Cardinals search for new face of franchise

Without Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa, the Cardinals will turn to other veterans for leadership. Getty Images

ST. LOUIS -- St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Allen Craig had a pretty good idea the final out of the World Series might be coming toward the left side of the diamond. He remembers the buzz in the stadium as David Murphy was up to bat. As the ball came his way, he was thinking, this could be it, the final out, World Series champions.

As grandfathers and grandmothers tell their story each will have their own memories, but when the man who caught the final out tells how it happened he will not have the ball to show for it.

After the game Craig heard that Tony La Russa was interested in the ball. Once the celebration on the field was over, La Russa pulled the team into the weight room and told them he was retiring.

During that meeting, Craig said he was thinking, "I'm not going to be the guy who keeps the ball. That’s just not going to happen."

That night he handed it to La Russa. For Craig, the thrill and memory of catching the final out of the World Series was enough. "That’s all I need," he said.

Great baseball stories usually come from the unexpected. Craig’s act of giving the ball to La Russa sums up the offseason for the Cardinals: The thrills and championship of 2011, first baseman Albert Pujols, La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan are now just a memory.

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How do the Cardinals move forward? Some teams have to fill holes; without Pujols, the Cardinals have to fill a crater.

"He’s a great player, he’s a good friend," Matt Holliday said of losing Pujols. "I’m disappointed he’s not going to be here, but I think as players we understand that it was a possibility."

Lance Berkman said he was surprised Pujols ended up signing with the Angels. "Certainly if you asked me at this time last year I would have said, 'Hey, there’s absolutely no way he’s going to go anywhere but be here his entire career.' It’s hard to imagine Albert playing for anyone else."

Berkman knows it's just part of the business of baseball. "I thought I was always going to be in Houston and here I am a happy member of the St. Louis Cardinals," he said. "So, you can’t ever tell in this day and age."

Players move on, managers and coaches move on, the front office changes. Still, for any team in baseball there’s a need for a "face of the franchise."

Adam Wainwright appreciates his name being mentioned in that picture and joked, "You’d think they’d pick a prettier face."

For Wainwright, if he’s going to be the leader of the Cardinals he wants it to happen naturally and if it doesn’t, "so be it."

Holliday’s career .315/.388/.541 line is impressive and he now has the longest and highest-value contract on the team. Maybe he is the new face of the franchise.

"I’m willing to do whatever, whatever it takes," Holliday said. "I’ve played on teams that didn’t have Albert before. I’ve batted third before. I’ve played in a World Series before. I’m available for whatever is asked of me."

Berkman joked about Holliday or himself being the face of the franchise, "We were both wondering if it would be too early to ask for No. 5."

With Berkman moving to first base, Carlos Beltran was signed to help replace Pujols' production at the plate.

"I know Pujols is a hole maybe no one can fill," Beltran said. "But with myself, with Berkman, with Holliday, I think there are three guys there that can put juice in the middle of the order."

Staff leader Chris Carpenter is mostly worried about what he does best: Focusing on Yadier Molina's glove. "My roles never change even with him (Pujols) here," Carpenter said. "We work together trying to control the things we need to control."

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Maybe the role of a leader is overrated. After all, if a team is winning, does it matter if there’s a strong presence in the clubhouse?

"It’s definitely important to have strong leadership on a team," Craig said. "Starting with the manager. Obviously Tony is gone but the main reason why they hired Mike Matheny is that he is just a natural leader being a catcher. All you hear about is how he is a respected guy, he knows the game, and he’s a great leader."

Carpenter, who pitched to Matheny while he was still catching, told a story about his new manager.

"I’ll never forget there was a game, I was going out and I wasn’t throwing the ball real well, my stuff wasn’t real good," Carpenter recalled. "I was giving up some hits, some runs and he came out and was like, 'Listen, I know you don’t have your best stuff.' Just follow me, let’s concentrate on getting the ball down and just throw what I put down there."

The next thing Carpenter knew it was seven innings later. "I gave up a couple of runs but I got through it and gave my team a chance to win."

Carpenter thinks Molina will step up off the field. "Yadier is going to have a huge presence in that clubhouse this year with taking over a role that he might not have been 100 percent used to," Carpenter said. "But I think he’s going to evolve into that leader that we need."

Relief pitcher Mitchell Boggs says Molina gives "every single guy that comes out of the bullpen or starts a lot of confidence." Kyle Lohse echoed those thoughts, saying, "There are so many different things he does. Whether it’s the studying of the hitters to being able to stay a step ahead of them, he does all that so well. He’s very smart back there."

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On the last day of the Cardinals Winter Warm-Up, the annual event to benefit the Cardinals Care charity, there was a noticeable influx of kids in the crowd, a buzz of excitement.

Peggy Phillips, who has volunteered for the Winter Warm-Up for 16 years, explained why: "It’s David Freese’s day," Phillips said. "It was always crowded on Albert Pujols’ day."

Freese knows there’s more pressure on him now with all the attention he is receiving, but his role as hometown hero hasn’t changed what’s most important to him and what he hopes to bring to the Cardinals organization.

"I think the kids are the best part about this," Freese said of his busy offseason. "As hectic as it is, as crazy as everything gets, every time you see the excitement of a kid, it makes you realize it’s all worth it."

It seems everyone on the team is ready and willing to step up and be a leader. It’s fitting, isn’t it? Call it Cardinal luck. Or maybe it's just having the right guys in place at the right time. But whatever it's called, one thing is certain: The only way to survive the loss of a player like Pujols and a manager like La Russa is to fill the void with an entire team.

"We’ve got lots of really good older players that are good at leading people," Holliday said. "I think our clubhouse will be fine."