Re-rethinking Colby Rasmus


Warning!!! This is a historical article in disguise !!!

There will be a Colby Rasmus reference at the end.

Is there a player on the current Cardinals roster (notice I said current roster, so no Aaron Miles, Randy Winn, Jeff Suppan) that polarizes fan opinions any more than Colby Rasmus ?  I don’t think so.  Young fans and statheads fall in love with the upside that he represents while we *ahem* mature ones just want him to grow up and “Play like a Cardinal”.

So, that got me thinking about a couple of fan favorites that had some rough patches when they were young.  I’m not talking about guys that you clap for when they come up to the plate.  I’m talking about a couple of players you would actual pay money to watch them play, or you start grinning like you won the lottery when you find out they are in the lineup when you get to the stadium.

Ray Sadecki

If you put the words “60’s”, “Cardinal” and “Phenom” together in a sentence, two names pop out immediately: Ray Washburn and Ray Sadecki.   We’ll leave it as a coincidence that they both share the first name Ray.   We’ll deal with Mr. Washburn later, this is about the younger phenom.

A native of Kansas City, Sadecki was signed by the Cardinals right out of high school in 1958.  At age 17, he was assigned to the Winnepeg Goldeneyes of the Northern League  where he would join future Cardinals Julio Gotay, and Dick Hughes – talk about another phenom – that’s another story.   Just to make it hard on manager Al Unser, former catcher and not the racing car driver, that team also had a pitcher named Bob Sadowski.

Following a solid year in Winnipeg, the young lefty would be fast-tracked to the Omaha Cardinals (AAA) for 1959, where would would pitch next to another young right hander – you might have heard of him – Bob Gibson.   Amazingly, Sadecki out-pitched the Hall of Famer.   Sadecki was on a rapid pace program to pitch in the major leagues, not unlike a certain center fielder now playing for the Cardinals.

Sadecki would not make the Cardinals out of spring training, but after a quick and impressive start to his 1960 season in Rochester (AAA), Sadecki received the phone call that all minor leagues hope for, and he was on his way to the majors.

At the age of 19, Ray Sadecki was playing in the major leagues next to Hall of Famers Bob Gibson, Stan Musial and Ken Boyer, plus some future stars like Curt Flood, Julian Javier, Tim McCarver, Curt Simmons, Lindy McDaniel, Larry Jackson and Bill White.   You can begin to understand how just a little bit of attitude might develop in a young man just two years removed from high school.   We are still talking about Sadecki, remember.

The hard throwing lefty had a respectable rookie season, finishing 9-9.   He did struggle with his control, as he would throughout his long major league career.   He also found that major league batters were nowhere near as easy to strikeout as the minor leaguers he’d been facing the last two years.   Regardless, just two years removed from high school, Sadecki was a major league pitcher.

He turned in an impressive sophomore season in 1961.   He would tie Larry Jackson for the team lead in wins with 14, and would lead the staff in innings pitches with 222 2/3.   Phenom, indeed.

Then there was 1962.   There’s always a then or a but, isn’t there ?  Oh, this one is a doozy.

1962 was not a good year for Sadecki, but it was hard to understand why.  He didn’t pitch poorly, but very inconsistently.   He might take a 1 run game into the ninth in one start and not make it out of the third inning in the next.   It all fell apart for the youngster on June 5, 1962 – at home against the Cincinnati Reds.

In hindsight, this was one of those games that you knew was going to be a nightmare.  Nearly everything that could go wrong did.   Curt Simmons started for the Cardinals and got into trouble early.  He was replaced by Ray Washburn who struggled for two more innings, but didn’t allow any more runs to score.

Manager Johnny Keane went to his bullpen again in the sixth inning and gave the ball to Ray Sadecki, who had been bumped from the rotation because of his inconsistent pitching.

The first man that Sadecki faced was the Reds pitcher, Bob Purkey.  Purkey greeted the young lefty rather rudely by hitting a home run – one of just six that he would hit in his career.  Eddie Kasko would follow that with a single.   With the Reds leading 4-1, they went for the kill by having Marty Keough bunt to put Kasko in scoring position.   Keough laid down a good bunt that Sadecki was unable to play, so both runners were safe.   Then Don Zimmer hits a come-backer to Sadecki and the frazzled youngster throws the ball away, allowing Kasko to score and Keogh to end up at third base.

Even though were are more than a decade away from the premier of the movie Jaws, the now famous theme song had to be running through Sportsman’s Park as Frank Robinson stepped up to the plate.   If there was one player you wanted to pitch carefully, it was Frank Robinson.   And the future Hall of Famer hit a Ray Sadecki pitch a long long way for a 3 run homer, and a 9-1 Reds lead.

Johnny Keane was furious and immediately removed Sadecki from the game.   He would also fine the youngster for his poor pitching performance.  Some stories say that he was fined on the spot, others tell a more calming version where the fine came after the game.

Before we get to Sadecki’s reaction to this, a bit of good news about how this game ended.  Ed Bauta, Ted Wills and Lindy McDaniel would combine for six scoreless innings.  Meanwhile the Cardinals bats erupted several times, eventually tying the game at 9.   The small St. Louis crowd that stayed around to watch the end of the game left happy when Stan Musial hit a walk-off solo home run in the bottom of the 11th inning.

