Cardinals' way woos and wins players

ON BASEBALL

August 04, 2002|By Peter Schmuck

The St. Louis Cardinals play in one of those drab '60s-era stadiums that have been dropping like flies all over the major leagues. They play in a city that gets so hot in August that you could fry an egg on top of the dugout.

They have won the World Series just once since 1967.

So, what is it that makes everyone want to play there? Third baseman Scott Rolen became the latest potential free agent to be traded to the Gateway City, and if history is any indication, he'll probably become the third big-name acquisition in the past five years to decide to stay.

The Cardinals acquired Mark McGwire from the Oakland Athletics during the 1997 season and quickly persuaded him to sign a long-term deal for less than he could have gotten on the open market. They acquired Jim Edmonds from the Anaheim Angels before the 2000 season and signed him to a multi-year contract that will keep him in St. Louis at least until 2006.

Because of the uncertain labor situation, the front office might not be in a position to move so decisively on a contract for Rolen, but don't be surprised if he falls in love with the place, too.

The Cardinals' organization has been a cornerstone franchise in the major leagues for a long time, but the current ownership and front office have created a homey, winning environment that has tremendous appeal for both the players and fans.

It hasn't been an easy year, of course. The passing of legendary broadcaster Jack Buck and the shocking death of pitcher Darryl Kile cast a pall over what was supposed to be a very upbeat season for one of baseball's best teams, but the strength and character of the organization continues to shine through as the Cardinals head into the stretch still on top of the National League Central.

Though the credit for that should be spread among dozens of members of the organization - from the on-field personnel, to the baseball operations staff to ownership - it's hard to overstate the contribution of general manager Walt Jocketty, who has emerged as one of the most effective executives in the business.

Jocketty is a low-key guy who doesn't seek the limelight, but he has been able to engineer a series of blockbuster trades during an era when the complexity of player contracts and the vagaries of baseball economics are making lesser general managers shy away from the art of the big deal.

He also has been able to avoid the divisive contract battles that damage team chemistry and develop a long-range vision that should keep the Cardinals competitive for much of this decade.

That's why Rolen would be smart to settle in for a while.

O's keep fans' faith

The Orioles could have made a deal before the July 31 non-waiver deadline.

They could have traded Scott Erickson or Sidney Ponson for offensive help.

But a deal involving either one would have sent the wrong message to the faithful Orioles fans who are suffering through their fifth consecutive season without hope of a playoff berth.

The departure of any well-paid veteran pitcher would set back the club's stated timetable for contention by at least a year. No matter how highly the club thinks of its stable of young pitching prospects - and it might be too highly - nobody is going to contend in the American League East without a solid veteran nucleus of starting pitchers.

Owner Peter Angelos said last winter that the club was treading lightly in the free-agent market to conserve money for a more serious attempt to contend in 2003.

Baseball's troublesome labor situation may prevent him from spending much this winter, but the Orioles need to keep the current pitching staff intact to make any imminent free-agent splash effective.

20-20 vision

Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe have 29 victories between them and are well on pace to win 20 games each.

If they do, it would be the first time that two Red Sox pitchers won 20 or more games in the same season since Mel Parnell (25-7) and Ellis Kinder (23-6) did it in 1949.

Lowe would become the only Red Sox pitcher other than Martinez and Roger Clemens to win 20 or more since Dennis Eckersley did it in 1978.

R.J. bounces back

Remember how Randy Johnson complained recently that he had become a victim of his own success? He became upset because of questions about his struggles in July, in which he won only one of his first five starts and had an uncharacteristic 5.34 ERA during that span.

Well, he did what he usually does when things don't go right for a while.

He took it out on the hitters during his final two starts of the month, giving up one run in 16 innings and striking out 23 - 15 in an overpowering performance against the Montreal Expos on Wednesday.

Consolation prize

Marlins executive Andre Dawson might have preferred to be in Cooperstown last Sunday, but since he didn't get voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot, he had to settle for a slightly lesser honor.

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