The Most Momentous Moments of the Aughts: The Cardinals

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So on this last day of the decade, I had myself a thought. "Aaron," I thought, "You should really try to do some sort of decade-long wrap for St. Louis sports." 
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"You know what, Aaron? That's an excellent idea!" I paused for a moment, considering the notion further. "Now why didn't I think of that?"

"Because you're not nearly as smart as I am," I chided myself. "Shit, you couldn't spot a good idea for a blog post if it bit you directly on the ass." 

"Hey! Fuck off, man!" I shouted, finally having enough of my own attitude. "I've had it up to here with your constant shitting on me! Maybe I'm not as smart as you are, but that gives you no right to fucking talk to me like this all the time. Why don't you just get the hell out of here if you hate me so god damned much?!" 

This went on for quite some time, and then I sat down to write this. 

So how to go about wrapping together a full decade's worth of history? Do you write a long, meandering article which attempts to hit all the salient points as it winds through the years? Do you make a list by year or by importance or whatever other criteria? Finally, I decided on a minimalist sort of approach. Not my usual tack, I know, but let's give it a shot, shall we? 

I'm going to give you the three biggest moments in the decade for each of the major sporting teams we have here in town: the Cardinals, Blues, and the Rams. That's right, just three. If I pick 'em right, those three should tell you everything you need to know. Today, we'll start with the Cardinals. 

#3 -- 27th October, 2006: The Cardinals win the World Series 

What it was: The Cardinals beat the Detroit Tigers, four games to one, capturing their tenth championship in franchise history. 

Why it was: Well, for one thing, it's the World Series, right? The culmination of everything a baseball team works for from the second week of February until their season comes to an end. How can that not be important? 

Just as much as the championship itself, though, the 2006 Cardinals represented the end of an era. The MV3 Walt Jocketty has so successfully installed as the engine of an NL Dynasty enjoyed its last hurrah during the series: Albert Pujols did his usual Pujolsian thing, Scott Rolen really should have won the WS MVP award after struggling with his shoulder throughout the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs, and Jim Edmonds was the unsung hero of the postseason, hitting well, handing out game balls, and bringing together a deeply flawed team for the push up the hill. Never again would the Big Three of Cardinal baseball in the Aughts contribute the same way. 

#2 -- 23rd March, 2000: Jimmy Baseball comes to town

What it was: The Cardinals were a team on the rise in 2000, with a revamped pitching staff and several intriguing young players. Still, they were seen as a long shot to compete for the division title in 2000, being short on both sides, but especially offensively. 

Then, at the end of spring training, Walt Jocketty traded Adam Kennedy, the team's top prospect, and Kent Bottenfield, who had won 18 games the year before, for Jim Edmonds, an incredibly talented outfielder from the Anaheim Angels. Edmonds brought with him Gold Glove defense, a bat that had just begun to really shine, and a reputation for being somewhat difficult in the clubhouse. 

Why it was: Albert Pujols is easily the player of the decade for the Cardinals; hell, he was player of the decade for all of baseball. But the turnaround for the Cards from the late 90s doldrums into the dynamic, winning 2000s didn't begin with Albert. It began with Edmonds. 

Jim Edmonds transformed the Cardinals on his arrival. He immediately upgraded the middle of the lineup, a left-handed bat capable of 30+ home runs with a career OPS of .856 up to that point. (And that was before his best seasons.) In the field, he played magnificent defense, chasing down fly balls virtually no other player in the game was capable of getting to. 

Soon after arriving in St. Louis, Edmonds signed a long-term contract extension, and the first great cornerstone of the Cardinals' success the rest of the decade was firmly in place. The Jim Edmonds deal stands head and shoulders better than any other trade Walt Jocketty pulled off in his tenure with the Redbirds. 

And now, for the biggest moment of the decade. But first, a quick diversion. I thought of putting Albert Pujols' debut here, but the really important date there is actually when he was drafted, I think, and that was in the 90s. I thought to try and include Daryl Kile on this list somewhere, but was forced to concede eventually it was more out of sentimentality than anything. Sure, Kile's death was a huge blow to the team, but I think it was more important on the personal side than it was on the franchise side. Thus, I had to leave it off. I also considered the Mark Mulder Trade, seeing as how it sent perennial Cy Young darkhorse Dan Haren into the Oakland wastelands while bringing the Cardinals continual heartache, but the Mark Mulder deal was, in the larger sense, a reaction to something. And there's my segue. 

