Tag Archive | "Heroics"

Cardinals Position of Interest: Organization Third Base

The scene at third base for the Cardinals has been an ever changing one in recent years. It was one they addressed in multiple ways over the past five years, by drafting two collegiate third basemen in the past 4 first rounds, and trading for another. The one that was acquired via traded panned out for the best, and now David Freese has become the clear long-term preference at spot.


However, the club is aware that the page will turn on even him soon enough, and have recently once again focused heavily on upgrading the position within the organization. What does this mean for the team, both now and moving ahead?

Majors: Freese has stepped up to become one of the main bricks in the foundation of the organization. His postseason heroics in 2011 pushed him up a notch on baseball’s radar, and he responded in kind with his first All-Star appearance last season. Biggest difference in his performance was that he stayed healthy across a full season to post the type of numbers he was capable of all along. He played in a career-high 144 games a year ago, and posted career bests in over eight categories along the way. The 29-year-old is under control via arbitration for another two seasons, and if he remains healthy, will be the mainstay through his prime.

Matt Carpenter (who basically seems like the fallback option at every position on the team) rose through the system at the hot corner is a very credible back up option. At age 27 however, his best years and Freese’s will occur simultaneously, thus the desire to try his hand (and bat) in other more available roles. Daniel Descalso is also capable of spending time there if needed. He made 61 starts at the position in 2011 filling in while Freese missed time due to a fractured hand.

High Minors: Moving to Memphis, there’s no true next of kin on deck. That distinction belonged to Zack Cox, the club’s 2010 first round pick, until last season when he was exchanged for Edward Mujica at trade deadline. Moving down to the Double-A, the same story carries over; there was no real prospect that is moving through the system that has a potential future impact in St. Louis. The idea could be that Stephen Piscotty, who has moonlighted in right field but played third in his debut last year at Quad Cities at the High-A level.

Low Minors: The lower rungs of the minors show where the franchise is starting to plan for the future at the position, as it is one of the positions most heavily focused on in recent years. In addition to Piscotty, the club took two more third basemen in the last spring’s draft in Patrick Wisdom and high schooler Carson Kelly. Both were included in Baseball Prospectus’ Top 10 prospects for the organization this season.  Wisdom hit .282 in short season Batavia in his pro debut as a 20 year old, while Kelly hit nine homers in 56 games at Rookie level Johnson City.

Prognosis: While there is a bit of a gap from Major League level down to the next wave of talent at the position, the organization’s succession plan is clear. In the next three seasons, Freese will likely continue to be option A in St. Louis, with Carpenter in tow in some capacity as well potentially. The club used the 2012 Draft to provide plenty of long-term options over the next half decade to succeed Freese in St. Louis, or at the very least, work into a role with the Cardinals in a capacity such as Carpenter has over the last two years.

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David Freese and the time value of money

The St. Louis Cardinals reached an agreement with third baseman David Freese on Friday on a deal for the 2013 season. The deal will be for a reported $3.1 million dollars, and with it, the team avoided heading to arbitration to settle the deal. However, the deal represents the just beginning of potentially difficult decision making process over the next few years. And the relationship between the 30-year old and the club could be put the test as well.

MLB: NLCS-San Francisco Giants at St. Louis Cardinals

Freese represents a paradox in several areas. He’s a late bloomer that’s coming into his own during his prime seasons. While his 2011 postseason heroics and honors set the tone, he really put his stamp on his future in what he delivered in the follow up season. In 2012, he played a career-high 144 games, while hitting for a .293 average, along with 25 home runs, 79 RBI, 25 doubles and 70 runs scored, all career highs as well. He took this into his first arbitration-eligible season, and the Cardinals responded with a $2.4 offer, while Freese’s agent countered with a $3.75 million offer. While they settled at about the middle point between the offers, he’s in a position to get some substantial jumps up the ladder in the next few years.

Freese is entering into his negotiation years at an interesting time, for both player and club. The third base market has seen the majority of its top flight players locked to contracts the last two years. Ryan Zimmerman, David Wright, Evan Longoria and Martin Prado have all received new contracts at the position in recent memory, essentially setting the bar for money at the position for the near future. These deals average at around $15 million per year over the life of a five year deal, and each represents a franchise cornerstone. However, it’s Prado’s deal from last month that is the most intriguing when accessing what Freese’s worth could be.

