Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has a reputation for not being the biggest fan of young and inexperienced players. Take Brendon Ryan, for example. Recently, La Russa was quoted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as saying that, contrary to whispers around the Cardinal clubhouse, he likes the spunky infielder. However, he went on to say that Ryan had a tendency to play “young”.
Normally, you would expect a word like “young” to carry negative connotations coming from La Russa. But after posting a batting average of .333 since being recalled from the minors on April 24, it’s clear that La Russa was complimenting Ryan on his sparkplug-like play, injecting offense into a position that has seen next to none from the incumbent retread Caesar Izturis, to go along with defense and speed on the base paths.
Of course, the last paragraph is written with my tongue firmly planted against the inner wall of my cheek. Okay, well so what if La Russa didn’t really mean it as a compliment. Does anyone really care if Ryan plays “young” anyway?
Memo to Tony La Dingfod: I would rather have a player that plays “young” than one that plays “terrible”, as in the case of Izturis.
In his first three games of 2008, Ryan made a huge impact. In that first game in Pittsburgh (a 6-2 Cardinals win), the “young” also looked quite restless, going 2-for-3 with a walk, two runs scored and an RBI. This while hitting out of the all-important second lead off spot, no less.
The next night, Ryan posted a modest 1-for-4 night at the plate. However, his one hit came in the game’s final frame. He subsequently stole second base, at least giving the Cardinals a chance to tie a game they eventually lost when no one drove him home, 3-2 to Cincinnati.
In his third start against the Astros, Ryan also went just 1-for-4. However, his ninth-inning single set up the game winner by Skip Schumacher. Of course, Izturis did score the winning run – as a pinch runner for Adam Wainwright. No doubt La Russa was praising Izturis’ uncanny ability to put one foot in front of the other in the postgame press conference.
Ryan has not let up from there. In the recent weekend series against the Cubs, Ryan went 3-for-7 with an RBI and a run scored in the first two games. His reward? Being benched for Izturis in the series finale, who did manage two hits to raise is average to a whopping .231.
But it isn’t all about the numbers. Ryan plays with the tenacity you would expect from a “young” player. He offers more at the plate, on the basepaths, and is every bit as good defensively at shortstop as is Izturis. Even Ryan’s outs are usually more sharply hit than Izturis’ dink hits. When Ryan gets a hit, it’s a real hit, not a dying quail or dribbling bleeder. When Ryan gets on base, he takes the biggest lead possible, putting pressure on the pitcher and forcing him to throw over repeatedly.
But La Russa is right about one thing: at age 26 Ryan is young, or at least inexperienced as a big leaguer, Ryan only has a little over 200 at bats for his career. But so far, he has done nothing to prove he isn’t a pretty darn good player. In what amounts to less than half a season, he’s hit .295 displaying some power (4 home runs) and speed (8 stolen bases in 9 attempts).
This is another one of my main points of contention with La Russa. When a young guy comes up and produces right away, La Russa immediately comes up with excuses to sit him on the bench or platoon him to death.
What’s wrong with just putting Brendon Ryan out there every day, and just letting us all find out if he’s an everyday player or not? How do you think most players become bona fide major leaguers? Somebody somewhere gave them a chance, that’s how.
The question Grubb Hub would love to ask La Russa is: what great things has Izturis done in his career to deserve infinite playing time no matter how low his batting average sinks or how well someone else plays?
In eight major league seasons, Izturis has one full season in which he’s batted higher than .257. In 2004, he hit .288 with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He has 63 career stolen bases, but only 13 of those have come since that same year. He has 11 career home runs (remember, Ryan has 4 in 207 career at bats). So we’re not talking about replacing Alex Rodriguez, or even Ozzie Smith.
Maybe at 6-2 and 195 pounds, Ryan is too tall, or hits the ball with too much authority to play shortstop for Tony La Russa. Apparently, the only thing La Russa likes more than geriatric pitchers and ex-MVP’s referenced in the Mitchell Report is slap-hitting munchkins at short and second, starting with present-day incarnations Izturis and Mickey Miles, going all the way back to his Oakland days with Mike Gallego and Walt Weiss.
It’s kind of like qualifying for the kiddie rides at Six Flags. There should be a little sign of Marvin the Martian behind second base with a cartoon balloon coming out his mouth that reads:
“You Must Be No Taller Than 4′ 10″ to Play Middle Infield for Tony La Russa”
One of the funnier things Grubb Hub has heard in sports talk radio of late was an interview between KTRS 550-AM’s John “Cinderella Story” Hadley and La Russa that took place on the last day of spring training.
Hadley implied that Izturis was a worse hitter than most of the Cardinal’s pitchers, and thus in this respect batting him ninth and the pitcher eighth made sense. Predictably, La Russa became infuriated with that suggestion, saying that the interview, which is part of regular Sunday morning segment on KTRS, wasn’t going to last very long if this is the kind of question being asked in the very first interview.
Oh, well we’re all sorry to ever question your unwavering genius, oh great one. Perhaps you should move to a city where the fans are too dumb to know that a guy struggling to stay above .200 on mostly dribble hits is not very good.
Like New York, for instance. This was one of the more amusing rumors floating around this past offseason: that La Russa would follow in Joe Torre’s footsteps yet again and take over for him as skipper of the Yankees.
If Tony doesn’t like the relatively tame and timid second-guessing of lame-brained decisions by the St. Louis media and fans, how do you think he would like it in New York, where every move you make around the clock is questioned, even if it’s undoubtedly the right one?
Have you ever seen the movie “Scanners” where the guy’s head blows up? I bet Tony’s press conferences in New York would go something like that.
So how do you think La Russa would respond to Hadley’s question now? I’d say unless the pitcher is Joel Pineiro, I’d rather have him batting before Izturis.
It’s just hard to fathom how La Russa cannot absolutely love a player like Ryan. He’s somewhat Rex Hudler-ish in the sense that he’s always hustling, pushing the envelope, an energetic and oft-kinetic dynamo.
As mentioned before, on the basepaths he constantly pesters opposing pitchers – taking the biggest lead he possibly can – forcing the pitcher to throw over again and again.
It’s that kind of distracting presence that could force a pitcher to forget about his primary task, delivering to the plate. For those of us old enough to remember Whiteyball, the formula is simple. Distract a pitcher enough, and he just might be forced into throwing Prince Albert or Rick Ankiel a nice fat fastball. I’m not saying Brendon Ryan is the reincarnation of Vince Coleman, but he’s definitely the best base stealer on this team not named Brian Barton.
But none of this has been enough to win over Tony La Russa. I’ve read that Ryan did some things to irk the skipper last season, such as not sit on the right section of the team bus, where all the “young” players are supposed to sit. Boy, that must have been a really small section on a La Russa team, notwithstanding the civil rights violation involved. And supposedly, Ryan is not the most humble player and has been described at times as being “cocky”. And of course, we all remember the infamous swinging on the 3-0 pitch that earned Ryan a tongue-lashing in the dugout.
Maybe Ryan should try displaying some humility by taking some of his hard-earned major league minimum salary and cutting a check to ARF. Which coincidentally, I’ve heard about enough times in the last 12 years to make me want to BARF.
Then again, if batting over 100 points higher than your primary competition with more speed, power, and similar defensive ability isn’t enough to warrant the lion’s share of the playing time, it’s hard to tell what would.