Commentary

Cardinals, Holliday remain an ideal fit

Slugger cashed in and will again hit behind 'the best player in the history of the game'

Originally Published: January 5, 2010
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

So on the day when one of the 10 to 15 best pitchers of all time retired, the second-best player in this year's free agent class was introduced by the Mets and the day before one of the six greatest second baseman in baseball history is expected to be elected to the Hall of Fame, the best player on the free agent market signed a seven-year, $120 million contract with his former team, the Cardinals. Talk about a confluence of talent, and stories, in four hours.

[+] EnlargeMatt Holliday
Jeff Curry/US PresswireMatt Holliday hit 13 home runs and had 55 RBIs in 63 games for the Cardinals last season.

For now, for 2010, let's not deal here with the dominating Randy Johnson or the dazzling Roberto Alomar or the newest Met, left fielder Jason Bay. Instead, let's deal with Matt Holliday's return to the Cardinals. For the past three weeks, St. Louis has been the leader for Holliday in part because none of the big-market teams jumped in -- it doesn't appear that any other team jumped in, actually -- and in part because the Cardinals and Holliday were a perfect fit, as is the fit for so many players who go to play in St. Louis. Once there, it's very hard to leave.

When Holliday was traded to the Cardinals last season, they were in first place in the National League Central. But at the time, the Cardinals were showing no signs of running away from the pack. But that's what they did when Holliday arrived. In 63 games with the Cardinals, he hit .353 with 55 RBIs and 23 go-ahead RBIs (most in the National League), quite an improvement over the .212 that Cardinals left fielders had batted to that point. The No. 4 spot in the Cardinals order was hitting .250 and slugging only .443 when Holliday arrived on July 24, but went .333 and .570 the rest of the way.

If Holliday hadn't dropped a fly ball in Game 2 of the Division Series against the Dodgers, "he would have been the mayor of St. Louis,'' one major league executive said this week. "He cost himself a lot of money.'' But he still ended up with a seven-year deal worth between $119 million and $120 million, enough to save face for agent Scott Boras. Not a bad deal with only one team bidding for Holliday's services.

The Cardinals made it clear from the beginning of the negotiation that they weren't going to pay Holliday $20 million a year, and they stuck to it so not to bid against themselves, and for another reason. At the winter meetings, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa spoke about how expectations and pressure caused by huge contracts, and by switching teams, can have an adverse effect on players. It has happened many times, he said, and it happened to Holliday when he went from Colorado to Oakland last offseason. He tried too hard, and hit poorly for the first month of last season.

And Holliday, a sensitive guy, would be the type to try too hard with a mega-mega-contract?

"Absolutely,'' La Russa said.

Holliday obviously will be under pressure to produce with the Cardinals, but everything will be in place for him to succeed. The Cardinals have a good team, and they have the best player in the game, Albert Pujols, hitting in front of Holliday. Holliday called Pujols "the best player in the history of the game,'' and relished the opportunity to play with a team that could contend for perhaps the next seven years.

Pujols and Holliday formed the best 1-2 punch in the NL during the last two months of 2009, and that could continue for several years.

Holliday signed in part because of the Cardinals' new hitting coach, Mark McGwire, who worked with Holliday last winter, and whom Holliday says "is awesome.'' Last March, Holliday told a story about working with McGwire that winter.

"He's big on having a strong base,'' Holliday said. "He got in the cage with me, I got in my stance and he said, 'Do you think you have a strong base?' I said, 'Yes, I think I do.' Then he gave me a little push in the chest, and I nearly fell over. I looked at him and said, 'Maybe my base isn't as strong as I think.' I loved working with him. He's a great teacher, and a great guy.''

A seven-year deal is always a source of concern, but Holliday will only be 30 years old when the 2010 season starts, he is a remarkable physical specimen and "is ridiculously strong,'' said former teammate Jason Giambi. "He is unbelievable. The balls he hits, and the weight he throws around in the weight room is amazing.''

When Holliday was scheduled to participate in the All-Star Home Run Derby one year, then-Rockies teammate Jeff Baker laughed at the thought of the competition screwing up Holliday's swing. "He swings that way every day in batting practice,'' Baker said, smiling. "He hit balls to the upper deck in right-center field all the time.''

More important, Holliday is one of baseball's great gym rats, and he's the last guy on Earth who will get fat and lazy after signing a huge free agent contract. Holliday was a star quarterback in high school, he is the son of a college baseball coach and a student of the game -- he's the guy who, after playing a night game, will go home and watch the end of another major league game on TV. A few years ago, when Holliday's son was 4 years old, he could imitate the batting stance of almost any major league hitter, much to the delight of Holliday's teammates, including pitcher Ray King, who predicted, "That boy will skip T-Ball.''

It will not be a laughing matter when the Cardinals have to find the money to sign Pujols after the 2011 season, especially now that someone on the team is making more than "the greatest player in the history of the game.'' But Pujols cares only about winning, so there is no chance his play will be affected by someone else on the team making more money than him. And there's no way that Pujols -- who is so focused -- will let a contract distract him from what he's doing. Plus, how could the Cardinals ever justify letting Pujols walk away?

For Cardinals fans, that's a long way off, and for today, St. Louis will be the team to beat in the NL Central entering 2010. That was confirmed on the day Holliday re-signed, the day when four stories involving spectacular baseball talent intersected in the span of four hours.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.