• The opening to Tony La Russa's book "3 Nights in August" is the quote "I'm as nervous as I've ever been. I have a terrible headache. My head is pounding. I feel like throwing up and I'm having trouble swallowing. And the beauty of it is, you want to feel like this everyday." I asked La Russa about that feeling and if it was there in his first meeting with the Cubs this season when John Mabry came within two feet of tying it on the last swing in the bottom of the ninth inning.
"No, it's not games like that that get me. Besides, we were lucky to be in that one the whole way. Zambrano was dominating us and it seemed like it was 9-1 instead of 3-1," La Russa said. "No, it's when we're up by a run, especially late, that I get sick to my stomach, nervous that we'll give it up or surrender a seeming victory."
That afternoon La Russa got one of those games with Chris Carpenter pitching brilliantly. But Ryan Dempster matched all but one zero until the Chicago bullpen, and some questionable matchup decisions by Dusty Baker helped break it open late.
• One of the great advantages of being ESPN's on the field reporter is literally being on the field. In St. Louis that means standing right next to La Russa, in his dugout for nine innings. You can almost hear the wheels spinning in his hyper-analytical mind. The book does a wonderful job of detailing the innumerable decisions a manager makes in the course of a game. In La Russa's case, enough to fill a book with just three night's work. La Russa stresses it's not his book, it's just about him with full access and cooperation. Buzz Bissinger, the author of "Friday Night Lights," wrote the book. It's comprised of Bissinger's impressions of what he was seeing, some of which La Russa openly disagrees with. One curious passage describes Albert Pujols as viewing reporters with "sulky perspective, as if he is suddenly being encircled by a large cluster of dermatological oddities that don't spread infection but do cause copious itching if they hover around too long." That characterization could hardly be a greater misrepresentation. Pujols is one of the most accessible and engaging personalities in the game, especially considering his elite stature. Not only is he popular with those who cover baseball, but especially among teammates and even opponents. The Cubs' Carlos Zambrano is still vilified by many Cardinals for his beanings and antics that led to a five-game suspension last July. While teammates and many of us wondered what fireworks might erupt in the first rematch of 2005, there was Pujols during batting practice chatting and laughing with Zambrano and a cluster of fellow Cubs while they stretched. Was it a preemptive strike to make sure Zambrano didn't bean him? No, it was just Pujols' effusively engaging self, but not only didn't Albert get buzzed, he took Zambrano deep for the Cardinals' only run that night.
• The Cardinals needed more than two weeks to hit their stride offensively. One of the key culprits, a nasty virus that attacked several players, including knocking out Jim Edmonds for three days. It made playing more than five innings a total drain when he did come back. Scott Rolen dropped out of the cleanup spot for the first time this season. Rolen said he deserved it for "pulling off the ball and just not being productive. I would have dropped me too." Wallowing at .200 on the season, he took extra sessions with hitting coach Hal McRae. Rolen responded with a towering eighth-inning home run, igniting a typical Rolen roll. With five days in the five-hole, Rolen raised his average nearly 50 points, going 6-for-16 with a .500 on-base percentage, a homer, three doubles and a triple before returning to the cleanup spot Tuesday night.
• Replacing Mitchell Page as hitting coach, McRae's philosophy is to let his players come to him. "The key is communication," McRae said. "You've got to have a hitter willing to listen and take advice. If you don't have an understanding and relationship between you, it doesn't matter what you try to teach them, it's not gonna get across." That way McRae knows they're receptive and that they recognize a need to adjust something.
• Something extraordinary happened with the Cubs the day they lost Nomar Garciaparra to a gruesome groin injury. Off to a horrendous start, made all the more glaring by hitting in the three-hole, Garciaparra told bench coach Dick Pole to tell Dusty Baker to move him down in the order. Particularly in light of the debate and ensuing ruckus over whether to drop Sammy Sosa from his accustomed No. 3 spot last season, it made a huge impression on the Cubs manager. Said Baker: "He's a helluva dude." Baker went a step further and called old pal Ron Jackson, Garciaparra's last hitting coach in Boston. Far from being offended, his own hitting coach Gene Clines welcomed the help, saying he had never seen Nomar struggling so he didn't have any history to evaluate his current troubles. "Papa Jack" would know things that worked in the past during those rare spells when Garciaparra wasn't producing. When the Cubs shortstop went down in a heap in his first at-bat last Wednesday and had to be carried off, so too went any opportunity to see if Garciaparra and his cadre of coaches had come up with a way to break him out of the slump.
• Like Nomar, Dick Pole has a Boston connection that has a Chicago connection. Pole was signed by the Red Sox out of high school but how it happened, and how Jerry Krause got involved, is a bit of a fairy tale. Pole grew up in tiny Trout Creek, Mich., going to schools so small there were as few as eight boys in his grade at times. As Pole put it, I could always say "I was in the top 10 in my class." His high school didn't even have a baseball team. He went to a tryout near Detroit "just to have something to do." More than 400 kids showed up to a very disorganized gathering staged by several teams, hoping to find a diamond in the rough.
Eventually Pole got on the mound to throw. With each perfect inning, scouts asked him to throw another. He was the only player there to get a contract offer. Boston wanted to sign him, but a fledgling scout from the Indians also showed an interest. Jerry Krause eventually offered him $1,700. Pole told him the Red Sox were offering $2,000, a massive signing bonus for the late '60s, especially for someone with such an unknown and modest background. Krause told Pole, "They'll never give you $2,000," and assumed Pole was bluffing. Later that week he signed for $2,000 with the Red Sox, making it to the majors by 1973. To this day, whenever he sees Krause, he needles him about it. Krause went on to scout for several teams, eventually hooking up with the White Sox, where in 1985 owner Jerry Reinsdorf was so impressed with his evaluations, he promoted him to general manager of his basketball team. Krause enjoyed a bit of success when he switched to basketball players, most notably, building a cast around a guy named Michael Jordan, whom he had inherited from the year before. He plucked Phil Jackson from the CBA and eventually shared six NBA titles. But these days, Krause, a former catcher at Bradley University, is back to his first love. This season he's scouting for the Mets after spending last season as a special assistant with the Yankees and hoping not to pass over the next Dick Pole.
Gary Miller is a reporter for ESPN's major-league baseball coverage.