ST. LOUIS – St. Louis Cardinals fans love to tell anyone who will listen how they're the smartest in baseball, and on Wednesday night they may have proven it.
They knew better than to show up and watch this team.
Oh, the Cardinals won, an 8-3 romp over the National League champion Colorado Rockies, and that was well and good if not for the huge pockets of empty seats at the new Busch Stadium. For the first time in 165 games, and since the stadium opened in 2006, the Cardinals didn't sell out. They were nearly 8,000 heads shy of capacity, a rather damning indictment seeing as the season is two days old.
"It's just bad weather more than anything," Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen said. "It's cold out. Kids have school tomorrow. You know, that's the way I look at it."
Well, yeah. The Cardinals have paid Isringhausen about $50 million in his seven seasons here. The least he can do is give them good excuses.
The reality differs. The Cardinals are a mess. Last week, they lost 10-3 to their Double-A affiliate, Springfield, in an exhibition. This week, their pitching coach, Dave Duncan, got in an on-air fight with a local radio gasbag. Earlier in the spring, they cut Scott Spiezio after police issued a six-count warrant stemming from an alleged drunken-driving accident, which happened less than a year after pitcher Josh Hancock died while driving drunk, which took place months after manager Tony La Russa was arrested on suspicion of DUI.
Gone, along with their credibility, is longtime general manager Walt Jocketty, forced out in a power struggle in spite of building the 2006 championship team, which seems like eons ago. Maybe because few from it are left.
One look around the Cardinals' clubhouse and the turnover is staggering. The only regulars from the championship team are first baseman Albert Pujols and catcher Yadier Molina. A few pitchers remain, notably Adam Wainwright, who closed out the World Series and now is the Cardinals' No. 1 starter.
He inherited that mantel because Chris Carpenter is injured and out an undetermined amount of time. So is Mark Mulder, another big-name acquisition gone bad. Two of St. Louis' biggest free-agent signings this offseason, Joel Piñeiro and Matt Clement, are on the disabled list, too.
It might be contagious. Clompy the Clydesdale is complaining about hoof pain.
"There's been a lot of change," Isringhausen said, "but change is good. The guys that are gone, some wanted to be gone. We've got a bunch of young energy now. We've got guys who haven't been in the big leagues before, and it's fun to watch them succeed.
"Things like that give older guys a shot in the arm. We need to stay young. We're not throwing out the team we threw out a few years ago when we won 100 games. Everybody realizes that."
True enough, though the Cardinals seem stuck in that abyss of mediocrity that swallows so many teams. New GM John Mozeliak sees enough in the cupboard not to clear it out completely, and so Pujols delays the inevitable Tommy John surgery that will keep him out for a year to play with a team that will acquaint itself with mediocrity only under the most fortuitous of circumstances.
The Cardinals' self-awareness in this respect isn't nearly as keen as the fans'. The Gameday magazine sold at the stadium features an unfortunately tight photograph that lets you see every pore on La Russa's proboscis, complemented by the headline: The Face of Change.
Pitching change after pitching change after pitching change, they surely meant.
OK, enough salt in wounds. Snapped streak aside, Wednesday was a pretty good night for St. Louis. Rick Ankiel affirmed his burgeoning-star status with a tremendous catch in center field, a superb throw and his first home run of the season. Ryan Ludwick, getting to play because of an injury to Chris Duncan, drove in three runs. And Rico Washington, one of the best stories of the spring – a 29-year-old who finally made it to the major leagues – got his first hit, a shot over Willy Taveras in center field and sponged in the chants: "Ri-co, Ri-co, Ri-co!"
"We've got great fans here in St. Louis," Washington said.
Didn't take long to brainwash him, either. Cardinals fans think highly of themselves because they clap for a strong throw or a well-executed sacrifice or hustle to prevent a double play. In reality, it's their blind loyalty that's most admirable, their willingness to pack stadiums even when the Cardinals stink.
Granted, it's been a while, and even when the team did stink, the Mark McGwire show was in full effect. So this will be the truest test in years: Is success necessary for support?
Blocks of four tickets in the second-most-expensive section of Busch are available for today's series finale against Colorado. For the next home series, against NL Central power Milwaukee, you can get four at $95 a pop, the third-highest price point. Even for the first game of the season against the hated Cubs, one ticket in the most expensive section, costing $250, can be had.
And if they don't sell, hey, the seats in Busch are red, the same color as the majority of fans' garb. They'll be able to obscure what's not in the stands.
Which is better than they can say for what's on the field.