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Gregg Olson wanted to be a closer again in the major leagues and figured the Cardinals would give him a chance.

Twenty-five years ago, on Jan. 23, 1996, Olson, a free agent, signed a minor-league contract with the Cardinals for $600,000.

The Cardinals were seeking a closer to replace Tom Henke, who retired. They invited Olson to their major-league spring training camp, providing him an opportunity to make the team.

Olson, the relief ace of the Orioles before injuring his right elbow, said he thought he was being brought in to compete for the closer’s role.

Rookie sensation

Born and raised in Nebraska, Olson attended Auburn and was a teammate of Frank Thomas and Bo Jackson as a freshman.

A right-hander, Olson was chosen by the Orioles as the fourth pick in the first round of the 1988 amateur draft. Selected ahead of him were Andy Benes (Padres), Mark Lewis (Indians) and Steve Avery (Braves).

In 1989, Olson received the American League Rookie of the Year Award. Tom Gordon of the Royals was second in the balloting and Ken Griffey Jr. of the Mariners was third. Olson was 5-2 with 27 saves and a 1.69 ERA for the 1989 Orioles. In 85 innings pitched, he struck out 90 and allowed 57 hits.

Olson had more than 30 saves for the Orioles three years in a row (1990-92). Tony La Russa, who managed the Athletics then and who chose Olson for the 1990 all-star team, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “He’s got an excellent fastball. You can always tell how good it is because he’s able to pitch up in the strike zone without getting hurt.”

Arm woes

In 1993, Olson was having another stellar season, with 29 saves and a 1.60 ERA, when he went on the disabled list Aug. 9 because of a ligament tear in his right elbow. “I went from (throwing) 90 mph to 82 in a heartbeat,” Olson said to the Post-Dispatch.

He rejected reconstructive surgery because he didn’t want to sit out a year.

Granted free agency in December 1993, Olson signed with the Braves and opened the 1994 season in the minors. He was called up to the Braves in May. Olson made 16 appearances for them and had a 9.20 ERA when the season was halted in August by the players’ strike.

A free agent again, Olson signed with the Indians in March 1995. He began the season in the minors and had 13 saves in 18 appearances. Olson got called up to the Indians in June and was shipped to the Royals in July.

Olson pitched well for the Royals in the last two months of the 1995 season. “He’s got a drop-dead curveball and he’s getting it over,” Royals manager Bob Boone told The Sporting News.

The Royals’ closer, Jeff Montgomery, was eligible to become a free agent after the season and Olson ‘”figured to be a possible replacement” if Montgomery departed, the Kansas City Star reported.

Olson got a scare in a game against the Indians on Sept. 29 when he experienced pain in his right elbow, but medical tests showed muscle irritation, no ligament damage, according to Royals officials.

In 20 appearances for the 1995 Royals, Olson was 3-3 with three saves and a 3.26 ERA.

Montgomery and Olson became free agents, but Montgomery opted to re-sign with the Royals. General manager Herk Robinson said Olson “would love to pitch here,” the Kansas City Star reported, but wanted to be a closer. With Montgomery returning, Olson sought alternatives.

Insurance policy

A month before the start of spring training in 1996, the Cardinals’ top candidates for the closer role were T.J. Mathews and John Frascatore. The Cardinals were hoping to acquire closer Dennis Eckersley from the Athletics. They signed Olson as insurance in case Eckersley wasn’t available.

With Olson, Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty told the Post-Dispatch, “We have a proven closer who not too long ago was considered one of the game’s top relievers.”

Regarding Olson’s elbow trouble, Jocketty said, “He is starting to come back. By midseason or sooner he might be pretty reliable.”

Jeff Moorad, Olson’s agent, said of the Cardinals’ move, “This is a chance to catch lightning in a bottle. This type of bargain basement shopping is why Walt Jocketty is so highly regarded.”

Three weeks after they signed Olson, the Cardinals acquired Eckersley and named him the closer. The deal reunited Eckersley with manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan, who were in their first season with the Cardinals after leaving the Athletics.

Olson was stung. He told the Post-Dispatch he signed with the Cardinals because he wanted to be the closer.

“I was excited about the opportunity, and I still am, but I thought I was stealing a great opportunity,” Olson said. “I’m not demanding anything, but ultimately I’d like to close. I want to get back where I walk off the mound and the team walks off with me.”

