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So Tony La Russa called another team meeting after Friday's disgraceful loss in

Oakland. The previous La Russa meeting, last month in Colorado, seemed to nudge

the team forward, at least for a while.

It isn't La Russa's style to have formal team meetings. Two sitdowns in about

five weeks is unusual. But La Russa has a keenly instinctive read on his team

and obviously saw the need for another meeting. This is not a happy group. And

the discontent goes far beyond losing, and it is not limited to playing

personnel.

I'll try to explain why I believe each party is feeling so blue in this bummer

of a baseball summer:

Walt Jocketty. I received an e-mail recently from a Jocketty acquaintance,

asking me why Walt seems so miserable. This is a familiar inquiry around Busch

Stadium. What's wrong with Walt? Plenty. Despite rolling in money, ownership

kept the payroll at roughly the same level as last year. Ranked sixth in

payroll as recently as 2005, the Cardinals are 11th in spending in MLB,

according to USA Today. Jocketty is limited. Last offseason, he was unable to

do much about the starting-pitching concerns, which have evolved into a

full-blown crisis. Jocketty is underpaid compared with other top GMs. And

Jocketty has also witnessed the organizational rise of Jeff Luhnow, a

hand-picked associate of Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt. And Luhnow's

ascendancy has been at the expense of Jocketty loyalists. Jocketty's big moves

- signing Kip Wells and Adam Kennedy - are busts. Wouldn't you be grumpy?

Don Tony. He's a proud man. He hates to lose. It eats him up. He was humiliated

by his DUI arrest in Florida and hasn't been the same since. The death of Josh

Hancock left the manager reeling again. Late last month La Russa seemed to

rally his spirit; I wrote about it. But the emotional ups and downs continue.

More than anything, La Russa has a daunting challenge to put a competitive team

on the field. And La Russa is no idiot. He tries to be a good employee and

holds his fire, so he won't dog DeWitt. But surely an intensely competitive man

such as La Russa must wonder why the organization rested on its World Series

triumph (after a troubling 83-win season) instead of taking a more proactive

approach to improving the ballclub for 2007. And there's a new risk,

exacerbated by the grind of losing and La Russa's uncertain future: that the

players will quit on him. Some of the efforts this past week have been abysmal.

The players. I'm not going to defend faint-hearted performances; there's no

excuse for not going all out, especially with the salaries they are being paid.

But human nature is what it is. The players see what's going on: Here's a

franchise that won the World Series, draws more than 3 million fans a summer

and pulls in piles of cash on sales of merchandise and anything else that can

be bartered to the Redbirds-loving public - and the best rotation it comes up

with is Wells, Todd Wellemeyer and converted relievers? No, it isn't

ownership's fault Chris Carpenter is hurt; and they invested a big contract in

him. But the reality is, this is probably the worst starting rotation in more

than 100 years of Cardinals baseball.

There are other issues. As I talked about earlier this season, the players

don't think Don Tony will return in 2008, and so the Fear Factor is greatly

reduced. And that only increases the likelihood of La Russa fatigue setting in.

Do these guys want to play for Tony? We'll see.

Obviously, this is not the best environment for winning. There's rampant

insecurity and unrest in the ranks. And a tired, thinner roster. The starting

pitching is spectacularly bad, which makes the other problems seem more severe.

I wonder: Is this what the end of an era looks like?

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