The Train Report (Throwback Edition): The 1996 St. Louis Cardinals

gary-gaetti-hits-grand-slam-1996

(@TheATrainSTL)

St. Louis, MO

In this edition of “The Train Report,” let’s take Cardinal fans back to 1996. The year when the Tony LaRussa era began and the Ozzie Smith era ended. Background first, my story second.

THE BACKGROUND:

Let’s take you back to 1995 when the baseball strike ended and the season was shorten. The Cardinals finished a pitiful 62-81. Joe Torre’s future was freed up after the first 47 games and Mike Jorgensen took over the last 96 games. Torre then went to the New York Yankees and won 4 World Series titles. YIKES. The first, during the ’96 season. DOUBLE YIKES.

They saw the retirements of long-timer Jose Oquendo and Tom Henke, who was an All-Star and the Rolaids Relief Man Of The Year award winner.

The Cardinals said goodbye to Todd Zeile, who was already traded to the Chicago Cubs during the season and hometown guy Bernard Gilkey, who was traded to the New York Mets in the offseason and wound up having a career year in 1996. Not to mention, the funny cameo role he had in the first “Men In Black” movie.

The ace of the staff was Mark Petkovsek…EXACTLY. Mark Petkovsek. Say that name, three times fast. No starter on that staff had double digit wins. Henke (36 saves), along with the trio outfield of Gilkey (.298, 17 HR, 61 RBI), Ray Lankford (.277, 25 HR, 82 RBI) and Brian Jordan (.296, 22 HR, 81 RBI) were the only bright spots. But that team stunk and was in dire need of change.

That offseason brought such change. Bill DeWitt, Jr. bought the team from the Anheuser-Busch family. General manager Walt Jocketty said no to interim manager Mike Jorgensen and got former Oakland A’s skipper Tony LaRussa. Huge move. LaRussa then added Ron Hassey, Tommie Reynolds, Dave McKay, hitting coach George Hendrick and pitching coach Dave Duncan.

The Cardinals would add veterans Ron Gant, Gary Gaetti, and Dennis Eckersley. It also saw the returns of hometown favorite Willie McGee and Luis Alicea. Not to mention, the Cardinals went out and nabbed starters Andy Benes and Todd Stottlemyre. But there was one move that stuck during that season that caused riff between a manager and a player.

Royce Clayton.

Why him you ask?

Well here is what I know:

Clayton was a young shortstop that had average speed and average defense. Also, there was Mr. Smith. Smith had announced that it was his last season and wanted to have a great sendoff by being the starter. LaRussa had both shortstops, one young, one not so young compete for the starting job. Now many believe that LaRussa already knew who he had in mind to start. Smith had the better spring at the plate and played way better defense than Clayton (who had 8 errors in the spring)…and didn’t win the starting job. LaRussa chose Clayton. Smith, of course, was unhappy with the move because he felt he was in great shape to start the season, even at the ripe old age of 41. Now the many stories I have heard about the Smith/LaRussa are crazy. But if you want to delve into that, check out this article in 2011 from Howard Friend at Bleacher Report about the Smith/LaRussa feud.

The team started off bad and looked like they were headed to the bottom of the Central Division. By the end of May, they were in 2nd with a 22-29 record. Then a 6-game winning streak put them in 1st during June. After flip-flopping from 1st and 2nd, by the All-Star break they landed back on top. The Cardinals let a 4-game lead slip away by late July and found themselves tied. They would go back and forth with the Houston Astros in August until the lead went to 2.5 games for Houston. By early September, in the midst of a winning streak, the Cardinals took the division lead and wouldn’t give it up and won it.

THE PARTS THAT I REMEMBER THE MOST:

At age 12, I can remember the Cardinals clinching the National League Central for the first time while in Pittsburgh. Eckersley pumped his right fist as the players ran out on to the mound in celebration at old Three Rivers Stadium. They looked primed and ready for the postseason.

That year they got in the postseason and played the San Diego Padres and NL MVP Ken Caminiti. Speaking of Caminiti, I was shocked when he passed in 2004, but wasn’t surprised that he took steroids in his ’96 MVP season. He had a monster year and a monster series against the Cardinals. However, they were swept in three games. Good riddance. Uber excitement, at this point the Cardinals hadn’t been to the LCS in 9 seasons. I was geeked and excited.

In the NLCS they went against the Atlanta Braves, the previous season’s World Champions. I felt pretty good that they could beat them and I was nervous in all seven games of the series because anyone of them could be a complete turning point.