Now, back to Sadecki.   The 21 year old pitcher did not like the way Keane was handing this situation.   He did not report to the club the following day, which was just a token of defiance as it was unlikely that Keane would have put him in a game so soon after the Reds fiasco.   He also demanded an immediate trade.

Does any of this sound familiar ?   If Post Dispatch sportswriter Joe Strauss was around in 1962, he would have an absolute field day, writing about this conflict.   If we had Twitter in 1962, Cardinals Nation might have been picking Johnny Keane apart, wondering why he couldn’t deal with youngsters, preferring to go with veterans like Bobby Shantz and Barney Schultz, completely forgetting that it was Keane that was in the process of turning around the careers of Bob Gibson and Curt Flood.   And would soon be doing the same with young Sadecki.

Sadecki would continue to struggle and would soon be sent back to Atlanta (AAA) to work on his mechanics.   To his credit, Sadecki did just that and pitched some of the best baseball of his young career.   And to Keane’s credit, Sadecki was a talented young man and it was far too early to give up on the youngster.

For 1963, Sadecki was back with the big club.   Whatever tensions existed between him and Johnny Keane were in the past.   While he didn’t regain his 1961 form, he did pitch well enough to finish the season in the majors and establish himself as a solid back of the rotation starter.

The reward for all of this was 1964.   It would be Sadecki’s best season as a professional as he would win 20 games for the only time in his career.   Since the Cardinals edged out the Phillies by just a single game for the National League pennant, every one of those Sadecki victories was huge.   It was the difference between watching the World Series on television and playing in the fall classic.

Because of his performance (and an end to the regular season that made Bob Gibson unavailable), Ray Sadecki got the start in Game One of the 1964 World Series.   He was only 23 years old.  It was a fairly typical Sadecki pitched game and he would earn the win as Cardinals bats assaulted Yankees starter Whitey Ford and three relievers.   He would also get the start in Game Four, but a series of bloop hits ended his day rather quickly.

Sadecki would go on to a nice long career, playing for the Cardinals, Giants, Mets and several other teams.   A persistent victim of no run support from his offense, he would never win more than 12 games in a season, but was a dependable starter for most of his career.   135 wins, 2500 innings pitched and an career ERA of 3.78 – not bad for a guy that demanded a trade because he had a bad inning.

As a child growing up in the St. Louis area,  I always loved to watch Sadecki pitch.   From behind those round spectacles, he had a youthful face that always seemed to have a big smile.  Sort of like the one that he managed to put on your face.   He was, after all, just a big kid himself.   When he made a brief stop through St. Louis near the end of his career, we had another reason to run out to Busch Stadium.   I still remember his last win as a Cardinal, on April 18, 1975, as Luis Melendez hit a walk-off single in extra innings.

Adam Wainwright

Now this guy looks focused

Is there any more loved player on the current Cardinals roster than Adam Wainwright ?   I don’t think so.   From Twitter hashtags #wainoesbueno to #teamElbowRoom, it is obvious that the 6ft 7in pitcher is a fan favorite.   As with Ray Sadecki, it wasn’t always that way.

This is an except from a September 2010 article in USA Today.  I recommend that you read the whole piece – it will be more than worth your time.

Early in his career, many had reason to believe that Wainwright had plenty wrong with him. In 2002, his agent told him he had to work hard and sent him to Orlando in the offseason to focus on a workout program.

In 2003, he won 10 games at the Class AA level, but former big-league pitcher Dave Stewart told Wainwright that he had to work on his mental approach. After the trade to the Cardinals, Wainwright was looking for a new beginning in 2004, but an elbow injury limited him to 12 games at Class AAA.

Unlike Sadecki, Wainwright’s early challenges happened far away from the St. Louis crowds.   They have been long forgotten, which in many respects is unfortunate because it makes all that the tall right-hander has accomplished in his short career all the more impressive.

What does this have to do with Colby Rasmus ?

Circumstances have provided a unique opportunity for the young Cardinals outfielder.   With the sudden retirement of Jim Edmonds coming days after agreeing (but apparently not signing) to a contract plus the season ending injury to Adam Wainwright, Colby Rasmus now becomes an important cog in the 2011 Cardinals machinery.   His conflict with Tony La Russa parallels that of a similarly young and entitled Ray Sadecki.  His seemingly lacking focus and enthusiasm begin to sound like a young Adam Wainwright in the Atlanta farm system.   I like the thought that history might in fact repeat itself with young Rasmus, because not only did Sadecki and Wainwright become fan favorites, they played key roles in bringing home a World Series title.

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One Response to Re-rethinking Colby Rasmus

  1. William says:

    That, sir, was yet another wonderful post. Truly well constructed and thought out. Your writing style is fantastic.

    I just have one tiny little quibble with all of this. I keep going back to Colby Rasmus and the scouting reports when he was a prospect. They all mentioned his exceptional make up. Why would that make up disappear once he reached the majors? No, there’s more to this story than what we know. Something doesn’t jibe with the kid’s past. I could be wrong, but my gut tells me that Rasmus isn’t Sadeki.

    Like

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