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St. Louis Cardinals
The Redbirds have a home run king but still lack that elusive trump Card: an ace
By Michael Farber
Seventy home runs can put a man on the covers of magazines and under the covers with Helen Hunt's character on Mad About You, but that doesn't get you to first base with the women of Jonathan T's hair salon in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. -- at least not at 1:50 p.m. on Wednesdays. Earlier this month Mark McGwire stopped by for a trim only to be politely turned away because the shop was closing in 10 minutes. Maybe this wasn't the unkindest noncut of all but merely a sign that normalcy might be returning to McGwire's life.
McGwire reduced an entire sport to four or five nightly plate appearances of home run derby, obscuring nearly everything else in baseball, including the Cardinals. "Our record?" says pitcher Matt Morris. "To be honest, I don't think I know what our record was last year." Like anyone else, the Cardinals can tell you 70-66 (McGwire over Sammy Sosa), but they fumble for 83-79, a mark that left third-place St. Louis 19 games behind the National League Central-champion Astros.
McGwire said he'd like to hit at least 50 home runs in 1999, which would make him the first player to reach that mark in four consecutive seasons. During the winter La Russa, who has never been the clown prince of baseball, told Cardinals boosters in semi-jest that McGwire could hit 75, basing the number on the hope that McGwire gets a lot more than 500 at bats. (In 1998 he had 509, plus a National League-record 162 walks.)
St. Louis has to find a way to parlay McGwire's home runs into more offense. The Cards were sixth in runs despite leading the league with 223 homers, but then they didn't have young outfielder J.D. Drew in the lineup every day. Drew was up for a cup of coffee in September (he batted .500 with runners in scoring position), but he could end up owning Starbucks before long. Drew will play mostly leftfield, although he should see some time in center, his natural position, early in the season when the Cardinals proceed cautiously with Ray Lankford, who had off-season arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. Between Drew and free-agent pickup Eric Davis in right, St. Louis should easily compensate for the free-agent defection of Brian Jordan (.316 with 25 homers and 91 RBIs) to Atlanta.
St. Louis could be better up the middle as well. Though they lost second baseman Delino DeShields to free agency, the Cardinals significantly upgraded themselves at shortstop by trading for All-Star Edgar Renteria (.288 lifetime average). For now, light-hitting veterans David Howard and Pat Kelly will platoon at second and possibly bat ninth, behind the pitcher. (Last year the Cardinals were 46-36 with the funky batting order devised to get McGwire, who batted third, to the plate in the first inning while giving him the feel of being a cleanup hitter the rest of the game.) The bullpen, which blew 31 saves last season, has been reinforced by the acquisitions of former Dodgers' lefty Scott Radinsky and ex-Phillies' righty Ricky Bottalico (34 saves in both 1996 and '97). Juan Acevedo (13 saves in the second half) will be in the closing mix too, though he could join Manny Aybar and Kent Bottenfield as swingmen, thereby giving La Russa some flexibility as he attempts to patch the holes in a middling rotation that has been decimated by injuries for a second straight year.
Issue date: March 29, 1999
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