La Russa indicated Olson, 29, might be used to close games when Eckersley, 41, wasn’t available to pitch.

“It’s very helpful to have more than one guy who can pitch because Eckersley is not quite as durable as he was a half-dozen years ago,” La Russa said.

Duncan said of Olson, “If he’s healthy, he’ll surprise a lot of people in camp.”

On the move

Soon after, on Feb. 22, the Post-Dispatch reported Olson “has to cut back drills because of a strained muscle in his forearm.”

Olson was sidelined for more than two weeks before he was ready to pitch in exhibition games. He struggled to throw his curveball for strikes.

“There are about three guys around who can get by throwing all fastballs, and I’m not one of them,” Olson told The Sporting News.

On March 24, Olson was assigned to the minor-league camp. The Cardinals allowed him to contact other clubs before he had to report to Louisville. The Cardinals released him when the Reds showed interest.

Olson began the 1996 season with a Reds farm club and earned four saves in seven games. The Reds traded him to the Tigers. In 43 games for the 1996 Tigers, Olson was 3-0 with eight saves and a 5.02 ERA.

On Aug. 26, 1996, the Astros, who were challenging the Cardinals in the National League Central Division, acquired Olson from the Tigers.

A week later, on Sept. 4, the Astros were in St. Louis to play the Cardinals, with first place at stake. The Cardinals led the second-place Astros by a half-game in the standings.

In the seventh inning, with the Cardinals ahead, 5-1, Olson relieved Donne Wall. Royce Clayton singled, stole second, advanced to third on Ray Lankford’s flyout and scored on Olson’s wild pitch. The run gave the Cardinals a 6-1 lead and provided a valuable cushion. The Astros rallied against Eckersley but fell short, losing 6-4 and dropping 1.5 games behind the Cardinals. Boxscore

The Cardinals went on to become division champions. Olson went on to pitch for the Twins, Royals again, and Diamondbacks before finishing with the Dodgers in 2001. He had 30 saves for the 1998 Diamondbacks, an expansion team.

In 14 years in the majors, Olson had 40 wins and 217 saves.

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Nick Punto fielded flawlessly at second base for the Cardinals in the 2011 postseason and helped them become World Series champions.

Ten years ago, on Jan. 21, 2011, the Cardinals signed Punto, a free agent, to fill a utility role as the backup to Skip Schumaker at second, Ryan Theriot at short and David Freese at third.

When the Cardinals surged into a playoff spot in September, Punto was a key contributor. He helped with his glove and bat, and also with his hijinks. Punto got the nickname “Shredder” for playfully tearing off the uniform jerseys of teammates during impromptu victory celebrations.

Versatile player

A switch-hitter, Punto made his major-league debut with the Phillies in 2001. He got traded to the Twins two years later. With the Twins, Punto was the starter at second base in 2005, at third base in 2006 and 2007, and at shortstop in 2008 and 2009. He opened the 2010 season as the Twins’ starting third baseman before being shifted into a utility role.

Granted free agency after the 2010 season, Punto, 33, signed with the Cardinals for one year at $750,000.

Punto replaced Aaron Miles, who became a free agent after the 2010 season. The Cardinals showed little interest in retaining Miles, who went to the Dodgers.

Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak described Punto as a “much better than average defensive player,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

At spring training, Punto had surgery for a hernia and began the season on the disabled list. With Punto shelved, Daniel Descalso and Tyler Greene were the Cardinals’ utility infielders.

In and out

Punto healed faster than expected and was activated on April 19. Ten days later, his two-run triple with two outs in the 11th inning lifted the Cardinals to a victory over the Braves. Boxscore

On May 10, another triple by Punto drove in the go-ahead run in a win against the Cubs. Boxscore

A week later, Punto’s season skidded to a halt when he went back on the disabled list because of a right forearm strain that made it painful for him to throw.

Punto was out for six weeks. When he returned to the lineup on June 28, he went 2-for-4 with a RBI and run scored against the Orioles. His leadoff triple in the seventh led to a run. Boxscore

Soon after, Punto began to experience significant pain while throwing. It got so bad that on July 17, after Punto singled against the Reds, manager Tony La Russa didn’t let him go to the field, using catcher Tony Cruz to play second base instead. Boxscore

Cruz became the eighth player the Cardinals used at second base in 2011, joining Allen Craig, Daniel Descalso, Tyler Greene, Pete Kozma, Skip Schumaker, Ryan Theriot and Punto.

