Tony La Russa's Manhattan Project

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

"Rest is such a simple thing -- so obvious," Neyer explains. "And yet it's eluded every major-league team in the game's long history. Until the 2004 Cardinals, that is. What have the Cardinals figured out? They've figured out that players are often rejuvenated by long stretches away from the game."

As an example, Neyer harkens back to World War II and lays out the résumé of Milwaukee Braves great Warren Spahn: The crafty lefthander was dismissed by Casey Stengel in 1942, went away to fight the Nazis for three years and came back as the best pitcher in the National League. "In 1941, future Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg managed to play only nineteen games," Neyer continues. "Then he joined the army, spent three full seasons in the service and returned to lead the Tigers to a world championship in 1945 before leading the American League in home runs [with 44] in 1946."

Still not convinced? Neyer's got more: "In June of 1952 during the nascent Cold War, Willie Mays was drafted into the army. At the time he was hitting just .236. But after a two-season vacation, Mays returned -- and, say hey, we all know what happened after that.

Cardinal's-eye view: The top-secret training facility in Manhattan, Kansas.
Cardinal's-eye view: The top-secret training facility in Manhattan, Kansas.
First we'll take Manhattan: 

Click here to see an enlarged version (75kb)
First we'll take Manhattan: Click here to see an enlarged version (75kb)

"The message was simple: The more rest, the better," Neyer says. "But it was forgotten as the threats of fascism and then Red Communism faded away. By the time the 21st century rolled around, the value of extended rest had been almost completely forgotten. But now it's been recalled -- by the Cardinals. They've discovered a simple truth, which is that players like Jack Perconte and Kent Hrbek still have plenty of great baseball in them -- they just needed to recharge their batteries."

Buoyed by encouragement from the likes of Neyer and Jois, La Russa set about the task of picking 25 retired ballplayers. Why these particular 25 players? Doubtless one factor is a hunger La Russa sensed in each. Another is the ample R&R. But Neyer says certain members of the Shadow Cardinals exhibit demonstrable statistical promise.

"Bob Horner was a man before his time," Neyer asserts. "On July 6, 1986, Horner hit four home runs in one game. But it was a lot harder to hit home runs back then. In 1986 there were 1.6 home runs for every National League game; but in 2003 there were 2.1 homers per game -- nearly 33 percent more.

"Give Horner another chance and he's likely to hit five or six home runs in a game -- and that's without steroids," Neyer says, citing Gorman Thomas, Lance Parrish and Pedro Guerrero as three other Shadow Cardinals whose lumber-driven projectiles may find the left-field bleachers even more often with advanced age. And there's virtually no limit on a pitcher's age, Neyer maintains, as the careers of Hall of Famers Satchel Paige, Hoyt Wilhelm, Phil Niekro and Nolan Ryan amply show. "Look at guys like Jesse Orosco, who's still going strong today at 47," Neyer adds. "And in the case of pitchers, rest can only help matters."

To manage the Shadow Cardinals, La Russa tapped St. Louis native Dick Williams, perhaps the only man more revered than himself in Oakland, where Williams guided the '72 and '73 A's to back-to-back World Series titles. Before Oakland, Williams had managed the Boston Red Sox, catapulting the team from last place to the World Series in 1967, his first year as skipper. After leaving Oakland following the 1973 world championship, Williams moved on to more measured success in Anaheim, Montreal, San Diego and Seattle.

"If there's one iota of sane method to this madness, it's the leadership in Manhattan," the Cardinals front-office source says of Williams and his coaching staff, which includes pitching coach Roger Craig, first base coach Bill Virdon, third base coach Jimmy Davenport and former Cardinal great Dick Groat in the role of special fielding instructor. "Jack McKeon showed everyone last year that managers can get better with age. It's the players I'm not so sure about."

With a formidable 1,571 career wins, Williams seemed a lock for the baseball Hall of Fame until he was arrested for indecent exposure after being caught masturbating outside his hotel room while attending a baseball fantasy camp in Fort Myers, Florida, in January 2000. Williams pleaded no-contest after spending a night in jail and offered a terse explanation for his behavior to the Associated Press: "The case has been settled and dismissed. That's all I have to say."

Having started at shortstop for Williams' 1984 World Series runners-up, the first Padres team ever to reach the Fall Classic, Garry Templeton knows the wily old manager well. "You take cultural taboo out of the equation, and what Dick did down in Fort Myers was just stress relief," Templeton observes. "Shit, everyone's got one of those embarrassing stories. Just because a guy hits a little bump in the road doesn't mean he's, like, clinically masturbed. Besides, it don't have nothing to do with his professional credentials, which are impeccable. The man belongs in the Hall of Fame -- no two ways about it."

It was Tony La Russa's friendship with ex-basketball star Mitch Richmond that brought the Shadow Cardinals to Manhattan. The pair became acquainted in 1988, when the former was leading the A's and the latter was a member of the Golden State Warriors. Fresh out of Kansas State University, the socioeconomic engine of the Little Apple, Richmond averaged 22 points per game that season and garnered NBA Rookie of the Year honors. More important (for La Russa, at least), Richmond was in the stands to support his new friend when the A's skipper clinched his first and only World Series in 1989. After Richmond was traded to Sacramento following the 1990-91 campaign, La Russa frequently made the jaunt north on Interstate 5 to Arco Arena. And even as the hoops life took Richmond to new homes in Washington, D.C., and then LA, he'd come home after road trips to hear long, supportive voice messages from his baseball manager friend.

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