In the ten or so years of my adult obsession with the St. Louis Cardinals, there have been four players who have occupied the status as "favorite player," four players whose at bats I would always look up from whatever I was doing to watch on the TV or turn up on the radio, four players who I went to the ballpark specifically to see play, who gave me a sense of hopeful (or irrational) expectation every time they stepped up to the plate. Albert Pujols. Jimmy Edmonds. Rick Ankiel (both the pitching and hitting versions). And Colby Rasmus. I can hardly remember what baseball in St. Louis was like without Albert, and I hope I never have to. I can remember reading in the paper the day the the Cards traded Kent Bottenfield for Jimmy Edmonds and also reading on the internet the day they traded him away for David Freese. Ankiel was his own spectacular version of a heart breaking player-so much talent and such a complex human being.
Colby was the only player whose career fully overlapped with my years of living in St. Louis. I never knew him at a distance-it always felt more personal than that. I remember following the draft on the computer in my basement the day they took Rasmus in the first round. He was the first big move made by Jeff Luhnow, the Cards young new player development director, and he was meant to represent the new era of Cardinals minor league development-the triumph of stats over scouting, young talent that would be nurtured and developed, not just used as trading chips for a veteran rental. I watched Colby's career develop over the years in the minors, occasionally able to watch him play on the web in some form or another. In 2008 he had a great spring training, posting a .464 OBP and hitting three homers, but didn't make the team. Even then, some of the cracks between he and La Russa that would develop over time were apparent-TLR criticized even then his perception of Colby's overly patient approach at the plate, and his reliance on his father as a hitting instructor. Colby didn't make the team that year, but he did have a standout year in the minors and he made the 2009 team, finishing 8th in National League Rookie of the Year voting. In 2010, Colby took the next step, hitting 23 homers, posting a .859 OPS and arguably having the best season of any National League center fielder as a 23 year old. But the cracks with La Russa continued to deepen, with Rasmus supposedly asking to be traded midseason, and then un-asking a few days later. The rifts with La Russa seemed to revolve mainly around two issues-the first being the perception that Rasmus never gave a full effort and wasn't overly concerned about losing, and the second being his apparent propensity to give more attention to his father's advice for fixing and improving his batting stroke than the Cardinals coaching staff.
When it came to in game intensity, there's no question that Colby was an anti-Pujols. He is simply one of those players, like J.D. Drew, like (in some ways) Jimmy Edmonds, who seem to glide across the field, to take a causal approach at the plate from time to time, who occasionally smile even when they're losing. It's hard to tell if this was really a sign of disinterest for Rasmus, or just the sign of a player who knew he was talented enough to succeed without treating every game like it was the last one of his career or the pennant was on the line. There is little question in my mind that if Colby had the kind of competitive approach that Pujols demonstrates day in and day out, he'd still be a Cardinal-not because he would necessarily be a better player (Pujols's intensity has its downsides), but because La Russa would feel better about him. The accusation about his father's role in his approach to hitting is harder to judge, but as Tim Lincecum has demonstrated, there has to be space at some point for players to listen to the voices that have known them the longest and they trust the most, even if they do belong to their fathers. At the end of the day, we'll never know exactly what kind of role the volatile (and often publicly so) relationship between La Russa and Tony Rasmus played in the deterioration of the situation for Colby, but it certainly seems as though this conflict was a significant cause for why things went wrong. Whatever the reason, Rasmus now joins the increasingly long list of Cardinals that seem to have been removed from the roster over the last five years primarily because of La Russa's distaste for their personalities: J. D. Drew, Steve Kline, Scott Rolen, Brendan Ryan...and now, Colby Rasmus.
Now that he is gone, my deep sadness about Colby's abrupt departure mainly has to do with what could have been had circumstances been otherwise. It's not yet clear whether Cardinals nation will have to deal with losing Albert at the end the season, only time and money will answer that question. The Cardinals stuck with Ankiel long after every other team in baseball would have given up on him, and Edmonds was traded only after he was obviously past anything resembling his prime. There's also the void of memory-with Albert, even if he leaves at the end of the season, I'll have more memories of him in a Cardinals uniform than I can count-especially his home run off Lidge in 2005, and the grand slam he hit last year when I took my son to Busch to see him play. With Rick I have both the good and bad-the meltdown against Atlanta in 2001, and landing on and nearly breaking my friend's foot after we scalped tickets for Rick's first game as an outfielder in 2007 and he parked a long home run into the right field seats, not far from where we were sitting. With Jimmy I'll always have the 2004 NLCS-his walkoff no doubt bomb to win game six, the most amazing sports moment I've ever seen in person, and his game saving catch to beat Clemens in game seven. With Colby I don't have anything like that-just the potential of game winning home runs and diving catches and playoff magic at Busch that now I'll never get the chance to see. Colby is also the first ballplayer I've really loved who is younger than I am, and that in itself marks a turning point for me in my life and my personal connection with the game, as I continue to grow older and the players younger and younger, more and more removed from myself and my place in life.
When I saw the news of the trade this afternoon on Twitter (where else?) two things came into my mind. The first was Donald Hall's lovely essay, "Fathers Playing Catch with Sons" which chronicles Hall's spring training session with the Pittsburgh Pirates and his friendship with a young prospect named Luke and the inevitably poignant closing lines: "For baseball is continuous, like nothing else among American things, an endless game of repeated summers, joining the long generations of all the fathers and all the sons." Something about those words encapsulate for me Rasmus and the genuine tragedy of this whole thing-the loss of a young ballplayer at the hands of the grizzled, temperamental, Hall of Fame manager, the staggering potential for beauty and success that will now be realized or not realized somewhere else, my own fears that I might, as a father, someday ruin something precious for my son, and finally, the permanence and the continuing nature of the game itself-the way there is always another one tomorrow, even when Ankiel loses his pitching mind, Holliday drops the line drive, even (God forbid!) when Pujols puts on another uniform. The other thing I thought of was the night of June 2nd, this season, when Lance Lynn made his big league debut against the Giants and got shelled, putting the Cards down 10-3 going into the bottom of the 7th. I had been following the game on and off that night and on the way to grocery store turned on KMOX even though the Cards were down seven. As I pulled into the lot the Cards had loaded the bases against Guilllermo Mota and I decided to sit in my parking space to hear Colby hit because, well, it's baseball and who knows? And so I got to hear Rooney call the home run, a grand slam, the second one of Rasmus's Cardinal career (the first was last summer, in the last game of the Brandon Phillips brawl series). I'm sure I must have seen Colby hit a homer in person at some point in the dozens of games I've been to at Busch the last several years, but for me that night will be my enduring memory of Colby Rasmus as a Cardinal--Rooney calling out the home run and me laying on the horn in the Shop and Save parking lot on that hot St. Louis summer night and yelling out the open window: "Now we got us a ballgame!"