Punto told the Post-Dispatch the pain was “definitely affecting” his throws. “I can’t keep putting the team at risk by continuing to play like this,” Punto said.

On July 29, Punto was placed on the disabled list for the third time that season. The injury was diagnosed as a strained oblique muscle.

Welcome back

Punto stayed on the disabled list until September. When he returned, he made an immediate impact.

On Sept. 9, the Cardinals (76-67) opened a three-game series at home against the Braves (84-60). The Braves were the leaders for the wild-card spot in the playoffs, and the Cardinals needed a series sweep to enhance their chances of overtaking them.

In the ninth inning, Albert Pujols delivered a two-run single with two outs, tying the score. In the 10th, Punto, appearing in a Cardinals game for the first time since July 28, drove in the winning run with a sacrifice fly. Boxscore

La Russa told the Post-Dispatch he was confident Punto would come through because he recalled how Punto tripled to beat the Braves in extra innings in April.

Punto’s teammates celebrated by shredding Punto’s jersey. Punto said the idea of shredding a jersey after a big win came from his wife, Natalie, when he was with the Twins.

“We clinched to get into the playoffs and we were celebrating and she ripped my shirt,” Punto recalled. “I kind of liked it. So I ripped everybody else’s shirts.”

The win propelled the Cardinals to the coveted series sweep of the Braves. A few days later, Punto hit a game-winning double against the Pirates. Video

The Cardinals went on to win 18 of 26 games in September and edged the Braves for the wild-card spot.

Punto hit .308 in September and had an on-base percentage of .424 for the month. He finished the regular season with a .278 batting mark in 63 games and an on-base percentage of .388. He hit .359 with runners in scoring position.

Making the plays

Punto played a prominent role in the Cardinals’ postseason. He started at second base in the decisive Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the Phillies and made terrific fielding plays to help gain a 1-0 victory for the Cardinals. “La Russa’s decision to start Punto paid off,” Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz noted. Boxscore

In the National League Championship Series versus the Brewers, Punto made four starts at second base and the Cardinals won all four games. He also started in five games at second in the World Series against the Rangers. He had five walks and three hits in 19 plate appearances for a World Series on-base percentage of .421.

“His penchant for doing the right things at bat and not the wrong things in the field have been notable,” the Post-Dispatch reported.

Punto played 85.2 innings in the 2011 postseason and committed no errors.

La Russa described him as “a very heady player” and “an extremely valuable defensive player.”

Punto became a free agent after the Cardinals won the 2011 World Series title. The Cardinals expressed interest in bringing back Punto, but he went with the Red Sox, who gave him a two-year contract worth $3 million.

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Catcher Pat Borders experienced a wide range of highs and lows in his short stay with the Cardinals.

Twenty-five years ago, on Jan. 14, 1996, Borders, a free agent, signed a minor-league contract with the Cardinals and was invited to spring training.

Borders, 32, earned a roster spot, made the Opening Day starting lineup and represented the Cardinals as their catcher on the National League all-star ballot.

By June, he no longer was on the team.

Center stage

A standout high school player in Lake Wales, Fla., Borders was chosen by the Blue Jays in the sixth round of the 1982 amateur baseball draft.

He played third base and first base his first four seasons in the minors before converting to catcher in 1986.

Borders made his debut in the majors in 1988, and he was the Blue Jays’ starting catcher when they won consecutive World Series titles in 1992 and 1993. Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston liked Borders for his durability and skill at blocking pitches in the dirt.

In 1992, the Blue Jays played 12 postseason games _ six against manager Tony La Russa’s Athletics in the American League Championship Series and six versus the Braves in the World Series _ and Borders produced hits in all of them.

Borders was named most valuable player of the 1992 World Series. He hit .450. With nine hits and two walks in 22 plate appearances, his on-base percentage was .500.

Bad timing

Granted free agency after the strike-shortened 1994 season, Borders found few takers. Team owners claimed they lost $700 million in the strike and weren’t in the mood to spend.

