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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

A New Red Machine Starts to Take Over

September 19, 2004|Dave Kindred | Sporting News

His disappointment severe, Harry Caray would say, "Musial pops up AGAIN," as if the sainted Stanley had never once moved a runner up, as if each and every one of his 3,630 hits had come with the bases empty.

But if you sneaked a radio under the bedcovers, you had to love Harry anyway, because he cared mightily and had convinced everyone, even himself, that Musial would get a hit every time up as long as baseball was played in this fair land.

Which brings up a question.

Nice summer, eh?

Fabulous for those right-thinking people who believe the best-looking uniform in sports comes with twin redbirds on a golden bat against a snowy white field.

With the Cardinals in first place by a mile, it's September becoming October, spring's dreams becoming fall's realities, and if somehow the Cardinals have done their work so efficiently as to become a great team without anyone noticing it, it's time to ask another question.

This one is prompted by the veteran baseball executive Rollie Hemond, who told USA Today's Chuck Johnson, "St. Louis is an example of an extremely balanced club. They can beat you 1-0 or 10-9 with pitching, defense and offense. It's a beautiful machine ... "

The question, then, is which machine do you want?

Bench, Perez, Morgan, Concepcion, Rose, Foster, Geronimo, Griffey?

Or Matheny, Pujols, Womack, Renteria, Rolen, Sanders, Edmonds, Walker?

What we have in the Cardinals of 2004 is the best National League team since Cincinnati's Big Red Machine of 1975.

Those Reds won 108 games, a .667 winning percentage. Entering the week, the Cardinals were at .660. Beyond that shared dominance of their league, today's Cardinals and yesterday's Reds are similar in ways that Hemond unwittingly, perhaps, touched upon.

Those Reds could beat you any way you wanted to be beaten. So can these Cardinals. With singles or home runs, stolen bases or defense. With starting pitchers who never suggested greatness but were better than most. With a bullpen that had less glamour than grit.

Johnny Bench that year considered a reporter's question, "How many guys on this team will be in the Hall of Fame?" The best catcher ever counted them off: "One, me. Two, Perez. Three, Morgan. Four, Rose. Concepcion would be five, but he already thinks he's there."

Bench had it mostly right, and Manager Sparky Anderson ended up in the Hall, too. These Cardinals will have manager Tony La Russa at Cooperstown; other elections are pending with Jim Edmonds, Larry Walker, Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen at work on Hall of Fame numbers.

Now, if asked to choose the better team, the '75 Reds or '04 Cardinals, the prudent reply is no reply until the end of October. Those Reds played .700 ball in the postseason; they won the NLCS in a three-game sweep and the World Series in seven games. Until these Cardinals do that through three rounds of playoffs, they're a good but not great team.

Whatever happens, the Cardinals will be an object lesson in how to succeed in today's baseball market. At $83 million, their payroll is MLB's ninth-highest, substantial but behind, oh, to name one team, the Cubs. And $83 million is not so extravagant as to be beyond the reach of intelligent baseball people.

Cardinals General Manager Walt Jocketty has traced the roots of this fabulous 2004 summer to a 1997 decision demonstrating that money well spent begets money. He traded three never-again-heard-of pitchers for Mark McGwire.

Before McGwire, the most expensive seat at Busch Stadium cost $25. Now, $59.

So while attendance will be up maybe 400,000 from the 2.6 million of 1996, revenue probably has increased threefold. Cardinals ownership has reinvested that money in player salaries, producing a fabulous summer that, should it lead to a fabulous October, will persuade fans that whatever a ticket costs in the new ballpark in 2006, it'd be cheap at twice the price.

Speaking of the Cubs, a little story to warm the heart of every Cardinals fan who ever cursed Chicago ...

In 1870, baseball in St. Louis was good enough that the Empires and Unions, amateur teams, invited down the Chicago White Stockings, a professional outfit that promptly waxed their hosts, 36-8 and 47-1.

By 1874, the St. Louis losing streak to Chicago reached 20 games, a shame so great as to cause the town's richest man, J.B.C. Lucas II, to put down most of $20,000 to create a pro team.

The next summer came a day when the St. Louis Brown Stockings finally had a chance against Chicago. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported "a seemingly endless string" of horse-drawn carriages moving down Grand Avenue. Eight thousand fans were at the ballpark. More attached themselves to light poles, housetops and tree limbs.

That day: St. Louis 10, Chicago 0. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "The entire assemblage rose to their feet and shouted until they were hoarse, danced, sang and threw their hats into the air as though they were taking leave of their senses. They kissed, wept and laughed over each other, embraced, shook hands, slapped each other's back, ran to and fro like madmen."

Which brings up one last question in this summer of 2004:

Are the Cubs still in the league?

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