Tony La Russa's Manhattan Project

A top-secret squad of "Shadow Cardinals" improves with age at a remote training center in Kansas

 © 2004 Riverfront Times

Bob Horner lets out the clutch of his battered baby-blue Chevy full-size and veers into the passing lane on northbound Highway 177, twenty miles from his boyhood home of Junction City, Kansas.

"I haven't felt this way since Little League," says the 46-year-old former major-league first baseman, his curly blond locks revealing flecks of gray as he perches on his pickup's duct tape-dotted vinyl bench. "I always wanted to play ball this close to home."

Mad science: Tony La Russa is the genius behind the Shadow Cardinals.

To see the complete Shadow Cardinals roster, click here.
Mad science: Tony La Russa is the genius behind the Shadow Cardinals.

To see the complete Shadow Cardinals roster, click here.

If the Cardinals pull up lame at the All Star Break, new 
trading cards will have to be issued bearing the mugs 
of Shadow Cards Tito Landrum, Dick Williams and 
Bob Horner.
If the Cardinals pull up lame at the All Star Break, new trading cards will have to be issued bearing the mugs of Shadow Cards Tito Landrum, Dick Williams and Bob Horner.

With the pristine Konza Prairie stretching endlessly to the west of him on this Saturday morning in February, Horner has the golden-boy glimmer in his eyes once more, despite having scarcely been heard from since his playing days ended prematurely after the 1988 season, when the pop left the former Rookie of the Year's once-powerful bat. In the bed of his pickup are the tools of his old trade: a massive Atlanta Braves duffel bag, a spare pair of spikes, two 36-ounce bats and a first baseman's glove as creased as Don Zimmer's weathered puss.

Horner hit 218 home runs during his ten-year career, including four in a single game in 1986, tying the big-league record. A fixture in the heart of the Braves' order along with center fielder Dale Murphy, Horner formed one half of baseball's foremost one-two punch at the time, a precursor of sorts to Oakland's Bash Brothers duo of Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. As scarce as Big Mac has made himself since his 'roid-fueled run at Roger Maris' magic mark in 1998, Horner has been even more reclusive, content to wile away his retirement on his Junction City farm, raising kids, cattle and the occasional glass -- but nothing resembling Cain.

The automotive freedom of Highway 177 gives way to a pair of traffic lights, and something resembling a township begins to emerge to the north of Horner's windshield: the city of Manhattan, known throughout Kansas as the Little Apple. The burly baby boomer avails himself of the first stoplight to pinch a wad of Kodiak. "I try not to chew in front of my kids," he says somewhat sheepishly. "But this is game time."

Horner's not headed to Manhattan for any celebrity softball game, however. He's got hardball on the brain, as does fellow former Brave Claudell Washington, whose black soft-top Miata pulls up next to Horner's truck on Tuttle Creek Boulevard on the edge of downtown.

"Whatcha doin' in that bitch basket, 'Dell?" Horner shouts at his former teammate, poking fun at Washington's wimpy ride.

"Gettin' ready to get it on again!" replies Washington, resplendent in a black Yves Saint Laurent tux jacket and shades to match.

Having long since outgrown their drag-racing days, the pair tool slowly side by side down Leavenworth Street into a blue-collar neighborhood just north of the Little Apple's quaint downtown district. Beyond Eighth Street, just past a gray stone church, a man stands in front of the big blue ranch house at 830 Leavenworth. Tito Landrum, a native of Joplin, Missouri, enjoyed a fleeting moment in St. Louis' circle of heroes when he batted .360 (9 for 25) in the 1985 World Series, which the Cardinals dropped in heartbreaking fashion to their cross-state American League rivals, the Kansas City Royals. Odds are Landrum would never have had the opportunity to shine had starting left fielder Lonnie Smith, a stalwart on the Cards' '82 world championship team, not been dealt at midseason to the Royals for pitcher John Morris.

Smith was no slouch in that '85 series either, hitting a robust .333 (9 for 27) for the Royals and earning the fat finger rock that evaded the gentlemen he'd previously regarded as teammates. But on this day, in this little college town, Smith emerges somewhat groggily, clad in boxer shorts and wife beater, onto the front porch of 824 Leavenworth next door, joining his former understudy as the unofficial welcoming committee for Horner, Washington and the 21 other middle-aged ex-big leaguers set to converge on Manhattan on this blustery February morning.

Shortly after last season ended, the Riverfront Times received a tip from an official in the St. Louis Cardinals' front office that manager Tony La Russa was assembling a 25-man roster of former ballplayers for several months of rigorous "rejuvenation therapy" under the supervision of 74-year-old skipper Dick Williams. La Russa, the front-office staffer said, was employing a complex system of statistical analysis to pinpoint retired big leaguers who are a good bet to scale career heights while in their mid- to late forties, after several years away from the game.

A Riverfront Times investigation has revealed that since Presidents' Day weekend, Horner, Washington, Landrum, Smith and a crew of fellow 1980s retreads have been living in five ragged rental homes across the street from the First Presbyterian Church on Leavenworth. The players, who include ex-Cards Garry Templeton, Lee Smith, Rich Gedman, John Tudor and Pedro Guerrero, have been working out at former Kansas State University and National Basketball Association star Mitch Richmond's private compound in Manhattan's exclusive Colbert Hills neighborhood, high above the city's bustling Aggieville nightlife district and the surrounding pastureland.

Gaining access to the training sessions in Manhattan proved difficult. But Williams, an erstwhile veteran of twenty major-league managerial campaigns, is a native St. Louisan, and the Riverfront Times was able to track down two relatives in the Carondelet area who shared his itinerary. That led to Horner, whose brawn belies the soul of a soft-spoken rancher who proved more than willing to invite a passenger to hitch a ride in the cab of his rig.

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