Earlier this week, the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees, two of baseball’s Blue Bloods, were hemorrhaging. They are the two franchises who have gone the longest without a losing season but as the week began, they found themselves in last place in their respective divisions, 9 ½ and 10 games out of first place.
The Cardinals last had a losing season in 2007 at 78-84, a run of 15 winning seasons. The Yankees last had a losing year in 1992 at 76-86, a run of 30 seasons.
Their plights aren’t quite the same now. The Yankees, though trailing Tampa Bay, Baltimore, Toronto and Boston in the stacked American League Eastern Division, are four games over .500 after the Welcome Wagon Oakland A’s came to the Bronx for a three-game sweep as MVP Aaron Judge rejoined New York’s lineup.
The Cardinals, residing in the dreadful National League Central, began the week at 10-24 before rattling off two wins at the Chicago Cubs and one at home against Detroit for their first three-game winning streak of the season. It had been some 100 years since it took them that long.
But one other thing these stalwart franchises have in common is that they both most recently finished last in the same season, 1990, when the Cardinals, then in the NL East, were 70-92 and the Yankees 76-86 in the AL East.
The Yankees really haven’t been that bad, although their rotation without Gerrit Cole (5-0) hasn’t done much. The Cardinals went to the bottom like an anvil and somehow their manager and management made it look like they thought it was mostly new $87.5 million catcher Willson Contreras’ fault.
In one dizzying stretch last weekend, manager Oliver Marmol said Contreras would be used as an outfielder in addition to designated hitter instead of catching nearly early day. A day later, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said that outfield was not part of the process but that the staff wanted Contreras to be indoctrinated more in the Cardinals’ pitching philosophy.
To his credit, Contreras took this with a stiff upper lip and, in his first game back at Wrigley Field since signing with St. Louis, starred as the DH with two RBIs and a run scored.
But he did also say, “I am the catcher of this organization.”
Contreras did admit some initial frustration with St. Louis decision, waffling though it might have been. He broke a couple of bats in the dugout during Sunday’s game.
He said he also felt better after a postgame talk with staff aces Adam Wainwright and Jack Flaherty. And, soon, Contreras figures to be the No. 1 catcher again, with Andrew Knizner returning to his backup role, although Knizner’s bat has come around with regular use.
Now . . . will the Cardinals return to the playoffs, or even the Yankees? The Cardinals never have made the postseason when they were 14 games under .500 at any point during the season.
They haven’t been that far in arrears of the break-even mark since the final game of the 1997 season when they were 73-89.
Nobody much noticed, though. That was the year that St. Louis made a July 31 trade for an Oakland slugger. Mark McGwire hit 24 home runs in 51 games as manager Tony La Russa slipped under the radar the novelty of the pitcher hitting eighth in the final two months of the season while McGwire was hitting all those homers.
The Cardinals almost made the playoffs in 1973 after being 12-24 on May 20. They finished second, 1½ games behind the New York Mets. But this hardly was a sprint to the finish. The Mets were first at 82-79 and the Cardinals second at 81-81.
Rick Hummel, who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame for baseball writing, is the baseball columnist for Sportsnaut.