaguers trying to work their way back (Jon Nunnally, Todd Dunwoody, Kurt Abbott) and last year’s Double-A stars trying to find a comfort zone one level beneath the majors (Bo Hart, Dee Haines, John Gall, Matt Duff, Scotty Layfield). So far, no such zone has been found. Haines is fighting with a batting average below the Mendoza Line. Gall has struggled with injury and a lack of pop in his bat (a major blemish for a first baseman). As for Duff and Layfield, it’s hard to gauge the progress of relief pitchers when they don’t have leads to protect. So what is a Redbirds fan to do as this 2003 squad faces a summer that could well end with nearly 100 losses? First of all, you identify the diamonds in the rough. Journell is a legitimate big-league pitcher in the making. (Pitchers take longer to cultivate than hitters, thus you’re more likely to find prospects on the mound at the Triple-A level.) I’ve become a big Steve Stemle fan, awkward delivery be damned. Stemle has been an inning-eater in the Cardinals system for five years now. The most egregious victim of the club’s toothless offense, Stemle lost his first four decisions of the season despite an ERA of 3.18. If Jason Simontacchi doesn’t find his groove soon, Stemle would be the guy I’d call were I in Tony LaRussa’s seat. Secondly, a healthy approach to what looks like a long season ahead is simply to root, root, root for the kids you see struggling. Players like Hart and Haines are not millionaires by any stretch. They’re not soaked up in ego or eye-popping statistics. They’re young men who are desperately searching for a key they may never find . . . that to the golden door of major league baseball. If you ache to see them struggle on the field, imagine when one of these young men looks in the mirror and considers his career path. Finally, just be glad you’re not a Detroit Tiger fan. At least our Triple-A club is playing in the minor leagues.


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