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Battle Shaping Up For Control of Cardinals Clubhouse?


Migrant Redbird

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Tony La Russa is one of the most controlling personalities currently in the game today, and he's being challenged like never before.

When La Russa arrived in St. Louis, he couldn't tolerate the de facto leadership role which Ozzie Smith held among black players. Fortunately, Ozzie's career was nearly over. Ozzie still refuses to participate in Cardinals activities until La Russa leaves, because he insists that Tony broke promises to play the best shortstop in 1996, and gave Royce Clayton the bulk of the playing time, even while Ozzie was having a better season.

The list of players forced out of the Cardinals organization over conflicts with La Russa is a long one, but now he's up against one whom he probably can't do much about.

STLtoday: Pujols' Team

The question begs: Is El Hombre now The Man within the clubhouse?

Is this his team?

Logic might suggest that it is. Pujols' manager, sensitive to dynamics that govern a team's six-month tour, insists otherwise.

"It isn't his club. It shouldn't be his club. He's on the team," La Russa said.

La Russa detests the notion of a clubhouse that revolves around one player. He firmly believes the manager determines the team's course and it is the responsibility of players to "buy into" his direction. A "core" of players can offer assistance, not just one player.

Entering his 30th season as a major-league manager, La Russa asserts no singular personality ever has dominated his teams' clubhouses, whether Carlton Fisk or Greg Luzinski in Chicago; Rickey Henderson, Carney Lansford or Jose Canseco in Oakland; or Edmonds, Rolen or Pujols here.

"I've been around a long time. When you have a dominant player like Albert, the clubhouse has never belonged to one guy," La Russa said. "It's not the way the club operates. It's not the way we try to set up the environment for our team, whether it's for Albert or the other players.

"He doesn't have any more responsibility in the clubhouse than other guys who try to keep us going in the right direction."

La Russa and Whitey Herzog share little beyond managerial success; however, both forbade players-only clubhouse meetings, seeing such a practice as abridging their responsibility.

.... La Russa contests the belief that the most visible players are always the most influential. He also emphasizes that many players who promote themselves as team spokesmen are polar opposites of leaders, more interested in self-promotion than providing cover for teammates.

"There are guys with different agendas," La Russa said.

.... La Russa has minimized Pujols' occasional breaches of baseball etiquette, even scolding Rolen after the third baseman told Pujols he was placing teammates at risk by upstaging then-Pittsburgh Pirates lefthander Oliver Perez following a home run.

And this appears to confirm my biggest complaint about La Russa. He's a very Type A personality, who will simply not tolerate any player in his clubhouse who doesn't defer to him in every aspect of leadership aside from that of "leading by example". That's why he loved McGwire. That's why Tony couldn't tolerate Ozzie on his team. That's why Will Clark didn't consider returning after such a successful swan song after he was traded to St. Louis in 2000, even though McGwire's knee made the departure of Clark more acute.

In the long run, I think that personalities like La Russa's are extremely destructive to an organization. Veterans like Ozzie, Jordan, Clark, Hentgen, Kile, Edmonds, Rolen, Carpenter, Isringhausen, Springer, and Walker can contribute enormously as mentors for younger players, but they have to walk on egg shells around La Russa because he's so jealous of anything he perceives as encroaching on his authority and total control of the team. If La Russa hadn't been so determined to suppress any challenges to his authority within the clubhouse, maybe some of the veterans on the team might have been able to intervene in time to stop some of the self-destructive behavior of players like Josh Hancock and Scott Spiezio?

The comments about Pujols are illuminating.

He might be a walking example to teammates, but Pujols rejects any notion of himself as a babysitter.

Well aware of his visibility and the responsibility it brings, ]Pujols is also cognizant of the role played by his coaches and, of course, his manager.

"If I can help somebody, I will. I've always tried to do that, so that hasn't changed. But we're all men here. Everybody has responsibility," Pujols said.

.... Less than thrilled at La Russa leaving him the only NL position player unused during last July's All-Star Game, Pujols took pains to downplay the incident.

This is actually a fairly insightful article by Strauss. He appears to be following the P-D party line of faithfully supporting the current administration, but there are volumes of information buried in what he doesn't say.

Few players of any age are as clinical and insightful about hitting [as Pujols].

Reading a clubhouse is a different skill.

In my opinion, the article by Joe Strauss largely confirms what I've been speculating over the last several years regarding the disfunctional relationships between La Russa and many of his players. I'm sure there are many La Russa die hards who will insist that I'm misinterpreting Strauss's comments, and who might even point to my frequent criticism of Strauss (along with Derrick Goold) as being one of the more devoted lapdogs of the Cardinals organization on the P-D staff, but I'm getting more and more confident of my assessment.

