For a game that is only one-162th of a season, opening day gets an inordinate amount of attention. That doesn't just comefrom fans and the media — the players feel it too. Your home opener isa big deal, and 2011 was no different. Any time you line up along thebaselines, anytime the club brings out some of its stars from the past,and, in St. Louis, anytime the majestic Clydesdale horses take theirceremonial lap around the field, the atmosphere before the game becomesmagical. You want to savor opening day, but you also needto get through it and over it so that you can get into the flow of the season. Still, opening day is an important touchstone: it gives you achance to enjoy the game and to recognize your good fortune to be a part of it. You feel almost overwhelmed with a sense of anticipation and arrival.
As I walked through the clubhouse a few hours before game time, I stopped to have brief chats with a few of the guys. I could see from their eyes that they were into it. Berkman was clearly carrying his attitude from spring training into the regular season. Gerald Laird, a catcher, was another guy with a terrific sense of humor and a real passion for and knowledge of the game. Skip Schumaker, our second baseman, was as tough as nails and always worked his tail off. David Freese was a great story and a great individual — a guy who once gave up the game completely but was now on the verge of being one of its real stars. He had gone through a rough patch in his life and had injured his ankles in a car accident, so we had to be careful with him, monitoring him regularly and resting him when needed. He had worked harder than ever in the off-season and felt he was back on track and getting healthier.
He and Allen Craig were a lot alike offensively and temperamentally. Both were hard-nosed guys who were going to battle in every at-bat, and both had the added value of having the knack of producing in rally situations. Ryan Theriot was another gamer, a gritty player with a championship pedigree, having played on LSU's national championship squad while in college. He and Schumaker, our middle-infield double-play combination, spent a lot of time working together and became good friends. At one point they started buying each other gag gifts — snow globes, the tackier the better — from each of the cities we went to on the road. That's a part of good team chemistry — having guys who appreciate one another and who also give each other a lot of crap. Nothing is sacred, and no one's ego is immune from the barbs that are exchanged between teammates throughout a season.
Chris Carpenter was our starter for that first game. We'd originally had conversations about making Adam Wainwright the opening day starter in 2011 in recognition of his having won twenty games for us in 2010. I'd been leaning toward Carp for the opener. The matchups seemed better that way. Carp's response at that time had been to say that he felt — and Dunc agreed — that Wainwright had earned the opening day honor. This was a classic example of Carp being not only the number-one starter but also a true leader and teammate.
On opening day Albert Pujols was his usual quietly intense self. The man knows how to prepare, and because of his unique position in the game as one of the most sought-after interviews, he has toisolate himself a bit from the press in order to keep his intense focus.No one I've seen went about getting ready any better than Albert. That's not to say that he's not a great teammate — he'll always join in a conversation or a verbal dog pile when a guy is catching grief from his teammates for whatever reason — but he's got this no-nonsense look about him when it's time to go to "the Dungeon" for a video study session.
Some of Albert's conscientiousness might spring from the fact that he was a thirteenth-round draft choice, the 402nd player overall. From the beginning, scouts expressed some concern about his build. He played shortstop in high school, which gives you some idea of his agility, but as he matured questions were raised about his range and quickness. I first heard about him in the off-season between the 1999 and 2000 campaigns. At our organizational meetings in Florida, the site also of our winter instructional league, we went over the players who had been recently drafted and were now in the system, and the staff highlighted the players who had made a special impression. Albert was the first player mentioned. After watching his first game, I remember thinking only that he seemed to carry himself well.
In his first year in the minors, Albert was with the Cardinals' low A team in Peoria. Fortunately for him and for us, Dave Duncan's son Chris was also on that team. In talking with his dad regularly to let him know how things were going, he mentioned Albert and YadierMolina a few times, always saying something glowing about him. Because of that, Albert was on our radar.
In 2000 we were putting together a good season, closing in on a division win. When September call-ups rolled around, we brought up a few guys from AAA in Memphis. As a result, there were a few slots that needed to be filled at that level. The Memphis team had also had a good year and earned a playoff spot. Our organization was always keen on recognizing success at every level and would reward their efforts by promoting from the lower clubs to give them their best competitive chance. Albert became one of those late-season callusto AAA straight from A ball, and he did well, hitting a home run in the thirteenth inning of the game that got Memphis the Pacific Coast League Championship. Later that fall he was in the Arizona Fall League, where I saw him bat three times and I liked what I saw.
From One Last Strike by Tony La Russa. Copyright 2012 by Tony La Russa. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow.