La Russa's enthusiasm is infectious, and the Cardinals will challenge Houston, but the St. Louis rebirth will take some time.
3. CINCINNATI REDS
On the top shelf of ace righthander Jose Rijo's locker sits a rum bottle with a faded label and an oleaginous substance inside. Something mysterious has settled at the bottom of the murky potion. "Snakes," Rijo explains, as he rubs a handful of the oil on his right arm. He had ligament replacement surgery on his pitching elbow late last August, and though it usually takes at least a year for a player to recuperate from such an operation, Rijo was throwing 90 mph in March. He attributes his rapid recovery to hard work and the snake oil. "A lot of people think it's voodoo, but it really works. The snake oil relaxes the ligament," explains Rijo, who should be back in the rotation next month.
Look for new manager Ray Knight to keep his players on a short leash, but how will the Reds respond to his pit-bull tenacity? Cincinnati won the Central Division last year under laid-back former skipper Davey Johnson, who has the demeanor of a basset hound.
Marge Schott slashed $10 million from the payroll—to $25 million—and in the process lost Gant, who signed a five-year, $25 million contract with St. Louis. That puts an even greater burden on shortstop Barry Larkin, the National League MVP last year; slugging rightfielder Reggie Sanders; and the indomitable Rijo.
4. CHICAGO CUBS
After playing 13 virtually controversy-free years with Chicago before retiring in the middle of the 1994 season, second baseman Ryne Sandberg returned to the Cubs under intense scrutiny (SI, March 11, 1996). Even Hard Copy broadcast a segment on the upheaval in his personal life—he divorced his wife and quickly remarried while he was away from the game—which he finally admitted this spring was the main reason he quit playing. If Sandberg gets off to his patented slow start, how will he handle the attention?
In 1995 the Cubs were the only major league team to finish better than .500 (73-71) and have a losing record at home (34-38).
HOT POTATO CORNER
Since Ron Cey left after the 1986 season, Chicago has used 26 players at third base. This season the Cubs were counting on free-agent signee Dave Magadan at third, but he will be out until May after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left hand. For now, the oft-injured Leo Gomez will fill in, and outfielder Luis Gonzalez also will be given a shot at third.
It has been 88 years since the Cubs won a World Series. Make it 89.