The 29 year old Prado signed a four-year, $40 million extension with the Arizona Diamondbacks shortly after being traded from Atlanta last month. This deal represents what he will play at through his majority prime years (it will expire when he’s 330. It is a cut below the massive deals that aforementioned group received, but still a very a solid value-to-length deal. The similarities between the Freese and Prado are there as well: both are one-time All-Stars, with similar career batting numbers (Prado a .295 career hitter, Freese .296). Prado is a more versatile option in the field, but Freese carries a .345 career postseason batting average, a place where much of his value comes into play.

Freese is a large part of the foundation of the Cardinals going ahead, although he’s a notch below the type of cornerstone performer Wright or Zimmerman is. He’ll play this season at age 30, and is past the type of deal that either a young player or a player with longer resume would get at his age. While a medium-length/annual salary deal such as Prado received makes sense, it’s also hindered by his arbitration status. More likely than not, the Prado-like extension wouldn’t be approached until terms are exchanged next year, and for good reason. The raise he will play at this season is a raise of $2.6 million. If he continues to play at the level he established last year, a comparable raise could continue along, rising at close to the $7 million per year level by the time he is eligible to hit the open market in two years.

The Cardinals could very easily continue to maintain Freese through his arbitration seasons as a cost controlled option that continues to be a “wait and see” property. But if the subtle, yet hard line he stood this winter is any indication of what’s to come, Freese understands his value, and he won’t be long for having non-committal terms. Especially as he’s playing through his highest earning potential seasons, and the team is showing a willingness to put money up early to avoid arbitration, such as they did with closer Jason Motte last month.

There are several lines of legit questioning that can go into such a deal, many of which will be answered this year. Can he have another healthy summer? Will he continue to grow as an offensive presence, has he did a year ago or plateau? Obviously, the franchise won’t be forced into having to make a deal for two more years, which will serve as a fair measuring ground of what to do. A deal over five years would be difficult, which age as a primary consideration. Also, there’s the fact that much of the core of the team is in a similar place, with year-to-year deals with Allen Craig, Jon Jay and Lance Lynn to tend to.

But locking Freese up to a deal has some urgency to it that cannot be denied either. He’s a productive and already showing his prime level of play, but the Cardinals are also evolving as a team regularly now, and will be on the verge of a mini-youth movement over the next two years, as their top shelf prospects begin to push into the picture at the Major League level. Finding the right deal to keep Freese situated in St. Louis is important, and provides face and play value stability to the team at difficult position to do so at. However, timing is everything. And there is nobody wearing the birds on bat has a more bi-polar relationship with time than Freese does now.

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David Freese Cracks Top Ten Right Now

Fans of MLB Network know that they have been subjecting players to “The Shredder” for statistical analysis to determine the top ten players at each position right now.

In an episode of the show, hosted by Brian Kenny, that will air Friday night, i70baseball has learned from an MLB Network executive that St. Louis Cardinal David Freese will indeed be featured as one of the top 10 thirdbaseman in baseball.

Photo Courtesy of/Copyright Erika Lynn

Photo Courtesy of/Copyright Erika Lynn

The “Top Ten Right Now” series is enjoying it’s third incarnation and will feature a Cardinal third baseman for the first time when Freese’s name is revealed.  Sabermetric Godfather Bill James and former Oriole second baseman Bill Ripken will be on hand with Kenny to help analyze The Shredder’s results and provide their own lists for comparison.

Bill James:
“The only thing you like about him really is the bat. He [has] a terrific bat, quick bat, hits the ball hard [to] straightaway center. He’s not a defensive wonder, he’s not a base stealer, but he does hit.”

Freese has garnered some attention since his now famous heroics in the 2011 Post Season.  However, it was 2012 that helped solidify that Freese could be seen as a consistent contributor to the Cardinals roster.   A player that has battled injuries for most of his career, Freese was able to take the field for 144 games last season and show solid production while he was at it.

Bill Ripken:
“When King Albert left and went out to Los Angeles to play with the Angels, here’s one of the guys that picked up the slack.”

He would reach career highs in almost every offensive category, posting a .293/.372/.467 “slash line” while hitting 20 home runs and driving in 79.  He was a spark plug at times for the 2012 team and added much needed depth in the lower part of the lineup.  He would achie his first appearance in the midsummer classic after being voted in as the final roster spot by fans on the heels of a very successful social media campaign for the position.

Brian Kenny:
“Freese has established himself now as a solid contributor to the Cardinals.”

“He’s a player who isn’t great at any one thing, but is above average everywhere and that makes you an excellent player.”

