Tony La Russa's Manhattan Project

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

Mar 31, 2004 at 4:00 am
© 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."

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.

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.

"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.

"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.

So it was only natural that when La Russa began pondering the Shadow Cardinals, he'd confide in Richmond. Manhattan rose to the top of the list of potential locations after Richmond told La Russa he happened to be building a world-class athletic training facility near his alma mater, complete with a veritable "Field of Dreams."

"When Tony said he was ready to see what he could do with a team of guys past their supposed prime, I figured what the hell," Richmond relates. "I had this training facility all ready to go anyhow. It's like that yoga guy says: 'Sometimes you can be the bat and the world is your ball. Hit it.'"

For his camp, La Russa sought a quiet setting far removed from the distractions of urban life, where his players could train together, eat together, bunk together and become a cohesive unit. The holistic program designed by Mysore yoga master K. Pattabhi Jois and implemented stateside by Jois disciple Lokesh Patel, required that all amenities -- bookstores, parks, houses of worship, etc. -- be located within walking distance of the players' quarters, as the Shadow Cards are only permitted to use their automobiles on Sundays.

Although Thomas, Horner and Higuera balked at the sometimes bizarre exercises Patel demands of them in addition to the required four hours a day of yoga and meditation, they and their teammates have come to see the value of the regimen.

"When I was playing for the Braves, ground balls to my backhand side were always slipping out of the webbing of my glove," first baseman Horner elaborates. "Now that I've started crocheting regularly, I have the finger strength -- and the concentration -- to field cleanly and still have time to relay the ball to the pitcher in time to nab the runner at first."

Patel puts Williams' pitching staff through somewhat more rigorous paces. Lee Smith and Steve Howe, for example, underwent multiple body piercings, and each had the identical tattoo of a falcon etched on his right shoulder blade.

"Lokesh sees the role of the relief pitcher as a tribal one," explains Horner. Yoga and meditation have their place, he says, but more elemental exercises are equally crucial to rejuvenation. "Smitty says the little guy's got him stepping on red-hot charcoal briquettes, and I even heard something about them skinning and eating a goat."

Whatever the method, it appears to be working for Smith, whose fastball was recently clocked in the high 90s, according to Horner. Manhattan residents say Smith has been spotted at KSU basketball games and several watering holes in the college town's party-central Aggieville district. "He's the only member of the squad who's permitted to consume alcohol," Horner relates. "And he drinks a lot."

While few would argue that the Cardinals' famed skipper has earned the right to experiment, some say there's a fine line between calculated risk and sheer lunacy.

"What Tony's proposing to do is like a Pete Rose or Shoeless Joe situation," says Ozzie Smith, whose relationship with La Russa was acrimonious, at best, during the Hall of Fame shortstop's final years in red, and whose ongoing community presence, coupled with that of beloved ex-Redbird manager Whitey Herzog, has cast a shadow La Russa has been unable to escape.

"It's one thing to wear your balls on your sleeve," continues Smith, who says he learned of the Shadow Cardinals from Landrum, a family friend. "Tony can go ahead and do that during the course of a nine-inning game -- fine by me, fine by Cardinal fans. But if he thinks Garry Templeton and Alfredo Griffin can march right in and pick up where Edgar Renteria leaves off -- that's flat-out psychotic. Like my father would say, the guy's gone crazy as an outhouse rat. Hopefully the Cardinals will be in first and render all of this moot."

As Smith suggests, if the Cardinals are in the Central Division hunt come mid-July, the exploits of Lee Smith and his 24 would-be teammates will likely become the stuff of legend. But with the division-rival Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros stockpiling free-agent arms during the off-season to form two of the finest pitching staffs in baseball, the odds are better than even that La Russa's brainchild will see the light of day.

"Put it this way," says ESPN's Neyer, "if the Cardinals are up on both the Cubs and Astros at the All Star break, I'll pay Hank Williams Jr. a cool mil from my latest book advance to bungee-jump naked off the top of the Gateway Arch. I'm that confident they don't have the juice to lead their division for any extended period of time.

"As for the Shadow Cardinals," Neyer adds, "I can't wait to find out whether or not they do."