Theres no friend like an old friend. And you need look no further than the current roster of the St. Louis Cardinals to find a pair of shining examples. In a season of ups (starting pitching) and downs (clutch hitting), theres been a reunion of sorts at Busch Stadium in 2004, one that has seen the return of two members of one of the more special teams in recent Cardinal history.
First, a refresher on the 1996 Cardinals. This was Tony LaRussas first season in St. Louis . . . and Ozzie Smiths last (not altogether a coincidence). The Cards had suffered a pair of miserable seasons around the 1994 strike and were in Year One of building a new era in St. Louis, one with new ownership, a renovated stadium, and -- the death of Whiteyball -- no artificial turf. With no pitcher winning 20 games and only one hitter with as many as 25 home runs (the immortal Ron Gant), the 96 Cardinals won a division title and came within a single victory of the National League pennant. (After taking a 3-games-to-1 lead against Atlanta in the NLCS, St. Louis lost three straight to the Smoltz-Maddux-Glavine triumvirate.) The 88 wins that team compiled in the regular season are the fewest among this proud franchises 19 playoff teams. Two key members of that overachieving squad were centerfielder Ray Lankford and the teams last first baseman Before McGwire, John Mabry.
Fast forward to 2004 and youll still find LaRussa in the dugout, calling the shots for a team aching to contend with nemeses Houston and Chicago. And if you look inside the shadows of stars like Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen, youll find Ray Lankford and John Mabry.
Lankford was traded to San Diego (for current teammate Woody Williams) in August 2001, and he left St. Louis more than a little bitter. Having been the clubs standard bearer for a decade -- only Stan Musial and Ken Boyer have hit more homers as a Cardinal -- Lankford felt shut out by LaRussa (though 105 strikeouts in 264 at bats at least made a reasonable case for the trade).
After suffering injury in 2002, then taking all of last season off, Lankford talked his way into a spring training invite from LaRussa, then hit his way onto the opening-day roster. And he was all smiles at AutoZone Park in early April before the Cardinals exhibition game with the hometown Redbirds.
Its been a good experience, he said, coming back, playing with some of my old friends. Its good just to put the uniform on again. I was trying to come back, but I never thought Id be in St. Louis. Everything happens for a reason. (For trivia buffs, Lankford drove in the first run in AutoZone Park history, during the parks exhibition-game christening on April 1, 2000.)
And what about Mr. Mabry? Having made seven big-league stops since leaving the Cardinals after the Ô98 season (including a brief return to St. Louis in 2001), Mabry forced his way back into LaRussas plans by hitting .338 with 12 home runs and 35 RBIs over his two months here in Memphis. Like Lankford, hell platoon in the outfield and provide a valuable lefthanded bat, with power, off the bench. On top of that, Mabry raises the Cardinals Good Guy Quotient incrementally. (Our trivia buffs will need to know that Mabry is the last Cardinal to have hit for the cycle, a trick he pulled in Denver on May 18, 1996.)
It may not be 1996, and this may or may not be a playoff year for Cardinal baseball. But if nothing else, Ray Lankford and John Mabry seem to have reaffirmed one famous adage, while maybe refuting another. Perhaps, after all, you can go home again.