The Train Report (Throwback Edition): The 1996 St. Louis Cardinals

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(@TheATrainSTL)

St. Louis, MO

In this edition of “The Train Report,” let’s take Cardinal fans back to 1996. The year when the Tony LaRussa era began and the Ozzie Smith era ended. Background first, my story second.

THE BACKGROUND:

Let’s take you back to 1995 when the baseball strike ended and the season was shorten. The Cardinals finished a pitiful 62-81. Joe Torre’s future was freed up after the first 47 games and Mike Jorgensen took over the last 96 games. Torre then went to the New York Yankees and won 4 World Series titles. YIKES. The first, during the ’96 season. DOUBLE YIKES.

They saw the retirements of long-timer Jose Oquendo and Tom Henke, who was an All-Star and the Rolaids Relief Man Of The Year award winner.

The Cardinals said goodbye to Todd Zeile, who was already traded to the Chicago Cubs during the season and hometown guy Bernard Gilkey, who was traded to the New York Mets in the offseason and wound up having a career year in 1996. Not to mention, the funny cameo role he had in the first “Men In Black” movie.

The ace of the staff was Mark Petkovsek…EXACTLY. Mark Petkovsek. Say that name, three times fast. No starter on that staff had double digit wins. Henke (36 saves), along with the trio outfield of Gilkey (.298, 17 HR, 61 RBI), Ray Lankford (.277, 25 HR, 82 RBI) and Brian Jordan (.296, 22 HR, 81 RBI) were the only bright spots. But that team stunk and was in dire need of change.

That offseason brought such change. Bill DeWitt, Jr. bought the team from the Anheuser-Busch family. General manager Walt Jocketty said no to interim manager Mike Jorgensen and got former Oakland A’s skipper Tony LaRussa. Huge move. LaRussa then added Ron Hassey, Tommie Reynolds, Dave McKay, hitting coach George Hendrick and pitching coach Dave Duncan.

The Cardinals would add veterans Ron Gant, Gary Gaetti, and Dennis Eckersley. It also saw the returns of hometown favorite Willie McGee and Luis Alicea. Not to mention, the Cardinals went out and nabbed starters Andy Benes and Todd Stottlemyre. But there was one move that stuck during that season that caused riff between a manager and a player.

Royce Clayton.

Why him you ask?

Well here is what I know:

Clayton was a young shortstop that had average speed and average defense. Also, there was Mr. Smith. Smith had announced that it was his last season and wanted to have a great sendoff by being the starter. LaRussa had both shortstops, one young, one not so young compete for the starting job. Now many believe that LaRussa already knew who he had in mind to start. Smith had the better spring at the plate and played way better defense than Clayton (who had 8 errors in the spring)…and didn’t win the starting job. LaRussa chose Clayton. Smith, of course, was unhappy with the move because he felt he was in great shape to start the season, even at the ripe old age of 41. Now the many stories I have heard about the Smith/LaRussa are crazy. But if you want to delve into that, check out this article in 2011 from Howard Friend at Bleacher Report about the Smith/LaRussa feud.

The team started off bad and looked like they were headed to the bottom of the Central Division. By the end of May, they were in 2nd with a 22-29 record. Then a 6-game winning streak put them in 1st during June. After flip-flopping from 1st and 2nd, by the All-Star break they landed back on top. The Cardinals let a 4-game lead slip away by late July and found themselves tied. They would go back and forth with the Houston Astros in August until the lead went to 2.5 games for Houston. By early September, in the midst of a winning streak, the Cardinals took the division lead and wouldn’t give it up and won it.

THE PARTS THAT I REMEMBER THE MOST:

At age 12, I can remember the Cardinals clinching the National League Central for the first time while in Pittsburgh. Eckersley pumped his right fist as the players ran out on to the mound in celebration at old Three Rivers Stadium. They looked primed and ready for the postseason.

That year they got in the postseason and played the San Diego Padres and NL MVP Ken Caminiti. Speaking of Caminiti, I was shocked when he passed in 2004, but wasn’t surprised that he took steroids in his ’96 MVP season. He had a monster year and a monster series against the Cardinals. However, they were swept in three games. Good riddance. Uber excitement, at this point the Cardinals hadn’t been to the LCS in 9 seasons. I was geeked and excited.