“Last year, [he had] 20 homers, .293 batting average, 57 walks. Just enough power, average and plate selection to add up to sixth in OPS among qualifying third basemen last year.”

Freese’s future looks bright for the team and the team is currently in negotiations with the home town hero to avoid arbitration and possibly secure him to a long term deal.

The show will air at 8pm Central Time on MLB Network, Friday February 8th.

Bill Ivie is the editor here at I-70 Baseball
Follow him on Twitter here.

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Magical Numbers

Strange things happen when the baseball gods begin waving their magic bats over the otherwise earthly progressions of the game.

Sometimes the ball bounces funny; sometimes it doesn’t bounce off anything but a seat in the stands. Sometimes it takes an odd, fateful curve fair…or foul. Good teams lose games they shouldn’t, bad teams win games they shouldn’t, and the order of the standings can look completely different from week to week.

But baseball is and forever will be a numbers game. Advanced baseball statistics are a cottage industry these days, yet a .300 average, 30 home runs, and 100 RBI will never be looked at as a bad year.

Other numbers seem to just come from nowhere. The St. Louis Cardinals, most recently, were the direct object of such weirdness. By this point, the tale is well-known: 10.5 games back on August 25; three games back with five to play; clinching on the now-infamous night of Game 162. It took 11 postseason wins to clinch their 11th World Series championship in 2011, known forever for the Game 6 heroics that culminated with David Freese’s dramatic walk-off home run in, of course, the 11th inning.

That kind of stuff never happens more than once if it happens at all. That’s why it was so magical. But even the best of the best and the worst of the worst can’t keep baseball from bringing it weird every once in a while. Last season, the Pittsburgh Pirates lost a heartbreaking 19-inning game to the Atlanta Braves on a possibly bad call at the plate. The Pirates never recovered, and soon skidded out of playoff contention—a place they had not been since 1992, when they lost the NLCS to none other than the Atlanta Braves on a Game 7 walk-off single that scored former Pirate and notorious base path clogger Sid Bream. This year, the Pirates and Cardinals hooked up for their own 19 inning affair. The winner would take two of three in the series. It meant the difference between a tie for the second Wild Card spot or the Bucs leaving St. Louis with their heads held high and some breathing room. And the Pirates’ fortunes were different this time around; they beat the Cards to claim a two game lead on the playoff spot. Yet somehow, less than a week later, the Cardinals have leapfrogged the Pirates in a four-game swing that has the Redbirds out in front in the second Wild Card spot by two games. Sometimes even momentum gets smacked back to the ground by karma.

To get there, the Cardinals beat the NL Central-leading Cincinnati Reds 8-5 Friday night. But this wasn’t a typical victory. The Reds led 5-2 after five innings, and the game was inching dangerously close to getting into the hands of the vaunted Cincy bullpen. Starter Mat Latos was cruising along, as he had done for the entire month of August to this point: going into Friday’s game, Latos had an ERA of less than one over four starts and averaged over seven innings per start. Then, almost out of nowhere, the Cardinals caught fire and torched the Reds in the sixth. When it was all said and done, Latos finished only five innings and allowed seven earned runs, equaling what he had allowed over his last six outings combined.

So now, the Cardinals find themselves looking at that magical date again: August 25. Except they are currently in a playoff spot, and are only one and a half games back of the Braves for the top Wild Card slot. If the season ended today, the Braves and Cards would play each other for the NL Wild Card. Funny how that works, huh? The Cards are also only six games behind the Reds in the Central. They don’t need to rely on a miracle run this year. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have one in them.

Last year, the Cardinals were a team that exceeded expectations at the end of the year to do what they did. In 2012, they have never quite lived up to expectations. Their offensive output and pitching prowess have not translated into the win-loss record everyone expected. The Cards constantly seem to be getting in their own way when it comes to putting together a run of victories. Their current winning streak stands at four, and this would be the best possible time to win six in a row or 10 of 11 or something. Is it possible? Certainly. Is it likely? Who knows…

But that’s why they play 162. The Cardinals got a big win Friday night; a win by the Reds Saturday renders it almost meaningless. And then they’ll do it all over again on Sunday. A pitch here, a bloop there…win or lose, as long as there are outs to give and games to play, nothing is impossible and nothing is decided.

Chris Reed also writes for InsideSTL Mondays and Bird Brained whenever he feels like it. Follow him on Twitter at @birdbrained.

