Cardinal Virtues<

Former Redbird Placido Polanco has found big-league success the old-fashioned way.

| April 05, 2002

If you're looking for a ballplayer who personifies the relationship between the Memphis Redbirds and St. Louis Cardinals, you might start with number 27 in the Cards jersey: Placido Polanco. The 26-year-old infielder was the very first shortstop in Redbirds history, starting the Redbirds' inaugural game on April 9, 1998, in Omaha, Nebraska. In the four years since, he's become an invaluable member of the parent club, twice batting over .300.

For a measure of Polanco's worth to Tony LaRussa's Cardinals, you might consider the impact the slap-hitting native of the Dominican Republic has had on Albert Pujols, another former Redbird who last year became only the fourth rookie in major-league history to bat .300 with 30 homers, 100 runs, and 100 RBIs. Despite LaRussa's off-season plans to lock Pujols into his natural position of third base in 2002, the reigning National League Rookie of the Year will move to left field once again ... to make room for Polanco.

Redbirds fans who recall the team's first two seasons at Tim McCarver Stadium will remember Polanco as a scrappy, good-glove, average-bat utility player who wasn't going to lose many games but wasn't apt to win many on his own either. He hit .280 in 70 games with the 'Birds in 1998 and spent some time with the big club after St. Louis dealt their former shortstop Royce Clayton to Texas. In 29 games with Memphis in '99, Polanco hit .275 but drove in only 10 runs in 129 at-bats. With St. Louis that year, his average remained steady (.277), but he accumulated a mere 19 RBIs in 220 at-bats. Not the kind of numbers you expect from an everyday third-baseman.

It was during the 2000 campaign -- as Cardinals third-sacker Fernando Tatis spent much of the season on the disabled list -- that Polanco punched his major-league ticket for good. He established himself as the team's most consistent contact hitter, striking out only 26 times in 323 at-bats on his way to a .316 average. By the time the playoffs arrived, Polanco was in LaRussa's lineup at third while Tatis took a spot on the bench. Then, last season, an everyday player in the Show for the first time, Polanco hit .307 (43 strikeouts in 564 at-bats), led the National League with 20 three-hit games, and put together six hitting streaks of six games or more, including a team-high 20-game run in July and August. Now those are the kind of numbers that make you an everyday third-baseman, RBI machine or no.

"[Polanco] is the same every day," says LaRussa. "He's a very smart player. He's never been intimidated by the big leagues. One of the things that really pays off in the big leagues is consistency. You will not see a difference in Polanco's play, day in and day out. He's really got a strong mind."

And how has Polanco mastered the fine art of consistency? Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, a guy who makes his living trying to get hitters out, describes the secrets to Polanco's steady play as good discipline in the strike zone and a nice, short swing. "I try to play the game the way it's supposed to be played," says Polanco. "Every day, I focus on my hitting, my defense. I try and get better every year, work harder every year. When I come to spring training, I'm ready for anything."

As Pujols, J.D. Drew, and Jim Edmonds stockpile RBIs this season, you might pay attention to whom they're driving in. You're sure to see a lot of number 27.


The Score

NOTABLE:

According to Sports Business News, ticket prices for the Tyson-Lewis fight will range from $400 to $2,000, plus tax. One source reports that the $400 seats are designated as "Super-Savers" for Grizzlies games, where they sell for $5.

Grizzlies point guard Jason Williams broke three assist records Saturday with his 19 assists against the Golden State Warriors: his personal career best, the franchise single-game assist record, and the franchise single-half assist record.

Grizzlies rookie forward Pau Gasol has scored in double figures in 62 of 72 games this season. He has scored over 20 points 28 times and has had more than 10 rebounds 34 times. Gasol also leads the team in double-doubles, with 30 for the season.

The Memphis RiverKings continued their skate toward the CHL league championship by beating the Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs last Friday and Saturday night at the DeSoto Civic Center. The wins give Memphis a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, with the next game at Bossier-Shreveport on Friday, April 5th.

The RiverKings have the top six CHL playoff point scorers: Michal Stastny with 14 points; Luch Nasato with 13 points; Kahlil Thomas with 11 points; Robb Palahnuk with 10 points; and Don Parsons and Jay Neal with nine points each. Hockey points are a combination of goals scored and assists handed out. The RiverKings also have the top four playoff goal scorers: Parsons and Palahnuk with seven goals each, and Stastny and Thomas with four goals each.

QUOTABLE:

"Everybody keeps asking what me and my partner could have done differently. No one asked, 'What could the community have done differently; what could the political leaders have done differently?'" -- Ray Woolridge, part-owner of the Charlotte Hornets. The franchise has applied to the NBA for a move to New Orleans.

"The will [to win] is always there. Tonight was one of those nights when we could execute. Our guys were determined to finish it and not give it away." -- Grizzlies coach Sidney Lowe on his team's win over the Golden State Warriors.

"You still wish you had gone to Ole Miss." -- Crowd member to Golden State Warriors forward Erick Dampier. Dampier played for Mississippi State.

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