From the audible crack, a nearby coach thought the outfielder had kicked a sprinkler head, but J. D. Drew knew better. Three minutes into his first spring workout of 2002, Drew felt his left ankle pop as he stepped in a divot and thought, Not again. Each of his first three seasons had been cut short by injury, including last year, when a broken right hand, strained right quadriceps and back pain limited him to 109 games. Considered a slow healer, Drew knew it was whispered that he couldn't stay healthy for a full season. Writhing in pain as he grasped at his ankle, his heart sank.
"Honestly, I was scared," says Drew. "When I got home, I would think about it and I'd get the chills. You don't want to be categorized as injury-prone. Especially this year, when I know this team's counting on me." The ankle was just sprained, and Drew returned to full workouts three days later, He reinjured it in early March but was back playing a few days later with a lightweight brace that he plans to wear all season.
A healthy Drew will go a long way toward compensating for the off-season retirement of Mark McGwire, whose Ruthian presence anchored St. Louis's lineup the past four years. With a dominant pitching staff led by Matt Morris and a potentially devastating offense featuring last year's Rookie of the Year, third baseman Albert Pujols, as well as Jim Edmonds and McGwire's replacement, former Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez, the Cardinals will contend for the World Series if the 26-year-old Drew emerges as the MVP candidate many expect him to be. "It's about time for J.D.," Edmonds says. "He's learned enough to be a force in this league. You just sort of wake up one day and figure it out."
Mention this to Drew, and his face lights up. "I know what he means. My day was last April, at home against the Mets," Drew recalls. "Things were bad. I was hitting like .180." After making an out in his first at bat, Drew flung his batting helmet against the dugout tunnel, a Vesuvian outburst for the mild-mannered, deeply religious Drew. "I said to God, 'I treat my parents good, I don't go out and party, I try to be a good teammate.' And I'm not someone who goes 4 for 4 and says, 'I'm the best,' then goes 0-fer and says, 'It was God's will.'
"After I snapped, I just decided to stop trying so hard," Drew says. "The next at bat, I hit [a home run] over the bullpen." Despite his myriad injuries—including the broken hand, courtesy of an errant David Wells fastball, which caused him to miss six weeks—Drew still finished with 27 home runs and 73 RBIs in just 375 at bats.
For Drew, however, the success was bittersweet. Since arriving in the September of McGwire's magical 70-home run season of 1998 ( Drew hit .417 with five home runs down the stretch, justifying the hype that followed him from his days as a Florida State All-America), his durability has been a concern. Determined to show up at camp in peak shape this year, he eschewed heavy weight workouts in favor of a plyometrics regimen with Cardinals catcher and close friend Mike Matheny.
Drew struggled at times after shifting from center to right last year—he had some difficulty picking up batted balls and occasionally threw to the wrong base—but he is now an above-average rightfielder on a team with few defensive holes.
"I feel more at peace now than I have in the past, because I've worked hard and enjoy where I am," says Drew, who married his longtime girlfriend, Sheigh, in November. "[ Manager Tony La Russa] always says you shouldn't avoid pressure, that you should make pressure your friend. I think we're all ready to take that next step."
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