By Lindsay Toler
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Sources tell the Riverfront Times that if the Cardinals, picked by most to finish third in the National League's Central Division this year, aren't near the top of the standings at the All Star break, Tony La Russa's "Shadow Cardinals," as the Manhattan Project members have come to be known, will be brought in, the products of a revolutionary theory the Hall of Fame-bound manager has been tinkering with for eight years.
In the bowels of Busch Stadium before a game last summer, Tony La Russa could be found in his clubhouse office watching a Bonanza rerun on PAX, flanked by photos of Dwayne Murphy and Greg Luzinksi, former charges in Oakland and Chicago who developed a fondness for their shaggy-haired "genius" manager.
Ever since his arrival in St. Louis before the 1996 season, La Russa has exhibited a deep appreciation for old television shows and older players. And almost from the get-go, general manager Walt Jocketty and the Cardinals' front office have gone out of their way to indulge their field general, engaging in a series of trades of young talent for aging superstars aimed at bringing the proud franchise its first world title since 1982.
The transaction ledger speaks for itself: Eric Ludwick, T.J. Mathews and Blake Stein to the A's for Mark McGwire. Dmitri Young to the Reds for Jeff Brantley. Joe McEwing to the Reds for Jesse Orosco. Chris Richard and Mark Nussbeck to the Orioles for Mike Timlin. Luis Garcia and Coco Crisp to the Indians for Chuck Finley. Jared Blasdell and Jason Karnuth to the Cubs for Jeff Fassero. Justin Pope and Ben Julianel to the Yankees for Sterling Hitchcock. And, just ten days ago, Matt Duff to the Red Sox for Tony Womack.
In all cases, highly regarded young prospects were swapped for players past their prime. The result: The Cardinals now possess what may well be the most anemic minor-league system in all of baseball. And while the deal that sent J.D. Drew to the Braves during this off-season yielded two promising young arms in Jason Marquis and Adam Wainwright, the Birds' winter maneuvers did nothing to lower the organization's median age. Rather than invest in players in their prime, Jocketty served up big Benjamins to 36-year-old journeyman right fielder Reggie Sanders, tendered free agent offers to 33-year-old utility man John Mabry and oft-injured 32-year-old pitcher Alan Benes, traded for 34-year-old second baseman Womack and invited to camp 36-year-old Ray Lankford and 38-year-old strikeout king/slugger Greg Vaughn. The Cardinals are poised to open the season with Sanders (and perhaps Lankford) patrolling the outfield and the fragile Womack at second base.
"Their farm system is a running joke among rival scouts," says ESPN baseball analyst Rob Neyer. "It's just atrocious. That Hitchcock trade last summer really sealed it for me. Forking over two talented young pitchers for an aging, little-used, batting practice-caliber rent-a-pitcher -- and to the Yankees, no less? What the Cardinals seem to be trying to put together is a squad more equipped to win the old-timer's game in mid-July than the October Classic."
If that turns out to be the case round about Independence Day, enter the Shadow Cardinals.
After winning the NL's Central Division in La Russa's first year in St. Louis, the Cards sputtered to a fourth-place finish in 1997. It was then that the always-unconventional manager began noticing that his once cutting-edge tactics were being co-opted by his crafty rivals. Although La Russa persisted with his penchant for wrinkles (perhaps most famous among them his experiments with penciling his starting pitcher eighth in the batting order), clearly the playing field had leveled. In the wake of last season's disappointing third-place finish, Cardinals principal owner Bill DeWitt did not pick up the option on La Russa's contract for 2005 -- meaning the 2,009-game winner is technically a lame duck.
In the final year of his contract and approaching age 60, La Russa is taking the now-or-never approach to the extreme as he prepares to unveil a tremendously risky player-development theory that will ensure his status as one of the game's greatest revolutionaries -- or, if the gamble fails, as its most spectacular crackpot.
La Russa refined his methods over the years, picking the brains of stat hounds like Neyer. But as a source in the Cardinals front office tells the Riverfront Times, the manager's rejuvenation formula isn't solely a product of rotisserie-league chatter. Additionally, La Russa has become increasingly convinced of the cross-training benefits offered by Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga. Two years ago, in fact, the manager made an off-season pilgrimage to Mysore, India, where he met extensively with legendary yoga master K. Pattabhi Jois, according to the front-office source.
"Jois told him that the older muscles get, the more dependable and open to maximum fortitude they become," the source relates. "But at the end of the day," he adds, "what you have is a Hall of Fame manager betting his legacy on some sunshine-daydream caprice. Tony's way out there with this idea. I know it's the last year of his contract and all, but come on."
Although Cardinals management is, to put it mildly, skeptical, La Russa's approach has earned at least one unlikely convert: Rob Neyer. While Neyer made his sports-columnist bones citing statistical chapter and verse to prove that the typical baseball player reaches his prime in his late twenties, the ESPN scribe is certain La Russa is on to something.