In April 1995, Borders, who was paid $2.5 million by the Blue Jays in 1994, signed with the Royals for $310,000.

“It’s a big reduction,” Borders told the Toronto Sun, “but then again I remember the days when I had a job making $5 an hour. Besides, I’m doing something I love.”

Brent Mayne did most of the catching for the 1995 Royals. Borders was traded to the Astros in August. Borders said the trade “came as a complete shock,” but the Kansas City Star reported he “had too many defensive deficiencies.”

Opportunity knocks

A free agent after the 1995 season, Borders appealed to the Cardinals, who were seeking a backup to catcher Tom Pagnozzi. In 1995, Pagnozzi hit .215 and was limited to 62 games because of multiple injuries. It was the third consecutive year Pagnozzi spent time on the disabled list. The Cardinals hoped Borders would join Danny Sheaffer in giving them depth at catcher.

Borders signed a one-year deal for $350,000. He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Pagnozzi is a Gold Glove catcher. I don’t think anyone would be ashamed of being a backup to him.”

He also was looking forward to playing for manager Tony La Russa, who left the Athletics for the Cardinals after the 1995 season.

“From what I understand from other players, La Russa prepares his pitchers and catchers to be as mentally ready as anybody in the game,” Borders said.

Borders impressed La Russa with his play at Cardinals spring training in 1996. In late March, Pagnozzi injured his left wrist and went on the disabled list. Borders was selected by La Russa to start at catcher in the season opener against the Mets at New York.

According to the Post-Dispatch, La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan “were impressed with his game-calling this spring.”

In and out

Borders, batting seventh, had two hits and scored a run in the Cardinals’ 1996 season opener. Boxscore

He did most of the catching for the Cardinals in the first month of the season, playing in 17 of their first 25 games and batting .351 for April. “I’m catching a lot more than I did last year,” Borders said. “This is wonderful.”

When the ballots came out for fan voting for the all-star team, Borders was the Cardinals catcher listed by Major League Baseball.

Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz noted, “He’s a bulldog behind the plate. He’s hitting, too. It’s going to be difficult, any time soon, for Tom Pagnozzi to take the catcher’s equipment away from Borders.”

May was a different story. Pagnozzi, who played six games in April, played in 23 games in May and hit .325.

“How do I say this? We just needed some consistency back there,” Pagnozzi said. “We needed a little bit of leadership back there, some direction.”

La Russa said Borders and Sheaffer “did a real good job,” but Pagnozzi “deserved the playing time. He does a good job handling pitchers and shows imagination in his pitch selection.”

On May 10, Borders entered a game against the Dodgers in the 11th inning and played first base for the first time in the majors. In the 12th, a hard grounder by Eric Karros went off Borders’ glove for an error and Raul Mondesi scored from second with the winning run. Boxscore

“It was a play I should have made,” Borders said. “It cost us the game.”

From May 7 to June 9, Borders got a total of seven at-bats.

“He’s a major-league catcher,” La Russa said. “I’m hoping an opportunity opens up for him.”

On June 15, 1996, the Cardinals traded Borders to the Angels for pitcher Ben VanRyn. 

In 26 games for the Cardinals, Borders hit .319.

He went on to play a total of 17 seasons in the majors.

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Throughout his career in the major leagues, Miguel Batista created drama and suspense in connection with the Cardinals. It was precisely what might be expected from a pitcher who was a novelist.

Ten years ago, on Jan. 14, 2011, the Cardinals signed Batista, a free agent, to a minor-league contract and invited him to their spring training camp. Batista, 40, earned a spot on the 2011 Cardinals’ Opening Day roster as a reliever.

The notion of Batista becoming a Cardinal might have seemed unimaginable to some who remembered him as a villain when he played for the Diamondbacks. Batista beat the Cardinals in the 2001 playoffs. Two years later, he was the instigator in an Easter Sunday brawl at Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis.

Mixed emotions

A right-hander from the Dominican Republic, Batista debuted in the majors with the 1992 Pirates. He also pitched for the Marlins, Cubs, Expos and Royals before joining the Diamondbacks in 2001.