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A Season of Allen Craig

This week, the St. Louis Cardinals found out exactly what a full Major League season of Allen Craig looks like. He has now played in 156 games and collected over 500 plate appearances in the big leagues. The numbers are in…and they look pretty good.

In his time with the Cardinals during the regular season, Craig sports a .297 batting average with 25 home runs, 95 RBI, and a better than .880 OPS. He does have 100 strikeouts against only 42 walks, so perhaps his pitch selection could be a bit better. But those numbers are great. Craig is just one of those players who goes out and rakes.

The problem, of course, is that it has taken Craig parts of three seasons to get one season’s worth of stats on his résumé. Injuries have definitely taken a toll on the slugger’s playing time early in his career. The good news is, the biggest injury he sustained was a result of hustling his ass off and crashing into the wall knee first and not some muscle or tendon pull as a result of poor conditioning or other weakness. The time he missed certainly still counts, but a freak accident injury is something entirely different from being injury prone. It will take more time to see if Craig is predisposed to weird injuries or not.

Craig’s true breakout may have come in the 2011 World Series. Though he only hit .263, Craig had three home runs and an otherworldly 1.154 OPS. Pretty much every other performance in that series got overshadowed by David Freese’s heroics, and he certainly deserved the MVP award. But Craig at least had a case to be in the conversation. Many of his offensive numbers were very close to Freese, and he added some flash with the catch over the wall and go-ahead home run in Game 7. In fact, most of his RBI were of either the go-ahead or game-winning variety. Craig was clutch in that World Series. Remember the hits off Alexei Ogando in the first two games? Overall, Craig had just as big a part in the Cards winning that series as Freese, Chris Carpenter, and Albert Pujols.

Not too shabby for a player who one week will play several positions and the next week seem to be a man without a position. Under Tony LaRussa, Craig played everywhere on the field except pitcher, catcher, and shortstop. New manager Mike Matheny has thus far kept Craig in the outfield or at first base, an important position for him to excel in with Lance Berkman’s return uncertain.

But that is a great question: What happens if/when Berkman does come back? Where do the Cardinals play Craig if everyone else is healthy? He was capable playing elsewhere in the infield, but he was not great. With an outfield of Matt Holliday, Jon Jan and Carlos Beltran and everyone’s healthy and producing, who sits? It would be a nice problem to have…unless your name is Allen Craig.

Craig has proven he belongs in the big leagues; now he needs to prove he can stay off the disabled list. He is forcing management on and off the field to take notice by putting up rock-solid numbers. If they continue and his time on the field stabilizes, Craig has a fine career in front of him.

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Coach Berkman

*Note: at the time of the writing of this article, Adam Wainwright had just completed a four-hit shutout, which provided a tremendous boost to an overused St. Louis Cardinal bullpen and a huge step towards Waino reaching the consistency he desperately longs to regain. He struck out 9 and walked only 1 and said “..that might be the best feeling I’ve ever had pitching…I’ve done some things that are pretty fun, but I can never remember feeling that emotional after a game”. Huge news in Cardinal Nation, but not a topic I want to delve into in this  space…however, rest assured that weighs easy on this writer’s mind as we deal with a tougher topic here…

Lance Berkman.

He is one of the guys that reminds me that baseball is ultimately a game people play because they love it, or at least at one point in time they did.  Berkman is one of the few guys that does not give “jock-talk” interviews, but actually speaks openly and honestly with the media. He stands up and takes the heat when the team does not play well. He is refreshingly honest about what he is good at, and what he is not. And he is also a dang good baseball player.

2011 postseason heroics aside (which will always be revered in Cardinal Nation), Berkman revitalized his career after a very disappointing and injury marred 2010. For the season, he played in 145 games, hitting 31 HRs 94 RBI and a slash line of .301/.412/.547. He was, in my opinion, unquestionably the first half MVP last year, putting up 24 HR and 63 RBI by the All-Star break. He did all of this after rehabbing a knee injury that greatly hurt his 2010 performance. Many doubted at 35 years old, he would be able to return to “the Berkman of old”, and that the Cardinals were throwing 8 million dollars down the drain last season.

We all know how that story ended. Berkman was a key piece of the 2011 World Series title, felt he could still contribute at a high level, and wanted to stay in St. Louis. Speaking openly with the club and the media, he said his services should be worth 12 million for the 2012 season, and the Cardinals agreed. Contract signed. Full speed ahead in the attempts to defend the crown.

