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Whole Is Sum of Cards

NL playoffs: St. Louis gets good grade in chemistry, with trades for Edmonds and Clark being key to success.

October 11, 2000|ROSS NEWHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's the familiar question of what comes first. Winning or chemistry? Chemistry or winning?

For the St. Louis Cardinals, the results are more important than the analysis.

The acquisitions that General Manager Walt Jocketty made before and during the season have enabled the Cardinals to reach the National League championship series, starting tonight at St. Louis, against the New York Mets. The Cardinals insist that chemistry and character have been no less important than talent.

"Some day I want to manage," Mark McGwire said after the Cardinals swept their division series from the Atlanta Braves. "Hopefully I can have a team like this."

McGwire is equally serious about wanting to manage and his appreciation of the Cardinals.

"It's a little scary when you add as many players as we did because you don't know how they'll fit together," he said. "But everybody contributed and everybody seemed to like each other in a way that you don't find in baseball, you don't find in sports, anymore."

The important thing, of course, is the way it played out on the field. The Cardinals won 31 of their last 44 regular-season games, routing the Central Division, then turned the Braves into the Bad News Bears, doing it without the injured McGwire and Mike Matheny and the slumping Fernando Tatis.

"No matter what happened or how many guys got hurt, we didn't lose a beat," McGwire said. "[Manager Tony La Russa] would put someone in there and the guy would do the job. It's pretty similar to a lot of Yankee teams the last few years. No matter who was in the lineup, everybody had confidence in them to do a great job."

Of the 25 players on the division series roster, Jocketty acquired 12 in the last year. Cardinal owners agreed to take the payroll from $48 million to about $65 million, and Jocketty spent wisely, working both the trade and free-agent markets.

Among his acquisitions: 20-game winner Darryl Kile, center fielder Jim Edmonds, leadoff hitter Fernando Vina, closer Dave Veres, starters Andy Benes and Pat Hentgen, first baseman Will Clark and catcher Carlos Hernandez.

Aside from some cash, Jocketty gave up little, although the Angels got a second baseman, Adam Kennedy, in the Edmonds heist, and the Colorado Rockies might have received a closer, Jose Jimenez, in the Kile-Veres trade.

Jocketty watched his players celebrate Saturday in Atlanta and said, "A year ago at this time, we were having our organization meetings in Florida at the instructional league, talking about what we needed to do and the direction we needed to take.

"We knew we had to improve the pitching and had to be aggressive, given the limited nature of that market. We also wanted to find guys who knew the game and had a lot of grit, guys who had strong character and would play hard."

La Russa likes to say that his is a team strong in heart and mind. Some of it obviously stems from the manager.

Clark knew him from a distance in the Bay Area, when both were employed there, but says he didn't recognize how intense La Russa was. Now there's admiration.

"Tony is awesome," Clark said. "Every day before the game he comes by with the same message, 'Nine hard.' That's all he asks, go hard for nine innings, and that's what we've tried to give him."

No one acquisition might have been more important than another, but in Edmonds the Cardinals got an MVP-caliber player in the middle of the lineup and defense, and Clark gave them a run producer after McGwire was lost in midsummer because of tendinitis in his right knee.

"Edmonds was a great trade because it gave us an impact hitter who can match up against any team in the league," McGwire said.

"But Clark was probably the steal of the year. We weren't playing well at the time [July] and he turned us around. I called Walt last winter to congratulate him on how much he had improved the team, and that was before he got Edmonds and Clark."

Jocketty said he looked into the questions of intensity and fortitude that had hounded Edmonds in Anaheim, talked to several people, and concluded they were misleading.

"A lot of times a change of scenery is all it takes," La Russa said. "Jim has a very good team around him and has received terrific support from the fans. I also think the friendship he developed with McGwire was very important early on as a measure of acceptance. He's a true five-tool player who has won games for us in all five ways. Another great move by Walt."

Edmonds hasn't let opposing pitchers up--or the Angels, saying he has never been with a better group of guys or never before been part of a true team.

Clark concurred.

"Edmonds is our MVP, but every day since I've been here, there's been a different hero, and that's the definition of a team," he said. "It's also the best group of guys I've been with since '89 in San Francisco.

"You go out to dinner and there's suddenly 15 to 20 guys joining you--white, black, Spanish--and that's what makes it fun. Everybody treats everybody like a brother.

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