Relying on a fastball with exceptional movement, Batista was 11-8 for the 2001 Diamondbacks and helped them win a division title. He made 18 starts and 30 relief appearances. “He’s been invaluable to me because of his versatility,” Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Diamondbacks first baseman Mark Grace, who also was Batista’s teammate with the 1997 Cubs, said Batista learned to stop falling behind in the count and developed off-speed pitches to go with his fastball.

“Big-league hitters, we can get wood on a bullet if we know it’s coming,” Grace said. “So, if you’re 2-and-0, 3-and-1 consistently, you’re going to get in trouble.”

In the 2001 National League Division Series versus the Cardinals, Batista started and won Game 3. Boxscore

The next year, the reverse happened. Batista started and lost Game 3 of the 2002 Division Series against the Cardinals. Boxscore

The next time Batista faced the Cardinals was in a start for the Diamondbacks on April 20, 2003. In the fifth inning, Tino Martinez was struck on the shoulder by a Batista pitch. Martinez and Batista glared at one another. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa yelled at Batista in Spanish.

Martinez charged the mound and threw a punch. Batista fired the ball at him. Both missed. A brawl ensued. In addition to be ejected, Batista was suspended 10 games by Major League Baseball for his role in the incident. Boxscore

Poetry in motion

Batista played rough, but he was no dope. He kept a picture of Albert Einstein in his locker for inspiration. “He says imagination is the best tool you can have because talent and knowledge have their limits,” Batista told the Post-Dispatch. “In other words, man is as big as his dreams.”

Batista spent his free time reading. He became an avid reader, he said, when a friend told him books “are a window to another world.”

Reading inspired Batista to write a book of poetry. The title in English is “Feelings in Black and White.”

A team owner in the Dominican Republic gave Batista the nickname “El Poeta.”

Asked about writing poetry, Batista told the Post-Dispatch, “It’s a moment in time. You just grab a pen and paper. If not, it’s gone. If you don’t write it, then you never remember it the same way.”

Batista also wrote a novel, “The Avenger of Blood,” about a serial killer. In an interview with Trafford Publishing, Batista said of the subject matter, “I took two of the most sensitive issues in our society, the law and religion. I tried to create a scenario where facts and faith could face one another in the court of law.”

Regarding future works, Batista said, “When you become a writer, you will always write. You might not publish, but you never stop writing.”

Joining the roost

After the Cardinals won the 2006 World Series championship, they tried to sign Batista, a free agent, for their starting rotation. The Mariners offered more money, $25 million over three years, and he chose them instead.

Five years later, in 2011, Batista and the Cardinals finally connected. Though he wasn’t guaranteed a spot on the roster, Batista signed with the Cardinals because of La Russa.

At spring training in Jupiter, Fla., Batista said, “I’ve always wanted to play for a manager like Tony. So far, it’s been a real good learning experience, especially from the mental part of the game … When I was a free agent, he called me. He said, ‘If you play for me, you’re my family. If you don’t, I hate you.’ “

Batista had a 1.93 ERA in spring training games and was placed on the Cardinals’ 2011 Opening Day roster. “He’s earned it,” said La Russa.

Production problems

After Ryan Franklin had four blown saves in his first five chances, Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz suggested the Cardinals try Batista as the closer. “The role wouldn’t scare Batista,” Miklasz wrote.

The next day, La Russa said Franklin was being relieved of the closer’s role. Fernando Salas eventually replaced him.

On April 22, 2011, Batista was involved in an unusual move that paid off for the Cardinals. Kyle McClellan was scheduled to start against the Reds at St. Louis, but when the forecast showed severe weather was on the way, La Russa made a late switch, naming Batista the starter.

Batista was pitching to the second batter of the first inning when the game was halted because of rain and tornado warnings. After a delay of 2 hours, 10 minutes, the game resumed. McClellan came in, pitched six innings and got the win. The Reds’ scheduled starter, Edinson Volquez, who warmed up before the first inning, could not resume after the rain delay. His replacement, Matt Maloney, gave up three runs in two innings and was the losing pitcher. Boxscore

The next night, Batista pitched in relief against the Reds and got the loss. Boxscore

Batista entered June with an ERA of 2.01 for the season, but he faltered after that, yielding 10 earned runs in seven innings.

The Post-Dispatch reported Batista “drew high marks” from La Russa “for his impact on the Cardinals’ team chemistry,” but it wasn’t enough to keep his job. The Cardinals released him on June 22 and called up Lance Lynn from the minors.

