While most of the rest of the world is busy throwing indictments towards the Cardinals medical staff, and even some at Rafael Furcal himself for electing not to have off season surgery, I’d like to take a minute to revisit why, and how, he ended up wearing the Birds on the Bat, and reminisce about a couple of plays that will forever exemplify what he meant to this franchise.
The Cards headed into 2011 with the idea that Ryan Theriot would be able to adequately man the shortstop position, essentially trying the old ploy of sacrificing defense for offense. What transpired with Theriot at shortstop was a defensive performance that was akin to a train wreck. In 91 games played, Theriot managed to commit 17 errors. Things had gotten so rough defensively that then manager Tony La Russa had no other choice but to remove him from playing shortstop. Further compounding the substandard defensive play was the fact that Theriot’s offensive numbers went into a deep slide as well, culminating in a 2-38 slump in the week prior to the eventual trade for his replacement. Armed with the knowledge that this could potentially be the last run with Albert Pujols as part of the roster, GM John Mozeliak made a deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers to bring in a clear defensive upgrade in the form of Rafael Furcal. This move cost the Cardinals a solid, power prospect by the name of Alex Castellanos. Since becoming part of the Dodgers organization, Castellanos has been named a Topps Double-A All Star, a Topps Triple-A All Star, and has been ranked as the 13th best prospect in their organization by mlb.com prior to the 2012 season. Obviously, to get a player of Furcal’s stature the Cardinals had to give a potential future asset up in return which is always a tough pill to swallow. However, this trade, coupled with another move to upgrade the pitching staff, ultimately led the Cardinals to their 11th World Series trophy as Furcal solidified the infield, and provided some offense at the top of the order as well.
During the run up to the World Series title there are 2 plays, 1 defensive and 1 offensive, which will forever stick out in my mind when the name Rafael Furcal is mentioned. The first happened during a regular season game in August against the suddenly much despised Milwaukee Brewers. With the Cardinals and Brewers tied 7-7 in the bottom of the 9th with 2 out and men on 1st and 2nd, Felipe Lopez hit a looping fly ball into left field. Furcal turned his back to home and put his all behind his sprint in an attempt to chase down the potential game winner. As the ball came down on a sure path to fall in front of the left fielder, Rafael made a backhanded racing grab with his back completely facing home plate. It was maximum defensive effort, and an exhibition of his desire purely to make a play to survive to play another inning. The Cardinals went on to win 8-7 in 11 innings, killing the Brewers win streak at 7 games, and pulling the Cards within 2 and ½ games in the division standings. The second play came in the first at bat of Game 5 of the NLDS against the Phillies. In a win or go home game which will forever be defined by the magnificent pitching duel between Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay, Furcal smoked a 2-1 pitch to deep right center and legged out a triple to set the early tone that the Cards were not to be denied on that night. On the next at bat, Skip Schumakerfought off a ton of pitches, and ultimately roped a double to drive in Furcal for the only run of the game that propelled the Redbirds to the NLCS. The rest, as they say, is history.
Farewell, Rafael. No one can ever question your desire, or the effort you exerted, to make the Cardinals better. Thanks for the contributions, and thanks for memories that will last a lifetime.