Coupled with La Russa being undermined from below, I think that the new GM, John Mozeliak, is attempting to assert his own authority, bringing him into conflict with La Russa.

STLtoday, Let the Mozeliak era begin, by Joe Strauss

Mozeliak, 39, sits between an increasingly visible ownership and a manager as assertive and opinionated as he is successful.

The job became his following the abrupt firing of Walt Jocketty, a man he shadowed for years before becoming an eyewitness to an organizational fissure that grew into a chasm.

.... Upon his hiring, Mozeliak felt it appropriate to remind those listening, "I am my own man."

.... Camp ended with Mozeliak asserting himself in formation of the opening-day roster. He insisted Anthony Reyes be part of the bullpen after pitching coach Dave Duncan publicly dismissed the idea. Such public tiffs with Jocketty were non-existent.

.... "On a personal level, it's been less than rewarding to some degree," Mozeliak says when asked about the decay of once-solid relationships. "It does seem there's a small price on friendships, or perhaps a large price. But I'll also say the last four months here, there have been a lot of people here who have gone out of their way to make me feel good about the decision I made, and the decision that Mr. DeWitt made. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be GM of the St. Louis Cardinals. I don't feel any regrets."

Thinking about what is ahead at the same time acknowledging what he has left behind, Mozeliak says, "I feel I've honored those people that were here before me. It is disappointing on how it all went down."

I interpret the following comment by La Russa as throwing down the gauntlet to Mozeliak after being forced to keep Anthony Reyes on the team.

"That's real clear: The decision of who gets in uniform is ultimately placed with the front office and/or ownership. I just appreciate the coaches and I having input in that. I also understand that at some point the decision is theirs. But once you get them, [the decision how to play them is mine and the coaches'. ... That's how it works."

Note: The above is from a different P-D article, but I couldn't locate the link.

There's even a hint that La Russa and managing owner, Bill DeWitt, might be a little at odds over philosophy, but you can't read too much into La Russa's public comments. In some respects, he's kind of careless in what he tells the media.

2008 Cards: Shift is on

When it was suggested to Mozeliak during camp that the Cardinals might be a transitional team, the fifth-month GM quipped, "Transition? The transition's over."

If transition within Mozeliak's front office is complete, the clubhouse appears in flux. And the organization, according to a scout assigned to follow the club, is "pretty much in-between."

.... The third-winningest manager in major-league history [and third-losingest, but they never mention that], La Russa challenges the notion that his return for two more years as manager is at odds with the organization's direction.

.... Enhanced player development translates to greater cost certainty at the major-league level. Though ["managing owner" Bill] DeWitt says his emphasis on the minor leagues isn't purely financially driven, he grew increasingly uncomfortable with the previous model that seemed to make cultivating talent for the parent club a lesser priority than free-agent acquisitions and trades.

"It's where Bill was unhappy," La Russa acknowledged. "Over the years, the (player development) system wasn't more productive. I can't deny that. But only he knows how many times the scouting staff wanted a guy and they took someone else because he was more signable."

I predict that Bill DeWitt will eventually regret not making it a clean sweep when he fired Jocketty, and getting rid of Mozeliak and La Russa at the same time. However, I'm a little encouraged from what I'm reading about Mozeliak lately, so characterizing him as "Jocketty-Lite" after his first few transactions might have been unfair. It is so difficult to peer inside an organization and understand what's happening within. We get such dribs and drabs of information leaking out, and you never know how much it's been spun for public consumption.

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.... La Russa contests the belief that the most visible players are always the most influential. He also emphasizes that many players who promote themselves as team spokesmen are polar opposites of leaders, more interested in self-promotion than providing cover for teammates.

What's LaRussa doing talking about Kevin Millar? ;)

Really I agree with him to an extent... the idea of one guy as the focal point of "heart and soul" of a team is more a media fantasy than anything. If there is truly one guy that his teammates all respect so much that he has that kind of impact, the public probably doesn't even realize it because that guy is so busy giving the glory to his teammates and trying not to stand out. My only objection here is that it seems like instead of wanting everybody to have a team approach, it seems like Tony wants the players to have a team approach so that he can be "the man" all by himself.

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Poor Redbird. I feel bad that nobody answers all your thoughtful Cardinals posts.

Don't worry. The writing effort wasn't wasted. Very similar posts are catching plenty of heat over at SLSF and BOTB. I'm even getting neg rep points for my "vile hatred" of La Russa.

Perhaps MacPhail could pretend to trade one of our players to them for four months so we get an influx of Cardinals fans (hopefully without any obnoxious Cardinals trolls)? ;)

We have our share of obnoxious posters. Some would tell you that I fit into that category. I do have a tendency to get a little sharp sometimes.

