ATLANTA — What a difference a year makes.
In the 1995 baseball season, the St. Louis Cardinals were the second worst team in the National League. By Monday morning they were poised to win the National League Championship Series, and they have a handful of new veterans to thank.
St. Louis players who grabbed the headlines in the series against the Atlanta Braves include Gary Gaetti, Ron Gant, Dennis Eckersley, and Rick Honeycutt. They were acquired last year after new owners bought the Cardinals and hired Tony La Russa - a manager with a record of wins behind him.
The performance of these imports has been impressive.
In Game 2 in Atlanta, Gaetti hit a grand slam that led to the Cards' 8-3 win. Just four years ago, Gaetti struggled with a career-low batting average of .226 with the California Angels. Some predicted his days in a big-league uniform were coming to an end. But Gaetti began to turn things around with Kansas City during 1994 and '95 and this year exceeded expectations in St. Louis by hitting 23 home runs.
Ron Gant's Game 3 slugging is the stuff of boyhood dreams. Gant played for the Braves until two years ago when he was released after being injured in a motorcycle accident.
Last Saturday night, he belted two home runs to put the Cardinals ahead of his former team. He says his resentment of the Braves organization for his release, which he suspects was because of his accident, is over.
"I have a lot of friends there," he says. But "when I get out on that field it's war. The best team wins."
The other two key veterans for St. Louis are pitchers Dennis Eckersley and Ricky Honeycutt. Eckersley, the second most senior players in the majors, has spent 21 years mostly in the American League. He saved 30 games this year coming out of the bullpen and has become an intrinsic part of the Cardinals' rebirth. He's especially effective against right-handed batters.
Honeycutt, major-league baseball's elder statesman, has had an exceptional year and is most effective against left-handed batters. In this series he's kept Atlanta sluggers Ryan Klesko and Fred McGriff off the basepaths.
Before this season, the Cardinals lacked character, according to Eckersley. Indeed, the Redbirds started the season with several factors conspiring against them.
First, Ozzie Smith, a legend at shortstop, was nearing the end of his career. The Cardinals had new owners. Manager La Russa had only worked in the American League. And for the first part of the season, the team fared poorly.
That changed in June and July, however, as the team's mixture of veterans and blossoming stars such as Brian Jordan, Royce Clayton, and Ray Lankford began to click.