In the second inning of an Aug. 25, 1998, game against the Marlins, Cardinals shortstop Placido Polanco lined a fastball from righthander Rafael Medina off a pillar behind the leftfield wall at Busch Stadium. Leftfielder Cliff Floyd snagged the carom and fired the ball to second as Polanco slid headfirst into the bag. No one was more surprised than Polanco when he looked up to see the second base umpire signaling home run. It was Polanco's first major league dinger. "Everyone made fun of me" says Polanco, 25. "They kept saying, 'When you hit a home run, you don't have to slide!' "
Forgive his ignorance. Polanco had hit only six homers in four seasons in the minors before tagging his first big league shot as a rookie. Through Sunday he had built his major league total to a whopping 10, including three this season. Of course, St. Louis isn't looking to the 5'10", 168-pound Polanco for pulverizing power but for predictable production. Despite bouncing around the infield this year from third (76 games through Sunday) to short (38 games) to second (nine games), he'd had only three errors and been the most consistent Cardinal at the plate, batting .322 with the fifth-best strikeout rate in the National League (one for every 13.9 plate appearances). "He has good hands, a strong, accurate arm and a stroke that uses the whole field, and he's exactly that way every day," says St. Louis manager Tony La Russa.
Polanco earned his reputation for reliability early. He learned the game in the Little League founded by former major leaguer Manny Mota in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The same league has produced big leaguers Moises Alou, Melido Perez and Rafael Bournigal. "Placido wasn't just one of the best players in the league; he was also the most disciplined," says Mota, who was the game's most prolific pinch hitter and who has been a coach with the Dodgers since 1980. "We use him as an example when we talk to kids today."
Because Polanco had good high school grades, Mota recommended him to Al Schlazer, then the athletic director at Miami-Dade Community College's Wolfson campus and a former neighbor of Mota's in Miami. Polanco was granted a tryout and won a scholarship in 1992. He spent two years at Miami-Dade before the Cardinals drafted him in the 19th round in '94 and sent him to rookie ball in Arizona, where he struggled, batting .213 and committing 10 errors in 32 games, mostly at shortstop. "I wasn't mature," Polanco says. "I made a lot of throwing errors, from not really knowing the game, not knowing when to hold on to the ball and when to throw it."
He learned quickly. He boosted his average and cut down on his miscues, earning a call-up to the majors in July 1998. He got only 220 at bats as a utility infielder the following year and then impressed the Cardinals' coaching staff in spring training in 2000, when he hit .349 with a team-high 16 RBIs.
Polanco was St. Louis's utilityman extraordinaire last season, amassing 323 at bats and batting .316 while making only three errors. This season, through Sunday, Polanco was third in the league in singles and fifth from the bottom in home run frequency, but there's one thing he can brag about at slugger cocktail parties: He was the only man to pinch-hit for Mark McGwire in 1998 during Big Mac's 70-home-run season (albeit late in a 13-1 St. Louis victory). "I could hit a few more home runs," says Polanco, whose batting average hasn't dipped below .300 since April 9 of last year, "but that would be stupid."
He may have learned the hard way, but going for the fences is something he'll let slide.