Sunday, March 05, 2006

What's up with the west coast branch?

Giants have six ex-Cardinals.
There is a different product from the Gateway to the West that Giants general manager Brian Sabean likes to collect: baseball players. Visit the San Francisco clubhouse and it strikes you with the force of a dozen Clydesdales.

The room is teeming with former St. Louis Cardinals.

If Jamey Wright makes the team there will be six of them, about one-fourth of the 25-man roster. Four of them -- Matt Morris, Mike Matheny, Steve Kline and Jeff Fassero -- played for the 2002 St. Louis team that lost to the Giants in the National League Championship Series. The sixth is Mark Sweeney.[...]

"It wasn't by design," Sabean said when reminded how many Cardinals he now employs. At the same time, he said, "I have the utmost respect for that team, almost equal to my respect for the Braves, which is saying a lot and is duly considered when you look at everybody's resume."

These are not bit players. The Giants signed Morris for three-years and $27 million to be a top-of-rotation starter. Matheny's importance as the starting catcher is obvious. Kline, just acquired from Baltimore for LaTroy Hawkins, replaces Scott Eyre, one of baseball's best left-handed setup men in 2005. Sweeney is here to nurture first baseman Lance Niekro and lead the pinch-hitting corps.

That they all emigrated to San Francisco, some directly, some via other teams, bespeaks the respect Sabean has for his St. Louis counterpart, Walt Jocketty, who has held his post two years longer than Sabean has.

Even Jocketty was surprised to hear the Giants' Opening Day roster might feature six of his former players.

"It's interesting," he said by phone from Jupiter, Fla. "I think our two teams have been kind of similar in a lot of respects. Brian and I operate in very similar ways putting our teams together. I'm not surprised he has interest in the same players we have."

Players come and players go; every GM knows that. But Jocketty said Morris' departure was a particularly harsh blow because Morris was the first player Jocketty selected in his first draft, in 1995. Jocketty said he feels that way even while acknowledging he did not make a competitive offer to keep the onetime 20-game winner. Morris has said the Cardinals made him feel unwanted after eight seasons.

As such, when Morris signed with San Francisco, some Giants fans wondered if Jocketty knew something Sabean didn't. It's not like Sabean could call Jocketty and find out why he was not prepared to offer Morris three years.

Jocketty said when it became clear Morris was leaving St. Louis, he advised the pitcher's agent, Barry Axelrod, to choose San Francisco over his other suitors (including Seattle, Texas and Cincinnati) because "I know Brian real well, he's a great GM. They'll treat him right, it's a very good organization and it's a great ballpark for him to pitch in."

Morris dresses in a corner of the Giants' clubhouse that could be called Redbird Row. He sits next to Matheny and Kline, with Sweeney just around the corner and Fassero down a few more cubicles. All but Sweeney contributed to the Cards' recent run of division titles. He made his big-league debut with St. Louis in 1995 and played on its 1996 NLCS team. Wright was a Cardinal for just four games in 2002.

The influx of former Cardinals is "a testament to these guys, what they can do for you when they play on a winning team," Matheny said. "The experience you have when you win is invaluable in what you bring to a team and the longevity of your career. Once you get labeled as part of a winning tradition, it doesn't do anything but help you out personally, which ends up helping the team."

Fassero, a Cardinal in 2002 and 2003, put it another way.

"It's a whole lot more fun winning than losing," he said. "If you bring that kind of attitude in your clubhouse, it can't do anything but help."

Fassero views the organizations as "more similar than different. They're pretty fair with the players here and they were fair in St. Louis. You don't get abused here and you didn't get abused there.

"As far as the clubhouse goes, they let us be professionals. They're not sitting there hovering over us telling us what to do, babysitting us. I've been on teams where managers just want to babysit us and be in the clubhouse and dictate everything that goes on. They don't let you be your own man."

Both organizations want to return to the World Series, and Jocketty knows his team might have to beat the Giants in the postseason to get there. He laughed when asked what it would be like at the NLCS if he looked into the opposing dugout and saw six ex-Cardinals.

"It would be very strange," Jocketty said, "but I hope we have that opportunity, for the both of us."
New Busch will be both a hitter's and pitcher's park.

In spring training, the Cards are 1-2. Jason Marquis starts tomorrow against the Baltimore Orioles. Mulder (3), Carp (15) and Sidney Ponson (24) could get to 100 career wins this season.

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