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Wednesday, December 14, 2005


Meet the Springfield Cardinals, Part I

In the midst of all the hot stove hubbub, we get intently focused and wrapped up in the speculation about which superstar teams will be signing, or won’t be signing in the Cards’ case. Any thoughts of prospects are strictly limited to those mentioned as a possible bargaining chip. Pair this with all the talk of money and the enormous contracts, and it brings out elements of cynicism even in the game’s most ardent fans. Without getting into the “baseball as innocence” meme, I wanted to leave the free agent/trade speculation to the chat boards today and take an extensive look at the Cardinals new AA farm team, the Springfield, MO Cardinals. [Full disclosure: I still call Springfield home, even though I live in DC. I’ve tried to avoid my bias here, but I make no guarantees.] Recently, I was able to chat with the Springfield Cardinals beat writer Kary Booher, from the Springfield News-Leader about the team and the young players that represent the future of the Cardinals organization. Today’s post, the first of two parts, is focused on the team’s experience in its new home and its relationship with the larger Cardinals’ organizations. On Friday, the second part of the interview takes a more in-depth look at the players and prospects, with Mr. Booher giving us an idea about some of players that we might see in Springfield, Memphis, or even in St. Louis next year. Mr. Booher, a 1997 graduate of Oklahoma State University, has worked as a reporter for newspapers in Topeka and Pittsburgh, KS, where he covered Pittsburgh State University. Prior to joining the staff at the News-Leader, he worked in for four years in Jackson, TN, covering the West Tennessee Diamond Jacks, the Cubs’ AA affiliate. First of all, what was it like to cover the Springfield Cardinals and AA baseball? Amazing. I grew up an hour south of Wichita and would go to a lot of the Double-A games there in high school and college, and those experiences made me want to cover the minor leagues. I did get my chance in 2001 in West Tennessee to cover the Cubs Double-A club there, and that was a lot of fun. But the passion people around here have for the Cardinals makes this job even better, because the challenge is meeting their expectations of good baseball coverage. They don’t just want game stories and features. They want the stuff that goes with having a minor league team, like getting to the stories about the career minor leaguers as well as the prospects and how they exactly factor into the organization’s plans. The best part is that it’s Double-A baseball, the proving ground of the minor leagues. A number of visitors to this site are Cardinals fans scattered about the world; give us a little perspective into what this team means for Springfield. What was the community reaction like, finally getting a professional baseball team, especially one affiliated with the Cardinals? It figured that a lot of people would be interested in a new minor league team in town, especially one affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals. But I don’t think anyone truly expected the team to draw more than a half-million fans in the first season. There was an independent league team here in the three years before the Cardinals came here, and they did well until people realized the level of play was very mediocre. You figured the Ozarks would go nuts for a Cardinals affiliate because the Ozarks are all about the Cardinals. In fact, this is their strongest base of support outside St. Louis metro, and that’s saying something for an organization that has fans from coast to coast. Springfield hadn’t had affiliated minor league baseball in 55 years, and that was a short stint with the Cubs in one of those low minor leagues. The Cardinals actually had an affiliate here in the 1930s and early 1940s, and it drew well before World War II came along and forced the cancellation of the league. It was too bad. Musial got his start here as an outfielder. How has the reception to the Springfield team been from the Cardinals organization? Instense, as you might expect. The Cardinals had wanted an affiliate here for a long time because Springfield is only three hours from St. Louis. They had strong ties with Little Rock, but that relationship soured a few years ago and led the Cardinals to take their Double-A affiliate to Connecticut and Knoxville. With their Double-A club here now, they are able to send guys out on injury rehab assignments here (Cal Eldred came here in June) and the farm director can drive from his office any time he wants. When the team was in Knoxville, they would have to take a flight out of St. Louis, then connect in Cincy. The thing is, they really did it right here. Hotel developer John Q. Hammons supplied the $32 million stadium, and the Cardinals put their best marketing people in Springfield to run the club. Honestly, it’s run like a big-league team. The professionalism from the front office makes my job so much easier because they don’t try to Mickey Mouse around or pull sophomoric stunts. They talk about representing the birds and the bat, and they mean it. It’s very refreshing for a minor-league beat writer because sometimes minor league franchises are run by people who are only out to make a buck and care little about their relationship with the local media. That’s not the case here. Any appearances from Walt Jocketty or other notables from the big club? If so, did