In the NLCS they went against the Atlanta Braves, the previous season’s World Champions. I felt pretty good that they could beat them and I was nervous in all seven games of the series because anyone of them could be a complete turning point.

First game was in Atlanta at old Fulton-County Stadium, and they got beat 4-2. Bullpen couldn’t keep the game tied and Benes did the best he could to hold the Braves. They lost the game in the 8th inning thanks to 2 runs given up by Petkovsek. Not a huge deal but still they were down 1 game.

Still had some confidence that the Cardinals could do some damage in Game 2. It damn sure was a tight one when it got to the 7th. With the score 4-3 and the bases loaded, Gaetti unloaded a deep drive off starter Greg Maddux. Gaetti was 38 and nearing the end of his career. The previous year with the Royals he hit 35 home runs, and the Cardinals hoped that he could gave that power he had in KC and bring it down Interstate 70. He wound up with 23 in the season. This grand slam gave the Cardinals an 8-3 lead, to which they would hold on to that final score and even up the series.

As happy as I was, I was still nervous because it was the Atlanta Braves. I hated the Braves. At that point, they had reach the postseason every year (except the 1994 strike).

The last thing I wanted to see was an NL team, MY team, defeat them in the NLCS.

Game 3 back in St. Louis was LIVE. No I wasn’t there at Busch Stadium II but watching that game, it was a damn good feeling to see the Cardinal fans electric in an afternoon game. It was surely a great feeling for Gant, hitting 2 home runs off future Hall-of-Famer Tom Glavine was epic. The excitement on his face as he trotted around the bases. It was like he wanted pure revenge on the Braves. I wanted that for him too. Gant had already participated in 2 World Series with the Braves, so his presence with the Cardinals meant that playoff experience was on deck. He won the game by himself with 3 RBIs in a 3-2 Game 3 victory.

The next game was probably one of the best playoff games I had ever watched at that point. Although, the Birds were down 3-0 going into the bottom of the 7th, a player I had never seen before on the team, Dmitri Young came to the dish with two men on base.

Young kid, big stage. He would falter right?

No, he didn’t.

Young hit a triple off Braves reliever Greg McMichael and drove in both runs to narrow the Braves lead to 1. Clayton would then knock in Young to tie the game at 3. Busch II was rocking high. In the bottom of the 8th, Jordan sent a deep drive off McMichael to give the Cardinals the lead. Eckersley, who already came in the top half, shut down the Braves in the 9th to earn the win and a 3-1 series lead. The excitement I had that night would be the last excitement I would have for the rest of the series.

In the next three games, the Braves’ bats not only woke up…they never went back to sleep. The Cardinals’ bats literally died. I hoped so bad that they would get to their first World Series in 9 seasons, so I could see the excitement that the older generations got to see. Those dreams died the minute Game 5 started.

Game 5, 14-0 Braves. A complete ass whipping in a potential clincher. I was mad, but not angry. The Cardinals were still up 3 games to 2.

Then…

Game 6, a 3-1 defeat. Doesn’t seem like a lot, right? But that game was bad. Pretty damn bad. It set up a Game 7, which is very exciting but sets up a possible collapse by the Cardinals.

That wouldn’t happen, right?

Game 7, 15-0 Braves. Another complete ass whipping in a potential clincher. I remember my father enjoying every minute of that. I had a headache literally while watching that debacle. It was unreal. Catcher Javy Lopez was LCS MVP. The heavily favored Braves, who were on the brink of elimination, came back and won those last 3 games to take the series and face the New York Yankees. The Yankees would prevail in six games. Good that the Braves lost but ouch that Torre won. It would have definitely made for an epic series if the Cardinals got there. But they didn’t.

If you had kept count of those last three games of the ’96 NLCS, the grand total of runs the Cardinals had was…1. That’s right, 1 run.

But it wasn’t meant to be, it gave us hope that they could do it again. But they wouldn’t get back to the postseason for another 4 seasons. However some excitement back 2 years later…some guy named McGwire took the baseball world by storm. (This was before the steroid stories broke)

But that’s how the 1996 Cardinals season was for me. I can’t believe that was literally 20 years ago. It brought a lot of highs and some lows, and believe it or not, that was the last time LaRussa ever faced a 3-1 collapse in his tenure with the Cardinals.