“Miguel has been a terrific pro … so it’s a tough move,” La Russa said. “He handled it really well. He understands the business.”

In 26 appearances for the Cardinals, Batista was 3-2 with a 4.60 ERA. La Russa said he’d give a “glowing recommendation” to anyone who asked about Batista.

A month later, Batista signed with the Mets. Meanwhile, the Cardinals, with a restructured bullpen, went on to become 2011 World Series champions.

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Bobby Bonilla began and ended his major-league career with Tony La Russa as his manager.

Twenty years ago, on Jan. 5, 2001, La Russa was the Cardinals’ manager when they signed Bonilla, a free agent, to fill a role as a utility player and pinch-hitter.

Bonilla, who turned 38 a month after joining the Cardinals, was winding down an accomplished playing career. He debuted in the majors with the 1986 White Sox, when La Russa was their manager.

From Class A to majors

Bonilla, born and raised in the Bronx, N.Y., was 18 when he signed with the Pirates in July 1981 and entered their farm system.

At spring training with the Pirates in 1985, Bonilla suffered a severe ankle injury in a collision with teammate Bip Roberts while pursuing a pop fly. He was limited to playing 39 games at the Class A level in 1985. The White Sox selected him in the Rule 5 draft after the season.

A switch-hitter who played the outfield, first and third, Bonilla impressed La Russa with his talent and work ethic at White Sox spring training in 1986.

“He gives us a lot of flexibility,” La Russa told the Chicago Tribune. “He has a feel for the game. He can do a lot of creative stuff to win the game. It’s hard to find a player like that.”

Bonilla, 23, sealed a spot on the White Sox’s 1986 Opening Day roster after hitting a home run against the Twins’ Bert Blyleven late in spring training.

He took over at first base after starter Greg Walker fractured a wrist in mid-April. Bonilla’s first home run in the big leagues came against the Indians’ 47-year-old Phil Niekro. Boxscore

When Walker returned to the lineup, La Russa played Bonilla in left field. In June, La Russa was fired by general manager Ken “Hawk” Harrelson. A month later, Harrelson traded Bonilla to the Pirates.

Winning combination

Playing for Pirates manager Jim Leyland, a former coach on La Russa’s White Sox staff, Bonilla thrived. Bonilla led the National League in extra-base hits (78) in 1990 and in doubles (44) in 1991.

Bonilla went on to play for the Mets and Orioles before joining the Marlins. He was reunited with Leyland, who had become the Marlins’ manager. With Bonilla playing third base and contributing 96 RBI, Leyland led the 1997 Marlins to a World Series championship.

After that, Bonilla played for the Dodgers, the Mets again, and the Braves. After the Cardinals swept the Braves in the 2000 National League Division Series, Bonilla was released.

Still wanted

In 2000, Eric Davis had excelled for the Cardinals as a backup outfielder and pinch-hitter who tormented left-handers. Davis hit .390 against left-handers in 2000. After the season, he became a free agent and joined the Giants.

The Cardinals sought someone who could do in 2001 what Davis did for them in 2000.

La Russa, the Cardinals’ manager, and Leyland, who had joined the Cardinals as a scout, advocated for Bonilla. As a utility player for the 2000 Braves, Bonilla hit .372 versus left-handers. He also batted .308 as a pinch-hitter. By comparison, Cardinals pinch-hitters batted .199 in 2000.

Bonilla accepted the Cardinals’ offer of a one-year contract for $900,000.

“Tony giving you a call like that really makes you feel good,” Bonilla said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

La Russa said he was considering platooning Ray Lankford and Bonilla in left field if Bonilla “is on his game.”

“Ray can do a good job against right-handers, but we’re looking for somebody against left-handers, who is respected, to hit behind Mark McGwire,” La Russa said. “Bobby Bonilla is respected. A lot of people are afraid of him. Now, for this to happen, he’s got to stay healthy.”

Astros manager Larry Dierker said his club also tried to sign Bonilla. “I know he’s not a great player any more,” Dierker told the Post-Dispatch, “but when he comes up in a close game, he’s scary.”

Listed at 240 pounds, skeptics cited Bonilla’s defensive limitations and lack of speed as liabilities.

