The Cardinals In Time: Long Home Runs And Tony’s Arrival

During the offseason we have been taking a look at the past, giving readers a timeline of St. Louis baseball throughout history. Last time we learned about the some tough times for the Cardinals as the roster was weak, the front office was in shambles, and the team was going nowhere fast. In 1995 Anheuser-Busch put the team up for sale and the team finished the season without a manager. Who was coming in to take over?

Walt Jocketty wasted little time trying to turn things around after taking over as general manager of the Cardinals. He had to show a little patience, however, to get the manager he wanted. Joe Torre was out after roughly five rather lackluster years, and at the end of the 1995 season Jocketty got his man. He called up good friend Tony LaRussa and lured him to the Gateway City after spending ten years in Oakland, picking up three AL pennants and one World Series title.

Tony had his own way of doing things, and many fans initially balked at some of his decisions. The number one choice? Choosing to give a stronger portion of playing time to young shortstop Royce Clayton rather than stalwart and fan favorite Ozzie Smith. Ozzie still had a strong year at the plate, hitting .282/.358/.370 over 82 games, and his competition was weaker. Clayton had a .277/.321/.371 line.

The turnover in players between 1995 and 1996 was startling. The pitching rotation added Andy Benes and Todd Stottlemyre in the rotation as well as closer Dennis Eckersley, while the starting nine saw newcomers Gary Gaetti, Ron Gant, and old friend Willie McGee. The biggest switch on the field for the year was the actual field – the team returned to natural grass after using Astroturf since 1970.

The team started slowly, going just 41-40 in the first half. After the All-Star game, they started to climb. An eight game winning streak from August 30 to September 7 took Tony’s team from 2.5 back to 1.5 up, and they never looked back. After winning the division on the backs of Andy Benes’ 18 win season, the team ran into the machine known as the 1990’s Braves in the NLCS. They battled, but could not win out over the starting rotation of Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Denny Neagle. For a young Cardinals’ fan experiencing her first memories of Cardinals postseason baseball, this was a bittersweet end to the season. I still hold a grudge.

A 88-74 season in 1996 went almost completely backwards in 1997, as the team finished 73-89 and found themselves fourth in the five team NL Central. Rookie Matt Morris had a strong year for the starting rotation, finishing with a team best 12-9 record, 3.19 ERA, 217 innings pitched and 1.276 WHIP. This earned him second place in the Rookie of the Year voting.

Never over .500, Jocketty nevertheless made a July 31 trade with the A’s. The Cardinals passed Eric Ludwick, TJ Matthews and Blake Stein to the A’s in return for Mark McGwire. McGwire hit 24 home runs over the final two months, but only hit .253. In fact, no one on the team hit over .300 on the season. The closest was none other than Willie McGee, who hit .300 exactly. Four outfielders played in 115+ games – some things never change with LaRussa.

Does anyone remember anything about the 1998 season besides the home run chase? I do not. Considering Houston absolutely ran away with the division, winning 102 games, no one cared about anything besides waiting for Big Mac to hit his next blast. The team was already back 10.5 games at the break, and although they did put together an 18-7 September, they were much too far out of contention to ever put any pressure on the division leaders.

Yes, the real story for the Cardinals was McGwire. He and Cubs’ outfielder Sammy Sosa were neck and neck all season, trading blasts and actually becoming somewhat of friends over the course of the season. On September 7, McGwire tied the single season record of 61 home runs in a season, only to break it the next night with Roger Maris’ family in attendance, against Sosa’s Cubs no less! Baseball was on the way back up after having received such a large black eye with the 1994 strike. People were finding reasons to come back to the ballpark, and baseball was smiling again.

As for the team, 1999 was another forgetful year. I absolutely did not remember how dominant Houston was for a few years. It makes the Astros current issues that much more awful. This year did not have much to offer the Cardinals. McGwire had 65 home runs, and Kent Bottenfield had the only good year of his career, going 18-7, but this team was going nowhere fast, and no one seemed to care.

One interesting footnote to this season is 25 year old rookie starting pitcher Jose Jimenez. His season looks unremarkable, his career even more so, but for two games in 1999, Jimenez outdueled a future Hall of Famer. On June 25 in Arizona, Jimenez faced Randy Johnson and matched him out for out through the first eight innings. In the top of the ninth the Cardinals pushed a run across through two walks and a single to left. Jimenez closed out the ninth to finish a no hitter. It is not every day that a rookie outdoes Randy Johnson, but then he did it twice. Just two starts later the two squared off again, this time in St. Louis. Jimenez again came out on top of a 1-0 score, although this time the Cardinals only made him wait until the fourth to get a run, and he gave up two hits. These were literally the two greatest games of his career, and they came in the course of three games on the way to a 5-14, 5.85 ERA season.

2000 showed a team that started out very strong in April (17-8), then fluctuated for the next 4 months, playing a little better than .500 ball from May through August. However, two trades in July bringing relief pitcher Mike Timlin and veteran infielder Will Clark to the Cardinals primed the team to finish the year strong. Rookie pitcher Rick Ankiel showed his phenom status by going 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA, which earned him a second place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting. Newcomer Darryl Kile felt a career resurgence in his first year out of the thin Denver air and went 20-9, the only twenty win season of his career that ended too soon. All five starting pitchers had eleven or more wins.

On the offensive side, another newcomer in centerfielder Jim Edmonds led the team with a .295/.411/.583 batting line, racking up 103 walks, 167 strikeouts (does the term ‘free swinger’ mean anything to you?), 42 home runs and 108 runs batted in. With all that he eventually accomplished in St. Louis, it almost seems unreal that he was 30 years old already when he arrived to the Cardinals.

The team made a solid run in the postseason, pushing past the Braves in the Division Series despite a bout of wildness by starting pitcher Rick Ankiel. However, they were run over by the scorching hot Mets in the NLCS, and the Mets were the ones that went on to the Series, squaring off against the Yankees in the Subway Series.

Tony had pushed the team back into the upper half of baseball, and the team had the pieces in place to stay there for awhile. Would they?

Angela Weinhold covers the Cardinals for and writes at Cardinal Diamond Diaries. You may follow her on Twitter here or follow Cardinal Diamond Diaries here.

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