Cardinals don't want 2006 success to be a distraction

No looking back

March 18, 2007|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,Sun reporter

Jupiter, Fla. — Jupiter, Fla.-- --An outfielder with no chance of making the St. Louis Cardinals' roster skips a throw past home plate during a routine drill, and the graying man in the pristine No. 10 uniform bolts upright and screams.

"Hey, make him do it again," he bellows.

It's only spring training, it's only practice. Nonetheless, Tony La Russa is unsettled. He paces around the diamond at Roger Dean Stadium, getting up-close looks at how his players are executing drills.

The Cardinals' venerable manager, in what could be his final season, isn't letting up now that he has that elusive second World Series title.

Not even close.

"There is always motivation, and all of it is legitimate, but there is only one that is there all the time, no matter what," said La Russa, 62, who is in the last year of his current contract. "And that is we have no clue how this season is going to turn out. That uncertainty, I think, is fascinating."

Going into last season, the Cardinals were considered among the favorites to go to the World Series. Instead, because of injuries and inconsistency, they stumbled to the finish line, winning just 83 games and squeaking into the postseason.

Once there, they made good on the lofty preseason expectations, dismissing the San Diego Padres and New York Mets before winning four of five from the heavily favored Detroit Tigers to capture St. Louis' first baseball title in 24 years.

Everywhere he and his players went, they were the toast of Redbird Nation. And La Russa knows that won't change just because the calendar has flipped.

"Every game of this spring, because of the Cardinal following, we are going to hear a lot of congratulations," La Russa said. "We've got to make sure that works for us and not against us. Against us, it could be distracting."

La Russa, who won a World Series with the Oakland Athletics in 1989, drove home that point to his players in his welcome-back talk.

"One of the things Tony hit on in the first meeting is that we had the opportunity to celebrate already," said Cardinals shortstop and World Series Most Valuable Player David Eckstein. "We're back to business."

The diminutive Eckstein was probably the most visible Cardinal this offseason, hawking his new children's book, appearing on TV talk shows and even participating in a couple of pro wrestling events with his brother Rick, a Cardinals minor league coach, and Chicago White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski.

But, his teammates don't expect the newfound fame to affect someone who is considered one of the most grounded players in baseball.

"He's not going to change any. I don't think anybody in here is going to change any," outfielder Preston Wilson said. "This team is very good about policing itself. So if there are a couple of issues or items that present themselves, they will probably never leave the clubhouse. Because we'll stop it all right in here."

At one point earlier this spring, 25-year-old right-hander Adam Wainwright was asked a question about duplicating his 2006 success. He quickly looked over to staff ace and perennial Cy Young Award candidate Chris Carpenter.

"I have been told by No. 29 [Carpenter] that I am not supposed to comment anymore on last year," said Wainwright, who took over closer duties in 2006 but will switch back to the rotation now that regular closer Jason Isringhausen is healthy. "From now on, we are getting prepared for this year."

It's that kind of mentality that makes La Russa feel good about his 2007 Cardinals. Yes, they lost three-fifths of their starting rotation (Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis and Jeff Weaver) to free agency and will have to count on the improvement of youngsters Anthony Reyes and Wainwright and the comeback of Mark Mulder (shoulder), who isn't expected to return until July. Also, Isringhausen (hip surgery) hopes to be ready by Opening Day, but whether he can recapture his dominant closer form is uncertain.

But with hard-working veteran leaders such as Carpenter, Eckstein, first baseman Albert Pujols and third baseman Scott Rolen, La Russa doesn't expect complacency to be a problem.

"I think our year will depend on how well we play," La Russa said. "It won't be because we had some kind of negative things happen after the world championship."

Ultimately, winning back-to-back World Series is extremely difficult. The New York Yankees, who won three straight from 1998 to 2000 and lost in 2001, are the only team to have appeared in consecutive October Classics since 1997.

The Cardinals realize they won't get any slack this year just because they get shiny gold rings in April.

"You are going to have constant reminders [of the 2006 title]," Eckstein said. "But you've got to understand that no one cares about that within the game. They only care about this year, and we've got to be ready to go."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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