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
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?