Good Vibes Gone Bad to Get Better?

What is going on with the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals and what should be done about it? A sports psychologist and a former Cardinals pitcher are among those who weigh in on a complex matter that has no guaranteed solution, but is keeping a world of increasingly-anxious second-guessers waiting.

Let's take a look at the basics of the dynamics surrounding the Cardinals.


  • They're a veteran team.
  • Their leader is an intense, professional manager who wants to win every game and series.
  • The clubhouse reflects that - a quiet, reserved place.
  • Left field has delivered very limited production despite nine different starters at the position.
  • Four of the starting pitchers are not under contract for next season.
  • One of their top offensive stars is also unsure if he will be asked back in 2007.
  • The best player on the team (and arguably in all of baseball) was injured last week.
  • The team is in the midst of stretch of losing, uninspired baseball and had fallen out of first place for the first time in a month.


How does the last item relate to the others? None of us know for sure.


Still, based on emails and message board traffic, it seems clear that more and more members of the Cardinal Nation are wondering what is wrong with this 2006 Cardinals team and looking for answers on how to fix it.


Usually, criticism of the personality of this club being "too tight" is reserved for the postseason, when failure under the spotlight, whether with the bat, glove or arm, has to be attributed to something. Yet, a period of prolonged adversity has not been seen around these parts for several seasons.


Whether that long stretch will occur now or anytime during the 2006 season remains to be seen. But, one has to wonder if those rough waters aren't already washing over us with the losses mounting and Albert Pujols out for what may be up to another six weeks. After all, seasons can be made or lost in half that time or less.


With the emergence of Pujols as a bonafide superstar, the effect of his extended loss places his team in uncharted waters. After all, this is the slugger's first-ever trip to the disabled list.


Over the last five-plus years, Pujols has remained the constant while Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds, Chris Carpenter, Jason Isringhausen and many other Redbirds front-liners have taken their turns off to mend. The team has carried on before, but is this time different?


How are the other players dealing with Pujols being sidelined? Like the true professionals they are, of course. But, what are they really thinking?


Are they expecting help to be added, like their General Manager is reportedly trying to deliver?  Even before Pujols' injury, the Cardinals' left field production had been among the worst in baseball. The pitchers can see their margin for error has shrunk in comparison to the past when the offense was clicking on all cylinders.


I asked Dr. Richard Crowley about all this. Crowley has just released a new book, "Mentalball: Beat Your Opponent at His Own Game" and has treated dozens of athletes on the mental aspects of sports, including most recently Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Shawn Green.


Suggested Crowley, "The fact that the Cardinals have a "quiet and reserved clubhouse" possibly means nobody says anything. Nobody talks about the elephant in the room. It is too close to home.


"Will they snap out their losing streak? Yes. But at what expense? Confidence? Games lost? Somebody needs to make a dramatic move.


"Having the players say what's on their mind would be good for openers. Once they share in the safety of the clubhouse their anxieties and fears, the pressure is off, they can snap out of "it" and be back on track.


"The organization doesn't need to change how they have dealt with this in the past, except for adding one new ingredient into the mixing bowl," added Crowley.


Who will that new ingredient be? How fast can he be added to the mix? Can Walt Jocketty pick up a significant contributor, make that dramatic move, this early in the season, when no team (other than Kansas City, perhaps) is truly out of contention?


Every other GM knows Jocketty's dilemma and they are already asking for one or more of his prize pitchers, Anthony Reyes and Adam Wainwright. Will Walt risk the future by trading one of them? Can he find a willing trade partner on his terms?


This also raises the question of the remaining starters. If neither of the youngsters is traded, it will reinforce to at least two of the incumbents that they will not be asked to return next year and have to secure a free agent contract to play elsewhere in 2007 and beyond.


Maybe two or three of the four, Mark Mulder, Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis and Sidney Ponson, are dealing with it just fine. But, just maybe one or two of them are feeling the heat.


A former Cardinals pitcher who should know favors this theory.


"It is very difficult to concentrate on the mound when you are worried about your future. Not signing these guys is a perceived signal that they are apparently not doing well enough to suit the Cardinals and they begin over-trying, which in turn can cause other problems," the ex-Redbird said. 


Crowley added his learnings.


"The bottom line for a number of players is money, which is the symbol of security besides wanting to do well and have the team in sync. Maybe some players quietly are thinking, "If so-and-so's contract isn't being picked up, what will happen when it's my turn?"


"That adds doubt. Doubt can express itself in many ways: not being as conscious, as alert, as aware.


"Sometimes a little bug can infect an entire classroom of students. If one person feels something we all feel it."


So, exactly what will cure the bug that ails the Cardinals and keep those troubles away?


Could it be as simple as a team meeting or a comeback win like Friday's victory over Milwaukee? Or, is a more enduring solution a new left fielder or signing a pitcher or two for 2007 or resolving Jim Edmonds' pending contract option? Or, is some combination of all of them needed?


We'll never know. This is Walt Jocketty's problem to figure out. I know I am not alone in hoping he breaks the code sooner than later.


Brian Walton can be reached via email at


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