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We have our share of obnoxious posters. Some would tell you that I fit into that category. I do have a tendency to get a little sharp sometimes.

Never. When we got obnoxious Cubs fans I directed them toward your posts as an example of how well informed posters would be openly welcome here.

As for the post, Its a great post, and an unfortunate situation. I don't see any of it ending well for the organization and I think that is something La Russa may lose sight of. He sites that the players owe a duty to him, and that he should lead the clubhouse, however I don't think he realizes he owes a duty to do what is best for the team no matter what course that may be. When you have a dominate charismatic player like Pujols you have to defer to them.

I am really beginning to despise coaches who must coach it "their way" and are unflexible otherwise. The best managers realize what they have and build a strong strategy around that. Sometimes that means being flexible.

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It wasn't long ago when Pujols and LaRussa were fawning all over each other, right?

They still are, but it's kind of like these elaborate exchanges of faux kisses you see sometimes between Frenchmen in the movies, where the lips never get any closer than an inch or two from the others' cheeks. Publicly, they're full of praise for each other and Pujols went out of his way last fall to state that La Russa should return as manager. But the remarks being reported by Strauss seem to indicate that there's a lot of tension between the two.

Pujols isn't McGwire. McGwire seemed generally content to go about his business and to lead by example. There was one story about McGwire taking the entire team out to dinner one night on the road, but that's the closest which I can recall to reading about McGwire making any kind of a gesture towards leadership of the team.

Pujols seems to be very solicitous of La Russa's insecurities over who's in charge of the team, but Albert is also more into engagement with his fellow players.

- When an opposing runner reaches first and the camera shows him, you generally always see a smiling Pujols chatting with the enemy runner.

- When Placido Polanco was the "uber-utility" infielder and La Russa intended to try him out in left field, it was Placido's buddy, Albert, who went to La Russa and volunteered to move from 3rd base to the outfield so that Placido wouldn't have to play a position where he was uncomfortable.

- When Juan Encarnacion was signed to a 3 year contract and then got off to a very slow start, the Cards fans began booing Juan for leaving so many runners stranded (nickname: the LOBster) and for what appeared to be lackadaisical base running and defense. Pujols took the rather unusual step of publicly appealing to Cardinals fans not to boo Encarnacion -- claiming that Juan actually was trying very hard and fan perceptions of him were wrong.

- Now, with Edmonds and Rolen gone, Pujols is acutely aware that he's the "old man" of the team, and he seems to be very carefully trying to step into that leadership role without aggravating La Russa's insecurities. So Albert's public comments on the situation are extremely guarded and solicitous of Tony's authority.

Funny how losing changes everything.

This is going to be a very interesting season. The prognosticators have uniformly been very pessimistic regarding the Cardinals' chances, but when one reads their rationales, one is struck by how little they actually know about the team. I think that this team might end up scoring a lot more runs than last year's version.

There are two areas of major concern:

(1) The lack of depth, experience, and -- dare one say -- quality in the rotation. However, starting pitchers have emerged from obscurity to play key roles on La Russa teams before. Bottenfield won 18 games in 1999; Stephenson won 16 in 2000 and Reames sparkled as a rookie replacement when Andy Benes went on the DL early that August; Simontacchi became a surprise ROY contender after Darryl Kile's sudden death in June 2002; Jeff Weaver somehow managed to patch his career up temporarily in the 2nd half of 2006 and the post season; and the Cards won most of Todd Wellemeyer's starts after picking him up off waivers from the Royals last season.

(2) What shapes up as a very weak infield, with Izturis likely to get most of the playing time at SS and Kennedy the same at 2nd. However, Kennedy was hampered by that leg injury last season and had a good spring, so he might return to form. It's been reported that the defense of Izturis deteriorated significantly following the injury after his gold glove season in 2004, but the glitter may be back in his glove this spring. If the 2-3-4-5 hitters deliver the 120-some home runs that ESPN projects for them, the Cards might be able to survive the weak bat of Izturis batting in the #9 spot.

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I think that we have more upside. We didn't trade off our two best players and we don't play the Yankees or Red Sox. Plus, many of our exciting young players are "major league ready" and we've got "The Genius" -- as authenticated by George Will -- as our manager. :)

You make very good points. I also think your team (as much as I've followed it, so please don't jump on me if I'm off a bit) has some real questions in the rotation, and Mr Pujols's arm sounds about ready to fall off.

Does that mean you wanna bet? :D

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IMO, if you're gonna pick an NL team to follow, and if you want one with a great long-standing tradition, then it's pretty much either the Cardinals or the Dodgers. Both have a lot to recommend them.

Plus, I think the Card's have great uniforms, with the birds sitting on the bat... the MiL O's copied that...

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