St. Louis Post-Dispatch readers have been blessed with one of the nation’s finest writers since 1989. Thanks to the internet, we can all read Bernie Miklasz on a daily basis. His “Bernie Bytes” column is a must-read for insight into the Cardinals, and the NL Central.
Bernie was kind enough to answer a few questions for us, regarding the Reds’ biggest rival, and the up-coming series between the two teams.
Kerry Moss: The Cardinals have fought through what seems like a never ending string of injuries, managing to stay in or around 1st place all year. How have they been able to match (or even outplay) the Brewers and Reds, with all the injuries?
Bernie Milasz: Mental toughness is impossible to quantify, and some would undoubtedly scoff at the suggestion that it makes a tangible difference. But the Cardinals have plenty of it. And it does make a difference. I’ve seen this team absorb a bunch of cruel punches all season — it’s been unbelievable — and they don’t stay down for long. They always pick themselves up. They compete like crazy.
It’s a hard-edged team that doesn’t mope around, feeling sorry for itself. Much of that comes from the manager, Tony La Russa. He’s a polarizing figure, even in St. Louis. He’s so combative and relentless, and it rubs opponents the wrong way. Lance Berkman said it best: he couldn’t stand La Russa when he competed against him as a member of the Astros for all of those years. Berkman said he wanted to punch La Russa. But he also said everyone on the Houston side respected La Russa because his teams would show up, compete, play hard, go after you, always look for an edge and never really back off. And once Berkman became a member of La Russa’s team he came to appreciate the manager’s high standards and personality. And the Cardinals are definitely a reflection of La Russa’s personality – both good and bad. But at times like this — with the team constantly being rocked by injuries and adversity — that’s when TLR is at his best.
And on a tangible level, Berkman has had a helluva season. Matt Holliday, when healthy, has been terrific. Yadier Molina is having a good season. Ryan Theriot, while erratic defensively, has given this lineup a lot of energy and solid offense. There have been some pleasant surprises in the rotation, like the comeback of Kyle Lohse and the conversion of Kyle McClellan from reliever to starter. Fernando Salas has emerged as a solid closer. CF Colby Ramus is streaky but overall a helluva talent. There are good players here, veterans who usually take a good approach into the competition.
Moss: You recently opined that Lance Berkman is the first-half MVP for the Cards. I’ll admit, I thought the Cards were misguided in signing him, as it seemed that he was declining quickly. Can you explain his success at the plate this year? Do you think he’s benefited from the “culture of winning” associated with the Cardinals?
Miklasz: More than anything Berkman is healthy. He played part of the 2009 season and all of the 2010 on one good leg. He finally put his knee issues to rest. He hired a personal trainer and worked like a mad man to improve his strength and conditioning over the winter.
Berkman is an amiable fellow, always smiling, but don’t let that fool you. He has a lot of pride and it really bothered him to be written off by so many. I was skeptical of the signing but not dismissive, especially after I heard about his offseason work. And to your point, there’s no question that he enjoys being in a winning environment with some highly decorated teammates in the clubhouse. He’s rejuvenated in every way, physically and mentally.
Ah, but here’s the question: will he hold up and finish strong? With Pujols out, La Russa doesn’t have the luxury of resting Berkman once a week, or twice every 10 days, to keep him fresh. Berkman could wear down. We’ll see.
Moss: The Pujols contract situation dominated spring training news coverage, but seems to have died down (at least nationally). If you had to bet the farm, what jersey will Pujols be wearing next year? What factors do you think could change things?
Miklasz: I believe now, more than ever, that Pujols will be a Cardinal in 2012 and beyond. It won’t be easy. His agent, Dan Lozano, wants to set a contract record with this deal. Lozano doesn’t want to finish second to Scott Boras, who will be shopping Prince Fielder as a free agent. So egos could get in the way. But Pujols wil be 32 by the start of next season. This has been his most difficult season, for obvious reasons. His wrist injury, at least in theory, could give pause to GMs that are interested in Pujols. And it’s not a good market for first basemen. The Yankees and Red Sox are all set at 1B. The Mets and Dodgers have serious financial issues. The Cubs are carrying a lot of debt stemming from the purchase of the team.
Sure, you can expect some teams to take a hard look. The Angels, Nationals, possibly the Rangers. But in the end if the offers are close, why would Pujols leave St. Louis? He is a beloved figure. He has his own routine. No one bothers him. He runs the show. He’s thrived in this atmosphere. He loves La Russa, who almost certainly will be back in 2012. Pujols is not comfortable with a lot of media in his face, or with a bucnh of demands on his time.
So unless the Cardinals really low-ball him compared to offers from other team, what would be his motivation for going? He has always said he wants to be like Stan Musial and spend his entire career with the Cardinals. Unless something really dramatic transpires, I find it hard to believe that he’ll go.
