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Jim Edmonds' bad reputation

Before Jim Edmonds came to St. Louis, he had become a pariah in Anaheim. So what was that all about?

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There is a certain Old Guard in baseball - from coaches and players, all the way down to writers and even fans - who keep lit the torch of "how the game ought to be played."

The specifics of how the game ought to be played are hard to pin down, as they are recorded only in that famous Book of Baseball's Unwritten Rules. But if you listen to enough of these blowhards over the years, you can piece together the gist of it: The game ought to be played with bland precision, completely bereft of flair, and the player should never lower himself to express joy or pride in his on-field accomplishment.

The exact parameters of what constitutes a violation are rolling and generational, and by that I mean that it's always the old guys who complain about the young guys. Bryce Harper and Yasiel Puig are two recent examples of very good players who have been subject to the "tsk, tsks" of the Old Guard. In the '90s, it was Jim Edmonds.

Dig through nearly any article on Angels-era Jim Edmonds, and you'll find some allusion to a problem with his attitude. The written record seemingly goes all the way back to a 1988 scouting report which says "OFF FIELD HABITS MUST IMPROVE INDULGED CHILD."

So even when he was just a kid at Diamond Bar High School, something about James Patrick Edmonds was rubbing Old Baseball Men the wrong way. An early profile on Edmonds noted minor league instructors considered him "lackadaisical and a flake." That same NY Times piece says:

"Jim Edmonds is a beanball incident waiting to happen, but, in the meantime, he continues to admire his home runs from ground zero. "

So, he liked to watch his home runs. What other crimes was this rogue Jim Edmonds guilty of? According to one story, he upset the delicate sensibilities of teammates when, as a rookie, he rolled in the outfield and hoisted his glove in the air after making a spectacular catch. During warmups the next day, teammate Tony Phillips wiped a ketchup-coated napkin between Edmonds legs to embarrass him.

Now, I don't know about you, but when I read that story, the person who sounds like a real piece of shit is Tony Phillips. And yet in the culture of California Angels Baseball circa 1993, this was an example of a young Hot Dog getting his comeuppance at the hands of a wily old veteran (who would later be charged with cocaine possession and battery, but I digress).

I didn't know Jim Edmonds in 1993, so for all I know he was an insufferable prick. But when you read these criticisms, which sometimes stretch to try to link his "attitude" with his performance, they just don't hold much water. Teammate Gary DiSarcina complained to the Los Angeles Times about Edmonds bouncing into the dugout, smiling as the team was facing elimination. But as this Sports Illustrated profile notes, that September DiSarcina hit .240 with zero homers and 5 RBI. Edmonds hit .340 with 5 homers and 20 RBI.

The LA Times article which broke the story of his eventual trade wrote "His erratic career with Angels ends, and not a moment too soon, according to some former teammates." So there you get the two halves of the Edmonds narrative: He had some kind of nebulous attitude/clubhouse problem, and that led to mixed results on the field.

But whether they called him "lackadaisical," implying even though he's playing great he could be doing better, or called him selfish for injuring himself while pushing his limits to make spectacular plays, Edmonds critics had a hard time making a case that all that "attitude" added up to anything less than a superb baseball player. Perhaps Tom Friend put it best when he wrote "[Edmonds] first mistake was making the game look easy."

In fact, when you look at Edmonds numbers with the Angels, you don't find the kind of "erratic" fluctuations that so many teammates and sports writers eluded to. Beginning with his first full season, 1995, Edmonds put up WARs of 5.3, 5.0, 4.0 and 4.0 over the next four seasons. His wOBA was between .375 and .402 through that stretch. Of course, these advanced metrics were non-existent or nascent way back then, so sportswriters all jumped on the Bad Guy Jimmy bandwagon and criticized him for things like a drop in RBI from 107 to 66 between '95 and '96, never mind the fact that his wOBA went up by 22 points, he made almost 150 fewer plate appearances, and RBI is a garbage stat.

Some complained that Edmonds spent too much time injured, despite the fact that these injuries were typically the result of playing hard, which, you know, kind of seems like a good character trait? But even that criticism seems overstated. During that four-year-stretch, Edmonds still averaged 583 plate appearances per season.

That run ended when he tore his labrum lifting weights the weekend before the start of the 1999 season. Some teammates complained about Edmonds lifting weights at all when he was already nursing a groin injury. Criticism got even more heated when Edmonds told a reporter the shoulder had been bothering him for years. Many players are admired for playing through injuries - just think about Albert Pujols and his UCL hanging by a thread. But when you are the kind of persona non grata that Jim Edmonds was in 1999, this somehow became further confirmation that the player was selfish, didn't care about the team, etc.

Of course, the Angels were shopping Edmonds even before the injury. The Mets reportedly came close to trading for him around the 1998 trade deadline. He was also the primary target of the Yankees if they could not get Bernie Williams to sign an extension after the '98 season.

Edmonds got back on the field on August 2nd, and looked like he was still suffering the ill effects of the injury in the 233 PAs he managed that season.

And yet, the injury did little to dampen the interest he garnered from other teams. The Yankees remained interested in Edmonds, so much so that Bernie Williams had to publicly comment on whether he would be willing to move to left field if the team acquired him. The two sides seemed to be very close to a deal, but New York was ultimately unwilling to part with a AAA shortstop named Alfonso Soriano.

Several reports linked Edmonds to Seattle, where Ken Griffey, Jr. was about to fly the coop. It was widely reported that the Angels, Mariners and Reds almost completed a three-way deal, but various accounts had Edmonds nixing that deal because he didn't want the pressure of replacing Griffey, or even as Peter Gammons reported, because he thought Seattle was "too cold and damp." Edmonds denied it all.

"I never in my life have said that," says Edmonds, who--in the pursuit of a peaceful winter--declined all interview requests in the off-season. "For Gammons to print that and not ever talk to me is just totally ridiculous. That's the hardest thing to take. Once a rumor gets rolling, it seems like it's a snowball. It makes it easier for other people to say stuff." (Gammons, who admits he did not call Edmonds, says, "I think Jim is a good player. But Jim probably knows that [former teammates] GaryDiSarcina and Darin Erstad don't like him, and he probably thinks that I'm siding with them."

And so it was that late in Spring Training before the 2000 season, with the Angels desperate to unload their "problem" outfielder, the St. Louis Cardinals swept in. On March 20, the Angels traded Edmonds to St. Louis, settling for Kent Bottenfield and then-minor-leaguer Adam Kennedy after initially holding out for Rick Ankiel.

When Edmonds walked into the Cardinals clubhouse in Jupiter for the first time, he unloaded his gear and then tossed his Angels duffel bag in the trash. Minutes later, Tony La Russa called him into the manager's office to tell him that this was a fresh start; his supposed bad reputation meant nothing to the Cardinals.

That embrace of Edmonds spread down to the players as well, including veteran Ray Lankfordwho said:

"I don't know Jim much," says Cardinals left fielder Ray Lankford, "but I'll tell you this: If he's the player everyone says he is, and he hustles and works his butt off, nobody will care what they said about him in Anaheim. That's old news. He's not an Angel anymore. This is a new day. Jim's a Cardinal."

On May 13, less than two months after being traded to the organization and just 35 games with El Birdos, Edmonds signed a $57-million extension to remain a Cardinal long-term.