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World Series Special: The Right Side Of The Rivalry

Let me say first that - in a sports fan kind of way - I hate the St. Louis Cardinals. Not because I follow the Cubs (I decided I was no longer a "fan" a few years ago), but because I have long found the Cardinals (like the White Sox) to be unlikable in so many ways, starting with manager Tony LaRussa. What a whack job. Truly one of major league pricks of the game and - if you read Three Nights in August you know this - sort of a psychopath (like so many "successful" people).

So it's kind of a big deal for me to admit that I finally have to give in and give LaRussa and, indeed, the entire Cardinals organization the props he and they deserve as they get ready for the opening game of the World Series tonight.

Damn. The last time the Cards won the World Series was in 2006 with an 83-win team - one of their worst teams of recent vintage. Sounds familiar. The 2011 Cardinals made the World Series? I still don't even know how they got into the playoffs, but I'm quite certain that LaRussa - and more obviously general manager John Mozeliak - must have had something to do with it.

Cubs fans gnashing their teeth at the still-undone deal to bring Theo Epstein to the North Side might want to chew over the fact that before Mozeliak the Cards had Walt Jocketty - who now oversees Dusty Baker in Cincinnati. The Reds, by the way, are closer to a World Series appearance than the Cubs. So are the White Sox, no matter how mediocre they are. As are the Milwaukee Brewers, who won the NL Central this year before falling to their fellow division mates, the Cardinals. As are the Detroit Tigers, who were the Cards' opponents six years ago and made a run for it this year until falling to the Cards' AL opponent, the Texas Rangers. The Texas Rangers? God I hate Nolan Ryan!

The Cubs are really the dregs of the Midwest; the Twins' disastrous anomaly of a lost season notwithstanding. I'll be thinking of both teams during the Series this year, though, while watching for two Cardinals whom I'm fairly sure few others will be watching for: Ryan Theriot and Nick Punto.

Theriot was eviscerated by the locals here when he was traded from the Dodgers (who acquired him from the Cubs) to St. Louis and entered Cubs lore by saying "I'm finally on the right side of the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry."

Who could seriously say that he's wrong?

I had to swallow hard and suck it up when Chris Rewers joined in the hazing on the now-on-hiatus Beachwood-owned Agony & Ivy blog. "You would think that Theriot would be grateful for his experience with the Cubs," Rewers wrote. "It was the organization that drafted and signed him and brought him to the majors in 2006. It was while with the Cubs, that Theriot was given the opportunity to become an everyday player in 2007 by manager Lou Piniella. Thanks to the Cubs, Theriot became a popular player on one of sports' most famous franchises. Thanks to the Cubs, Theriot became a millionaire."

Chris listens to Rush Limbaugh and supports the 1%, so I guess it's no surprise. But my recollection is that the Cubs nearly ruined Theriot. First they insisted on trying to make him a switch-hitter in the minors, contributing to lackluster stats that understated his offensive abilities. And somehow a fine fielder lost range as a Cub.

"Ryan Theriot was drafted in the third round in 2001, out of Louisiana State University," Prospect Retro noted in 2008. "He was considered a strong defensive infielder with the ability to hit for a high average, though lack of power kept him out of the first two rounds. Assigned directly to the Florida State League (big jump from college ball,) he hit just .204/.341/.252 in 30 games for Daytona, obviously not impressive with the stick, though scouts remained very impressed with his glovework."

That lack of power, despite his other attributes, really bugged the Cubs. You can start to see how he was mishandled by the organization from the start. This is why the Cubs are the Cubs.

"Theriot went back a level for 2002, playing for Lansing in the Midwest League. He hit just .252/.335/.313. He showed good plate discipline, drew 59 walks, and stole 32 bases in 40 attempts, also continuing to show good defensive skills in the middle infield. But his power didn't develop, and scouts said he needed to get physically stronger."

