The predictions of doom and gloom started last fall, when they traded Willie McGee for some unknown quantities. Then there were the free-agent departures of Terry Pendleton and Vince Coleman. The Cardinals had given up, people said. They were interested in the bottom dollar, not the bottom line. Throw in a spring-training injury to staff ace Joe Magrane, and the happy days at Busch Stadium looked to be history.
Eight weeks into the season, the Cardinals have proved to be a fitting success story, a team that works hard, plays hard and, so far under manager Joe Torre, wins more often than it loses.
And you know what? They're not a bit surprised.
"Everybody expected us to be bad," catcher Tom Pagnozzi said last week. "From the first day of spring training, Joe told us "Let them talk.' We didn't think we were going to be that bad. We've got the players. Stranger things have happened. Everyone can be surprised, but no one in here is."
Contributions have poured in. The New Kids outfield of rookies Bernard Gilkey and Ray Lankford and Felix Jose (part of the McGee trade) has been exciting. Todd Zeile has developed into a solid third baseman. The pitchers have picked up the slack in Magrane's absence. The team batting average is second in the league. Lee Smith has been overpowering out of the bullpen. Ozzie Smith hasn't made an error at shortstop and is hitting .325.
"This isn't something that just started," Gilkey said. "It began early, in spring training. We developed an attitude, and it's carried on. We just play hard. That's all there is to it."
Draft daze: Baseball's annual draft begins Monday, without the hype of the NBA and NFL selection meetings, but newsworthy nonetheless. For one thing, the New York Yankees have the No.
1 choice for the first time since 1967 (Ron Blomberg). And it's only the second time in 12 years they even have a first-round pick, the result of losing picks as compensation for free-agent signings. Their likely choice Monday: North Carolina prep pitcher Brien Taylor or Arizona State outfielder Mike Kelly.
Mets mess: The Mets are more of a puzzle every day. They have rightfielder Hubie Brooks taking secret pregame practice at first base. They trade a 32-year-old reserve infielder who hardly ever plays, Tim Teufel, for a 35-year-old reserve infielder who hardly ever plays, Garry Templeton. They still can't find a position for Gregg Jefferies. And the whispers persist they may make a trade with Pittsburgh, their top division rival, swapping Jefferies and first baseman Dave Magadan for rightfielder Bobby Bonilla.
Positioning: Oakland centerfielder Dave Henderson found himself in a most unusual position Wednesday _ playing second base for the final inning of an 8-3 loss. Henderson, who didn't field a ball, had never played second before and isn't looking forward to another chance. "Everything looked too close in there," Henderson said. "I played shortstop way back when you could play anything you wanted if you were the best player (high school in the mid-1970s). I was hoping if they did hit it at me it was hard. I didn't want a slow roller where you have to think." The Astros, meanwhile, started shortstop Rafael Ramirez at second base for the first time in his career, an effort to showcase him for a possible trade to Los Angeles.
Further positioning: The Yankees quickly gave up on the idea of moving Steve Sax to third to make way for second-base phenom Pat Kelly, so they moved Sax back to second and Kelly to third. Did the 23-year-old Kelly mind much? "He told me it was fine with him," manager Stump Merrill said. "He said he'd shine shoes or mop the floors if that's what we wanted him to do. Anything to stay in major leagues."
Streaky: The Mariners _ so far _ have had winning streaks of eight, six and six games, and losing streaks of six, five and seven. "We've got to get over the streak attitude on this team," said manager Jim Lefebvre.
Roger, over and out: Giants president Al Rosen was not too pleased with the San Francisco media making a big deal of manager Roger Craig's admitted health concerns. "If you were 12 and 28, you'd feel pain too," Rosen said. "After a loss, he looks like death warmed over. I get pains all over too. I think people are titillated by other people's pain. People like to read about the Kennedys. That's why stuff like that gets played up."
Heads up: The Texas Rangers' win streak ended at 14 games Tuesday night, and outfielder Ruben Sierra shaved his head. A connection? "My head was hot," Sierra said.
Rough times: In his last three starts, Mets ace Dwight Gooden has given up 31 hits and 16 earned runs in 18 innings. "Obviously, something's wrong," Gooden said. "I know I don't feel comfortable, and my release point is off. Physically I feel great, but something's bothering me when I'm on the rubber."
They said it: Dodgers catcher Mike Scioscia, on Orel Hershiser's emotional return to the mound: "It's the first time I ever started a game with a pitcher out there crying on the mound." Baltimore's Dwight Evans, the former Red Sox, on his return to Fenway Park: "I don't even know how to get to the visitors' clubhouse."
Miscellany: The new Blue Jays came into the weekend with 27 home runs compared with 58 at this time last year. San Francisco's Robby Thompson hit just .228 in the leadoff spot and is batting .306 since moving down in the order. Houston's Luis Gonzalez of Tampa has just 36 hits in 155 at-bats, but 21 were for extra bases, and he has 26 RBI.
CARDINALS: NEW VS. OLD
The St. Louis Cardinals have enjoyed a successful start to the 1991 season, in large part due to the contributions by the young, lower-paid players who replaced their former stars. Here's a brief comparison (statistics through Friday) at a few key positions:
Avg. RBI HR Salary
Vince Coleman .265 11 0 $3,112,500
Bernard Gilkey .230 10 3 $125,000
Willie McGee .311 14 3 $3,562,500
Ray Lankford .247 13 0 $125,000
Tom Brunansky .233 36 9 $2,500,000
Felix Jose .339 25 2 $160,000
1990 third baseman
Terry Pendleton .352 19 5 $1,750,000
1991 third baseman
Todd Zeile .311 20 2 $160,000
_ Source: Times research