Each day last weekend a blank blue official lineup card sat mockingly on the plastic laminate desk of St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, a man with writer's block. The New York Times crossword would have been easier to complete. La Russa, bedeviled by injuries to his two best hitters, first baseman Mark McGwire and centerfielder Jim Edmonds, consulted all sources but a Ouija board before St. Louis's three games at Bank One Ballpark against the Arizona Diamondbacks: players, coaches, trainers, therapists, a team broadcaster and, on Saturday, even (egads!) a sportswriter.
"My problem," La Russa said that morning, staring into the card's emptiness, "is that I have too many good players."
He laughed, which would be the last reaction you would expect from someone whose team began the season by getting smoked by the Colorado Rockies in three straight games—combined score 32-11—at Coors Field. What's more, his infamously wild fifth starter had sunk into the baseball equivalent of a witness-protection program, and his choices for replacing McGwire and Edmonds in the heart of the lineup were a singles hitter with seven career homers and a rookie barely removed from Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, Mo.
The injuries gave La Russa—once he got unblocked—the opportunity to do a bit of creative writing, as on Sunday when he started three players primarily regarded as third basemen. "They had three or four guys out of position," said Diamondbacks outfielder Luis Gonzalez. "Third basemen in the outfield, catchers at first base, whatever, and they all came out swinging."
The injuries also gave St. Louis the chance to showcase its versatility, a virtue that figures to serve the Cardinals well if, as they fear, McGwire's health becomes a lingering issue. With Big Mac taking the weekend off to rest his painful right knee and Edmonds limited to one feeble pinch-hit strikeout because of a sprained left big toe, the jayvee Cardinals hammered Arizona for 29 runs, administered the worst beating Randy Johnson had suffered in seven years and earned a three-game sweep so unexpected that La Russa book-marked it. "If we have a good year, we'll look back on this series, against a good team, and it'll be a nice memory," he said.
As it did last season, when it won the National League Central, St. Louis is prepared to carry on without McGwire. His knee is so troublesome that the Cardinals expect he might play in only about 100 games this year. "Oh, yes, I'd take 100 right now," general manager Walt Jocketty says. "Obviously we hope it'll be more, but that's still [11 games] better than last year."
Asked about the 100-game projection, McGwire said, "No, I should play in a lot more games than that." After undergoing surgery on Oct. 21 to remove a diseased portion of a tendon in the knee, McGwire appeared in only two games against the Rockies, going 0 for 7, before he could no longer stand the pain. "I can play with soreness and I can play with discomfort," he said last Friday. "This isn't soreness or discomfort. I can't even sprint with the team in warmups. I feel a crunching, like something's stuck in my knee. In Colorado, I couldn't put any weight on my back leg when I hit. That wasn't me out there."
McGwire described the pain as a setback caused by "doing too much too soon in spring training." He added that doctors advised him that even in a best-case scenario, his knee doesn't figure to be at full strength until a year after the surgery. His task now, said McGwire, is to "come up with a Plan B" involving changes to his medication and therapy to alleviate the pain.
La Russa went with a first baseman du jour in Arizona, writing in, consecutively, John Mabry (listed as an outfielder), Craig Paquette (a third baseman) and Eli Marrero (a catcher) in McGwire's stead. ( Marrero and Paquette also spent time in the outfield.) McGwire's muscle wasn't missed, however, mostly because of young third baseman turned outfielder Albert Pujols, whose arrival has been as serendipitous and stunning as the Publishers Clearing House van's. Born in the Dominican Republic, Pujols, 21, moved with his family to Kansas City when he was 16, attended Maple Woods for one season and signed with St. Louis as a 13th-round pick in 1999. "We knew we had a good hitter, but not this good," Jocketty says.
Pujols batted .314 last year, with 19 homers and 96 RBIs, in his only minor league season, most of which was spent with the Class A Peoria (Ill.) Chiefs, which meant he was based close enough to St. Louis to attend a few Busch Stadium games as a fan. "We didn't expect him to make our team this year," Jocketty says, "but every week in spring training we'd have our cut-down meetings and we'd all say, 'Nope, we can't cut him this week.' "