The latest blow to the Cardinals' once-pristine image -- which has rapidly developed scuff marks since the team won the World Series in 2006 -- came Wednesday, when the club released utility player Scott Spiezio after learning a warrant for his arrest had been issued in Irvine, Calif. Spiezio has been charged with six misdemeanors, including driving under the influence and aggravated assault, resulting from an incident on Dec. 30, 2007.
Spiezio left the Cardinals last August to receive treatment for alcohol and drug abuse. After what seemed like a remarkably short rehabilitation period, Spiezio returned to the lineup - and a standing ovation from the locals - on Sept. 14. He saw no need to inform the Cardinals of the December incident.
'I think we've made it clear we expect our players to adhere to a certain standard,' general manager John Mozeliak told reporters. 'Every case is to be judged individually, but I want to make it understood that we take these matters very seriously.'
This was the Cardinals' third off-the-field incident involving alcohol in less than a year.
On March 22, 2007, manager Tony La Russa was picked up in Palm Beach, Fla., County on suspicion of driving under the influence. He pleaded guilty in November and was ordered to pay a fine and perform community service in addition to losing his driving privileges in Florida for six months.
Neither Major League Baseball nor the Cardinals penalized La Russa for his actions, and he was received as the conquering hero who won the World Series. La Russa received a standing ovation from the crowd at Jupiter, Fla., when he managed his first spring-training game after the arrest.
Five weeks later, Cardinals reliever Josh Hancock died after driving head-on into a tow truck on a St. Louis highway. Hancock's blood-alcohol content was 0.157, nearly twice the legal limit. La Russa has angrily rejected the notion that the leniency shown him played a role in Hancock's actions and he threatened to use a fungo bat on reporters whom he judged guilty of 'insincerity.'
The Cardinals have under contract five players who were named in the Mitchell Report. The club picked up three of the players - third baseman Troy Glaus, outfielder Juan Gonzalez and lefthander Ron Villone - after the report was issued.
The club also labors under the specter of what Mark McGwire did or did not do on the way to hitting a then-record 70 homers in 1998. La Russa continues to defend the phantom McGwire against allegations that he used performance-enhancing substances.
Put the various elements together, and an unflattering portrait emerges. The Cardinals flirt with the image of an out-of-control team that realizes a blindly loyal fan base will accept whatever the club does and acts accordingly.
That is not completely accurate. La Russa agonized over his failing. The clubhouse is not party central. The Cardinals have players who go about their job the right way, although devoted enablers on the outside can cause temptation. Being a Cardinal brings perks that do not come to players with other teams.
Damage has been done to a proud franchise. The Cardinals' goal this season should be regaining lost prestige and standing. The longer they go without it, the harder it will be to recover. They took a promising first step by dumping Spiezio as quickly as possible, but more must be done.
'We owe it to each other to be objective when dealing with front-office people who need help,' team president Mark Lamping told reporters. 'But we'll go only so far. It's not unlimited. It's a two-way street.'
� The Giants will regret re-signing shortstop Omar Vizquel during the offseason. He is out at least a month after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. That is a bad sign for a 40-year-old middle infielder coming off a terrible offensive season. Vizquel had the lowest OPS (.621) among full-time National Leaguers last season.
� Mariners manager John McLaren learned from a mistake and will split up lefthanders Erik Bedard and Jarrod Washburn in the rotation. Washburn followed lefthander Horacio Ramirez last season, to disastrous results. When he faced the same team a day after Ramirez, Washburn was 1-8 with a 5.52 ERA. In all other starts, he was 9-7 with a 3.76 ERA. McLaren's tentative plan calls for righthander Miguel Batista to be the fifth starter, which means the Mariners' leading winner last season could be skipped because of off-days.
� The Red Sox's low-risk signing of righthander Bartolo Colon could impact the handling of righthander Clay Buchholz. If Colon shows he can be effective with a 90-mph fastball, the Red Sox can limit Buchholz's innings by having him open the season at Triple-A. Buchholz pitched a career-high 148 innings overall last season. The Red Sox want him to take an intermediate step before being asked to handle 200-plus innings.
� Colorado has shortstops to deal. The Rockies' system is deep at the position, with 20-year-old Hector Gomez topping the group. Incumbent starter Troy Tulowitzki is signed to a long-term deal at age 23, so Gomez and the others - notably Jonathan Herrera and Christopher Nelson -- will eventually be blocked. The Rockies could use them in trades to fill other needs.
Gerry Fraley, a free-lance baseball writer based in St. Louis, is a regular contributor to Sporting News.