La Russa: Now, itís personal
By Joe Strauss
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
NASHVILLE ē The Cardinals depart Opryland this afternoon with Scott Rolen still their third baseman. If that represents a problem, it belongs only to Rolen, according to his manager.
Speaking at length about a topic that has preoccupied the club this week, Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa on Wednesday laid responsibility for an ongoing impasse between him and the Gold Glove infielder squarely on Rolenís shoulders, insisting that the club should not craft a trade merely to placate Rolen.
"Speaking for me ... thereís absolutely no intention to accommodate Scott," La Russa said. "I mean, thatís not how you run an organization. The idea is to accommodate the St. Louis Cardinals, our team, our responsibility to our players and to the competition. So, no, I donít want to accommodate Scott."
La Russa and Rolen have not spoken at length since midway through last season. The manager sent a lengthy letter to Rolen shortly after the season but the correspondence was poorly received, leading to further erosion of a relationship that became strained in 2003 and has only deteriorated since.
Shortly after La Russa accepted a two-year, $8.5 million extension, Rolen notified general manager John Mozeliak he would relinquish his no-trade leverage if the club would ship him to a contender. The Cardinals approached a deal with the Milwaukee Brewers earlier this week but talks stalled, causing Mozeliak to predict Rolenís return in 2008.
La Russa noted the clubís failed effort to move Rolen, saying, "if that deal isnít one that helps us, (it) should not be made."
La Russaís comments spiced a day in which the Cardinals discussed the availability of several free agent pitchers,
including former AL Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon and Kris Benson. The club also retains interest in former Colorado Rockies pitcher Josh Fogg. Once loathe to add another health question to a staff with Chris Carpenter (elbow) and Mark Mulder (shoulder), the Cardinals now are trying to land a veteran to a short-term deal.
Colon has suffered a torn rotator cuff and elbow irritation since winning the 2005 AL Cy Young Award. Benson required shoulder surgery before appearing last season for the Baltimore Orioles, who declined a option $7.5 million option on the righthander for next season.
The Cardinals also have expressed interest in free agent center fielder Aaron Rowand. The Philadelphia Phillies no longer believe they have a chance to retain him.
To prepare for todayís major-league draft, the Cardinals have considered releasing outfielder So Taguchi after six seasons. The Cardinals declined to assume Taguchiís option for next season but had the chance to go to arbitration with him. Taguchiís agent, Alan Nero, requested his clientís release earlier in the week.
The Cardinals are also believed close to signing former Oakland Aís lefthanded reliever Ron Flores to a minor-league contract. Flores, 28, is the younger brother of Cardinals reliever Randy Flores. The younger Flores made 17 appearances last season for the Aís.
The teamís activity in the Opryland lobby became secondary news to their managerís question-and-answer session, as Wednesday, La Russa publicly challenged Rolen during a interview that followed a managersí luncheon. La Russa described the matter as "very personal."
"Itís very clear that heís unhappy. And Iím making it clear that I donít know why heís unhappy," La Russa said. "I can make a list of 50 respect points that this man has been given by our organization. Itís time for him to give back."
Added La Russa: "Heís got a contract to play, and we need him to play. And heís going to be treated very honestly.
"If he plays hard and he plays as well as he can, he plays. And if he doesnít, he can sit. If he doesnít like it, he can quit."
Wednesdayís remarks seemingly ended any hope for a diplomatic resolution. La Russa believed that possibility vanished when Rolen requested a trade. Mozeliak attempted to broker an uneasy truce without success.
Entering his 30th season as a major-league manager, La Russa said he has never deal with an issue that has baffled him so.
"Iíve said I was mystified, which I am. Iíve been managing a long time. I canít remember ever being this bothered this much by any situation with any player," La Russa said.
La Russa polled his clubhouse during the seasonís final two weeks to gauge support for his return. Rolen was the only dissenter, the manager said. Rolen, who has three years remaining on a contract extension signed in September 2002, has not publicly discussed the matter since leaving the club in September following shoulder surgery. However, Rolen has made clear to associates his frustration with La Russaís handling of several matters, including his ongoing shoulder issues and what he perceives as double standards within the clubhouse.
La Russa said he does not know first-hand of any issue other than the handling of Rolenís damaged shoulder in 2005, when the Cardinals attempted to have the player rehabilitate from injury and arthroscopic surgery. When Rolenís recovery stalled, a Cincinnati orthopedist offered a more serious second opinion. Dr. Tim Kremchek, the Cincinnati Redsí medical supervisor, performed reconstructive surgery on the shoulder after Rolenís agents, Sam and Seth Levinson, threatened legal action in order to gain the clubís consent. Rolen prohibited a Cardinals team doctor from assisting during the procedure.
Kremchek also performed a clean-up procedure on the shoulder this Sept. 11.
"I know he had that first surgery by that Cincinnati doctor. Now suppose our guy had done it and he had to go back for a second surgery?" La Russa said. "Scott hasnít been critical of the Cincinnati doctor. He just went in and did it, like nothing. If our guy had had to go back for a second surgery, based on his comments about the way it was handled, (the doctor) would have been crucified."
La Russa insists the Cardinals are a much better team with a healthy Rolen in the lineup because of support he provides No. 3 hitter Albert Pujols. However, Wednesdayís comments would seem to further complicate any further co-existence.
La Russa laid responsibility for making the situation work on Rolen.
"Based on what Iíve seen somewhere, I think (Rolen is) strong-minded enough that I donít see his opinion changing on a personal basis. And itís gotten to the point where I donít care," La Russa said.
La Russa suggested that Rolenís status as a player and as a teammate has "slipped," an assertion he also made in his letter to the player, according to a source familiar with it. "He can play mad every day if he wants to. Thatís OK," La Russa said.
That possibility may increase, as Mozeliak admitted difficulty stoking the marketplace.
The Cardinals have approached several teams about Rolen but been frustrated in their attempts to acquire multiple players for him. The Brewers apparently drew the line at pitcher Chris Capuano. The Los Angeles Dodgers have an interest but were described by one team official Wednesday as "background noise."