Hold the Line

The popular former St. Louis Cardinal starting pitcher, Jeff Suppan to face his old teammates in St. Louis this weekend.

To be successful in baseball, it pays to be more than a little stubborn. It pays to have Ty Cobb's chip on your shoulder, the refusal to acknowledge your opponent or his ability to get you out. It pays to have Greg Maddux's surgical mind, a long memory of your opponent's weaknesses, and a short memory of your own failures. It pays to be the cruel tormentors, the Yankees to the pre-2004 Red Sox, to crawl inside your opponents' head, let him know you're there, and never let him alone. As we watch Barry Bonds take any means necessary to pursue the all-time home run crown, the word "ruthless" comes (ironically) to mind.

This stubbornness is how very good players become great, and stay great. This inability to hear death's bony knock at the door is what drives teams like the 2006 Cardinals to glory.

And if you think this sounds ungentlemanly, just think who you'd rather be, Albert Pujols or Brad Lidge? Both men were once at the very top of their game, but when they met after 12 games of playoff baseball across 2004-05, Pujols sniffed out a weakness and he drove his mighty hammer right into it. Lidge the budding baseball god, whose fastball was thunder and whose slider was lightning, fell to earth with a sickening thud.

Last Sunday, with both teams scuffling with 1-4 records, with the Cardinals up late and Lidge getting in some garbage time, with two swinging strikes past a flailing Albert, this bitter stubbornness set in. His jaws clenched, Albert sent a hard smash to the defensively-challenged Mark Loretta, finding a way on. Finding a way to stay in Lidge's head, to say "you still can't get me out." Five runs came cascading down on Lidge's suddenly fragile frame after that moment, erasing any doubt about the game's outcome, and tumbling him prematurely from the precious closer's job.

So let's not call it a "mystique," but it's worth mentioning at this point that the Cardinals have won their season series with the Brewers in every year but one since the Brew crew joined the NL Central, and that perhaps not coincidentally, that one year was the interminably lousy 1999 season that found the Cards as close to the basement of the division as they've been in a long time. Perhaps you could say that we're in their heads.

So if the Cardinals are to shake their early-season offensive funk, and find a way to stay in the division, beating the upand- coming Brewers would be an excellent place to start.

1999, revisited

The 1999 Cardinals and Brewers both struggled in every phase of the game it seemed, but a notvery- good Brewers team that ended up finishing in fifth place to the Redbirds' fourth in the standings wound up with an 8-7 advantage in the season series. Our old friend Ronnie Belliard was on that Brewers team, along with a hacktastic outfield of Jeromy Burnitz, Marquis Grissom, and a young Geoff Jenkins. (Former Brewer Mike Matheny spent that ill-fated year in Toronto before signing with the Cards in 2000.) I mention this only to put a finer point on the crappiness of the team that managed to outdo us in that year.

It was a down time for pitching for both ballclubs, as we featured an eminently forgettable rotation: one good year of Kent Bottenfield; the same Darren Oliver who very nearly quashed our World Series hopes in last year's NLCS; Jose Jimenez, who in games in which he wasn't throwing no-hitters, had an ERA that Jason Marquis would be ashamed of; Kent Mercker (??!!??); and Lady Byng candidate Garrett Stephenson.

Meanwhile, the 1999 Brewers countered with an odd lot of Scott Karl, Steve Woodard, Hideo Nomo (??!!??), Bill Pulsipher and one-handed Jim Abbott. Again, it's worth asking, were either of these teams even trying to win?

In addition to some royally crappy baseball and 65 more Androballs, 1999 brought us Y2K bug fears, the death of grunge (and the birth of something even worse, called "nu metal"), and millions of dollars in song royalties to Prince.

