With the St. Louis Cardinals opening their 2009 season Monday (followed by the Memphis Redbirds' lid-lifter Thursday night at AutoZone Park), Memphis fans got a preview of things to come last weekend with a pair of exhibition games at Third and Union.
The Cardinals will field their youngest team in 14 years under manager Tony LaRussa. The oldest player in Friday night's starting lineup was 30-year-old Ryan Ludwick, and six players in the St. Louis lineup had played for Memphis as recently as 2006. (Third baseman Troy Glaus is still two months away from a full recovery after off-season surgery, so David Freese - a Redbird in 2008 who played in Class A in 2007 -- will be at the hot corner for St. Louis to start the season.
St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak sees the club's youth as positive, as any GM must this time of year. "It's a great opportunity for young players to get this chance and to show what they're capable of doing," he said Friday. "It really shows the commitment we've made to player development, and we're starting to see these players coming to fruition."
For some perspective, third-baseman Brett Wallace (the franchise's second-ranked prospect) and outfielder Daryl Jones (the Cardinals' 2008 Minor League Player of the Year) will begin the season at Class Double-A Springfield. "It's a numbers game," stressed Mozeliak. "It's about at-bats and playing time."
Having already witnessed the conversion of a former pitcher to the outfield (Rick Ankiel), the Cardinals are now monitoring the transition of former outfielder Skip Schumaker to second base. (Schumaker hit .302 in 153 games for St. Louis last year and batted leadoff Friday night and Saturday.) "He's done a more than average job over there," said Mozeliak. "So in my mind, it's gone very well. The test will be the next few weeks in St. Louis. There's no timetable. It's unfair to [Schumaker] to put a date out there and say he's either done it or he hasn't. The energy and time he's put into it, he deserves the same back."
First-base coach Dave McKay said this kind of transition has to be handled carefully, and with the right guidance. "Jose Oquendo [the Cardinals' third-base coach and a former big-league infielder] has spent a great deal of time with Schumaker at second base," he explained. "And we've had a long spring training. It got to the point where we had to back off a little bit. Tony's always on top of this, making sure you're doing all the things you need to to get ready as a hitter. If anything, guys tend to spend too much time in the batting cage. He's a good athlete, and he's tough. In most cases, it doesn't work. You just see how the games play out."
I asked McKay about emerging leadership in the Cardinals' clubhouse, and he said it begins and ends with the veteran pair of first baseman Albert Pujols (the reigning National League MVP) and catcher Yadier Molina (a 2008 Gold Glove winner). "We're not really looking for leaders," said McKay. "We're looking for guys who play the game hard and play the game right. Yadier is a smart, smart player, and [his teammates] pick up on that."
My old high school baseball coach always implored his hitters to not merely make contact, but to "hurt the baseball." Standing ten feet from Pujols as he takes batting practice, you hear a different sound when bat meets ball than you do from other hitters. And it sounds like pain, like damage. As consistent as Pujols is with his swing, he seems to be just as consistent at the point of contact, with the sweet spot of his bat -- an area no more than six inches wide -- meeting cowhide one stroke after another. Pujols is so metronomic in his practice habits that, as he stood in for BP Friday afternoon, he noticed the batting cage was about a foot closer to the pitcher's mound than it should be. The cage was moved after two pitches. (Pujols homered, doubled twice, and drove in six runs Friday. Ho-hum.
Announced attendance Friday night was 7,506, about half the capacity of AutoZone Park. The Grizzlies were playing three blocks away, and there was pro boxing on Beale Street. Nonetheless, there were way too many empty seats on a cool but clear weekend night with Major League Baseball in town. Ticket prices were steep ($35 and $45), the Redbirds having to cover the appearance fee their parent club charges for exhibition games. As the economic recession drags on, professional franchises are eventually going to get it. The age of extravagance is over, and that goes for life decisions far closer to a family's budget than a night out at the ballpark or arena. The market -- we now know more than we'd like -- drives a capitalist economy. Empty seats in a ballpark means no driver at the wheel.