First game was in Atlanta at old Fulton-County Stadium, and they got beat 4-2. Bullpen couldn’t keep the game tied and Benes did the best he could to hold the Braves. They lost the game in the 8th inning thanks to 2 runs given up by Petkovsek. Not a huge deal but still they were down 1 game.

Still had some confidence that the Cardinals could do some damage in Game 2. It damn sure was a tight one when it got to the 7th. With the score 4-3 and the bases loaded, Gaetti unloaded a deep drive off starter Greg Maddux. Gaetti was 38 and nearing the end of his career. The previous year with the Royals he hit 35 home runs, and the Cardinals hoped that he could gave that power he had in KC and bring it down Interstate 70. He wound up with 23 in the season. This grand slam gave the Cardinals an 8-3 lead, to which they would hold on to that final score and even up the series.

As happy as I was, I was still nervous because it was the Atlanta Braves. I hated the Braves. At that point, they had reach the postseason every year (except the 1994 strike).

The last thing I wanted to see was an NL team, MY team, defeat them in the NLCS.

Game 3 back in St. Louis was LIVE. No I wasn’t there at Busch Stadium II but watching that game, it was a damn good feeling to see the Cardinal fans electric in an afternoon game. It was surely a great feeling for Gant, hitting 2 home runs off future Hall-of-Famer Tom Glavine was epic. The excitement on his face as he trotted around the bases. It was like he wanted pure revenge on the Braves. I wanted that for him too. Gant had already participated in 2 World Series with the Braves, so his presence with the Cardinals meant that playoff experience was on deck. He won the game by himself with 3 RBIs in a 3-2 Game 3 victory.

The next game was probably one of the best playoff games I had ever watched at that point. Although, the Birds were down 3-0 going into the bottom of the 7th, a player I had never seen before on the team, Dmitri Young came to the dish with two men on base.

Young kid, big stage. He would falter right?

No, he didn’t.

Young hit a triple off Braves reliever Greg McMichael and drove in both runs to narrow the Braves lead to 1. Clayton would then knock in Young to tie the game at 3. Busch II was rocking high. In the bottom of the 8th, Jordan sent a deep drive off McMichael to give the Cardinals the lead. Eckersley, who already came in the top half, shut down the Braves in the 9th to earn the win and a 3-1 series lead. The excitement I had that night would be the last excitement I would have for the rest of the series.

In the next three games, the Braves’ bats not only woke up…they never went back to sleep. The Cardinals’ bats literally died. I hoped so bad that they would get to their first World Series in 9 seasons, so I could see the excitement that the older generations got to see. Those dreams died the minute Game 5 started.

Game 5, 14-0 Braves. A complete ass whipping in a potential clincher. I was mad, but not angry. The Cardinals were still up 3 games to 2.

Then…

Game 6, a 3-1 defeat. Doesn’t seem like a lot, right? But that game was bad. Pretty damn bad. It set up a Game 7, which is very exciting but sets up a possible collapse by the Cardinals.

That wouldn’t happen, right?

Game 7, 15-0 Braves. Another complete ass whipping in a potential clincher. I remember my father enjoying every minute of that. I had a headache literally while watching that debacle. It was unreal. Catcher Javy Lopez was LCS MVP. The heavily favored Braves, who were on the brink of elimination, came back and won those last 3 games to take the series and face the New York Yankees. The Yankees would prevail in six games. Good that the Braves lost but ouch that Torre won. It would have definitely made for an epic series if the Cardinals got there. But they didn’t.

If you had kept count of those last three games of the ’96 NLCS, the grand total of runs the Cardinals had was…1. That’s right, 1 run.

But it wasn’t meant to be, it gave us hope that they could do it again. But they wouldn’t get back to the postseason for another 4 seasons. However some excitement back 2 years later…some guy named McGwire took the baseball world by storm. (This was before the steroid stories broke)

But that’s how the 1996 Cardinals season was for me. I can’t believe that was literally 20 years ago. It brought a lot of highs and some lows, and believe it or not, that was the last time LaRussa ever faced a 3-1 collapse in his tenure with the Cardinals.

Coming up on the next “Train Report,” I’ll take you to the 2001 St. Louis Cardinals, where it featured the surprising rookie debut of one Albert Pujols.

Keep taking the A-Train. Drop a comment if you like.

Follow me on Twitter @TheATrainSTL

AND…

Follow N The Zone on Twitter @NTheZoneShow

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