Cardinals began this epic rise four years ago
MILWAUKEE – On stage stood the architect, the puppeteer and the star. John Mozeliak, Tony La Russa and David Freese(notes), as they are better known, wore matching grins. They are the general manager, manager and third baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals, who minutes earlier won the National League pennant, and they had their arms around one another, finally intertwined literally after spending so much time figuratively.
Around them, a couple dozen ballplayers hugged and poured beer on one another and acted like overgrown children given the run of the room, and nobody was stopping them. Because, really, who or what could stop the Cardinals? Certainly not the Milwaukee Brewers, whose home-field mastery proved no deterrent in the Cardinals’ 12-6 victory Sunday night at Miller Park that capped a little more than two weeks during which they’ve gone from afterthoughts to the World Series.
So the party was raging after Game 6 of the NL Championship Series, Mozeliak going to his first World Series as GM, La Russa trying to win his third as a manager, Freese wrapping his head around winning the NLCS MVP on a team with Albert Pujols(notes), Matt Holliday(notes) and Lance Berkman(notes). The carousing wasn’t stopping anytime soon, either. Because when things come together so damn perfectly, like the cosmos moved every piece into its necessary place, well, there’s no sense in breaking it up. It’s easier to celebrate than think about just how improbable it all is.
Of all the places to start, of course it was at a Burger King in Los Angeles in December 2007, because all great stories start at Burger King. David Freese was eating lunch. His phone rang. He didn’t recognize the number so he let it roll to voicemail. He listened to it. The voice on the other end said it was John Mozeliak, who had taken the Cardinals GM job six weeks earlier. Mozeliak said he had made a trade for Freese and wanted to talk with him.
Freese laughed. Must’ve been one of his friends. They all dreamed about him playing for the Cardinals, as he grew up 45 minutes from Busch Stadium in Wildwood, Mo. Ever since the San Diego Padres had drafted Freese, they liked to mess with him.
“Then I got a call from Grady Fuson from San Diego,” Freese said, “and was like, ‘All right. This is really happening.’ So I called Mo back.”
The Cardinals were in a period of transition. GM Walt Jocketty had been fired, and Mozeliak, his assistant, took over. The Cardinals were on the verge of trading Scott Rolen(notes), the popular All-Star third baseman, though before that they wanted to ensure they had an ample replacement. Mozeliak knew he was going to trade another fan favorite, Jim Edmonds(notes), and scoured the possibilities. San Diego needed a center fielder, and the trade – Mozeliak’s first – came together quickly.
“The first thing I asked him was who I got traded for,” Freese said. “He said Edmonds. I was kind of bummed.”
So were his friends, who didn’t think an Edmonds-for-Freese deal sounded quite right. After all, Freese was a 24-year-old at Class A, not exactly the sort of prospect who excites teams. The Cardinals knew Freese’s background, though, knew that more than a decade of baseball as a kid left him burned out, sour toward the game, enough so that he turned down a baseball scholarship to the University of Missouri and instead matriculated as David Freese, regular kid.
He took classes in computer science and business. He made friends outside of baseball. Freese thought he was happy until two weeks before his sophomore year, when he felt the pangs. He missed the competition and camaraderie. So he enrolled at a junior college, then played his final two years at South Alabama before entering the draft as a 23-year-old senior, the unlikeliest sort not just to get drafted but to make it.
“It’s just one of those things I had to do,” Freese said. “If I didn’t quit, if I continued to play, I wouldn’t be here.”
Here happened to be the stage on which a dozen teammates formed a mosh pit around Freese, drenched him with beer and chanted M-V-P loud and long enough for him to need a hearing A-I-D. His three-run home run in the first inning of Game 6 helped chase Milwaukee starter Shaun Marcum(notes), and for the series he hit .545 with three home runs and nine RBIs. He managed to outslug Pujols, who only turned in his best postseason series since 2002.
Once Freese escaped, he was dragged outside in front of a camera. He wore a headset and smiled his way through an interview as Miller Park closed down for the season around him. Blowers took care of trash. Workers went double-time to make the place spic and span. It was going into hibernation just as St. Louis was readying Busch Stadium for Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday.
“Hey!” John Mozeliak yelled. “Tell that guy standing there: No beer!”
Once the shock of a St. Louis Cardinals employee telling someone not to imbibe a Budweiser wore off, it was evident that Mozeliak had been told to clear the field of Cardinals personnel with drinks in hand. In the off moments he’s not thinking about his roster, Mozeliak, with his professorial glasses and smart ties, cuts a figure as the dad who’s always trying to clean up others’ messes.
Mozeliak had one on hand in his clubhouse in the middle of the summer. Colby Rasmus(notes), the ever-talented, ever-frustrating 24-year-old center fielder, was again feuding with La Russa: frustrated with inconsistent playing time, seeking his baseball-savvy father for advice, stuck in a holding pattern as to who would win this particular battle of wills. As if that really were a question. La Russa, now in his 16th year with the Cardinals, is Floyd Mayweather in such matters.
So Mozeliak started to shop Rasmus as surreptitiously as he could, well aware that the leak of such information would spray lighter fluid on a pile of burning coals. When he found a satisfactory deal July 27, it was nothing less than curious: Rasmus headed to Toronto, and in return the Cardinals received Edwin Jackson(notes), Octavio Dotel(notes), Mark Rzepczynski and Corey Patterson(notes). Jackson was a back-end starter, Dotel a 37-year-old reliever, Rzepczynski a left-handed starter-turned-reliever and Patterson a backup outfielder. For a cost-controlled, five-tool center fielder such as Rasmus, the deal reeked of rip-off.
