TANNED, FOCUSED AND LOADED/NL CENTRAL
Owners chafe at the idea of making a millionaire out of a bench
player, but Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty considers
himself fortunate to have a boss who "understands the game and
the importance of role players." General partner Bill DeWitt has
known since he was nine years old the value of contributions
from the little guy. That's when, as a batboy for the St. Louis
Browns, he surrendered his uniform to Eddie Gaedel, the 3'7"
pinch hitter made famous by impresario owner Bill Veeck.
"They turned my number 6 into a one eighth," says DeWitt, whose
father worked in Veeck's front office and later had similar jobs
with other clubs. "The uniform was still a little big on Eddie."
DeWitt's not the type to mimic Veeck's shenanigans, but he does
bring rare perspective to the owner's box. "I grew up around the
game," he says. Such credentials make him the antithesis of his
predecessor in St. Louis, August A. Busch III, whose dislike of
baseball prompted his selling of a family heirloom.
In his third year of ownership, DeWitt has turned the Cardinals
into the free-spending gorilla of the National League Central.
Last season he took a gamble by trading three young pitchers for
Mark McGwire (page 76), knowing the big first baseman was
eligible to flee after two months, as a free agent. He then
signed McGwire to a three-year, $30 million deal. He also gave a
second-round draft pick, high school pitcher Richard Ankiel, a
$2.5 million bonus. "We can't match offers with the large-market
teams for free agents," DeWitt says. "But we're prepared to
compete for amateur players."
Says Jocketty, "Ownership has been willing to stretch things to
make the ball club better. It paid dividends in '96 [when the
Cards won the NL Central], and I believe it would have paid
dividends last year if not for a lot of injuries."
This season DeWitt has spent $50 million on a deep, experienced
team. The Cardinals brought 29 players with at least two years
of major league service to camp. Outfielder Willie McGee ($1.4
million) and catcher Tom Pagnozzi ($2.1 million), for instance,
figure to be largely bench-bound investments. But DeWitt admits
he so far exceeded his budget that he will ask some players to
restructure their contracts to pull the payroll down to $47
million. That total might have been higher if St. Louis had
succeeded in retaining righthander Andy Benes (10-7, 3.10 ERA in
The Cardinals offered him $32 million over five years after
initially saying they would not guarantee more than three. But
Benes's agent, Scott Boras, demanded an extra $500,000. The
Cards eventually acceded, though only after missing a Dec. 7
deadline for clubs to sign their own free agents. The deal was
voided, and Benes signed with the Diamondbacks. St. Louis sunk
only a fraction of that money into replacing him with lefthander
Kent Mercker. "I wish Andy were still here," McGwire says. "But
there's no reason why an agent should allow a deal like that to
come down to the last minute. They had months to work something
DeWitt admits that St. Louis's famously loyal fan base allows
him to spend more freely than most teams, though he says, "We
need the postseason to make money. Our goal is to run a viable
business--to make money in the good years to carry us in the bad
Despite losing 89 games last season, the Cardinals drew 2.6
million fans--more than four of the eight postseason clubs. This
season DeWitt thinks the club might reach three million for the
third time in franchise history. Baseball thrives in St. Louis
even in lean years, because it remains largely unchallenged at
the forefront of the city's sports consciousness. The city
hasn't fielded an NBA team in 30 years, and its NFL teams have
never played for a league championship.
The appeal of playing in St. Louis will be tested after this
season, when Pagnozzi, outfielder Brian Jordan, infielders Gary
Gaetti, Delino DeShields and Royce Clayton, and pitcher Todd
Stottlemyre are all eligible for free agency. "What I tell free
agents," Jocketty says, "is that we're not going to be the high
bidders, but we can be competitive and offer other things
players are looking for."
To get a peek at their owner's boyhood uniform, however, will
require a trip out of town. DeWitt loaned out his famous threads
a second time--to the Hall of Fame.