Spring training had gone well enough to permit a modicum of optimism. For one, the St. Louis Cardinals were a happy crew. In contrast to last spring's bitter strike struggle, Owner Gussie Busch had reopened his treasury and then had retreated to his beer command post on Pestalozzi Street. Almost everyone was given a raise, although some were modest. And so, no one was upset when Manager Red Schoendienst (above) scheduled extra drills, a supplemental honing reflected in a winning (13-12) exhibition record. The team left Florida with a new confidence. It lasted less than eight innings into the season.
The crash came in Pittsburgh, where Bob Gibson had taken a 5-2 lead into the eighth inning and then departed with one out and the bases loaded. Schoendienst brought in his entire 1972 bullpen: Diego Pablo Segui. Last season Cardinal relief pitchers had but 13 saves, and nine were Segui's. Now Segui struck out Bob Robertson for the second out. Rich Hebner, the next hitter, swung on a pitch, broke his bat—and the ball looped in for a two-run double. Then Gene Clines drilled a two-run triple off Lou Brock's glove in left field and the opening game was lost.
"Since then nothing has gone right for us," sighed Schoendienst. Arms folded, he sat in a dugout last Wednesday night in San Diego and watched as his troops prepared for battle with the struggling Padres. The night before, the Padres momentarily shed their dissension and walloped the Cardinals 10-5. It was St. Louis' 16th loss in 19 games, the club's worst start in 73 years. In that same game the Cards made five errors, running their season total to 30. If the Hall of Fame ever beckons, their bats may go to Cooperstown, but their gloves surely will go to Barnum and Bailey.
"It's just been a combination of everything," Schoendienst said mildly. "We get a well-pitched game and we don't get any runs. We get a few runs and we get bad pitching. And our defense is not too good. It's hurt us more than anything, and we haven't been hitting."
At this stage, most managers would be rabid. But not Schoendienst. He is by nature a gentle man, a strong but quiet leader, and he is no stranger to adversity. When he was 17 and working on a dam as part of a Civilian Conservation Corps detail near Greenville, Ill., he was struck just above his left eye by a flying nail, but the accident did not prevent him from hitting .289 in 19 major league seasons. In 1958 doctors discovered he had tuberculosis and they had to remove part of his right lung. Undaunted, he came back and played four more years.
"I've seen good years and bad years, good streaks and bad streaks," he said. "But we just can't seem to shake this."
Nothing has gone right. On April 25 Second Baseman Ted Sizemore pulled a hamstring muscle and was put on the 15-day disabled list. There are fears he will be out even longer. At the time, Sizemore was leading the club in hitting (.333) and in RBIs. He was replaced by Mike Tyson, a .232 hitter at Tulsa last season. Another rookie, 6'4" Ray Busse, won the shortstop job in the spring, then lost it to a case of nerves. Schoendienst temporarily set him down and then began easing him into a starting role. Still another rookie, Ken Reitz, is the Cardinals' third baseman of the future, but for the present he is hitting under .200.
But then, no one is really hitting. At one point, Joe Torre, Ted Simmons and Jose Cruz—the heart of the batting order—were 0 for 49. And what hitting the Cards have managed has hardly been timely. In their first 18 games they drove in but 48 runs, and Sizemore had nine of those.
"Under these circumstances," said Schoendienst, managing to laugh, "I think that Rick Wise should be named player of the month for April."
After the first 19 games, Wise was the only pitcher on the staff with a victory. He had all three. "Naturally I'm happy that I'm doing my job," said the 6'2" righthander, "and while I'm enjoying some personal success, it's naturally tainted because the club is struggling. We just can't seem to get out of the rut. We can't believe it is happening to us. Now we obviously are starting to press. What happens is that you try to do more than is physically possible, you try to make up 12 games in one and that's impossible. The little guys can't try to hit home runs. They have to bunt and hit singles and do what is natural. We have to go for .500 and then take it from there."
Wise came from Philadelphia to St. Louis last year in a trade for Steve Carlton in what may have been the strangest barter in baseball history. Busch was angry with Carlton for demanding a salary increase to about $65,000. The Phillies were upset because Wise was demanding around the same amount from them. And so they switched pitchers—and without argument gave the new pitcher what they had refused to give to the old. Then the St. Louis writers said the Cards had made a bad deal; the Philadelphia writers said the Phillies made a bad deal. The whole thing was absurd.
"That's all I heard last season; how do you feel about being traded for Carlton?" said Wise, grinning. "And I'm sure that's all he heard. There's enough pressure in this game without being compared to someone else all season. Instead of worrying about one club, you find yourself worrying about two. The one you're pitching against and his. I knew when he was pitching but I certainly wasn't hoping he'd lose. I like Steve and I still have a lot of friends in Philadelphia. I certainly didn't want to see him lose just to make me look good."
For Wise, there are more important things to think about anyway. He is a prolific reader, a World War II history buff and a collector of cookbooks. In the last few years he has become a master chef at the barbecue pit. "I love to cook, but only outside so far. I'm not like Gibson, he's a gourmet cook inside. When I go inside, Gibby said he'd help out with some recipes."
At the moment, Gibson was worried more about getting some help at the plate. By the time the Cards got to San Diego, he was 0-3, Wise was 3-1 and both had 2.57 earned run averages. Against San Diego on Wednesday night, the Cardinals finally gave the 37-year-old right-handed ace some help. They muscled out two home runs—just one less than they hit all spring—gave him a four-run spot and made but one error. He made it stand up for a 5-4 victory, with help from Segui over the last three innings. The next night Reggie Cleveland pitched a wobbly nine-hitter but won 3-1.
"Maybe we've finally got it turned around," Wise said hopefully. But, no. Friday night the Cardinals went into Los Angeles, sent Wise against the Dodgers, and although he pitched reasonably well, the Cardinals lost in 10 innings 6-5. They also lost Saturday and Sunday, making their record 5-19. The season is still young, but to the Cardinals it must feel like September.