“Will Bobby Bonilla report in tip-top shape to the Cardinals, or will the club have to weigh him with a livestock scale?” asked Jeff Gordon of the Post-Dispatch.

Good impression

Bonilla was one of the Cardinals’ best performers at spring training in 2001.

“He’s been good, very good,” general manager Walt Jocketty said. “He’s probably been the biggest surprise.”

La Russa responded, “If you know Bobby, it’s not a surprise. This guy has played on winning ballclubs. What has been really positive has been his conditioning. He’s put a lot of time into all parts of the game.”

Bonilla hit .389 with four home runs in spring training games. According to the Post-Dispatch, La Russa planned to start Bonilla in left field on Opening Day at Denver against left-hander Mike Hampton.

The plan changed on March 24 when Bonilla was removed from a spring training game because of a hamstring injury.

Instead of Bonilla in left field on Opening Day, it was rookie Albert Pujols. Bonilla began the season on the disabled list.

Ups and downs

On April 4, in the Cardinals’ second game of the season, Bonilla was ejected by plate umpire Greg Bonin for arguing balls and strikes from the bench. Bonilla was ejected before he played a game for the Cardinals. Boxscore

After sitting out the first six games of the season, Bonilla made his Cardinals debut as the right fielder in the home opener against Rockies left-hander Denny Neagle. In the ninth, Bonilla’s leadoff double versus left-handed reliever Gabe White started the rally that led to the winning run. Boxscore

A week later, the Cardinals were trailing, 15-4, at home against the Diamondbacks when La Russa asked Bonilla to pitch the ninth inning. Bonilla, who hadn’t pitched since high school, gave up a home run to the first Diamondbacks batter he faced, Erubiel Durazo. Bonilla completed the inning, allowing two runs on three hits and a walk. He also was called for a balk. Boxscore

“It wasn’t a great situation, or a fun situation,” Bonilla said.

The next night, Bonilla started at first base and had a home run, a double and two RBI against Diamondbacks left-hander Randy Johnson. Bonilla hit .375 in his career against the future Hall of Famer. Boxscore

Another highlight for Bonilla came on June 15 when he hit a grand slam, the ninth of his career, versus White Sox left-hander Kelly Wunsch. Boxscore

A month later, Bonilla got his 2,000th career hit, a single against Roy Oswalt, an Astros right-hander. Boxscore

Bonilla hit .370 in July, but then slumped. He had one hit in his last 16 at-bats. For the season, he hit .213 with five home runs. As a pinch-hitter, he batted .167. His batting average versus left-handers was .232.

Though granted free agency after the season, his playing career was done. He finished with 2,010 hits, including 408 doubles, and 1,173 RBI.

Bonilla reached the postseason with six different clubs: Pirates, Orioles, Marlins, Mets, Braves and Cardinals.

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Phil Niekro made two starts in the 1982 National League Championship Series versus the Cardinals. Only one counted.

A right-handed knuckleball master who pitched in the majors until he was 48, Niekro died Dec. 26, 2020, at 81.

Niekro earned 318 wins in the majors and was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but he never pitched in the World Series.

In 1982, when he was 17-4 for the West Division champion Braves, Niekro was the choice of manager Joe Torre to start Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. Niekro shut out the Cardinals for 4.1 innings and had a 1-0 lead before the game was called off because of rain. Niekro was two outs away from completing the five innings needed for an official game.

Three days later, Niekro started Game 2. He pitched six innings, allowed two runs and was lifted for a pinch-hitter with the Braves ahead, 3-2, but the Cardinals rallied against Gene Garber and won, 4-3.

Knuckle under

Niekro, 43, ended the 1982 regular season on a roll, winning 11 of his last 12 decisions. His last two wins were shutouts.

“That’s what you expect from someone who wants something as badly as he wants this championship,” Torre told the Atlanta Constitution.

As the Braves headed into the best-of-five National League Championship Series, Niekro was matched against Joaquin Andujar in Game 1. 

Niekro was 1-0 with a 1.29 ERA in 21 innings pitched against the Cardinals in the 1982 regular season. Many of the Cardinals struggled against him throughout their careers. The list included Keith Hernandez (.233 batting average against), Gene Tenace (.211), George Hendrick (.178), Tommy Herr (.143) and Willie McGee (.100). An exception was Lonnie Smith (.514).

