St. Louis Cardinals: Wanted — Scrappy, lovable scrub infielder
Forget pitching and hitting —what the St. Louis Cardinals really need is a little part-timer the fans can love. Based on history, who’s a good candidate for the scrappy role?
The St. Louis Cardinals have an opening for a small, scrappy reserve infielder to serve as a fan favorite, something they’ve had nearly every year of this century. Qualifications: Must be able to play second base, third, and shortstop in a pinch. Constant hustle, great attitude. Willing to sit for long stretches. Small stature preferred. Preference given to Caucasians with nicknames like “Stubby” or “Skip.”
You know the type. Stubby Clapp and Skip Schumaker had the right monikers, and Joe McEwing, a .251 career batter, packed the delightfully ironic nickname of “Super Joe.” The rest of the roll call includes Tom Lawless, Rex Hudler, Bo Hart, Daniel Descalso, Nick Punto, and Greg Garcia.
Redbird faithful are by no means the only fans to cherish their short-of-stature/short-of-talent infield scrubs. The Oakland A’s of 1981 briefly and memorably employed a hustling, bungling 5-8 infielder named “Shooty Babitt” who charmed fans and appalled his manager, Billy Martin, who said, “If you ever see Shooty Babitt play second base for me again, I want you to Shooty me.”
White Sox rooters of the late ’50s adored 5-9, 165-pound Sammy Esposito, a .207 career hitter who managed to last a full decade as a backup with the South Siders. Confronted by a berserk spectator after a 1960 game, Esposito aimed a punch at his antagonist. And missed. Naturally.
But St. Louis Cardinals followers take to their little part-timers more gleefully than other fan bases. And the promotions department exploits that affection. Case in point: Hart, who played a total of 88 games for St. Louis in 2003-04, is getting a bobblehead night on July 21.
Last year Hudler, who hit .253 as a part-time Cards infielder from 1990-92, got a bobblehead night. In 2017, the club had a Tom Lawless mini-bobblehead night. Lawless hit .187 with one regular-season home run in four St. Louis seasons, but he did smack an unforgettable 1987 World Series blast — with an equally unforgettable bat flip — that old-time fans will never forget.
One swing. That’s all it took for fans to fall in love with Lawless.
A quarter-century later, a pair of light-hitting middle infielders won eternal affection with back-to-back blows that broke the back of the Washington Nationals. Trailing 7-5 with two outs in the ninth inning of the deciding Game 5 of 2012 NLDS, Daniel Descalso (.227 regular-season BA) smacked a bases-loaded single to tie the game. Then Pete Kozma singled in two more runs.
The light-hitting middle infielders combined for five hits in 10 at-bats with a homer, double, and five RBI that evening. The rest of the Cards were 4 for 26 with four RBI.
So why no Descalso and Kozma bobblehead nights? Don’t worry. There’s time.
What is it about little dudes that warms the cockles of St. Louis hearts? Here’s a theory: We might admire Stan the Man and Albert Pujols, but we can’t relate to them. Most of us have never been the star of a team, even a Little League or neighborhood team. But we can see ourselves as that fella who gets a chance, tries his best, and occasionally comes through with a big play.
Redbird fans’ intense fondness for part-time middle infielders may have started with the Rex Hudler days of 1990-92. Like Stubby and Skip, Hudler had a name that suggested a precious puppy — “Here, Rex! Roll over, Rex!” Appropriately, teammates called him “Wonder Dog.” The only flaw: Hudler was a little too tall (6-1, 180) to fit the little-guy infielder mold .
Near the end of the decade, “Super Joe” McEwing arrived. A 5-10, 170-pounder, McEwing was “a fan favorite for his ‘energy and hustle’ and ability to play every position,” wrote vivaelbirdos.com. Super Joe personified the Scrappy Middle Infielder, defined by minorleagueball.com as the player who is “not toolsy but he gets the job done, hustles, and holds a starting job for longer than anyone expects … also known as the Gritty Infielder with Heart.”
A 2000 trade sent Super Joe to the Mets and opened a scrapper-dude opening that Stubby Clapp (5-8, 175) tried to fill. Clapp played just 23 games for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2001, straddling the Mendoza Line with a .200 average, but he flourished in his second act as a minor-league manager and major-league coach. In 2010, Clapp received his bobblehead night — with the Louisville Redbirds.
“Rex Hudler, Stubby Clapp … names you might not know, but they were fan favorites for their hustle and productivity,” Paul Pabst wrote in a 2003 Sports Illustrated piece, comparing those two to Bo Hart, the newest Redbird infield temp.
A 5-11, 170-pounder, Hart won the hearts of Cardinals Nation with his out-of-nowhere story — he’d hit just .249 in AA in 2002, worked in a department store during the off-season, and only got promoted after injuries to big-leaguers Fernando Vina and Miguel Cairo. Hart hit a competent .277 in 77 2003 games, then slipped to .154 in 11 ’04 games. Then he vanished.
Debuting in 2005, Skip Schumaker (5-10, 185) threatened his scrub-infielder status by amassing 500-plus at-bats from 2008-10, topping the .300 mark from ’07-’09, and playing a lot of outfield. He settled into a part-time role in 2011-12, and though he hit well enough (.283 and .276), he is best remembered as the player at the plate when the Rally Squirrel (a sciurus carolinensis, if you insist on the Latin for “eastern gray squirrel”) made his appearance during the Oct. 5, 2011, NLDS game vs. the Phillies.
Schumaker never got a bobblehead day (although you can apparently buy one right here), but he did have his right foot appear on the Rally Squirrel’s 2012 Topps baseball card. One can imagine Skip quoting Bill Murray’s Caddyshack character: “So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.”
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Descalso overlapped with Schumaker, and another alliterative lefty-swinging middle-infielder, Greg Garcia, appeared in 2014.
At 6-0, 190, Garcia, was a little large for the little-guy role, and left after the 2018 season, leaving the Birds short on short-statured infield backups. Rookie Tommy Edman (5-10, 180) tried to fill the breach, but starting 50 games in August and September/October superseded his reserve role, plus his .304 BA and .850 OPS were far too gaudy for a prospective infield backup. He’s going to have to step down his game if he wants to be the next Bo Hart.
Still, if no one answers the ad, the role of lovable off-the-bench gamer is Edman’s to lose. He’s got the small stature, he hustles, he seems like a likable guy, and some are predicting a sophomore slump that would keep him out of the regular lineup. All he needs to do is play hard and well — but not too too well. Max Schrock had a great spring and could be another name to watch in this race.
Then it’s just a matter of waiting, 10 or 20 years, for his bobblehead day.