Coming up on the next “Train Report,” I’ll take you to the 2001 St. Louis Cardinals, where it featured the surprising rookie debut of one Albert Pujols.

Keep taking the A-Train. Drop a comment if you like.

Follow me on Twitter @TheATrainSTL

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THE A-TRAIN RANT 14.0!

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Time for the 14th edition of The A-Train Rant…hope your sports weekend was good, here at A-Train’s home…umm hell no.

That’s why I’m hear to rant about it…enjoy.

PRE-RANT: I always look forward to what Kevin Slaten has to say about Missouri sports…ALWAYS. Some things I like, others I don’t. He can be sane, he can be crazy. He’s entertaining. He makes sure you have something to say (if you listen to him). Check out “Slaten Unleashed” on TalkSTL.com every weekday from 3pm-6pm. Sometimes it’s good to be antagonizing, other times not. Still a sight to see each weekday afternoon.

  1. I’m cheering for Florida State in the national championship. Auburn did what they had to do in the SEC title game but I’m going against them.
  2. Welcome back, Kobe Bryant. Am I being nice to Jellybean? In this case, yes. Just hope it doesn’t bite him in his ass making this triumphant return and winds up going back on the shelf.
  3. Speaking of injuries, I would be happy that Rob Gronkowski got hurt…but I can’t. The reason is because you’re seeing a long trend of top players get hurt. I understand football players take pain and so do other athletes, but when is it smart to comeback and play again?
  4. I had no idea that baseball managers could get in the Hall of Fame so easily…Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre, and Bobby Cox are in.
  5. I guess I’m supposed to be thrilled for the Lambs (yeah I called them that) right now. Thanks to a friend, I understand Jeff Fisher. He has no control of his damn team. Several games this season, this bum ass team decides they want to fight their opposition. FOR WHAT? Is that supposed to fire up the team? In at least 4 of the games I saw they got in fights and grabbed a plethora of penalties. No control whatsoever. NONE. I understand this team has no QB, yeah no quarterback and I guess those draft picks are looking nicer every day. Thanks Washington.
  6. Mizzou football will be in great shape, the day they get a different coach. Pinkel can’t win big games. He sucks bad. Last 2 conference championship games he’s been in, he gets smoked. Then has no idea how that ever happened. However, Mizzou had an unforgettable season, can’t take away what they did.
  7. Speaking of Mizzou, shoutout to CBS Sports for having a Mizzou Saturday…great win for the Men’s program beating 18th-ranked UCLA.
  8. Cano and Ellsbury got paid. I still hate Cano.
  9. Good bye, Roy Halladay. Halladay announced his retirement after 16 seasons. I will never forget his 2010 season, Halladay threw a perfect game and then a no-hitter in the postseason. Shame he didn’t get a ring while in Philly. He had no chance in Toronto. NONE.
  10. The death of Total Nonstop Action Wrestling is near, they lost their biggest acquisition in AJ Styles.
  11. Please Daniel Snyder, do us all a favor and put Mike Shanahan out of his misery.
  12. Rudy Gay going to the Sacramento Kings does nothing for them. You got a bighead jackass in DeMarcus Cousins. Unless both can work together as a tandem, I don’t think it will work out in Sac-town.
  13. The Super Bowl being in New York City is hilarious…you asked for this one. “Cold weather is where the game is supposed to be.” Because of this, now you have restrictions. No tailgate parties at Meadowlands Stadium. Enjoy.
  14. Keith Olbermann (whom I have caused a response with on Twitter) had this to say about cheating. I hear a lot about it. Shoutout to Solomon Alexander for this but it’s great. Enjoy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5N1XoJq_fk

That’s all I can think of for now.

More to come.

The A-Train

Don’t forget N The Zone TV is coming soon and Beyond The Ropes podcast is LIVE every Monday night after Raw.

A Train’s 2012 MLB All-Stars…Part 1

As the 2012 MLB All-Star Game approaches, the A-Train has provided you the fan some all-star picks that you can use for your ASG ballots. Some you might agree with and others you might just think I’m crazy.

