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Pass the Kool-Aid, it's time for the Baseball Forecast Luncheon!
This is the annual precursor to the baseball season where a blue ribbon panel of experts from the St. Louis pro baseball community pontificate on glories of the upcoming Cardinal season.
It's very easy to get caught up in the excitement listening to several century's worth of hardball acumen.
This is the setting where manager Tony LaRussa predicted a pennant for the Redbirds last year. In the immortal words of Maxwell Smart, "missed it by that much."
Did LaRussa learn? Probably not. He figures Mark McGwire (any true baseball fan's real MVP) is good for 75 home runs in 1999. Why 75?
"That's his number times three," he explained. Oh.
In fairness, the hot stove league is all about big talk, bold
predictions, and other rash statements. Every year the team helped themselves immensely with shrewd off-season moves. Next year is always
this year at this lovefest.
The Cardinals are most pleased to have plugged what they think is the biggest hole from 1998, the bullpen. As TV commentator and one-time relief ace Al Hrabosky pointed out, that was a huge reason for the egg
on LaRussa's face. "The Cardinals had 31 blown saves after the seventh inning last year," he explained. "If we win just a third of those, we win the wild card slot. If we win half of those, we win the division."
And this was just after GM Walt Jocketty had waxed optimistic about all things Cardinal. The general feeling down at 250 Stadium Plaza is that with newcomers Scott Radinsky and Ricky Bottalico teamed with incumbent
Juan Acevado, the Cards have three experienced closers. And if one of the newcomers can nail down the wins, Acevado moves to the rotation where he had some success last year. This means there's always a hammer
and two solid set-ups just past the right field wall.
Which is where many of last year's closer's pitches ended up. "I'll miss Jeff Brantley," said Jack Buck, sarcasm oozing like the mystery sauce on the rubber chicken. "Some games just have to end in a big hurry. We never missed a flight."
Buck said he'll also miss another fan favorite Ron Gant. "I had to come up with 130 different ways to say he struck out."
Along with Buck, Jocketty, LaRussa, and Hrabosky, the other usual suspects rounded up include American League umpire Dave Phillips, former GM Bing Devine, former manager Whitey Herzog, and The Sporting Newsie
John Rawlings. KMOXer Mike Shannon served as emcee and St. Louis Sports Commission President Frank Viverito gave the keynote address.
Viverito spoke of the many accomplishments of the Sports Commission and all they have brought and will bring to town and showed a video to back it all up. He said St. Louis should be proud of its centennial
We started the 1900s with the 1904 World's Fair and ended
with Mark McGwire's assault on the home run record in 1998.
Buck was one of the few speakers who didn't just offer platitudes. He noted that the Cardinals have already sold 2 million tickets for 1999 and season ticket sales have topped 20,000. He also offered a sneak peak at this summer's probable line-up: Edgar Renteria, J.D. Drew,
McGwire, Ray Lankford, Eric Davis, Fernando Tatis, Eli Marrero, second baseman to be named later, and pitcher.
Putting Drew ahead of McGwire will help both hitters. Drew
will get a lot of good pitches since no one wants to face Mac
with runners on. And if Drew (and especially Renteria) can get
on base, McGwire won't see so
many intentional walks. So maybe 75 isn't so far-fetched.
LaRussa said he might consider batting the pitcher eighth again. "On last year's club, with McGwire batting third, you make him fourth [i.e., clean-up] with a lead-off hitter batting ninth. One more chance to homer with a better hitter on base."
Drew and Renteria are half of the core of young talent Jockety said the Cardinals are counting on for the next several years. The other two are Merrero and Tatis. "These four guys are the heart of the franchise," said LaRussa. "Drew is among the most talented players in the past 20 years. Putting him in front of Mark will force pitchers to pitch to him. He's a very important part of the 1999 club."
He added that old familiar line, "if just a few things fall into place, we will do well." Then he surprised a few people. "Houston's not any better."
Devine puts this year's Cardinals at "as high a point as you've been and can get. If I were a fan at a luncheon like this, I'd ask, 'How's the game on the field?' I'd say the game is in pretty good shape on the field, especially in St. Louis."
Devine also said the Redbirds did all the right
things to improve that they should have done, including acquiring Renteria, Davis, Bottalico, and Radinsky.
No one mentioned the lack of starting pitching other than to say that signing Kevin Brown would have been nice but not at the price the Dodgers paid. It would have meant money they wouldn't be able to spend on other positions.
And LaRussa is more than happy to have the team he does. "Only three or four times have I had these kind of vibes with what the front office has done," he said. "And each time, we've had a heck of a summer. We have a lot of answers to the questions a ball club has in a season."
Of course, many of those answers have a single exclamation point. And no St. Louis baseball discussion can go long without McGwire's name coming up. "In the course of last year, I would run by what he was
doing with Stan [Musial] and Red [Schoendienst] and Jack [Buck]," LaRussa said. "They all said he's the most impressive power hitter they've ever seen."
LaRussa reminded the assembled faithful that Big Mac could have ended up just a footnote in the home run history books. "McGwire was not leading the league going into the last weekend. He trailed by one. Then he hit two in Friday, one on Saturday, and two more on Sunday. That is a champion."
Pitcher Rich Ankiel leads the pack among the organization's champions to be. Pulling no punches, Jocketty calls him "one of the best young talents in the game today." This next Kerry Wood will start the year at the AA level in Arkansas. "We don't want to force him or pressure him," Jocketty explained. "He's not just a quick fix. There are things he has to learn through experience. But he can be an outstanding talent and do well in the big league."
But all is not well in the land of nine-on-nine. A major problem facing baseball is the same one facing many pro sports - officiating. More specifically, Phillips said, "we need a universal strike zone. What was written in the 20s and 30s isn't what we want today. We can't call two or three inches outside a strike." He illustrated the shift in the strike zone with a piece of paper.
"What started out like this, " he said holding the sheet vertically, "ended up like this." He rotated the paper to the horizontal.
Rawlings offered a solution to the poor umpiring. It's something common in many professions: continuing education.
"Twenty-five percent of the umpires need to be retrained,"
he said. "Get all the umpires reporting to one office, not
two leagues. One set of umpires, one set of rules."
A consistent strike zone is just one thing the two leagues need to agree upon. Herzog, our favorite curmudgeon, says the sport needs a lot of help but has little chance of getting it. "We can get all the answers but how do we get it done?" he asked. "We need to have the rules the same in both leagues. You can't play interleague games and the World Series with different rules in the two leagues."
Inferred but unnamed by Herzog was the designated hitter rule, the single biggest difference in the leagues. The National League is the only place in professional baseball where the pitcher bats. His solution? He hedged a bit, but said he knows how to resolve it. "Pull all the managers together who have managed in both leagues and they get to vote. The players and the owner have to go by what they say."
Herzog and Rawlings agreed that many of baseball's problems will not be solved at the top. Rawlings said they have only one direction to go and that's up. But new commissioner Bud Selig may not be the answer. "Most
people were not supportive of Bud," he said. "We needed a commissioner with more sports and marketing background. But Bud's in and I'll give him credit. He can get a group of 30 owners with disparate backgrounds to agree to do things."
Herzog was less diplomatic or optimistic. "Bud Selig will always be known as an owner," Herzog said. "He's not a real president." He added that he has a few more ideas, but they will be in his book, "You're Missing a Great Game", due out in March.
And that's what makes baseball's off-season more fun than many sport's on-seasons. Experts can agree or disagree (or even agree to disagree) on everything from minor leaguers to umpires to running the whole ball game, just the same way the fans do.
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