Then come the injuries.

Berkman had just returned from the DL when he re-injured his right knee last weekend against the Dodgers, on a seemingly routine play. An MRI Monday revealed a tearing of the meniscus and cartilage responsible for cushioning the knee. Berkman is undergoing surgery this week, which will be his fifth knee surgery. Early prognosis is he will be sidelined a minimum of six weeks.

I bragged on Berkman’s honesty earlier, and will again. He is just not sure he wants to go through the grinding rehab one more time to get himself back to playing at an elite level at 36 years old. I can not say I blame him for feeling that way. It would be a terrible way for him to go out, but reality is, he may never play again. There is some time needed to figure out what the rehab process will look like following surgery, but I began to run through the “what-ifs’ regarding a Berkman retirement…and not from the standpoint of replacing his production on the field, but figuring out a way to keep his leadership, toughness, and knowledge within the organization.

The Cardinals have shown a trend towards hiring former players as coaches in recent years. Jose Oquendo has been third base coach for a long time, Mark McGwire the hitting coach the last two seasons, and John Mabry was brought into the fold as assistant hitting coach this season. Why not make Berkman an offer to stay on as a coach if he finds out his playing days are done? I realize there is not an open slot at this moment, but the organization should make a commitment to him, just like they did Mike Matheny, and give him a chance to scout or coach.

Of course, there is a great chance he would say no. He may want to return to his ranch in Texas or even rejoin the Astros organization. I just hope Mozeliak would make his best effort to keep Berkman in the mix after his playing days are over. The organization would be much stronger for it.

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Time to welcome back baseball

The winter chill has come and gone in much of the country, and it has given way to one of the greatest weeks on the sporting calendar. The teams of Major League Baseball will return to 30 palaces of green grass spread throughout the land to play a game, a game that makes the summer magical.

When we last saw this game, St. Louis Cardinals third baseman David Freese was holding one finger in the air as he rounded first base to end Game 6 of the World Series at Busch Stadium after hitting one of the greatest homeruns in baseball history.

Freese’s 11th-inning homer that October night tied the Cardinals at three games apiece before they finished off the Texas Rangers with a 6-2 win the following night.

Those heroics and magical moments have faded into memories during the winter, and the day-to-day news of Major League Baseball constantly reminds us that this is a business, and that such a huge operation is never as innocent as we all want to believe.

The National League’s Most Valuable Player, Ryan Braun, battled a steroid scandal. The greatest hitter in the game, Albert Pujols, left the Midwest to play in Los Angeles for more money than each of the three lottery winners won this week. Commissioner Bud Selig instituted another wild-card team into the playoffs and helped move the Houston Astros to the American League next year.

All of those issues take the game farther away from its traditional roots, but come the first week of April all of that fades to the background and fans will return to the ballpark for the pure joy of watching a classic American tradition play out before them.

The pageantry of baseball’s first week is fantastic. In many places, Opening Day is a day that feels unlike any other on the calendar. It’s not exactly a holiday, but there is an excitement throughout the city that life is good again. The weather will become increasingly warmer and fans can look forward to enjoying a game each day for the next six months. Some games will be frustrating, but that’s what makes the good games all the more special.

Other sports are great and each one has its special qualities. But, no sport plays every single day the way baseball does. Others have big beginning-of-the season parties, but then they play games once every couple of days or once a week. Their schedules are choppy; baseball is soothingly dependable.

A baseball season has almost the perfect balance. There is always another game following a disappointing loss, but at the same time that statement doesn’t carry enough wait to make the current game meaningless.

So, come Wednesday evening the six bad months of the year will be over and baseball fans everywhere will be able to tune in and watch the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals play the Miami Marlins in the opening of the Marlins’ brand new ballpark.

That night will likely be filled with plenty of joy and excitement because a real baseball game will be played after more than a month of exhibition games in Florida and Arizona, but the night will also be a chance for fans to take a deep breath and say, “Boy, life feels a little better now because the baseball season is back.”

There will be plenty of time to discuss all of the particulars of the game, the teams and the players. This week, however, please take a moment to step back and simply enjoy the fact that there is baseball being played.

There are a lot of issues in each of our lives, but a game of baseball is a chance to forget about everything else and enjoy life for nine innings. Don’t forget that.

Happy Opening Week, everybody.