Moss: Most Reds fans are thrilled to have Walt Jocketty as GM. Have you noticed any major differences with the Cardinals’ front office (scouting, free agency, etc…) since Jocketty’s departure? Do Cardinals fans, generally, remember Jocketty in a positive or negative light?
Miklasz: Cardinals fans have tremendous respect for Jocketty, even now, as he plots a course for a rival. He will always be viewed kindly here. Jocketty got all of this rolling. He hired La Russa, he made a batch of ridiculously good and one-sided trades, like getting Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Daryl Kile, Woody Williams, Larry Walker, Will Clark, etc. He signed winning players at low prices, guys like Chris Carpenter, David Eckstein, Mike Matheny, Reggie Sanders. He knew he couldn’t re-sign J.D. Drew so he traded him to Atlanta for a package that included Adam Wainwright. This is only a partial listing of good moves by Walter. But none of this would have happened without Jocketty. The eight playoff trips, seven division titles, 33 postseason wins, two NL pennants, and a World Series championship, all since 1996.
Jocketty lost his job here because he was opposed to going with the full so-called “Moneyball” approach. (I dislike that term but I use it as a quick reference.) Team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. brough in a non-baseball man in Jeff Luhnow, gave him considerable authority, and took away Jocketty’s authority over the draft and player development.
Walt was pretty sour, as you might imagine. He didn’t try to conceal it. So DeWitt got fed up with the rift in the organization and Jocketty lost the power struggle. Unfortunate, and unecessary. The irony is, in the ensuing years the Cardinals have gone back to doing it the Jocketty way. Luhnow was demoted after last season. He still supervises the scouting and runs the draft and does a good job. But they took the minor leagues away from Luhnow. Jocketty may have lost the battle in 2007 but ultimately was vindicated. At least that’s how I see it. And I think that John Mozeliak is a good GM, but he has to live up to what Jocketty did here, and that isn’t easy. Especially after Walt and the Reds won the division in 2010. Great hire by Bob Castellini, who has been great for baseball in Cincinnati.
Moss: You know I couldn’t let you go without asking about the renewed “rivalry” between these two clubs. Personally, I think the rivalry is terrific. Two managers who strongly dislike each other, Walt Jocketty, and of course the players. If you can, give Reds fans the St. Louis perspective on the rivalry. Do you think Brandon Phillips is misunderstood in STL? And finally, are you expecting any confrontations in the up-coming series?
Miklasz: I think the rivalry is great. It sizzles. There’s a taint of bad blood. These teams love to get after each other. Their games are events. There’s all of these intertwined aspects to it, the STL-CIN connections like Jocketty vs. DeWitt. Jocketty vs. Mozeliak, Rolen vs. La Russa. And Dusty Baker and La Russa have had a spirited rivalry for a long time. This is what rivalries should be about. The Cardinals and Cubs have a traditional and historic rivalry but it isn’t the same. Those games are an excuse for the fans of both teams to get together, drink beer, have a good time, and enjoy the party. The Cardinals for the most part have handled the Cubs. The Cubs tend to go quietly.
But the Reds? They don’t go quietly. Here’s how I see it: the Cardinals are used to having their way in the division. They’ve been the bully of the NL Central. The jock that intimidates everyone in the high school. But one day the Reds showed up, and they were suddenly bigger and stronger than they used to be. Suddenly, they had an attitude. Suddenly the Cardinals encountered a rival that would not be bullied. And the result has been a lot of fun to watch, as the Cardinals — a very proud team — try to reclaim their turf. This is so much better than Cards-Cubs.
About B. Phillips. Sure he’s a little misunderstood in St. Louis. He obviously likes to have fun with this, and likes to stir it up, and he knows he can get the STL fans to react. And they do. But the dude is a helluva player. I’ll take him at 2B on my team.
You know what? On the opposite end of this rivalry is Chris Carpenter. I think he is just as misunderstood by Reds fans as Phillips is by Cardinals fans. I guarantee you that Reds fans would love to have him on their team. I’ve covered baseball since the early 1980s and Carpenter would be in my personal top-five list of players I respect the most. He’s a warrior. A leader. The young pitchers who come through St. Louis are in awe of him. He is always there for them, teaching and supporting.
Adam Wainwright says Carpenter has made a profound impact on his career. Honestly, I wish Reds fans knew that side of Carpenter. In the heat of the moment — and there has been a lot of heat between the Reds, Cardinals and their fans — Carpenter. is easy to dislike if you’re on the Cincinnati side of things. But the guy is special. And I don’t throw that word around very often.
Kerry, I enjoyed the questions and thanks for giving me an opportunity to talk to you and to the Reds fans. I love the blog. I’ve bookmarked it and read it often. You guys do a terrific job. I’m looking forward to these upcoming games between the teams.
Blog Red Machine can’t thank Bernie enough for taking the time to provide our readers with his insight. I’d like to thank him personally, as it was truly an honor for me to be given the opportunity to discuss baseball with him. Be sure to check out his columns at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and follow him on twitter @miklasz.
Follow me on twitter @CKFreshness