The duffel bag was big and dark blue, an official Major League
Baseball model with an Anaheim Angels logo on the side. As Jim
Edmonds held it for the final time, about to drop it into a
garbage can in the St. Louis Cardinals' spring training
clubhouse, utility infielder Shawon Dunston--thrifty if not
sentimental--shouted, "Jim! What are you doing? You should save
Edmonds paused for a moment, turned his head toward Dunston and
smiled. He then dropped the bag and walked back to his locker,
where a brand-new, bright-red Cardinals duffel was already in
place, one with Edmonds's number 15 on it. "Hell," he said, "I
ain't saving that crap."
First days at the office are generally easy--lots of
gladtameetcha's and directions to the coffee machine. It wasn't
any different for Edmonds last Saturday, two days after St.
Louis acquired the two-time Gold Glove centerfielder from
Anaheim for righthanded starter Kent Bottenfield and second
baseman Adam Kennedy. Edmonds handled everything smoothly, from
a 20-minute tete-a-tete with Mark McGwire ("You'll like it
here," said Big Mac. "We've only got one beat writer") to his
initial encounters with the media (said Edmonds, repeatedly,
"I'm just happy to be here") to his first hit as a Cardinal (a
second-inning RBI single to left off the Baltimore Orioles'
Calvin Maduro). All that was easy; the hard part will be
overcoming the hellish reputation that has dogged him for years.
A friendly .300-hitting slugger who signs autographs, produces
in the clutch, is accessible to the press, hates to lose...and
may be the most unpopular player in the game.
Baseball is a tight community. So tight that shortly after the
trade was announced, several St. Louis players approached Mike
James, the Cards' reliever and a former Angel, to inquire about
their newest teammate. This wasn't an "Is he a gin rummy or
dominoes guy?" inquiry. "They wanted to know if all the garbage
that's been said about Jim is for real," says James, one of
Edmonds's closest friends. "Probably everyone in [this clubhouse]
has heard the stuff--that he doesn't play hard, that he's a
showoff, that he's not a team player. I told them the truth, that
99 percent of it is totally false."
And the other 1%?
"Nobody," says James, "is perfect."
Edmonds isn't quite sure when his evil reputation began to take
shape. Maybe it goes back to the minors, when, despite being a
hot five-tool prospect, small-town newspaper columnists took
swipes at him: Doesn't try hard enough. Showboat. Loafer. Maybe
it was when he was a rookie, in 1993, when veteran Angels mocked
Edmonds (mostly behind his back) for his cocky demeanor. Maybe
it was his third season when, during a pregame workout, he was
embarrassed by a prank former teammates still cackle over (which
says more about them than about him). One day earlier Edmonds
had made a dazzling catch to save a run and then milked the
moment by rolling around on the turf, mitt raised triumphantly.
The next day, as Edmonds was stretching on the field, teammate
Tony Phillips approached him from behind and placed a
ketchup-splattered napkin, made to look like a sanitary napkin,
under his legs. "Who's the pretty boy!" Phillips shouted as
teammates roared with laughter.
"No question, Jim sometimes has a problem with body language and
image," says San Diego Padres third baseman Phil Nevin, Edmonds's
friend and Angels teammate in 1998. "People interpret him as
being conceited, and it's not the case." Edmonds usually wears
his cap backward during workouts, and he runs with a smooth, easy
stride. "When I first got to Anaheim," says Nevin, "everyone told
me I'd hate Jim because I'm such a hard-nosed guy who cares about
winning. Jim is confident, and he has his own way, but he wants
to win, too."
That's not always obvious to all his teammates. Two years ago,
after the American League West-leading Angels surrendered a
four-game lead over the Texas Rangers with a month left in the
season, several teammates were furious because of Edmonds's
nonchalance. "Jim smiles a lot and is outgoing," shortstop Gary
DiSarcina told the Los Angeles Times. "That's his persona. But
you can't act like that when you're on the verge of elimination.
You can't bounce into the clubhouse without a care in the world
when your teammates are bloodied, ticked off and not wanting to
go home." That September, as Edmonds batted .340 with five home
runs and 20 RBIs, DiSarcina hit .241 with no homers and five
RBIs. "What matters is what you do on the field," says Edmonds.
"If we're mathematically out of it on Aug. 1, I'm not going to
come in the next day and want to kill myself. If you treat it
like that, that's when you have a problem playing the game."
Last spring training was the worst for Edmonds. For three years
he had played with a sore right shoulder, but he says that while
there was pain from time to time, it was never bad enough to
consider an operation. Then, three days before the season began,
Edmonds was bench-pressing in the Edison Field weight room
when--pop!--he tore the labrum in his right shoulder. "I was
devastated," says Edmonds, who has been on the disabled list
four times in his career. "I felt I was letting the team down."
Shortly after the injury, when Edmonds learned that he needed
surgery and would miss at least four months, he told the Times's
Mike DiGiovanna that his shoulder had been bothering him for
several years. When DiGiovanna put that in his story, some
Angels fumed. First baseman Mo Vaughn tore into Edmonds, saying,
"Jim Edmonds is one of the most talented guys I've ever played
with. The responsibility is what's in question."
