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NL CENTRAL: St. Louis Cardinals
Tom Verducci
March 23, 1998
MARKED FOR GREATNESS
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March 23, 1998

Nl Central: St. Louis Cardinals

MARKED FOR GREATNESS

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By the Numbers

1937 Team Statistics (NL rank)

BATTING AVERAGE

.255 (13)

RUMS SCORED

689 (11)

HOME RUNS

144(8)

1997 record: 73-89 (fourth in NL Central)

OPP. BATTING AVG.

.259 (7)

ERA

3.88(5)

FIELDING PCT.

.980(9)

Owners chafe at the idea of making a millionaire out of a bench player, but Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty considers himself fortunate to have a boss who "understands the game and the importance of role players." General partner Bill DeWitt has known since he was nine years old the value of contributions from the little guy. That's when, as a bat-boy for the St. Louis Browns, he surrendered his uniform to Eddie Gaedel, the 3'7" pinch hitter made famous by impresario owner Bill Veeck.

"They turned my number 6 into a one eighth," says DeWitt, whose father worked in Veeck's front office and later had similar jobs with other clubs. "The uniform was still a little big on Eddie."

DeWitt's not the type to mimic Veeck's shenanigans, but he does bring rare perspective to the owner's box. "I grew up around the game," he says. Such credentials make him the antithesis of his predecessor in St. Louis, August A. Busch III, whose dislike of baseball prompted his selling of a family heirloom.

In his third year of ownership, DeWitt has turned the Cardinals into the free-spending gorilla of the National League Central. Last season he took a gamble by trading three young pitchers for Mark McGwire (page 76), knowing the big first baseman was eligible to flee after two months, as a free agent. He then signed McGwire to a three-year, $30 million deal. He also gave a second-round draft pick, high school pitcher Richard Ankiel, a $2.5 million bonus. "We can't match offers with the large-market teams for free agents," DeWitt says. "But we're prepared to compete for amateur players."

Says Jocketty, "Ownership has been willing to stretch things to make the ball club better. It paid dividends in '96 [when the Cards won the NL Central], and I believe it would have paid dividends last year if not for a lot of injuries."

This season DeWitt has spent $50 million on a deep, experienced team. The Cardinals brought 29 players with at least two years of major league service to camp. Outfielder Willie McGee ($1.4 million) and catcher Tom Pagnozzi ($2.1 million), for instance, figure to be largely bench-bound investments. But DeWitt admits he so far exceeded his budget that he will ask some players to restructure their contracts to pull the payroll down to $47 million. That total might have been higher if St. Louis had succeeded in retaining righthander Andy Benes (10-7, 3.10 ERA in '97).

The Cardinals offered him $32 million over five years after initially saying they would not guarantee more than three. But Benes's agent, Scott Boras, demanded an extra $500,000. The Cards eventually acceded, though only after missing a Dec. 7 deadline for clubs to sign their own free agents. The deal was voided, and Benes signed with the Diamondbacks. St. Louis sunk only a fraction of that money into replacing him with lefthander Kent Mercker. "I wish Andy were still here," McGwire says. "But there's no reason why an agent should allow a deal like that to come down to the last minute. They had months to work something out."

DeWitt admits that St. Louis's famously loyal fan base allows him to spend more freely than most teams, though he says, "We need the postseason to make money. Our goal is to run a viable business—to make money in the good years to carry us in the bad years."

Despite losing 89 games last season, the Cardinals drew 2.6 million fans-more than four of the eight postseason clubs. This season DeWitt thinks the club might reach three million for the third time in franchise history. Baseball thrives in St. Louis even in lean years, because it remains largely unchallenged at the forefront of the city's sports consciousness. The city hasn't fielded an NBA team in 30 years, and its NFL teams have never played for a league championship.

The appeal of playing in St. Louis will be tested after this season, when Pagnozzi, outfielder Brian Jordan, infielders Gary Gaetti, Delino DeShields and Royce Clayton, and pitcher Todd Stottlemyre are all eligible for free agency. "What I tell free agents," Jocketty says, "is that we're not going to be the high bidders, but we can be competitive and offer other things players are looking for."

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