Commentary

Cardinals open camp absent old friends

The defending champions start the spring with Mike Matheny calling the shots

Originally Published: February 19, 2012
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

JUPITER, Fla. -- It was 112 days after Game 7. That's all. Just 112 days since the confetti floated through an October sky, and a remarkable baseball season ended with only the St. Louis Cardinals still standing.

You wouldn't think much could change in 112 days. Right?

Wrong. Don't try to sell that to this team. Don't try to sell that to the 2012 Cardinals -- not on the day they finally headed back to the ballpark to begin defending their astonishing title.

The manager of the champs has moved on to what passes, in Tony La Russa's world, for "retirement." The face of the franchise -- we believe that would be some guy named Pujols -- can be located in Tempe, Ariz., this week, ready to begin work for somebody else's franchise. The pitching coach -- the great Dave Duncan -- is back in Missouri, at the side of his ailing wife.

They may have been the three most powerful forces in the Cardinals' universe. But now they're gone, all three of them. And on the day that the 2012 Cardinals reassembled Sunday in balmy Jupiter, they admitted they never saw all of that coming, never envisioned how crazily their world could spin in a mere 112 days.

"I would never have thought that," said pitcher Adam Wainwright. "Never. I thought Albert was going to retire here. I think everybody did. I think he did, too. …"

[+] EnlargeAdam Wainwright
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonAdam Wainwright is coming back after Tommy John surgery on his right elbow cost him his 2011 season.

"With Tony, we played the 'Is Tony gonna retire?' game every year. So at some point you knew he was going to retire. …

"And with Dave," Wainwright went on, "I thought he was going to be here for a couple of more years. But he has a situation that's out of his control. And we understand that."

Oh, they understand, all right. They understand all of it, could have rationalized any of it. But to have it all happen at once -- to a team that just finished riding that magic carpet on one of the most unforgettable title runs in the history of baseball? Who could be ready for that?

What happened to this team is not the sort of thing that happens every year, you understand. In fact, it doesn't happen any year -- not until now, anyway.

With the help of the Elias Sports Bureau, we've determined that these Cardinals are the first defending World Series champions ever to wave goodbye to both their manager and their home-run leader in the same offseason. That word, again, was "ever."

Now add in the exit of arguably the greatest pitching coach of his generation, and that's a staggering amount of change for one team to absorb. But if there is a team in baseball better equipped to handle it than these Cardinals, you'll have a tough time convincing the champs of that.

The message they delivered Sunday was impossible to miss: The fate of this team won't be defined by the men who aren't here. It will be all about the men who are here.

"We're all replaceable," said the man who will have to follow La Russa's act, new skipper Mike Matheny. "So we just go about our business. We admire and respect what people have done. There's nothing but respect for those guys and what they were able to bring, not just to the team but to themselves individually. So you respect that. But you realize that change is change. So I've said it before. I'll say it again. It's an opportunity that these guys have got to take advantage of."

That opportunity begins with the new manager. He's just 41 years old -- which makes him only 4 1/2 years older than his Opening Day starter (Chris Carpenter). He caught for 13 seasons, prepared for every game like a guy studying for the bar exam and always had a certain presence about him that stamped him as a leader of men.

But we can sum up Mike Matheny's managerial experience in eight words: He has never managed a big-league game.

Now all he has to do is fill the office, if not the shoes, of a man who managed more big-league games (5,097) than any manager who ever lived, except Connie Mack. That's all. Hey, great.

So how does anybody go about trying to replace a fellow like Tony La Russa? By not even trying, not even for one second, to be Tony La Russa  because there's only one.

"I'm following a manager who was one of the best of all time," Matheny said Sunday, as the dramatic first workout of his managerial career unfolded a few hundred yards away. "So I'm not going to fall into the trap of [thinking] this is what I've got to copy or this is who I have to be. It's not fair to these guys. It's not fair to myself or to this organization to do anything except say that this is who I am. And that's really the message that was delivered this morning."

On the first day of spring training, it is the job of every manager to stand before his troops and lay out some sort of mission statement. So on Day 1, Year 1 of his managerial regime, Mike Matheny orated his way through that very address.

It isn't a requirement of the job that the manager sound like Lincoln at Gettysburg while he's doing it. But eloquence is never a detriment at times like this, especially for a first-year manager -- and by all accounts, Mike Matheny delivered.