Um, maybe power isn't his game. Not unusual for a runty infielder. But look at the walks, stolen bases and glove . . . that's a ballplayer.

"Promoted to Double-A West Tennessee, he hit .236/.351/.270 in 53 games. Speed and defense remained assets, and he was getting on base at a decent clip, but the lack of pop remained a big issue."

Of course, the Cubs are the last team to the OBP party. As an organization they have been inexplicably and virulently against on-base percentage as a measure of a player's worth even as the rest of the world has moved on from batting average (and even "power").

Then at some point, the Cubs tried to make Theriot a switch-hitter. What?

Unsurprisingly, that didn't go well and his numbers suffered as a result.

"He took a lot of at bats from the 'wrong' side of the plate," Jeff W noted at Fangraphs. "By the time he worked his way up to AA, he finally had a talk with the coaches and told them he was not really comfortable hitting as a lefty, and they let him hit exclusively as a right-handed hitter. Hitting from the 'correct' side (for him), his average spiked and he eventually emerged as an everyday big-league player."

Right. But then he had to deal with Dusty Baker's aversion to playing young guys like himself.

And then he had to deal with the fickle nature of Lou Piniella. In 2008, for example, Theriot set the Cubs all-time record for multi-hit games by a shortstop.

The next year, though, Lou Piniella asked Theriot to drive the ball more, resulting in a surge of home runs that came and went without any long-term impact for the Cubs or Theriot except to fitz and fuddle with him further. Later, Piniella told Theriot his job was to get on base, though he didn't notice Theriot's failure to draw a walk for a month until reporters told him.

At the same time, Theriot was in and out of the leadoff spot - sometimes in favor of the declining Alfonso Soriano.

Theriot was also jockeyed between second base, where he had major league range and a major league arm. to shortstop, where he (arguably, compared to some who have manned the spot for the Cubs) didn't.

And yet, there he was in 2010 hitting .341 and on a tear when Starlin Castro was called up to take his job. Theriot moved to second and promptly slumped. Mike Fontenot, who was hitting .315, was benched and then un-benched.

Theriot was eventually traded with Ted Lilly (and cash) to the Dodgers for Blake DeWitt and a two pitching prospects - Kyle Smit ("I don't think we will be seeing him in the majors any time soon") and Brett Wallach (him either).

Meanwhile, Fontenot went on to win a World Series ring with the San Francisco Giants last season, while Theriot has a chance to win one this season. (The Cubs, of course, haven't won one as a franchise since 1908.)

Is Castro better than Theriot and Fontenot? Obviously.

Was Theriot the most important member of the team? Obviously not.

But the chain events illustrates the Cubs' inexplicable herky-jerky ways (paging Corey Patterson!) under the old regime.

And they vindicate Theriot's obvious - not inflammatory - statement about the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry. There is a right side and a stupid side. Unfortunately, those of us who follow the Cubs are on the stupid side.

Tricky Nicky
The other Cardinals player I'll be watching is former Minnesota Twin Nick Punto. Punto was a vexing player for the Twins because his aggressive game of sliding head-first into bases (or other players) and chasing down every foul ball and running into walls often left him injured.

But like Theriot (and unlike so many Cubs, including the otherwise-awesome Castro), Punto is a gamer. Or what some baseball folk call "a glue guy."

"The terms 'team chemistry' and 'clubhouse culture' can at times be overrated in sports vernacular for their impact on games, but not every group of players can rally when their backs are against the wall with little margin for error over five weeks," Joe Lemire writes for Sports Illustrated.

"Mozeliak said that this year's team could not have made its comeback without such a strong clubhouse built on genuine friendships and harmony. He said that the acquisitions of right fielder Lance Berkman and infielders Nick Punto and Ryan Theriot were made in part because of their character."

Again, compare and contrast with the Cubs.

See also:
* 'LaRussaball' Conquers All
* Cubs, Cardinals: So Close In Miles, So Far Apart In What Matters

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Comments welcome.

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