“We got killed,” Mozeliak said. “It wasn’t a popular move. It was a risky move. But you only have so many windows of opportunity to win. At the time, we were in first place. And we thought making these trades would support it. Took a while to do so, but it ended up working.”
[Video: Cardinals win 18th NL pennant]
For nearly a month after the deal, which preceded the trade for shortstop Rafael Furcal(notes) and the free-agent signing of left-handed reliever Arthur Rhodes(notes), the Cardinals stunk. The nadir came when the Los Angeles Dodgers swept them at home and pushed them to just four games above .500. Even as Rasmus struggled, the deal looked like a bust.
“That’s a crazy trade to make,” Cardinals second baseman Nick Punto(notes) said. “But it paid off huge dividends. There’s no way we’re here today without Dotel. Dotel was amazing. Rzepczynski. Getting Furcal. Jackson. Arthur. We went after it. For the first month, it didn’t look too good, because we just weren’t playing good baseball. I remember Tony saying, ‘Hey, this team is better.’ It was very true.”
Mozeliak joined the Cardinals organization in 1995, the year before La Russa arrived, and by now he understands his manager as well as anyone can, which is to say a smidgen. Nobody really knows La Russa well enough to dissect how the gears in his brain grind and make odd decisions – at least odd compared to the baseball establishment – that nevertheless end up working. The little bit Mozeliak does recognize told him that La Russa does his best when stocked with a full bullpen, and the arrival of the haul from the Rasmus trade gave him just that.
“If he doesn’t make that trade, we may not finish over .500,” La Russa admitted. “I’m serious. We were hurtin’.”
Instead, the Cardinals parlayed a team meeting after the Los Angeles series into six wins over the next seven games, including a three-game sweep in Milwaukee, where the Brewers won more than 70 percent of their games during the regular season. The Cardinals were healthy, and La Russa managing, and down in Atlanta, the Braves were beginning to turn an insurmountable wild-card lead – as many as 10½ games over the Cardinals – into something at least worth dreaming about.
“In September, we finally kicked ourselves in the ass and said we had to add some urgency,” La Russa said. “We played like it was the last game of our lives.”
Which sent them into October with the necessary mentality to oust the World Series favorite (Philadelphia) in the division series and take two of three from the team that rarely lost at home (Milwaukee). Watching La Russa turned into a game of its own: guessing his machinations, his maneuvering, trying to peer through his ear for just one look at the synapses that never stop firing. He lawyered his way through the NLCS, always one step ahead, every move designed to end up at a certain point.
Never did a Cardinals starter last past the fifth inning in the NLCS. La Russa made 28 pitching changes over six games. He yanked Jackson after the second inning in Game 6 and used his bench to perfection, pinch hitting in the pitchers’ spot three times while keeping his backup catcher (Gerald Laird(notes)) and utility infielder (Ryan Theriot(notes)) available in case of emergency, which only would’ve been of the medical variety once the Cardinals blew open a 9-4 lead in the third inning.
Once Jackson joined the rotation in late July, it allowed Kyle McClellan(notes) to move to the bullpen where he could join Rzepczynski, Dotel, closer Jason Motte(notes), Fernando Salas(notes), Lance Lynn(notes) and, later, Rhodes, for whom the World Series may carry the greatest meaning. This is personal, for him, for Punto, for Furcal, for all the veterans who have never played for a ring. Rhodes has slogged through 20 seasons, most of them in the thankless role of left-handed specialist, and never will he delight more in getting outs than this week when he faces men who earlier this season were his teammates.
“When Texas released me,” Rhodes said, “I said I’d rather go to St. Louis because that team had a big heart. You get a couple veterans like me and Dotel, and we liven up the clubhouse, which is like what I’m about to do right now. We’re going to the hotel. We’re about to party.”
They deserved it. On the first day of spring training, madness descended when Pujols showed up for what could be his last season with St. Louis, as he’ll hit free agency after the World Series. And then ace Adam Wainwright(notes) blew out his elbow soon thereafter. And Holliday underwent an appendectomy. And La Russa developed shingles. And Freese, whose brittleness is the only reason at 28 he hasn’t broken out yet, got hurt. And on and on it went, this talented team on the precipice of greatness always finding another hurdle.
“I don’t think anybody ever gave up on our team,” Rzepczynski said.
“We were done,” Punto said.
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He’s been around for more than a decade now, and he knows how it usually goes. Teams don’t blow leads like the Braves did. They just don’t. The Cardinals used every one of their 90 victories to take the wild card, and they got assistance from the Phillies, who beat Atlanta on the final night, as well as the Brewers, who rolled over in that three-game sweep after the Dodgers series.
“It’s crazy to think about that now,” Holliday said. “We still needed a lot of help just to have a chance to have a play-in game. For it to work out the way it did … “
Nothing was going to bother the Cardinals. Not bubbly in their eyes. Not the gross squish of soaked carpet. Not the fact that they’ve got two days to prepare for a juggernaut Texas Rangers team that put up 15 runs in their American League Championship Series clincher. Not even the fans that somehow snuck into their clubhouse.
“All right,” Mozeliak said. “I’ll deal with that next.”
He couldn’t stop shivering, the brisk air mixing with the booze shower to create a permafrost across his clothing. There would be time to get warm, but first the architect had to go back into the room with the puppeteer and the star and solve a problem. Schumaker didn’t worry a bit. By now, he knows Mozeliak is pretty good at that.
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