But here it goes…Part 1 begins with the National League All-Stars for manager Tony LaRussa (yep, this is his last one…remember he won the World Series last year)

NOTE: This is from the catcher position all the way to the outfielders. All stats are as of 6/25/2012

Catcher – Yadier Molina (Cardinals) – Molina is on his way to a breakout season as a catcher. His .318 average, 10 HR and 39 RBI should keep Brian McCann of the Atlanta Braves from getting the nod. McCann back in the 2010 game stole the show with his clutch 3-run single in the top of the 7th to help stop the American League’s string of all-star wins (since 1997) come to an end.

1st Base – Joey Votto (Reds) – Now that Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder are in a different league…Votto should be the starting 1st baseman of the NL All-Stars for a while. Another solid season for Votto (.359 average, 14 HR and 47 RBI) means that nobody couldn’t come close to getting this nod. Should be an easy pick for any NL ballot.

2nd Base – Brandon Phillips (Reds) – Here is another easy selection for this team. I mean come on…what other 2nd baseman in the National League is there…mind you…that qualifies to be on this all-star team. Maybe Aaron Hill of the Arizona Diamondbacks? Dan Uggla of the Atlanta Braves? While many people can’t stand this guy (mostly Cardinal fans), this guy is still an excellent fielder and hitter. To me, this was (like I said) an easy choice.

Shortstop – Ian Desmond (Nationals) – Yes, I am still not choosing Furcal. Desmond has the numbers which are the best of the NL shortstops (12 HR and 49 RBI)…all the other big names like Jose Reyes of the Marlins and Jimmy Rolllins…major disappointments. NOTE: Troy Tulowitzki (my first choice) is on the 15-day disabled list. So that would have made that pick irrelevant. Choose Ian Desmond.

3rd Base – David Freese – (Cardinals) – Now many people will disagree with this pick as well, but Freese, after his awesome postseason of last year is still doing a solid job (.279 average, 13 HR and 46 RBI). Don’t get me wrong, you have some good competition at 3rd like Pedro Alvarez of the Pittsburgh Pirates (despite the .229 average), Hanley Ramirez of the Marlins, and of course David Wright of the New York Mets, who is batting .360. His defense has been much better and has provided some fielding gems that could (in my opinion) earn him a Gold Glove. This is NOT  just because I’m a Cardinal fan…I’M CALLING THEM LIKE I SEE THEM!

Outfielder – Carlos Beltran (Cardinals) – STRAIGHT BEAST MODE!! I mean this is rejuvenated Beltran that we are seeing here. But if he doesn’t START the all-star game, every Cardinal fan should be ashamed of themselves. Despite his injuries, Beltran is having a wonderful offensive season, tied for the NL lead in home runs with 20 and 56 RBIs, no doubt in my mind that he should be the starter. Better yet he should be the leading vote-getter. GET IT TOGETHER FOLKS, there is still time to make that happen.

Outfielder – Ryan Braun (Brewers) – Even though I can’t stand this dude, last year’s NL MVP gets a nod from me. This “cheater” (yeah I said it) is still putting together a solid season (.319 average, 20 HR, 52 RBI) without the likes of Prince Fielder to protect him. He still has an all-star presence despite his shortcomings. I would be really surprised if he’s snubbed as a starter. I really would. But then again, cheaters never prosper.

Outfielder – Andrew McCutchen (Pirates) – This was very debatable but this 25-year old star deserves to get the chance to start in an all-star game and define his all-star status. It’s his time. His numbers compare with the others (.340 avg, 13 HR, 45 RBI, and even 14 stolen bases), I mean I can’t see why he shouldn’t start. I MEAN REALLY! This is a 5-tool player…unless you see something wrong that I don’t. Put the votes in for him, his team may not be  doing the best but this a team of solid, young players. His energy to the game is what most young players should have and (by George) he’s got it.

Designated Hitter – Matt Holliday (Cardinals) – Holliday is putting up solid numbers even without Mr. Pujols (.299 avg, 12 HR, 47 RBI) . I can’t see him not being an all-star in any other capacity. He should get the nod for Tony’s team.

This team looks solid and could put together a 3-game winning streak for the National League. But those other guys in the American League might have something to say about that. Next time, I’ll provide for you my American League All-Stars.

A-Train