KANSAS CITY • By his own description, shortstop Rafael Furcal was disappointed, frustrated by injuries and "going nowhere" last year with the Los Angeles Dodgers. But the lowest point of his season came the day he thought his error kept the Cardinals from getting anywhere.
The Cards, who had obtained him in July, were three outs from slashing Atlanta's wild-card lead to one game with two series left to play when Furcal made his fifth error in a six-game span. He flubbed a toss to second base and the game unraveled.
The Cardinals lost, had a 1 ½-game deficit with few games remaining, and Furcal was despondent. A teammate called him "heartbroken." His manager revealed later that he worried Furcal was so shaken he wouldn't be able to contribute again.
"I was ready to go home," Furcal said. "I picked up my stuff to go home."
He made that admission Monday while sitting on a dais surrounded by All-Star Game logos and his name, which says everything about where he and the Cardinals went instead.
Furcal, years removed from being one of the game's most electric shortstops, arrives at Kauffman Stadium today for the 83rd All-Star Game as a third-time All-Star and, at age 34, a first-time starter.
He received 3,972,921 votes from fans to finish more than 300,000 ahead of the next National League shortstop and claim the starting spot. He'll bat ninth for manager Tony La Russa and share every moment possible with his sons, ages 6 and 3.
Flourishing in St. Louis
Teammates and Furcal describe how he's reached this career milestone, perhaps belatedly, because of momentum from the Cardinals' run for the World Series title, the attention he received as a first-time champ, and the voting power of his new fan base.
No stranger to historic and popular teams — he was an Atlanta Brave mainstay before signing in LA — Furcal also was one of the game's top leadoff hitters in the first two months.
"Somebody hasn't done a real good job of evaluating his talent," former teammate Chipper Jones, Atlanta's third baseman, said when asked how Furcal could go 13 years without an All-Star start. "Some guys are late bloomers. Some guys have to be put in exactly the right situation to flourish. Ever since he's gone to St. Louis he's flourished."
He is not the first shortstop to get the All-Star bounce after arriving at Busch. A decade ago, Edgar Renteria was a young, rising shortstop who was an All-Star with Florida but was voted in as a starter in his second year with the Cardinals. David Eckstein was in the middle of his career as baseball's favorite overachiever when he joined the Cardinals and was voted in as a starter during his first season in red, in 2005.
Furcal comes to the Cardinals toward the end of his career after injuries chewed like moths through his baseball cards. Injuries to a hand, a wrist, his back and hamstrings had kept him from playing more than 100 games in three of the previous four seasons.
But this year he has played in 83 of the Cards' 86 games.
"The main thing is I'm healthy to this point," Furcal said. "Many times I've had the pretty good numbers with LA, in Atlanta, and at this time (of the season) I've been hurt or on the 15-day disabled list.
"It's been back surgery, knee, hamstring. Now I'm healthy and my first half looks pretty good, pretty good numbers in the first two months."
Furcal brings a .275 average into the All-Star break, and he's fresh from his game-ending two-run single Sunday. Of the Cardinals' past six last at-bat victories in the regular season, Furcal has delivered three of them. He came to spring training this year 10 pounds overweight and admittedly sluggish because an offseason appendectomy had limited the training he could do.
Furcal struggled during exhibition games but insisted that he needed the time to get his body healthy, not his swing ready. When the season opened, he had three three-hit games in the first four and bolted to a .352 average on May 20.
The word he kept using to describe his surge was "healthy."
It echoed with his colleagues, too.
"He's really been a star. It's all about health," La Russa said. "When he's healthy, he's dynamic. It's really strange that this is his first start. It has to do more with injuries than anything else."
Said Jones: "A lot of times guys have to find their own speed. He played with such reckless abandon for so long that I think it cost him some games, health-wise. At times you need to go at 99.9 percent instead of 100 percent in order to stay on the field for 160 games."
Brings 'A needed edge'
Furcal saw the other side of Jones' suggestion. When he arrived in St. Louis at the trade deadline last summer, he felt revived by the playoff chances, playing beside his friend Albert Pujols, and his verve on defense.
A teammate said Furcal brought "a needed edge" to their play. He brought a needed glove. Furcal upgraded the left side of the defense for the Cardinals, made a back-to-home catch in Milwaukee that won a key game and said for the first time in a while he was able to play unfettered defense again.
It wasn't reckless abandon. It just wasn't apprehensive.
"It's tough when you feel you are unable to do something that you feel you should be able to do," Furcal said. "You're used to a certain type of movement, but you're afraid something will happen, something will happen with your back, something will happen with your hamstring. Now, I don't have to worry about a thing. I don't have to think about all the plays that can happen that I can't do because this is the time I'm going to get hurt. I'm healthy for the first time in two or three years.
"Any ball close to me is going to be (an) out."
Furcal declined to say whether the rash of errors last season resulted from such hesitance. La Russa said he thought fatigue might have cost Furcal, who hadn't played an intense stretch of games like that all year before coming to the Cardinals. After that key error, there was concern for Furcal. "I wondered how effective he would be because he was so brokenhearted," La Russa said. Pujols called La Russa to say Furcal didn't want to come to the ballpark. Pujols then went to Furcal's house that next morning to talk him back to Busch, back to the field.
Furcal described that for the first time Monday. Pujols told him the Cardinals still were in the race and the next day was the day he could help them. All he had to do was be there to play. Two days later, Furcal had the game-winning home run that put the Cardinals back within reach of Atlanta.
A month later he was a World Series champion for the first time. Eight months after that he's an All-Star starter for the first time. That's the benefit of being healthy and available to play every day.
"This is baseball. You play every day and you've got a chance for anything to happen any day," Furcal said. "If you play every day, you can win a batting title, you can win an award, you can win a World Series. There are people who play for 20 years or more and they don't win the World Series, the don't make an All-Star Game, they don't get to start an All-Star Game. But you keep going. You never know what's going to happen.
"You never know when something good is headed for you."