#1 -- 3rd October, 2000: Rick Ankiel Melts Down

What it was: By the time the 2000 season ended, Rick Ankiel was seen as one of the brightest young emerging stars in baseball's firmament. He had just completed a brilliant rookie campaign, going 11-7, 3.50 in just over half a season. He was just 21 years old and had more talent than perhaps any other pitcher in the game at that moment. 

Then came the playoffs. We all know the story by now, how Tony La Russa pulled the old bait-and-switch routine with the media, putting Daryl Kile at the podium as the apparent game one starter, only to pencil in Ankiel in an attempt to milk an extra little advantage. We all remember Mike Matheny's hunting knife fiasco, ensuring the Cards would be without their all-star backup when the kid took the mound against Atlanta. And we all remember the game itself, I imagine, the game when Rick Ankiel simply lost it, as perhaps no one has ever lost it before in the game of baseball. 

Why it was: Larry Borowsky wrote about it for the Hardball Times. I wrote about it for the Maple Street Annual. Rick Ankiel's blowup changed the course of the decade for the Cardinals as much, if not more, than anything else this decade. 

In short, the Cardinals have been playing catchup ever since. In 2001, Matt Morris emerged as a young ace, winning 22 games, and Daryl Kile had perhaps his finest season. With Ankiel in the rotation, that 2001 team should have been unstoppable. Instead, Ankiel was in the low minors, fighting Steve Blass Disease. When the Cards ran into the unstoppable duo of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in the NLDS that year, a third ace on the Cardinals' side certainly could have made all the difference in the world. 

How much less would it have hurt the team in 2002 to lose DK? I hate to even pose the question, because it feels so callous to me, but it's a legitimate query all the same. With Ankiel in the rotation, the Cards wouldn't have been forced into such desperate measures as bringing up Danny Haren long before he was ready. Perhaps the postseason would have been different. 

In 2003, the Cards simply didn't have the pitching to weather the loss of Matt Morris on multiple occasions to injury. By the time the pitching got healthy, the hole was too deep and the Cards missed the playoffs. With Ankiel in the rotation, perhaps we wouldn't have been subjected to the spectre of Brett Tomko on the mound nearly so often. Of course, the bullpen would still have been frighteningly awful, but just not seeing Tomko or Garrett Stephenson take the bump quite so often just might have been enough to put the Cards over the top. 

And of course, most importantly of all, with Ankiel, the Cardinals likely never would have made the deal for Mark Mulder. After losing the 2004 World Series to the Red Sox, Jocketty and the rest of the team's brain trust decided the team's most glaring need was a dominant, top of the rotation type arm, preferably of the sinister variety. So they went and pegged Mulder for the task, ignoring the warning signs he was already showing in 2004. Hmm, let's see... Left-handed, #1/#2 type starter, wow, sounds an awful lot like someone we know, doesn't it? 

With Ankiel still in St. Louis, the Cards would never have needed to make the deal for Mulder, and Dan Haren would likely have started the 2005 season at the back end of the Cards' rotation. He would have pitched for the Cards, continued to develop, and stayed right here where he belonged. Assuming the Cardinals had ponied up for Ankiel the pitcher a long-term deal, the 2009 rotation would have looked something like this: 

Chris Carpenter 
Adam Wainwright
Rick Ankiel 
Dan Haren 
Doesn't Matter

With Ankiel and Haren still around, the Cards wouldn't have felt it necessary to sign Kyle Lohse to the four year deal currently weighing more and more heavily on their neck all the time. We probably would never have been forced to endure the Sidney Ponson Experience. We likely never would have seen Mike Maroth in a Cardinal uniform. Hell, that alone makes this important.

In addition to all that, I think Ankiel's meltdown adversely affected the way Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan deal with young players. I think it shook La Russa in particular straight down to his core to see Ankiel fail so spectacularly, and I think it has coloured his dealings with youngsters ever since. If Ankiel succeeds, perhaps the Anthony Reyes fiasco never happens, and he pitches productively until his arm finally explodes from giving it the old Tom House 100 times a game. 

Rick Ankiel's meltdown changed everything about the decade in Cardinal baseball. The Aughts were one of the most prosperous decades in the team's long and storied existence, and yet there was always just a little something missing. That October night when Rick Ankiel lost everything he had was the single most important of the decade for the Cards. 

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