When Allen Craig was in Springfield as a member of the Cardinals’ AA squad at Hammons Field, he was easily the fan favorite. Once, during pregame warm-ups, a few kids were excitedly lined along the first base wall in Springfield – a favorite location for double-A autograph seekers. Craig had just come out of the dugout to participate in stretches and various warm-up activities. And the kids were going nuts.
“Allen! Allen Craig! Mr. Craig! Will you do it? Please do it! Plleee-ase, Mr. Craig?!”
Allen jogged past his flock of adoring fans, waived casually, nodded, and said, “I’ll do it. Hold on just a sec. I’m gonna’ do it.” And jogged on by on his way to join his teammates already stretching and running in right field.
As he approached the white chalk foul line dividing the right field grass, he noticeably slowed. His hands subtly lifted out to the side, and his knees and back bent in a sort of crouch as he crept a few feet closer – he almost looked as if he was stalking the foul line, like some big cat predator ready to pounce. A moment more and he did just that, leaping over the line with cat-like grace and landing on the opposite side.
The kids erupted in cheers. It seemed to be the baseball equivalent of pumping your fist to passing truckers on the interstate. They had been acknowledged. Allen Craig had validated their baseball fan existence. And they loved it.
From that point on I couldn’t help but think of Craig as Allen “The Cat” Craig – an offensive centerpiece quietly stalking his prey from the three hole in the lineup, ready to pounce at any moment. His legend continued to grow, this slugger without a position, but none really expected it to come to fruition in St. Louis.
I remember an exhibition game the St. Louis club played against the double-A’ers in Hammons Field. Craig wore number five, as did another well-known slugger for St. Louis (of course, I mean Albert Pujols). Both players were manning first base for their respective teams.
At some point in the game, both Craig and Pujols found themselves standing together at first, their backs to the seats along the first base line. You can imagine the picture fans eagerly snagged – two sluggers, both first baseman, standing side-by-side, and both wearing Cardinals jerseys that looked almost identical in design. And both with the red number five stitched on the back.
Of course, at the time, many of us thought the same thing…”It’s too bad Allen Craig will never get a chance to play first base in St. Louis – otherwise, this could really be a memorable snapshot.” No one ever imagined Pujols would leave the Cardinals a few years later and it would be Allen Craig who was poised to take over.
Flash forward several years to 2012…
Craig is a World Champion (his bat served a critical role in the Cardinals’ 2011 run) and the heir apparent to first base. In yesterday’s win, just a few days off the DL, Craig went 2 for 3 with 3 RBIs, a walk, 2 runs scored, and the game-winning two-run homer to break a 3-3 tie. For the season, Craig has thus far posted a slash line of .355/.417/.742 with 22 RBIs and 6 home runs…in just 62 at-bats. If this guy can stay healthy and in the lineup, he clearly has star potential written all over him.
But that’s the kicker…staying in the lineup. Even in yesterday’s win, Craig was obviously taking it easy as he jogged around the bases (it reminds me of the Happy Gilmore quote after Happy hits a hole-in-one – “I think I’m just gonna’ do that every time…” – apparently, a hole-in-one is much easier than putting, just as jogging around the bases after a home run is much easier than sprinting for a double). Having spent time on the disabled list twice for leg-related injuries already this season, Craig’s lower body is a concern. Maybe it’s the abbreviated offseason as he recovered from knee surgery. Maybe it’s the muscles in his legs trying to get on the same page after months of isolation exercises. Whatever it is…Craig’s clearly hurting – but with Lance Berkman out for two more months, the Cardinals don’t have much of a choice.
Allen “The Cat” Craig must play.
Alright…that’s enough about Craig…let’s get into the rest of it:
The Cardinals’ first round of the draft was interesting the other night… With 5 picks in the first round and supplemental round combined, many of us were looking to this draft as an opportunity to really cash in with high ceiling superstar potential prospects. It seems the Cardinals had other ideas. When I finally got home and turned on MLB Network, St. Louis had just selected James Ramsey, a player MLB Network was comparing to…Skip Schumaker? So, with a first round pick – the second of two the Cardinals possessed – they selected a player most directly comparable to a fourth outfielder/utility player? Hey, don’t get me wrong…I love Skip…but I never considered using a first round pick to get another Schumaker. To bottom line it, it seems the Cardinals decided to spend their early picks in an effort to replenish their farm system with reliable, safe picks with a high rate of signability and a good chance of making it to The Show.
Really…we shouldn’t be surprised with the “safe” approach by the Cardinals in the draft. If Pujols had stayed in St. Louis, we already knew the farm system was going to be hard pressed to provide support for the cash-strapped club. That means finding not only successful players but also maintaining a high rate of “graduation” from the minor league teams on the whole. In other words, the Cards need a lot of big league options in their farm system. But even with Pujols in California, payroll crunches are on the way. Waino is going to get paid, Yadi already has his contract, and how much will players like Allen Craig and David Freese cost when their time is due? At least for the next four or five years, Mozeliak and crew can’t afford to miss on many draft picks. They need players to support a payroll that is sure to balloon within two or three seasons. That means they needed to take advantage of their plethora of picks this year to stock the system with affordable options for the somewhat foreseeable future.
Replay seems to be in the news a lot lately… I discussed this a bit a while back on UCB Radio Hour and in a What Were They Thinking?! post the day after (to listen and read about it, CLICK HERE). Let me say just bit more here: 1) I completely agree with Joe Strauss of the Post-Dispatch and his concern about how to place runners on an overturned play. I don’t know if people realize it or not, but the actual number of plays that could be realistically reviewed are extremely limited. It would have to be plays with a clear and definitive beginning and ending; otherwise, you end up handing umpires the right to arbitrarily decide if a runner would have made it to third, or even scored, if a ball had not actually been caught. That doesn’t solve umpiring issues – it worsens them. 2) I also agree with Rick Hummel who had the courage to say (remember, he’s a Hall of Famer) that losing the arguments and colorful discussions between managers and umpires would be a sad sacrifice to make. It’s part of baseball. It’s wonderful to watch. Every time I see a manager run to the umpire, I think of Lou, Billy, and Earl charging out on the field. It would be a shame to sterilize the sport by cutting that out. 3) Someone (maybe Joe) also made an excellent point, sort of, about fans demanding instant replay because they remember a critical play that went against them. But what about all the plays that went FOR them and their team? All those could be lost as well. 4) Finally…it seems the biggest point of contention lately is with umpires and inconsistent/ridiculous strike zones. Let me be clear…I would never, ever support electronic measurement of the strike zone for an actual game. Can you imagine it? A pitch is thrown home and instead of an umpire crouching behind the plate and throwing up the right hand…you see a digital monitor posted on the backstop. A cold, electronic counter clicks once from 1 to 2 strikes. *shudder*. Or even worse, an umpire IS standing behind the plate with an electronic device – with a second or two delay as all devices would likely need – the pitch is thrown, the catcher catches it, and then for a second or two between each pitch, you get this scene: Hitter, catcher, and pitcher are all staring at the umpire waiting for the call – while the umpire is staring at a hand-held device in his hand…waiting to be told what the call actually should be. Can you imagine that ridiculous scene playing out between every pitch? God help us when the electronics fail, lock-up, or experience a slow connection. Ugh.
Oh…one last thing on replay: What if we only used expanded replay in the playoffs? I haven’t really thought this one through…but what if they only made certain calls available for review during postseason games? Who really cares if a playoff game goes a few minutes longer? More playoff baseball!
Okay, that’ll do it…let’s hope the Cardinals can get back on track behind Waino, but with Bud Norris on the mound in Houston…I’m not hopeful.