The Tumbling House of Cards

In July of 1967, the Cardinals’ pennant hopes were seemingly dashed when a line drive off the bat of Roberto Clemente smacked off Bob Gibson’s leg, breaking a small bone just below the kneecap. Gibby would be out of action for over two months, and the Cardinals had to rely on a young and unproven Nelson Briles to fill the void in the rotation. To the casual observer, the situation seemed hopeless; coming into the 1967 season, Briles had a career record of 7 wins and 18 losses; not exactly Gibson-esque type numbers, to say the least. While Cardinal Nation braced for the worst, all Briles did was go 14-5 with a sparkling 2.42 ERA, while subbing for the seemingly irreplaceable Gibson; and the Redbirds were on their way to a World Championship.

After all was said and done, the injury to the Cards’ pitching ace was clearly a blessing in disguise, not only allowing Briles to come into his own in the starting rotation, but allowing Gibson to rest that right arm of his, and come back stronger than ever; just in time for the World Series showdown with the Boston Red Sox. Gibson took care of three wins, while his young understudy, Nellie Briles, notched the other one; naturally.

Of course, the following season, a very fresh Bob Gibson tore through the National League’s opposing lineups effortlessly, on his way to 22 wins and an incredible 1.12 ERA. Thanks in large part to his dominance on the mound, the baseball hierarchy promptly decided to lower the mound a few inches the very next season, in an attempt to revitalize offensive production, to keep the fans happy; and most importantly, keep them coming to the games and drinking that beer and eating those hot dogs.

Interestingly enough, the Cardinals got lucky again; this time in 1982; when their young “phenom”, David Green, pulled a hamstring trying to leg out an infield hit during an early May encounter with the Braves at Busch Stadium. While the crowd groaned, the wheels had been set in motion to bring up rookie Willie McGee to fill in for the injured Green.

McGee, of course, did much more than “fill in” for the now expendable former “phenom”; by the start of the ’85 season, David Green had been dealt to San Francisco, along with a few other expendable players, for a guy known as “Jack the Ripper”; aka Jack Clark. Clark fit in nicely with his new team, leading the Cards to two World Series appearances in the three seasons he was with the team.

Ironically, it was an ankle injury Clark sustained in September of 1987, that hastened his departure from the team, following a dismal World Series defeat to the Homer Hanky Twins, where Clark was out of action (along with Terry Pendleton), and feared not quite healed for the following season. Exit “Jack the Ripper; enter “Bob the Blob” Horner; a guy way past his prime, and unable to hit with any power whatsoever. The Cardinals would begin a sustained stretch of dismal performance that would not end until 1996.

Backing up to 1985, the Cards began the season poorly, losing their first four games, and looking like a team heading nowhere; especially since their star centerfielder, Mr McGee, was himself banged up and forced to go on the disabled list for a while. That prompted the front office to bring up a young speedster named Vince Coleman, to “temporarily” fill the void created by the loss of McGee.

Vincent “Van Go” quickly became the catalyst to an offense geared towards scratching out runs; his 110 stolen bases paced the Redbirds’ offensive attack through the regular season, as the Cards finally slipped past the New York Mets to claim the division title.

The Cardinals’ postseason prospects suddenly seemed in jeopardy, however, as Coleman was somehow run over by a speeding tarp, clocked at one mile per hour; sending the game’s fastest player out of commission after three games of the NLDS against the Dodgers. The Cards survived Coleman’s loss in that series, but it may have spelled the difference as St Louis fell to Kansas City in heartbreaking fashion, in the World Series; in seven gut wrenching games.

During the Cardinals’ improbable championship season of 2006, the team was able to piece things together while injuries sidelined key players; most notably, Scott Rolen; which in turn, allowed Scott Speizio to heroically fill in at third base, and become a folk-hero in the process. As the oft-injured Rolen sulked, the team thrived without him, while manager Tony LaRussa decided Rolen was himself quite expendable, and sent him packing for Toronto – the equivalent of baseball “solitary confinement”; few expected Rolen to be the type of dominant player he was in his heyday with the Redbirds, and for a few seasons, he remained in oblivion; until this year.

Now, Scott Rolen is patrolling third base for the dreaded Cincinnati Reds, and has had a rare injury-free season; his offensive production has been stellar, to go along with his gold-glove type defensive play at third base. Clearly, when Scott Rolen is healthy, he is still a very fine ballplayer, and has found a “home” with the revitalized Reds; much to the dismay of TLR.

By contrast, the Cardinals’ third baseman, David Freese, who was a productive .296 hitter for the team through the end of June, has been lost for the season with a leg injury. Unlike other years, when the Cards were able to find replacements for fallen stars, this season has been a frustrating “merry go round” of largely unproductive third sackers; while the team consistently struggles to manufacture any sort of offensive threat beyond Pujols and Holliday. Losing Freese may have been downplayed at the time, but the team’s steady decline into a distant second place position can at least partly be attributed to losing Freese’s bat in the lineup.

The second part of the recipe for disaster has been the loss of Brad Penny; a solid starting pitcher who could even hit a bit. All those innings Penny was counted on to work for the Cards has been filled by journeymen pitchers who have trouble getting anybody out; especially in the late innings with the game on the line. Unfortunately for the Redbirds, the team had no “Nelson Briles” waiting in the wings to pick up the slack for the rotation; the trickle down effect has created a bullpen that has been a major disappointment since blowing that huge lead (8 runs?) in Colorado, in early July. To prove that was no fluke, they’ve accomplished similar results over this lackluster second half of play; allowing the Reds to take command of the race, while the Cards eat their dust. It’s a revolting development, to say the least.

Barring a total miracle finish, the Cardinals will face a bitterly disappointing off-season, while they try to regroup for next season. In the meatime, the front office must put together a multi-multi-million dollar contract to placate their greatest player since Stan Musial; Albert “Winnie the” Pujols. If they fail to placate Albert the Great, and he moves on to another team, this franchise will be in a total shambles. Imagine where the team would be this year without him; imagine that same scenario for the next decade or so.

Assuming Pujols stays right where he belongs, the task of rebuilding the team to its position among the National League’s elite, will be less daunting; assuming they can just stay healthy.

That is of course, a very big assumption; being “lucky” in any given year is a major requirement, even for teams that seem to have the clear advantage “on paper”; sound familiar?

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