After pursuing Ryne Sandberg to be their second baseman in 1997, the Cardinals instead chose Delino DeShields soon after it seemed the free agent had agreed to a deal with the Reds.
DeShields, motivated to rebuild a career that had stalled during a three-year stint with the Dodgers, was a standout for a dismal 1997 Cardinals club. He provided the spark at the top of the batting order that the Cardinals had been seeking.
On Nov. 20, 1996, the Cardinals signed DeShields, 27, to a one-year contract, with a club option for a second season. It was a shrewd signing.
Courting a Cub
In 1996, though the Cardinals won the National League Central Division title, their primary second baseman, Luis Alicea, committed the most errors (24) at that position in the NL and batted .258.
When Alicea became a free agent in October 1996, the Cardinals decided to find another second baseman.
They initially focused on Sandberg, the longtime Cubs standout who, like Alicea, had become a free agent.
Sandberg, 37, produced 25 home runs and 92 RBI for the 1996 Cubs. He never had played in a World Series, though, and he was open to the possibility of signing with a contender.
“It’s a very, very strong interest of Sandberg’s to engage in dialogue with the Cardinals,” Jim Turner, Sandberg’s agent, told Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in November 1996. “If they’re interested in talking, we are, too.”
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa told Barry Rozner of the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill., “Of course we’d be interested in Ryne Sandberg. I’m surprised he’s still available, but I’m sure we’ll talk to him.”
Said Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty of Sandberg, “That’s an interesting name for us … That would be an interesting idea for our club.”
Seeking right fit
The Cardinals also were talking with the Pirates about a trade for Jeff King, who played second base as well as third and first. King produced 30 home runs and 111 RBI for the 1996 Pirates.
Eventually, the Cardinals ruled out both Sandberg and King. Sandberg wanted a guaranteed two-year contract, Hummel reported, and the Cardinals were leery of doing that deal for a player in his late 30s. The asking price for King was deemed too steep by the Cardinals.
(Sandberg re-signed with the Cubs and King was traded to the Royals.)
Instead of a power hitter, the Cardinals decided to pursue a second baseman who could bat leadoff. They turned their attention to DeShields.
A free agent, DeShields had struggled with the Dodgers after beginning his career impressively with the Expos. In four years (1990-93) with the Expos, DeShields hit .277 with an on-base percentage of .367. In three years (1994-96) with the Dodgers, DeShields hit .241 with an on-base percentage of .326.
In 1996, DeShields slumped to .224 and had almost as many strikeouts (124) as hits (130). He did have 48 stolen bases, though. He also was a friend of Cardinals shortstop Royce Clayton. Some thought DeShields would fit well in St. Louis.
“He’s a talented player who just hasn’t played up to his potential,” Jocketty said.
The pursuit of DeShields took a twist on Nov. 14, 1996, when the Dayton Daily News and the Los Angeles Times reported that the free agent had agreed to a two-year contract with the Reds. The newspapers said the Reds planned to trade second baseman Bret Boone to the Padres to open a spot for DeShields. The Associated Press picked up the reports and the story made national news.
Adam Katz, agent for DeShields, quickly refuted the stories.
“Cincinnati will not even be on our list to consider until Bret Boone is gone,” Katz told Bob Queenan of The Cincinnati Post. “We won’t talk to any club unless there is a job for Delino.”
Katz told Hummel, “Nothing fell apart. It was irresponsible journalism. There never was a deal with Cincinnati.”
The Reds wanted pitchers Scott Sanders and Dustin Hermanson from the Padres for Boone. Kevin Towers, Padres general manager, told The Cincinnati Post he would deal one, but not both, of the pitchers for Boone.
With the Reds and Padres unable to work a deal _ Boone would be traded by the Reds to the Braves in November 1998 _ the Cardinals again had a path to DeShields.
St. Louis success
DeShields agreed to a Cardinals contract that paid him $1.5 million in 1997. That was about half of what DeShields earned with the 1996 Dodgers.
A grateful DeShields said he chose the Cardinals because “there is a good group of guys on the team and it’s a good situation. I have a lot of respect for guys like (Tom) Pagnozzi, Ray (Lankford) and Brian (Jordan).”
Said Pagnozzi, the Cardinals’ catcher: “Getting out of L.A. is going to have a big impact on him … He’s a perfect fit for the Cardinals.”
Jocketty said some of DeShields’ problems in Los Angeles stemmed from his working relationship with Tommy Lasorda, who was Dodgers manager until replaced by Bill Russell in June 1996. DeShields, who said he played with a damaged hip in 1996, was benched for part of the season by Russell.
“He didn’t like the situation in L.A.,” Jocketty said of DeShields. “He didn’t like Tommy. This will be a much better environment for him … Tony (La Russa) is very good at working with players like this and getting the most out of them.”
Igniting the offense
DeShields delivered for the Cardinals. He led the NL in triples (14) in 1997 and he was the Cardinals leader in hits (169), stolen bases (55) and multi-hit games (50). He batted .295 and had an on-base percentage of .357. His 71-point improvement in batting average was the greatest gain among NL players from 1996 to 1997.
The 1997 Cardinals, however, finished 73-89.
In 1998, DeShields hit .290 with 26 stolen bases and an on-base percentage of .371 in 117 games for the Cardinals. After that season, he became a free agent and signed with the Orioles. Joe McEwing was the Cardinals’ primary second baseman in 1999.
Previously: How Luis Alicea got encore with Cardinals