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Freese Alert

See what I did with that title there? A pun, a play on words! I am writing from the beautiful land of 64 degree Austin, TX, but know many Cardinals fans are dealing with wintry precipitation goodness. Last week, we had a warm fuzzy remembrance of the Wizard, and took a look at the Cardinals shortstop position heading into the 2012 season. This week, I figured we could move one spot over in the infield and look at third base. Be prepared that you are about to be put on “Freese Alert”!

Photo Courtesy Of Erika Lynn

David Freese must have had the off-season of a lifetime, following his 2011 postseason heroics. His story of hometown hero leading his team to a World Series championship has been well documented to this point. More than a hometown hero, Freese exemplified the humility and character that Cardinal Nation loves following his postseasons successes.

With yesterday being Valentine’s Day, my twitter timeline was filled of thoughts of fondness towards Freese from female Cardinals fans. A lot of them think he is pretty easy on the eyes and make their opinion known in the cybersphere! So for many reasons, Cardinal Nation is pulling for Freese to have a great 2012 season on the heels of the 2011 playoffs. Everything is wine and roses right now, with all of the excitement of spring training just around the corner. As much as I do not want to be the guy that rains on that parade, I do want to bring to the forefront areas of concern for the Cardinals at the hot corner this season. You are officially on Freese Alert!

For the 2011 season, Freese hit seven home runs and batted .315 in 213 at-bats. The natural tendency is to multiply those numbers by three and project what kind of production we could see from him in a full season. The problem is he has yet to play a full season since coming to the Cardinals. From 2009-2011, Freese has a total of 667 plate appearances.

Digging even deeper into the numbers provides some telling statistics. Last season, Freese had a .357 babip (batting average on balls-in-play). This is extremely higher than league average. Also troubling is percentage of ground balls to fly balls. Of balls-in-play off the bat of Freese last year, 52% were hit on the ground and only 23% were fly balls. Freese does not have good speed to turn many of those ground balls into base hits, and the best power hitters in the league will have a 35-45% fly ball ratio. Freese was aided by the fact that 17% of the fly balls he hit left the yard. Obviously, he hit the ball well enough to leave the park, but the point I am making was that 17% was well above career norms for Freese. The prior two seasons, his home runs/fly ball ratio was 8 and 9%. Historically, league average always falls to 10% hr/fly ball.

So if (and that is a big if), Freese gets 600 at-bats in 2012, we know that he usually strikes out 20% of the time. That leaves 480 ABs where the ball is put in play. Of those, if he bumps up his fb% to 30 from 23, he will hit 144 fly balls. If hr/fb ratio falls back in line with his 09-10 totals and league averages (10%), we could reasonably expect 14 home runs from Freese over a full season.

My goal is not to bore you with stats, but hopefully provide a balanced perspective on what we saw last season. If healthy, Freese could hit 20 home runs this season. He also could get 400 ABs and hit 5 home runs with a .270 average.

Certainly not here to rain on anyone’s start of spring training parade, but I do feel the need to raise an issue of concern at the hot corner for the Cardinals this season.

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Goodbye, Tony

Tony La Russa will be remembered for a lot of different things by a lot of different people. The man spent the better part of four decades in the Major Leagues, some as a below-average bench player, most as a Hall of Fame manager. The man won three World Series championships, becoming the second manager in history to win a title in both leagues. He won more than 27-hundred games, defended his players, and coached his players to play the right way: The Cardinal way.

I remember when Tony La Russa came to St. Louis in November of 1995. I was 10 years old, and had always liked playing and watching baseball. Growing up in St. Louis, the Cardinals were my favorite team. But I had never experienced “winning” baseball… frankly, I didn’t even really know or appreciate what it was. I remembered watching the Atlanta Braves beat the Cleveland Indians in the 1995 World Series just a month earlier at my grandpa’s house, but that was really my only real “clue” to what winning was all about. In 1994, there was no World Series due to the strike, and in 1993 my 8-year-old self was not aware of Joe Carter and his walk-off heroics in the World Series. The Cardinals hadn’t been to the playoffs since I was two-years-old (1987) so I was really kept in the dark on the whole “winning” thing.

But then came the Spring of ’96. The Cardinals’ slogan for the year was “Baseball Like it ‘Oughta Be.” I vividly remember a full-page ad the Cardinals’ new ownership took out in the St. Louis Post Dispatch that year, namely because my grandpa cut it out and hung it up on the wall on his basement. Now, many of the phrases escape my memory, but I do remember this much about that nearly-poetic advertisement were:

“It oughta be real grass. It oughta be outfielders diving for a dying quail. It oughta be 2 bucks for a kid. It oughta be something to talk about with your girlfriend’s dad. It oughta be fun. Baseball like it oughta be.”