[+] EnlargeMike Matheny
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonMike Matheny starts his first season after replacing longtime Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa.

"He did a great job," Wainwright said. "But he's been doing it for years. Some of these people don't know he has been doing it for years. But he's been giving speeches and leading teams for a long time. This might be his first day as the manager of a big-league baseball team. But he's been a manager on the field for quite a while."

There's still a difference, of course, between being a manager on the field and being a manager in the dugout of the defending World Series champs. A very big difference. There are going to be crises and adventures ahead that Matheny has never encountered before. Lots of them. And unlike his predecessor -- a guy who had seen, done, handled or invented pretty much everything that could possibly come along during the course of a baseball season -- there is no way to know how this manager will react.

But if folks on the outside want to watch, contrast and compare him to the last manager, that's their thing, because "I'm not using the contrast-and-compare situation," Matheny announced Sunday. "The first thing you've got to do is just be honest about who you are and what you think about things and what your expectations are, and things will play out the way they're supposed to.

"Now certainly, you're influenced by people you've been around and respected when things have gone right. But I've made it clear from the very beginning: This isn't a situation where you reinvent the wheel."

What Matheny will have to do, however, is reinvent the lineup -- because the man that lineup revolved around for the past 11 years will be doing his thing almost 2,000 miles away this season. So it will be up to Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman and the newly signed Carlos Beltran to do the middle-of-the-order mashing in Albert Pujols' absence.

We've seen many middles of the order worse than that, obviously. But replacing the aura of Albert Pujols is another one of those impossible jobs that somebody now has to do.

"I don't know if there will be anybody who comes around baseball like Albert for a while," said his former hitting coach, Mark McGwire. "It's one of those things where it's such a historical career for 11 years, I wish him nothing but the best. And I hope it continues for another 10 over there in Anaheim. But it's just another thing here where the page is turned. You can't replace Albert. But I'll tell you what: Beltran has got a great track record."

However great it may be, though, it isn't Albert Pujols' track record. And there will be no duplicating Pujols' immense presence on and off the field -- not by Beltran, not by anyone on this roster.

So it's astonishing how little mention you hear of Pujols' name in this camp. For that matter, it's astonishing how little trace you can find that the guy ever even played for this team.

A year ago, outside Roger Dean Stadium, you could find a gigantic sign reminding passers-by that this was the spring home of the Cardinals. And whose photo was stamped all over that sign, 30 feet high? Albert Pujols' photo. Of course.

Twelve months later, it's Adam Wainwright's picture that can now be found in that same spot. Wonder why that is? And in the main lobby of the stadium, where a huge panoramic shot once hung of Pujols at bat in this park, there is now just an empty wall, painted over to remove all trace that any sort of photograph once hung there.

In some ways, the wiping out of Pujols' once-powerful image, literally and figuratively, seems a little harsh. But in other ways it's a reminder that this is a team that can't afford to spend much time this spring basking in what it's already done. The champagne party was 112 days ago. Now it's time to move forward.

"I think that should be over with by now," Carpenter said. "This is a new year. Yes, it was exciting to win. Everybody, I think, will deal with it in different ways throughout the spring. But our goal is to start preparing for 2012 and getting back to the postseason, just like we do every single year.

"So your goal and your focus," Carpenter said, "had better be on 2012 and not on the past, because [if you're focused on the past] you're going to overlook some things."

But whatever their focus, whatever their goal, whoever shows up on their opening-day roster, what lies ahead for this group is still impossible to say. That's true of any team in the first week of spring training, naturally. But it's especially true of this team.

To picture the Cardinals without the irrepressible La Russa has long seemed unimaginable. To envision the Cardinals without the indomitable presence of No. 5 in the three-hole in the lineup has long felt just about incomprehensible. To grasp this pitching staff without the deft touch of Duncan has been nearly as unfathomable, too.

But now it's time to start imagining. It's time to begin comprehending. And it's time to play baseball, no matter who's here, no matter who's gone. In a mere 112 days, the earth has spun these Cardinals into a new time and place. Now it's the job of this team to prove that the men who remain can be just as powerful a force as the invisible men who are now, stunningly, nowhere to be found.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com