Cardinals outfielderBy Brad Lefton and Jim Baer
Photograph by Scott Rovak
How did you like opening day in St. Louis? At first I was a little embarrassed to parade around the stadium in those convertibles because in Japan that's the kind of thing you do when someone retires. But it really is a neat and distinctive ceremony. Opening day feels more like a festive event in St. Louis than any other place where I've experienced it, in the States or Japan.
What else is different in St. Louis? St. Louis fans really understand baseball, and they watch the game so closely. They rarely boo. They appreciate even the subtle plays; sometimes there's great applause just for moving a runner over. In Japan, the traditional way to watch a game is to cheer constantly to support the team, so there's less cheering directed at individual plays. St. Louis fans appreciate the nuances; they cheer as if they're a teammate on the bench.
Have you ever had toasted ravioli? It's a St. Louis specialty. Oh, you mean those things that are kind of in a pie crust-like exterior but inside they have a spaghetti-like filling? Sure, I've had those before. My 17-month-old son likes them. He can't eat those toasted raviolis whole, but he likes the soft ground-up meat stuff inside. I had no idea they were a St. Louis tradition. But if you want to ask me about tastes that you only find here, why don't you ask me about Ted Drewes? My whole family loves Ted Drewes.
We'll get to Ted Drewes in a minute, but first let me ask you about your years in Japan, when you played on the Orix Blue Wave with Ichiro Suzuki. What kind of outfield was that? We had some great teams during those years (1994-2000). Ichiro and I were drafted in the same year, 1991. When we came up to the big-league team, there were some great veteran players that really helped us out, like Fukura-san, Motonishi-san and Baba-san.
Now you're playing on another team that has a formidable outfield, with Reggie Sanders in left, Jim Edmonds in center and Larry Walker in right, and you occasionally starting or coming in as a late-inning defensive stopgap. How would you compare the two units? Offensively, there's no question the Cardinals' outfield is superior. However, defensively, the Japanese unit—me in left, Motonishi in center and Ichiro in right—wouldn't be outdone.
Really? St. Louis fans will be surprised to hear that, because there are 14 Gold Gloves between Edmonds and Walker. I'm in no way being disrespectful of the Cardinals' outfielders, believe me. I'm trying to educate your readers on an outfield unit they've never seen play together. I promise you, they'd be impressed.
Sounds as if you've spent your career on teams with a strong defensive outfield. Does that make it easier to play with a group in St. Louis that emphasizes defense? The Cardinals' outfield basically revolves around Jimmy [Edmonds'] solid play in center field. Having a guy in the middle who understands the nuances of solid defense really sets the tone for what happens in right and left field because, regardless of which corner outfield position you're playing in, you have to move in tandem with the center fielder. He makes it easy.
What's your overall impression of Tony La Russa? I think he understands people very well. That's an important quality, to carefully observe the people around you and try to understand them. I have great respect for him.
OK, so you've been to Ted Drewes? It's possible I've been there more than any other place in St. Louis. A plain concrete with whipped cream--that's all I need to be happy.
Out of all the tempting creations they have there, you get a plain vanilla concrete? That's the way I like it. I'm a plain kind of guy.
Your uniform number, 99, is a bit of a curiosity. How did you happen to choose it? I was number 6 in Japan, so naturally my first choice was 6. Well, a guy named Stan Musial had that number retired a long time ago in St. Louis. Once I realized that, I thought, 'Well, I could still be connected to my old number 6 simply by turning it upside down.' But Enos Slaughter's number was retired, and it happened to be 9. So it occurred to me that I could use my number 1 from the 2000 Sydney Olympics. They paused and said, 'We're sorry to tell you that Ozzie Smith was number 1, and that's also retired.' I figured the really high numbers must be readily available and said, 'How about two 6s, number 66?' Well, that was Rick Ankiel's number! So I asked about turning 6 upside down twice for 99, and finally I had a uniform number. I think everyone was relieved.