Nineteen-ninety-nine also saw two moves that would set the foundation for the team we know and love today: First, Walt Jocketty drafted Jose Alberto Pujols with the 402nd pick of the amateur draft. (That year's No. 1 overall pick, Josh Hamilton, took his signing bonus and promptly snorted up half of Tampa Bay's cocaine import, but is currently clean and sober and trying to stick with the Reds as a Rule 5 pick.) Second, Jocketty pulled off one of the single greatest heists in Cardinals history, trading Adam Kennedy and Kent Bottenfield to the Anaheim Angels for the disgruntled Jimmy Ballgame.

We didn't know it then, but in saying goodbye to Kennedy, we were welcoming in a whole new era of winning. (Kennedy, of course, gathered a ring of his own with the Angels in 2002.) Now that player and team are reunited, the second baseman is the only member of the Cardinals who must be inoculated in the ways of beating the Brewers.

No longer patsies

First off, it's worth mentioning that most of the years in which the Cardinals dominated their Pabst-loving cousins, Bud Selig was playing ownerin- absentia, letting his senile children run the team into the ground. Milwaukee finally has a full-time owner, Mark Attanasio, who is actually committed to the team and the sport, and a general manager, Doug Melvin, who has been stockpiling a ton of attractive young talent since coming on in late 2002.

Milwaukee was once unmentionable as a baseball team. They were AAA, at best. You could easily question, during those dark Selig years – indeed, during any of the years following their magical but ill-fated run to the 1982 World Series – whether they were even trying to win.

Now, at least, they are trying. Our old friend Jeff Suppan's new four-year contract has more guaranteed money in it than was paid to the entire 2004 Brewers team, the last of the Selig- Prieb embarrassments. A pattern of shameful conduct in which nearly every Milwaukee All-Star would be sold on the following year's trade market like a hog at auction has been mercifully halted – now talented fan favorites such as Ben Sheets and Geoff Jenkins are given long-term extensions, and emerging young talent making the major league minimum, such as slugging Bill Hall and potent lefty Chris Capuano are given seven-figure salaries. Fans have actual baseball reasons to invest in seats, beyond the daily sausage races (now featuring Chorizo!) and reportedly beautiful new ballpark that their tax money paid for.

Couple this new penchant for playing with major league dollars with the emergence of young talent garnered from years of high draft picks, and you have a team that, quite suddenly, has expectations. Questions will be asked of manager Ned Yost that were unthinkable when he was hired back in 2003. Of all the managers on the hot seat this year, he may be the least well known.

Yost was hired to be a father figure, a disciplinarian, a teacher. He has taught his players how to act on the baseball field, how to shave, and how to open their first checking account, all the while writing their names into the lineup card. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa stews in the dugout with his sunglasses reflecting the evening lights like a high-stakes poker player, calculating the odds and thinking three moves ahead. Yost just hopes his men are wearing clean underwear.

And what of this talent?

Prince Fielder (1B), Rickie Weeks (2B) and JJ Hardy (SS) are all in their early 20s and form a possible All-Star infield troika. Twenty-seven-year-old Bill Hall had a breakout 2006, hitting 35 homers as a part-time shortstop, and is now roaming the center field grass. Jenkins, at age 32 one of the most grizzled of veterans, is mentoring two youngsters that are fighting each other for time off the pine in Corey Hart and Gabe Gross. Either may take his job some day soon.

Suppan is lending his accumulated wisdom to three pitchers in their late 20s, all primed for a breakout, in Chris Capuano, Ben Sheets, and Dave Bush. And their bullpen is headed by Francisco Cordero, formerly disgruntled as a Ranger but lights-out so far in his Milwaukee tenure.

But talent alone doesn't win ballgames. It certainly doesn't halt long losing streaks, such as the eight-game skid in May and 10-game stain in September that sunk the Brewers well below .500 last season, and even in the sorry NL Central, out of contention.

As both the Cardinals and Brewers sit tenuously at 5-4 and atop the division, our grit and gristle will be put to the test against their youthful exuberance, a creaking floodwall stubbornly trying to contain the rapidly rising waters until this storm passes.

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