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2004 Cardinals National League Champions return

Former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter, center, greets Scott Rolen and Matt Morris as the 2004 National League Champion team is welcomed back to Busch Stadium on Saturday, July 27, 2019. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com.

A dozen or so years ago, one didn’t envision Tony La Russa and Scott Rolen, who certainly had their differences here as the Cardinals were winning championships in that decade,  sitting near each other on the stage as a Cardinals Hall of Famer and new Cardinals Hall of Famer.

Not that La Russa ever lacked in his appreciation of Rolen as a player.

“Scott Rolen would be tied for first for the most amazing athlete I’ve ever seen on a baseball diamond,” said La Russa Saturday before the ceremonies at Ballpark Village honoring Rolen, closer Jason Isringhausen and 1940s star pitcher Mort Cooper.

“Scott was a good-sized guy,” said La Russa. “He could have played in the NBA. He could have played in the NFL, size-wise.

“I’m not sure about that NBA,” said Rolen later.

“Scott was as good a defensive third baseman that the game has ever seen,” La Russa said. “He made every play. He was an outstanding base runner with quickness and he could steal bases. He could go first to third, first to home. He was the high average hitter that could produce in big situations and hit for power.

“And he was a force in the clubhouse during those years. When you have those really good years, there’s something special that goes on in the clubhouse among the players. The manager and coaches can help set it up but it really becomes a strength when you have team leaders. Scott was a big part of it.”

But after Rolen first suffered a left shoulder injury during the 2002 division series when Arizona base runner Alex Cintron plowed into him, La Russa and Rolen would clash over whether Rolen was able to play on a given day. Sometimes, La Russa said he didn’t think so, including Game 2 of the National League Championship Series in 2006,

“I always felt bad about it,” La Russa. “He really caught a tough break with his shoulder getting hurt. And his shoulder turned into surgery and there were complications. I know _ and the trainers know _ we did everything possible to support him.

“But he was critical of the organization and the doctoring and I took the side of I know how good the doctors were.

“Then I made a couple of decisions not to play him, which was exactly the opposite thing what you want to do with Scott.”

The 2006 Cardinals won the World Series, sparked by Rolen. 

“One of the memories I treasure is having him on the team,” said La Russa, “and personally being very disappointed when he caught a bad break like that. I could understand his frustration.”

To ease the tension and frustration, the Cardinals traded Rolen to Toronto in 2008 and the next year Cincinnati general manager Walt Jocketty, who had put together the Cardinals’ powerhouses from 2000-06, traded for Rolen for a second time.

Ultimately, the Reds had to come to St. Louis and Rolen would have to confront Rolen. Early in 2009, Rolen was on the disabled list with a concussion and he was walking near the Cardinals’ clubhouse at Busch Stadiuim toward the visitors. He stopped.

“There was an anxiety situation,” said Rolen Saturday after the ceremony. “I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle it. I wasn't sure how he was going to handle it. That’s not up my alley. I like to know what kind of things are ahead of me.”

What he did next wasn’t planed. “It’s going to happen right now,” said Rolen then.

Clubhouse guard Don Thompson steered Rolen toward the manager’s office. There was a brief conversation and later, when the two teams would play each other those next few years, there would be a wave or nod exchanged.

“I had time to grow up, right?” said Rolen.

Now, they’re both wearing red jackets and will be together next Opening Day presumably.

Isringhausen is the all-time saves leader for the Cardinals at 217 and La Russa realized he had a huge talent albeit one with a sense of madcap in him.

“He was a unique individual,” said La Russa, “but he had a side to him that he was always going to have fun and be in the middle of mischief.

“I always accused him of doing things on purpose just to make me worry or get me upset. I would see him get the first two outs in an inning and put a couple of guys on, just to watch me over there in the dugout going nuts,” said La Russa. “Then he’d get the third out and he’d wink.”

Isringhausen, a native of nearby Brighton, Il., allowed “that seemed to happen a little bit. But I always knew who I could get out and who I would have trouble with. Like I said, in my speech, ‘I’m sure I gave all of you some gray hairs.’ But Tony was the best.

“He put me out there more times than I probably should have been.”

La Russa noted that Isringhausen “loved adventure and and he was fearless. He always reminded me of (Cardinals Hall of Famer) Jim Edmonds. Jim could get distracted. Izzy could get distracted.

“But you don’t really want to take anything away from his personality. The expression I heard that I liked to apply was that you’re not trying to keep them in one lane of the highway. You’re trying to keep them out of the ditch.”

Isringhausen said that “Tony let me be a man. He let me do it by my way. But he’d be there to snap me back in shape if I got too far out of whack.

“But that’s how I dealt with the pressure. You had to have fun. As a closer, you can’t be locked in every single moment of the day. You’ll never make it, because the game is that hard. I had to have my outlet. My outlet was goofing around.”

There were Hall of Famers behind Isringhausen and Rolen Saturday and there were sure Cardinals Hall of Famers in front of them. With a game to play a couple hours later, Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina watched a good part of the ceremony.

“They’re class acts,” said Rolen. “That’s tough for them to do that. That’s a tough environment. You’re preparing for a game, you’re ready to go and you go across the street in your uniform to sit down and be in attendance to honor some former players. . .. it doesn’t surprise me because they’re that type of people.”

Isringhausen, at the post-event press conference, smiled and said, “They were babies when we were here so we always try to tell ourselves that maybe we raised them the right way.”

Rolen called his biggest moment here not winning the World Series in 2006 but defeating the Houston Astros in a tight, seven-game series for the National League pennant in 2004.

Isringhausen got the last out of the seventh game and then Rolen and catcher Mike Matheny found themselves in a scrum near second base, looking toward center field. . “We give a big hug and then it’s calming down,” said Rolen. “At that moment, I said, ‘Bird (Matheny),’ take a look at this. All you see is confetti falling and you hear noise.'”

“We talked about it and said, ‘Let’s not forget that. Let’s remember this second, this moment right here.' He may have forgotten it, but it sticks with me,” said Rolen.

So will Saturday’s ceremony in which both Isringhausen and Rolen broke up briefly when thanking family or friends.

“This speaking stuff is not what I like to do,” said Isringhausen.

“Then you’re letting yourselves go in front of everybody. We’re supposed to be these macho guys and the next thing you know you’re crying in front of 2,000 people.”

Master of ceremonies Dan McLaughlin relayed a message from Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, who is being treated for pancreatic cancer in Omaha, Neb., that Gibson planned to be here for next year's opening day with the other Cardinals Hall of Famers.

Speaking of Gibson, Isringhausen said, "I look forward to wearing this red jacket with you on opening day in 2020." 

Later in the ceremony, Isringhausen told the story of how the Cardinals signed him after the 2001 season. He said he was ready to sign with Texas until Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., called and, said Isringhausen, asked,  “What would it take for you to pitch for your hometown team?”

Isringhausen drew laughter from the audience when he said, “Little did he know that I would have paid him to come here and pitch.”

The closer said he had had 17 surgeries in his career, three of them Tommy John elbow surgery. He thanked the Cardinals’ medical staff for “putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

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