“What makes Niekro so tough is there’s no telling where the ball will go,” Herr told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I don’t even think he knows. You have to wait longer to swing because the ball is going to move.”

Tenace said, “His ball does everything and anything. It gets to the plate and it explodes up there. I’d just as soon take a beating as to have to hit that thing.”

In batting practice the day before the series opener, Cardinals coach Hal Lanier threw knuckleballs to try to help the hitters prepare for Niekro, “but it’s not quite the same,” said Hernandez.

“He’s not unhittable,” Hernandez said of Niekro, “but you have to be a disciplined hitter. You have to relax and wait until the last possible second before you pull the trigger.” Video of Niekro knuckler

Mind games

In the series opener on Oct. 6 at St. Louis, the Braves got a run in the first inning when Claudell Washington doubled and scored on a Chris Chambliss single.

The Cardinals threatened, loading the bases in the first and getting a runner to third base in the third, but couldn’t score against Niekro.

“I’ve seen him better,” Hernandez told the Atlanta Constitution. “I’ve seen his knuckleball do more. He wasn’t as sharp, and he still got us out. He’s smart.”

Niekro said it was the “worst knuckler I had in a couple of months.”

Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog, seeking an edge, complained to the umpires that Niekro regularly was committing a balk by not coming to a set position with a runner on base.

“I think he balked about seven or eight times,” Herzog said to the Post-Dispatch. “It’s a farce … There’s no doubt in my mind he doesn’t pause at all. I’ll guarantee you if one of my pitchers did that it would be a balk.”

Niekro, who was called for one balk during the 1982 season, responded, “If I was doing something wrong, it would have been called.”

Wiped out

Pitching in a light rain in the bottom of the fifth, Niekro got one out before plate umpire Billy Williams halted play. The forecast showed heavy rain was on the way. Williams indicated a playoff game shouldn’t be decided in a mere five innings, and that was likely to happen if he allowed the inning to be completed. 

“I didn’t want to rush and play two outs, and then have the outcome decided because we didn’t have common sense,” Williams told the Post-Dispatch. “I would have done the same thing if the score was 4-0 or 10-0.”

With rain continuing after a delay of two hours and 28 minutes, National League president Chub Feeney made the decision to call off the game.

“I’ve pitched many times when it was raining much harder than it was when the game was called,” Niekro said to the Atlanta Constitution. “I’m confident they would have completed the inning in the regular season. I’m really disappointed I didn’t get an opportunity to get two more outs.”

Torre, a former Cardinal, said he he understood the decision by Williams to stop play when he did. Torre told the Post-Dispatch, “I don’t think a team should play 162 games and then lose a playoff game in five innings. What I mean is, we don’t want to come in here and steal a game.”

Niekro had a different point of view: “It really doesn’t matter how you win a playoff game as long as you win it,” he said.

Series sweep

The rescheduled Game 1 was played the next day, Oct. 7, with Pascual Perez starting for the Braves against Bob Forsch. Forsch pitched a three-hit shutout and the Cardinals won, 7-0. Boxscore

Game 2, scheduled for Oct. 8, was rained out, enabling Torre to start Niekro when it was rescheduled for Oct. 9 at St. Louis.

In the seventh, with the Braves ahead, 3-2, they had runners on first and second, one out, when Torre sent Biff Pocoroba to bat for Niekro against Doug Bair. Pocoroba grounded out.

“I felt I could have gone two or three more innings,” Niekro told the Atlanta Constitution. “I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed. You start a ballgame, you want to finish it. I thought I had a good knuckleball. It was moving quite a bit.”

Facing closer Gene Garber, the Cardinals scored a run in the eighth and another in the ninth, and won, 4-3. Boxscore

The next night, at Atlanta, with Rick Camp starting for the Braves, the Cardinals completed the sweep, winning 6-2, and advanced to a World Series for the first time in 14 years. Boxscore

Summarizing the disappointment of the Braves falling short in their bid for a pennant, Niekro said, “How can you be so close and be so far at the same time?”

Niekro pitched five more seasons, including stints with the Yankees, Indians and Blue Jays, but never got to pitch in a World Series.

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