Players were either eating or dressing at the lockers around the edges of a large group sitting in the center of the room watching a movie. The coaching staff were scurrying around getting organized for the afternoon and evening.
The first player I encountered was Scott Rolen, who was talking to a small group of people in the small lobby. After finishing, he went inside to enter their complimentary ticket information into a laptop computer set up inside the clubhouse.
Once he finished eating, Albert Pujols engaged in some joking and hugging with Yadier Molina. As Reggie Sanders passed, Pujols called out to him loudly, giving him the "old man" grief that is frequent banter aimed at Reggie. Pujols continued, playfully questioning his future. Sanders came right over and just as loudly and good-naturedly made it clear to Albert that he wasn't going anywhere.
On one board in the visitors' locker room was the simple message: "Welcome to Atlanta. Batting practice – 6:05, Infield – 6:55, Game – 7:35."
Elsewhere was the Cardinals lineup card. On another board was "Stretching - Pitchers 5:35, Pos. Players 5:50."
Around 4pm, the pitchers' meeting took place. While many of the hitters milled around or watched television, there was one constant. So Taguchi studied one of the two monitors for what seemed to be at least 90 minutes, taking notes all the while. He was joined for some time by Albert Pujols. Not a surprise.
Joe Strauss of the P-D, Matthew Leach of MLB.com and I strode into La Russa's office. As usual, Tony was rocked back in his chair, watching sports on one of the silent monitors. Partway through our 15-20 minute chat, we were joined by Braves announcer Chip Caray. We departed as Mike Shannon showed up to tape the Dugout Show.
In addition to the blue note cards that La Russa scribbles his notes onto, ones that have been made famous due to Buzz Bissinger's "Three Nights in August", La Russa had other items on his desk. I watched while Tony quickly scanned the day's media notes for each team, then quickly tore off the back pages of each, which hold the hitting and pitching statistics for each team's players against each other. La Russa folded them, but didn't immediately put them into his pocket. Later, while still talking with us, he began to transcribe pertinent bits of data onto his cards.
Back in the main clubhouse, ESPN's daily contrived sports debate was going on in the background on the bigscreen television. While the pitchers were still in the room, the debate was over whether Friday combatants and co-300 game winners Roger Clemens and/or Greg Maddux' careers were over or not. Chris Carpenter walked by, shaking his head and muttered something unintelligible, but obviously uncomplimentary. Perhaps he is aware that Clemens' ERA is 0.32.
Julian Tavarez rolled around on the floor, working with Strength and Conditioning Coach Pete Prinzi's medicine ball in the center of the room and just missed kicking a clubhouse attendant in the head as he passed. Tavarez moved on to the machine in the corner, where his blue and red cap was being shaped to meet his specifications. Julian spun the control knobs like a mad doctor. By the way, not a bit of dirt or foreign substance was visible on its red bill.
Later, just before the hitters' meeting, Edmonds, Rolen and Walker joined the group huddled around the video screen. Clearly, the appearance of Tim Hudson on the mound piqued the interest of the hitters more than usual.
Just about then, Pujols stood up, clapped his hands and loudly said for all to hear "Let's go. It's 5:25." He led the position players into La Russa's office for their meeting.
The pitchers had already gone out to the field. With the hitters in their meeting, the clubhouse was almost empty. Until Mulder turned the corner, that is. He walked in, picked up a magazine and plopped down on the couch, alone in his thoughts. I couldn't help but wonder if he wished the next two hours could pass quickly so he could climb the mound and pitch.
The ESPN drivel continued on the bigscreen. The next round of screaming debaters were on the clock, arguing whether Mulder or Hudson was better. I wished I knew what Mulder was thinking. He was as cool and calm as he appears on the mound. In fact, I honestly don't know if he ever looked up at the screen.
About the time the television debate moved to whether Rick Ankiel or John Rocker had a better chance to return to the majors, even I had enough and headed to the field. Last thing I heard was one of the blusterers asserting that Ankiel will soon be an All-Star right fielder…
On the top rail of the visitors dugout was taped a piece of paper with the batting practice groups:
Group 1 – 6:05 – Diaz, Molina, Cedeno, Walker
Group 2 – 6:20 - Eckstein, Grudzielanek, Sanders
Group 3 – 6:30 – Edmonds, Rolen, Pujols
Group 4 - 6:40 – Mabry, Nunez, Taguchi
From that point on, the fans were in the stands and the rest of the normal routine as defined played out, mostly in front of what will be a very large crowd, much of it red-clad.
It is difficult to characterize, but I think this Cardinals team is loose and ready to play.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.