And how fitting that slogan was.

Tony La Russa embodied that motto for 16 seasons in St. Louis. He wasn’t perfect, but he always tried to have his players play the game the right way. “Play a hard nine” was among the manager’s personal mottos.

And with La Russa in charge, I got my first taste of winning baseball in St. Louis. The 1996 Cardinals went 88-74, good enough for first place in the NL Central Division and a trip to the playoffs. I remember watching rightfielder Brian Jordan squeeze the final out that clinched the division, and the celebration was on. The Cardinals dispatched the San Diego Padres in 3 games in the NLDS, and came within one game of a trip to the World Series, falling to the Atlanta Braves 4 games to 3. But despite the loss, it became official: I went from “liking” baseball to full-blown obsessed with it… and Tony La Russa was a big part of that. He was a huge part of bringing exciting, winning baseball back to millions of Cardinals fans, and sucked in new, younger fans like myself.

When I reached my teenage years, I remember going to a father-son banquet put on by my high school. Tony La Russa was the special guest speaker. Though I was completely tuned in, I don’t remember too many specifics from that speech… only that TLR could moonlight as a comedian if he wanted to. He was funny, charismatic, engaging, and classy.

In college, I got a chance to interview Tony La Russa when the St. Louis Cardinals came to Springfield, Missouri for a pair of exhibition games at Hammons Field, home of the Double-A affiliate Springfield Cardinals (by the way, on that Springfield team were guys you may have heard of: Allen Craig, Jon Jay, Jaime Garcia, Daniel Descalso, Fernado Salas, Mitchell Boggs, and Jason Motte. No wonder Springfield took Game 2 by a score of 10-3). At the time, I was working for the local NPR affiliate as a student reporter, and pleaded with the news director to let me cover the games. National Public Radio and its affiliates are not exactly known for their hard-hitting sports coverage and analysis, so I pitched a story idea about Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation. My news director bit and I was off to the ballpark for two days of Cardinals baseball.

Most of the reporters around were hamming Tony with questions about the team’s perceived weaknesses, their failures in 2007 (which turned out to be the ONLY losing season the Cardinals had in Tony’s final 12 years with the club), and other baseball-related issues. As we know, TLR can get a little testy at times, but when the dust settled and the other reporters left one-by-one, there I was: a giddy little Cardinals fan of 11 years meeting the man who changed everything about the way I viewed baseball in the form of a wet-behind-the-ears 20-something college reporter. I asked Tony about his Animal Relief Foundation, and he lit up. Tony has a major soft spot in his heart for animals. Here’s a portion of what I wrote back in 2008:

“St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa spends over 7 months on a baseball diamond every year, so it’s no surprise that his other passion, the Animal Rescue Foundation, began on the baseball diamond as well. During a game in 1990 while coaching for the Oakland Athletics, a stray cat ran onto the field. After a few minutes, La Russa coaxed the cat into the dugout and kept it there the rest of the game. La Russa says it didn’t take long for him to realize there weren’t any no-kill animal shelters in the bay area. So he co-founded the Animal Rescue Foundation, which saves animals who have run out of time at shelters and would otherwise be euthanized.”

Tony was very gracious and patient with me, and I had the memory of a lifetime.

It is now November of 2011, nearly 16 full years to the day when Tony took over as the Cardinals manager. For Cardinals fans under 30, we literally know nothing other than the Tony La Russa brand of Cardinals baseball. Was he or his brand of baseball perfect? No. I’m sure many older fans reading this miss seeing a little thing they like to call a “stolen base” (whatever that is), and in fact, one of the first articles I ever wrote for this website was on a litany of mistakes La Russa made in one game during the 2010 season: a 20 inning, 2-1 loss to the New York Mets. It was a game that saw pitchers hitting cleanup behind Albert Pujols TWICE in extra innings, and position players throwing 3 innings of relief in the latter stages of the game, all because Tony mismanaged his bullpen and bench. I titled that article “The Most Memorable Game of 2010.” (I think we all know what the most memorable game of 2011 was: the 11-inning thriller that was Game 6 of the World Series).