Edmonds was hurt and furious. On April 20, while the Angels were
in Toronto, he telephoned the SkyDome press box from his home in
California. He asked for DiGiovanna, chewed out the writer and
then threatened him, saying, "I'll kick your ass!"
Several Angels, including Vaughn, now concede that they didn't
fully understand Edmonds's situation, that they mistakenly
thought that he had selfishly put off surgery. "Nothing," says
Edmonds, "could be further from the truth."
Edmonds missed all but 55 games last season, batting .250 with
five home runs. He came back on Aug. 2, when the Angels were
17 1/2 games out and in last place, even though Edmonds says team
doctors told him not to return if the Angels were out of
contention. "I felt like I had to test it out and see what I
could do," says Edmonds. "I owed it to the team."
This off-season Edmonds tried to ignore the machine-gun fire of
trade rumors that, until last week, had laid siege to his life.
Edmonds was raised in Diamond Bar, Calif., just an hour's drive
from Anaheim. Playing for the Angels, he says, was a dream. "I
gave my all to that team, whether people believe it or not,"
says Edmonds, who has hit .290 with 121 home runs and 408 RBIs
in seven seasons. "I've never known why they tried so hard to
get rid of me." One minute he was going to the Oakland A's, the
next to the New York Yankees. Or the Colorado Rockies. Or the
New York Mets. The low point came in early February, when
numerous media outlets reported that Edmonds was headed to the
Seattle Mariners as part of a three-way trade that would have
sent Ken Griffey Jr. to the Cincinnati Reds. When the "deal"
never occurred--says Anaheim general manager Bill Stoneman, "We
were never involved in [discussions about] a three-way deal with
Seattle and Cincinnati"--and Griffey was traded to the Reds for
centerfielder Mike Cameron and three others, reporters wrote
that Edmonds had refused to play for the Mariners. "I swear to
god, I never said anything like that," says Edmonds, who is
making $4.7 million in the last season of a five-year contract.
"The only thing I ever said was, I don't want to make a decision
about signing a long-term contract right now. I've played three
games at Safeco Field. How could I make a decision? Hell, I
hadn't even been traded."
Edmonds, a slow talker, has picked up the pace. His blue eyes
become angry slits. Four lines crease his forehead. "I've heard
everything I was supposed to have said--that I was afraid to
replace Griffey, that I don't want to play there because the
ball won't carry." Edmonds glances at a clubhouse table, where a
copy of Baseball America rests. In an issue published after the
Griffey trade, columnist Peter Gammons wrote that the Mariners
may have been more interested in obtaining Angels outfielder
Garret Anderson than Edmonds because Edmonds "continues to
insist that he won't sign a long-term contract in Seattle
because it's cold and damp."
"I never in my life have said that," says Edmonds, who--in the
pursuit of a peaceful winter--declined all interview requests in
the off-season. "For Gammons to print that and not ever talk to
me is just totally ridiculous. That's the hardest thing to take.
Once a rumor gets rolling, it seems like it's a snowball. It
makes it easier for other people to say stuff." (Gammons, who
admits he did not call Edmonds, says, "I think Jim is a good
player. But Jim probably knows that [former teammates] Gary
DiSarcina and Darin Erstad don't like him, and he probably thinks
that I'm siding with them.")
There was no player more in need of a fresh start than Edmonds,
which is why, shortly after Stoneman told him of the trade last
Thursday, Edmonds began weeping. That outburst was fueled by
several emotions, including the joy of a new start and the
sorrow of impending separation. He left the Angels' spring
training complex a short time later, then returned early the
next morning to bid farewell to Anderson, his closest friend. As
the two hugged, Edmonds again cried. When he joined the Cards on
Saturday, his eyes still red, he began to speak of Angels
rightfielder Tim Salmon, who had strongly defended him on
Thursday, saying he was such a natural talent that people
incorrectly assumed he wasn't playing hard. "I appreciated that
so much," said Edmonds, taking deep breaths, trying to stay
composed. "For Tim to speak up for me...god, I haven't been this
emotional in a long time." Edmonds began to bend the rim of his
new red cap. "I just hope to fit in here, show that I can help
Minutes later he was in manager Tony La Russa's office, being
told, essentially, that the past is the past and reputations
mean nothing. As soon as the deal was concluded, La Russa moved
centerfielder J.D. Drew to right and placed Eric Davis (still
recovering from off-season shoulder surgery) on the bench to
make way for Edmonds in center. Unwanted on a team that will
most likely finish in the American League West cellar, Edmonds
is suddenly a key component in one of the more potent lineups in
baseball. He is, at last, wanted.
"I don't know Jim much," says Cardinals leftfielder Ray
Lankford, "but I'll tell you this: If he's the player everyone
says he is, and he hustles and works his butt off, nobody will
care what they said about him in Anaheim. That's old news. He's
not an Angel anymore. This is a new day. Jim's a Cardinal."
Nevin. "People interpret him as being conceited, and it's not
Edmonds began weeping when told he'd been traded to St. Louis.