Rivalry goes from hot to hotter
If you thought the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry couldn't get any hotter, last weekend was proof it could, with St. Louis posting the highest temperatures of any major city in the country.
While the Weather Channel chronicled triple-digit days, and heat indexes as high as 118 degrees, Cardinals center fielder Jim Edmonds was quick to prove that parts of the soon-to-be-demolished Busch Stadium are much hotter than others. He took a thermometer and laid it near his spot in center field; it read 119 degrees. And that was at 6 p.m. on Sunday, not in the middle of Saturday afternoon's matinee against the Cubs.
Edmonds said it gets so hot that the grass moistens, even though much of it is dying from the persistent heat. Edmonds slipped making a play in the series opener last Friday, and John Mabry skidded around right field on Sunday. The Cards have big fans and air conditioning blowing in the corridor from the clubhouse to the dugout, but each step you take up the dugout steps onto the field is a few degrees warmer than the one before.
While descending the dugout steps at Busch Stadium might be a relief from the heat, it seems no Cardinals player is safe from suffering some malady these days. Johnny Rodriguez twisted his ankle coming down the planks on Saturday onto an exposed nail. He had to leave the game and was reduced to pinch-hit duty Sunday. There are also huge knots in the wooden steps; they're constantly being sanded and nails are flattened before games so they won't claim any more players over the final 29 home games.
Rodriguez made his major-league debut at age 27 only because Reggie Sanders broke his leg on a freak play. Rodriguez, who writes "Jrod" on his shoes, hit in his first six games as a big leaguer, the first St. Louis player to do that since local legend Bo Hart. Rodriguez couldn't have made a bigger splash. He homered off both Ben Sheets and Carlos Zambrano, then pulled a home run foul off Mark Prior before striking out on a changeup as a pinch-hitter Sunday night.
While the rookie will be back in the Cards' lineup for their West Coast trip, the regular lineup may not be reassembled until at least Labor Day, and possibly just in time for the playoffs. Scott Rolen is staying behind to rehab his surgically repaired shoulder this week, and that won't even include any baseball-related activities until the soreness settles down. Yadier Molina should be back about the time the team returns home, but Sanders is out until September. And Larry Walker joined them on the disabled list Tuesday with a herniated disc.
Even though Albert Pujols seemed upset he didn't start in Saturday's game because of a twinge in his shoulder, something was clearly bothering his swing in Sunday's hitless performance. All the ailments make the Cards' comebacks and competitiveness against the Cubs more impressive.
There are still 11 games left between the two, but they don't meet at Wrigley Field for the first time until Aug. 11. Although things were pretty calm between the dugouts last weekend, Tony La Russa and Dusty Baker are not above adding to a rivalry that's 10 years older than the invention of air-conditioning in 1902.
Nearly 20 years ago, Dusty closed his career as a part-time outfielder and DH for La Russa's 1986 Oakland A's, sharing time with Dave Kingman, whom La Russa found to be "a joy to manage." He had to spell Baker quite a bit that season because of Dusty's ailing knee, which eventually forced his retirement. He would have kept Kingman in 1987, but that proved to be Kong's final campaign too.
Management wanted to bring Reggie Jackson back as the DH, and had first-round draft choice Rob Nelson at first base. If Nelson hadn't gotten injured, minor-league third baseman and part-time outfielder Mark McGwire, who was drafted in the first round the year after Nelson, wouldn't have filled in at first, and gone on to set a rookie record with 49 home runs.
La Russa is often criticized by the media and outsiders as being too stern and intractable, but in addition to his love of animals, the tightly-wound Cardinals manager is also a rocker. Just before the All-Star break, La Russa was in the Bay Area, where he lives in the offseason, and had Tesla as his special guests at SBC Park, the night before lead singer Jeff Keith sang the national anthem at the AAA All-Star Game in Sacramento, Tesla's hometown.
Last Saturday in St. Louis, La Russa emceed Journey's reunion tour stop in St. Louis. He said they sound better than ever, with longtime friend Neil Schon the only constant on guitar, and vocalist Steve Augeri sounding "better than Steven Perry, with a lot more energy and stage presence." La Russa not only introduced the band, he stayed through the encores and for the meet-and-greet after the show. Now you know how he winds down after a tough loss on national television.
Cardinals fans are everywhere, especially those who grew up when they were still the farthest team west of the Mississippi. Billy Bob Thornton grew up a Cardinals fan in Arkansas, and when Jeff Suppan spent one day on the set for the remake of "The Bad News Bears," Billy Bob said, "for me, this is like meeting Jimmy Stewart." Imagine if Bob Gibson had showed up. Although Suppan was officially considered a "technical consultant," his imput amounted to playing catch with Thornton and marveling at the enormity of the support staff surrounding a motion picture production.
Another lifelong Cards fan who attended the Cubs series is Oklahoma State basketball coach Eddie Sutton, who bears a strong resemblance to former Astros manager Denis Menke. Sutton got a chance to hang out around the batting cage with La Russa and his staff, much like Tony's good friend Bobby Knight has already done about four times this season. Sutton talked about listening to Cards games as a kid growing up in Oklahoma. He also connected with Cubs general manager Jim Hendry. Both got their first major coaching breaks at Creighton. Hendry was having a reunion with one of the players he recruited there, Mike Mahoney, a shortstop he converted to a catcher his freshman year.
Sutton's reunion was with recruit Scott Rolen, who was a standout shooting guard at his high school in Jasper, Ind. Sutton tried to lure Rolen to Oklahoma State before baseball's offer got too lucrative to pass up. Sutton was sitting in Rolen's seats at the stadium, until Saturday afternoon became too much of a scorcher, and he had to retreat to the suites.
When I asked the basketball coaching legend about his baseball background, he said he was a pitcher, and actually made it to Class D league in the 1950s, as "a junkballer, but I guess I couldn't get enough people out to go any further." Hendry interjected, "I think things worked out all right for you!"
Here's a toast to Rafael Palmeiro, who got an e-mail from Henry Aaron and a phone call from the president upon joining the 3,000-hit club. George W. Bush owned the Texas Rangers when Palmeiro played there, and Raffy has been a prominent campaigner for Republican candidates. Palmiero's also been to the White House four times, but the last was the most memorable -- Dec. 11, 2003, for a Christmas dinner, which turned out to be the day Saddam Hussein was captured.
As for the toast, when Palmiero and his teammates got back to the clubhouse after hit No. 3,000, each had a bottle of champagne waiting in his locker with a label commemorating the achievement. For younger players like Larry Bigbie, it'll probably never be opened. He had the future Hall of Famer sign it as a keepsake.
The bottle may become an even fonder memory soon. Bigbie has been mentioned frequently in trade discussions, and veterans like Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa have been reassuring the young outfielder, who was allowing the rumors to distract him both in the field and at the plate.
Take it from two guys headed to Cooperstown: "It can, and does, happen to any of us."
Gary Miller is a reporter for ESPN's major league baseball coverage.