you get the chance to talk to them some, and what was that like? Jocketty and assistant general manager John Mozeliak made visits here in mid-season. Jocketty came just a few weeks before the trade deadline and actually tracked me down just before a Sunday afternoon game to do an interview. I thought that said a lot, about Jocketty and the organization as a whole. When I was in spring training, it was tough to get an interview with Jocketty, what with all the circus atmosphere after Rick Ankiel’s decision and so many other things going on. Jocketty is a good baseball man. He wants to win and, when I interviewed him, he was honest about what the Cardinals hoped to get and what they could afford. In this business, where you interview notable names quite a bit, you can’t be awestruck because the job is to get information to the readers. Don’t get me wrong. It’s neat to be able to interview the general manager of the Cardinals, but I get a sense of accomplishment if I generate a solid story out of it. Tell us about some of the team’s most memorable games you experienced? What about some of the other things that made the season memorable? Obviously, the big-league Cardinals coming here for two exhibition games were the most memorable. I’ll never forget being in the clubhouse waiting for Albert Pujols and sitting in a chair to my left was Larry Walker. Walker gave me some good quotes in spring training about a funny episode when he was in Double-A baseball, but that day he was sitting there and telling me to interview Albert because, “I’ve had a terrible spring. You don’t want to interview me.” Looking back, that moment was very telling of what was to come for Walker, a player I always admired for his hard work and his love for the game. A few other games stand out. Rick Ankiel finished with 10 home runs in 28 games, and that home run binge started with a 13th-inning, walk-off homer. I’ll also remember a crazy game in early June when the Cardinals were playing the Royals’ Double-A affiliate and it ended on Juan Diaz’s walk-off homer. The place went nuts.It was also neat to see opposing players come through, too. Jared Weaver made a couple of late-season starts, and people need to remember the name Howie Kendrick. He’ll be the Angels second baseman before too long. Give us an idea about the relationship within the overall organization in regards to player development. How do they coordinate in regards to making player decisions? For example, how would the Cardinals organization work with the Springfield team to make a decision on shifting a young pitcher from a starting role to a relief role? Good question. This is the challenge of every farm system and I can tell you that the Cardinals put tons of thought into every decision they make. In the case of pitchers, the main thing is they give them every chance to succeed. I often remind our readers that the Springfield Cardinals are not playing for the Texas League championship but rather to improve to the point they can help the big-league team win the NL pennant. If a pitcher is struggling, they’ll keep sending him out there after maybe tweaking a thing here or there. If he can’t correct it, only then will they consider a move to the bullpen. I think we saw both sides of that this year. Chris Lambert and Stuart Pomeranz struggled after being promoted from Palm Beach. Pomeranz changed his delivery and had success in his final few starts. Lambert showed some signs of success, and it was unfortunate that he lasted only two-thirds of an inning in the final game of the year. Really, he hit a wall in mid-season and looked tired the rest of the way. But they’ll keep trotting him out to the mound so he can get a handle on Double-A, and I think he’ll be successful next year. Another example is Reid Gorecki. He struggled and struggled, and they kept giving him chances until it was clear that he needed to go back to Palm Beach. It was a good move. I think he got his confidence back and will come back here next year ready to do some damage. Who would you say the team’s top position player this year? Pitcher? What kind of impact did they have on the team? Top position player was Travis Hanson, the third baseman. A super nice guy, one of those players you pull for. He was also the hardest worker, staying long after games to do work in the weight room. Hanson not only gave them a left-handed bat, but he also impacted the team by never wanting to come out of the lineup. That went over well in the clubhouse. The top pitcher was left-hander Randy Leek, a guy from Long Island. He is pushing 30, but he showed the younger guys that you don’t have to have a 100 mph fastball to win. He changed speeds and knew when to use his fastball. And two years after Tommy John surgery, he’ll be coming back. -------------------------- Okay, be sure to check back Friday for Part Two; we'll really jump into the prospect talk. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised at what you hear. And of course, lots more Rick Ankiel talk.
ryan, nice to hear about the springfield cards. good analysis from an excellent perspective. what do think the chances are that Hanson will stay with the organization (or is that inpart two)? It seems like with Rolen, he'd have to wait.
good question. i have no idea. I would think that he's young enough, he's more of a long term replacement for Rolen...unless of course Rolen's injuries continue to dog him.
Nice interview, Ryan. I look forward to part 2.
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