Tony La Russa will be remembered for many things: batting the pitcher 8th, using his bench players and bullpen like coins at an arcade, his outrageous tirades at postgame news conferences, his toughness on rookies, his loyalty towards his veterans, his 6 pennants, 3 World Series titles, and more than 27-hundred victories that will most surely guarantee that he’ll soon be entering Cooperstown and no one other player or coach will ever wear the number 10 in a St. Louis Cardinals uniform again.

But what I’ll remember Tony La Russa for is the face of Cardinals baseball during my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Other than radio broadcaster, Mike Shannon, no one in the Cardinals organization was around longer than Tony La Russa over the past 16 years. I’ll remember that my grandpa used to call him Tony “La Russo.” I’ll remember that some of his decisions used to drive me crazy, and I’ll remember that it sure was fun to watch his teams get after it.

Thank you, Tony, for bringing back that hard-nosed winning tradition to St. Louis. Thanks for leading us into the playoffs nine times in 16 seasons. Thanks for the two unforgettable World Series championships.

Thanks for giving us baseball like it oughta be.

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Game. Seven.

The emotion those two words invoke, and the implied level of importance are captured in cliches we’ve all been hearing about for weeks and weeks now. (And yes, the feeling is different than hearing the words “game” “five”.) It’s serious for players, but often is more serious for fans, who are sometimes not so matter-of-fact about teams & games that they neither play for or are a part of, save maybe occupying a seat in the stands.

I will obviously not be playing in the 7th game of the World Series at Busch Stadium tonight…or any other night, for that matter. But as a superstitious fan, I will be trying to do my part to “help” the Cardinals in the quest for their 11th World Championship.

I’ve been wearing the same shirt during games for weeks. I’ve sat in the same place on the couch to watch every postseason game. I’ve not shaved in a month (and it looks awful, by the way), or so much as trimmed it, nor have I gotten a haircut. I’ve only gone to the bathroom after the bottom of an inning ends, never the top. I’ve driven more than 25 miles to be sure I had the same meal. I had 5 gallons of milk in my refrigerator at one time, and even my girlfriend’s kids remind me daily to stick to my routine, be it a meal, or anything else they noticed me doing on the day of a win.

I have my superstitions, and there’s no shortage of them.

I’m not sure that I am capable of writing anything you’ve not heard, read or seen by this point, with regard to David Freese, and all the heroics from last night’s thriller. The 5 blown leads, the ‘down to their last strike’ twice, all of those things have been covered very well over the past several hours. I thought Bernie’s piece in particular was one of many great reads on the topic, and Alyson Footer also wrote an interesting piece today–you should check them both out.

All I can do is write about what I know for sure.

  • There hasn’t been a World Series game 7 played in 9 years.
  • There hasn’t been a World Series game 7 played in St. Louis in 30 years
  • For tonight’s game 7 to happen, the Cardinals had to overcome impossible odds.
    • 10 ½ games out of the wildcard in the final week of August
    • They had to win. A lot; Atlanta had to collapse
    • They had to defeat the almighty World-Series-bound-since-December Phillies
    • They had to knock off Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun and the Brewers in Milwaukee
  • The National League had to win the All-Star game for St. Louis to host game 7
So many stars had to line up just right for tonight’s World Series game 7 to be played in St. Louis tonight. So. Many. I can also tell you for sure that there is no way I wanted to miss an opportunity to be in the stands tonight. It’s a possible once-in-a-lifetime chance.

I’ve been to the old Yankee Stadium. I’ve been to two major league baseball games in two different cities in the same day. I’ve been to a double-header. I’ve been to National League Division Series games and National League Championship Series games in St. Louis. I’ve been to the All-Star game, the homerun derby, the legends, futures, and celebrity softball games in St. Louis. I’ve been sitting in the stands when a perfect game went into the 8th. I’ve been to a lot of very special games, seeing in person special milestones (and sometimes the milestone plus one). But, I have never been to a World Series game. I’ve had World Series tickets, but I’ve never been to a game.

Tonight, I will be wearing the same shirt I’ve been wearing for these games. I will (or maybe have, by the time you read this) eat what I’ve eaten, avoid shaving, and continue with almost every single one of my superstitious routines. I will not, however, be sitting in “my spot” on that couch for tonight’s game, though a part of me will be nervous for not doing so. I will instead be at tonight’s game at Busch. It is perhaps the most elusive of all games on my baseball bucket list, and tonight, attending a World Series game gets marked off the list. I can only hope that seeing a World Series-winning game also gets checked off tonight. Perhaps then, on Sunday afternoon, I can attend my second World Series parade & ceremony.

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