A Cardinal Of Many Virtues St. Louis infielder Placido Polanco is a powerless, yet powerful, asset

August 26, 2001

In the second inning of an Aug. 25, 1998, game against the
Marlins, Cardinals shortstop Placido Polanco lined a fastball
from righthander Rafael Medina off a pillar behind the leftfield
wall at Busch Stadium. Leftfielder Cliff Floyd snagged the carom
and fired the ball to second as Polanco slid headfirst into the
bag. No one was more surprised than Polanco when he looked up to
see the second base umpire signaling home run. It was Polanco's
first major league dinger. "Everyone made fun of me," says
Polanco, 25. "They kept saying, 'When you hit a home run, you
don't have to slide!'"

Forgive his ignorance. Polanco had hit only six homers in four
seasons in the minors before tagging his first big league shot as
a rookie. Through Sunday he had built his major league total to a
whopping 10, including three this season. Of course, St. Louis
isn't looking to the 5'10", 168-pound Polanco for pulverizing
power but for predictable production. Despite bouncing around the
infield this year from third (76 games through Sunday) to short
(38 games) to second (nine games), he'd had only three errors and
been the most consistent Cardinal at the plate, batting .322 with
the fifth-best strikeout rate in the National League (one for
every 13.9 plate appearances). "He has good hands, a strong,
accurate arm and a stroke that uses the whole field, and he's
exactly that way every day," says St. Louis manager Tony La
Russa.

Polanco earned his reputation for reliability early. He learned
the game in the Little League founded by former major leaguer
Manny Mota in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The same league
has produced big leaguers Moises Alou, Melido Perez and Rafael
Bournigal. "Placido wasn't just one of the best players in the
league; he was also the most disciplined," says Mota, who was the
game's most prolific pinch hitter and who has been a coach with
the Dodgers since 1980. "We use him as an example when we talk to
kids today."

Because Polanco had good high school grades, Mota recommended him
to Al Schlazer, then the athletic director at Miami-Dade
Community College's Wolfson campus and a former neighbor of
Mota's in Miami. Polanco was granted a tryout and won a
scholarship in 1992. He spent two years at Miami-Dade before the
Cardinals drafted him in the 19th round in '94 and sent him to
rookie ball in Arizona, where he struggled, batting .213 and
committing 10 errors in 32 games, mostly at shortstop. "I wasn't
mature," Polanco says. "I made a lot of throwing errors, from not
really knowing the game, not knowing when to hold on to the ball
and when to throw it."

He learned quickly. He boosted his average and cut down on his
miscues, earning a call-up to the majors in July 1998. He got
only 220 at bats as a utility infielder the following year and
then impressed the Cardinals' coaching staff in spring training
in 2000, when he hit .349 with a team-high 16 RBIs.

Polanco was St. Louis's utilityman extraordinaire last season,
amassing 323 at bats and batting .316 while making only three
errors. This season, through Sunday, Polanco was third in the
league in singles and fifth from the bottom in home run
frequency, but there's one thing he can brag about at slugger
cocktail parties: He was the only man to pinch-hit for Mark
McGwire in 1998 during Big Mac's 70-home-run season (albeit late
in a 13-1 St. Louis victory). "I could hit a few more home runs,"
says Polanco, whose batting average hasn't dipped below .300
since April 9 of last year, "but that would be stupid."

He may have learned the hard way, but going for the fences is
something he'll let slide.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)