Each day last weekend a blank blue official lineup card sat
mockingly on the plastic laminate desk of St. Louis Cardinals
manager Tony La Russa, a man with writer's block. The New York
Times crossword would have been easier to complete. La Russa,
bedeviled by injuries to his two best hitters, first baseman Mark
McGwire and centerfielder Jim Edmonds, consulted all sources but
a Ouija board before St. Louis's three games at Bank One Ballpark
against the Arizona Diamondbacks: players, coaches, trainers,
therapists, a team broadcaster and, on Saturday, even (egads!) a
"My problem," La Russa said that morning, staring into the card's
emptiness, "is that I have too many good players."
He laughed, which would be the last reaction you would expect
from someone whose team began the season by getting smoked by the
Colorado Rockies in three straight games--combined score 32-11--at
Coors Field. What's more, his infamously wild fifth starter had
sunk into the baseball equivalent of a witness-protection
program, and his choices for replacing McGwire and Edmonds in the
heart of the lineup were a singles hitter with seven career
homers and a rookie barely removed from Maple Woods Community
College in Kansas City, Mo.
The injuries gave La Russa--once he got unblocked--the opportunity
to do a bit of creative writing, as on Sunday when he started
three players primarily regarded as third basemen. "They had
three or four guys out of position," said Diamondbacks outfielder
Luis Gonzalez. "Third basemen in the outfield, catchers at first
base, whatever, and they all came out swinging."
The injuries also gave St. Louis the chance to showcase its
versatility, a virtue that figures to serve the Cardinals well
if, as they fear, McGwire's health becomes a lingering issue.
With Big Mac taking the weekend off to rest his painful right
knee and Edmonds limited to one feeble pinch-hit strikeout
because of a sprained left big toe, the jayvee Cardinals hammered
Arizona for 29 runs, administered the worst beating Randy Johnson
had suffered in seven years and earned a three-game sweep so
unexpected that La Russa bookmarked it. "If we have a good year,
we'll look back on this series, against a good team, and it'll be
a nice memory," he said.
As it did last season, when it won the National League Central,
St. Louis is prepared to carry on without McGwire. His knee is so
troublesome that the Cardinals expect he might play in only about
100 games this year. "Oh, yes, I'd take 100 right now," general
manager Walt Jocketty says. "Obviously we hope it'll be more, but
that's still [11 games] better than last year."
Asked about the 100-game projection, McGwire said, "No, I should
play in a lot more games than that." After undergoing surgery
on Oct. 21 to remove a diseased portion of a tendon in the knee,
McGwire appeared in only two games against the Rockies, going 0
for 7, before he could no longer stand the pain. "I can play with
soreness and I can play with discomfort," he said last Friday.
"This isn't soreness or discomfort. I can't even sprint with the
team in warmups. I feel a crunching, like something's stuck in my
knee. In Colorado, I couldn't put any weight on my back leg when
I hit. That wasn't me out there."
McGwire described the pain as a setback caused by "doing too much
too soon in spring training." He added that doctors advised him
that even in a best-case scenario, his knee doesn't figure to be
at full strength until a year after the surgery. His task now,
said McGwire, is to "come up with a Plan B" involving changes to
his medication and therapy to alleviate the pain.
La Russa went with a first baseman du jour in Arizona, writing
in, consecutively, John Mabry (listed as an outfielder), Craig
Paquette (a third baseman) and Eli Marrero (a catcher) in
McGwire's stead. (Marrero and Paquette also spent time in the
outfield.) McGwire's muscle wasn't missed, however, mostly
because of young third baseman turned outfielder Albert Pujols,
whose arrival has been as serendipitous and stunning as the
Publishers Clearing House van's. Born in the Dominican Republic,
Pujols, 21, moved with his family to Kansas City when he was 16,
attended Maple Woods for one season and signed with St. Louis as
a 13th-round pick in 1999. "We knew we had a good hitter, but not
this good," Jocketty says.
Pujols batted .314 last year, with 19 homers and 96 RBIs, in his
only minor league season, most of which was spent with the Class
A Peoria (Ill.) Chiefs, which meant he was based close enough to
St. Louis to attend a few Busch Stadium games as a fan. "We
didn't expect him to make our team this year," Jocketty says,
"but every week in spring training we'd have our cut-down
meetings and we'd all say, 'Nope, we can't cut him this week.'"
Still, in the final days of spring training St. Louis ticketed
Pujols for the Triple A Memphis Redbirds, only to have a
hamstring injury to outfielder Bobby Bonilla open a spot for him.
Pujols started Opening Day in leftfield. In the sweep of Arizona,
Pujols, switched to rightfield, had seven hits (including his
first homer, on Friday), drove in eight runs and made Memphis
seem as far away as Marrakesh. "He's impressive," Gonzalez says.
"I told him, 'You're my dark-horse candidate for Rookie of the
It was a two-out, two-strike, two-run double by Pujols in the
fourth inning on Sunday that put St. Louis ahead of Johnson to
stay. The Big Unit hadn't given up nine earned runs in a game in
193 starts before running into Pujols and partners. Pujols
reacted with what is becoming his trademark calm. "After
grounding out in my first at bat of the season, against [Rockies
lefthander Mike] Hampton, I said to myself, O.K., just relax and
play the game like you always do," Pujols said on Sunday. "That's
what I'm doing."
Says Cardinals second baseman Fernando Vina, "There's no awe in
his eyes." The only time Pujols showed excitement was when he was
asked about his family, including A.J., his three-month-old son,
and stepdaughter Isabella, a three-year-old with Down's syndrome
who was born to his wife, Beidre, before she and Albert married.
"She's so special to me," he says of Isabella. "I feel like I'm
Over the weekend Pujols and 5'10" Placido Polanco emerged as the
heart of the No-Name Offense. Polanco, a 25-year-old third
baseman with those seven career dingers in three previous big
league seasons, ended the week tied with Colorado shortstop Neifi
Perez for the National League lead with a .550 batting average.
Still, Jocketty decided the best development for St. Louis was
the outing on Sunday by scattershot lefthander Rick Ankiel. He
outpitched Johnson with 63 strikes among 100 pitches over five
innings. Ankiel's fits of wildness had been the subject of such
ridicule and scrutiny that pitching coach Dave Duncan ordered him
to warm up for this start in an indoor batting cage under the
stands rather than in front of fans seated near the rightfield
bullpen. "When spring training started, he couldn't even play
catch without bouncing the ball," La Russa says. "He's worked
Ankiel left the clubhouse after the game through a back door and
a storage room without talking to the media. "Aaah," said
Jocketty, "he was just playing with us the whole time." With that
Jocketty puffed grandly on a fat stogie. "I broke out the victory
cigar," he said. The happiest .500 team in baseball had as many
reasons to celebrate as La Russa had options.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BRAD MANGIN POP PHENOM A locked-in Pujols rattled the Diamondbacks, going 7 for 14.