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Herman Franks was a player, coach and manager in the major leagues for five decades and it all began with the Cardinals.

A catcher who batted left-handed, Franks made his major-league debut with the Cardinals in 1939 as a backup to Mickey Owen.

With Owen as the starter and prospect Walker Cooper waiting in the minors, Franks was unlikely to get much playing time.

Eighty years ago, on Feb. 6, 1940, the Cardinals sold Franks’ contract to the Dodgers, who were managed by Leo Durocher, the former Cardinals shortstop. Durocher would play a pivotal role in Franks’ career.

Divine intervention

Franks was born in Price, Utah, where his father, an Italian immigrant, and mother settled.

In high school, Franks excelled at multiple sports. He opted to pursue a baseball career. At 18, Franks signed with the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League and played a few games for them in 1932 and 1933. Overmatched, Franks was advised by manager Ossie Vitt to go home.

“He didn’t think I’d ever be a good ballplayer,” Franks told The Sporting News.

Franks enrolled at the University of Utah and played amateur baseball for a Catholic Youth Organization team. The Catholic bishop of Salt Lake City recommended Franks to Cardinals scout Charley Barrett.

In the spring of 1935, Barrett invited Franks to a Cardinals tryout camp in Houston. Franks impressed Barrett and was signed. The Cardinals sent him to a farm team in Jacksonville, Texas, tomato capital of the world, in the West Dixie League and paid him $100 a month.

“I was just glad to make the club and be back in baseball,” Franks said.

Looking the part

Franks worked his way up the Cardinals’ system. At Sacramento in 1937 and 1938, Franks played for manager Bill Killefer, a former big-league catcher who managed the Cubs from 1921-25 and was a coach for the 1926 World Series champion Cardinals.

“Men in the Cardinals organization have a high regard for Killefer’s judgment,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted.

At spring training in 1939, Franks, 25, fulfilled expectations.

“Franks is built for catching, looks like he has been behind the plate all his life, throws accurately and easily and has the reputation of being a smart receiver,” the Post-Dispatch reported.

The Cardinals opened the 1939 season with Franks and Don Padgett as backups to Owen.

“Pitchers like to throw to Herman Franks.” the Post-Dispatch reported. “He chatters incessantly behind the plate, makes a fine target, isn’t afraid to assume responsibility and is said to be a good thrower.”

Twist of fate

Franks started for the first time in the majors on May 2, 1939, against the Braves at Boston. It was a bittersweet experience.

In the second inning, Franks drove in Johnny Mize from second base with his first big-league hit, a looping single to left against Danny MacFayden.

Moments later, Franks wrenched his left leg when he caught his spikes in the bag sliding back to first while eluding a pickoff throw, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported. Franks departed and was replaced by Owen. Boxscore

Sidelined for three weeks, Franks seldom played when he returned.

Sad times

On July 4, 1939, Franks was saddened to learn Charley Barrett, the scout who gave him his big break, died of heart disease at 68.

After the Cardinals played a night game at Cincinnati on July 6, manager Ray Blades and four players, Franks, Owen, Don Gutteridge and Pepper Martin, returned to St. Louis for Barrett’s funeral service the next morning while the rest of the team went to Pittsburgh for a series against the Pirates.

Among the pallbearers were Cardinals owner Sam Breadon, executive Branch Rickey and Martin. According to the Globe-Democrat, “Martin was always considered by Barrett as the greatest player he ever discovered.”

The day after Barrett’s funeral, Franks was sent to a farm club in Columbus, Ohio, after the Cardinals tried to trade him.

“Wonder how much truth there is to the report that the Cardinals offered catcher Herman Franks and $30,000 to Kansas City (a Yankees farm club) for Joe DiMaggio’s brother, Vince,” the Globe-Democrat reported.

Franks batted .297 for Columbus and was called up to the Cardinals in September. For the season, Franks had one hit in 17 at-bats for the Cardinals.

Dodgers days

Killefer, a coach on Durocher’s staff with the 1939 Dodgers, recommended the club acquire Franks.

The Dodgers opened the 1940 season with Babe Phelps as their starting catcher and a pair of former Cardinals, Franks and Gus Mancuso, as backups. In 1941, Owen, acquired from the Cardinals, was the Dodgers’ starting catcher, with Franks and Phelps in reserve.

The Dodgers won the 1941 National League pennant.

In Game 1 of the 1941 World Series at Yankee Stadium, Durocher lifted Owen for a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning. In the ninth, with the Yankees ahead, 3-2, the Dodgers had Joe Medwick on second, Pee Wee Reese on first and one out, with Franks due up. Durocher would have preferred to send a pinch-hitter, Augie Galan, but he couldn’t because Franks was their only available catcher.

On the first pitch from Red Ruffing, Franks grounded to second baseman Joe Gordon, who fielded the ball and flipped to shortstop Phil Rizzuto.

Rizzuto tagged the bag just before Reese arrived. Reese slid hard into Rizzuto, hurling him into the air, but not before Rizzuto made a throw to first to nab Franks and complete a game-ending double play. Boxscore

Career choices

Franks enlisted in the Navy in 1942 and served for four years. After his discharge in 1946, Franks, 32, played for the Dodgers’ Montreal farm club.

Rickey, who left the Cardinals for the Dodgers, made Franks the manager of the St. Paul farm team in 1947. In August, the Athletics, desperate for catching help, inquired about Franks.

“Mr. Rickey gave me my choice of staying on as a manager in St. Paul or going back to the big leagues again as a catcher,” Franks said.

Franks joined the Athletics for the last month of the 1947 season and was with them in 1948, too.

In 1949, Durocher, who became Giants manager, hired Franks to be a coach. Franks was a Giants coach for Durocher from 1949-55.

In his book, “The Echoing Green,” author Joshua Prager revealed Durocher’s Giants stole signs of opposing catchers. Franks used a telescope from a perch above the center field wall at the Polo Grounds to view the signs and relay them via a buzzer system, according to the book.

When the Giants fired manager Al Dark after the 1964 season, Franks replaced him. He managed the Giants for four seasons (1965-68) and finished in second place each year, including 1967 and 1968 when the Cardinals prevailed.

Franks also managed the Cubs from 1977-79.

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The Cardinals gave Ed Sprague a chance to become a professional ballplayer and make a connection with Sparky Anderson.

Sprague died Jan. 10, 2020, at 74. A right-hander, he pitched for eight seasons in the major leagues with the Athletics, Reds, Cardinals and Brewers.

It took a series of career turns before Sprague pitched in a big-league game for the Cardinals in his second stint with them.

Good advice

Sprague was born in Boston and went to high school in Hayward, Calif., about 15 miles south of Oakland. He didn’t play prep sports because he had a job after school at a furniture store.

In March 1964, Sprague, 18, enlisted in the Army. While stationed in Mainz, Germany, as a paratrooper, he joined the military base fast-pitch softball team as a catcher. Sprague had a strong arm and an Army colleague, former minor-leaguer Dick Holland, encouraged him to pursue a baseball career, The Sporting News reported.

After his discharge from the Army in March 1966, Sprague, 20, enrolled at a baseball school in West Palm Beach, Fla., run by big-league infielder Dick Howser.

Four days later, the school held a tryout camp attended by big-league scouts. “About 100 kids tried out that day,” Spague told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Cardinals scout Tommy Thomas made an offer and Sprague signed. “I didn’t get a bonus,” he told The Sporting News.

Fast learner

Relyng exclusively on a fastball, Sprague pitched in 13 games for two farm clubs in 1966 and posted a 2.66 ERA.

In 1967, Sprague, 21, was assigned to Modesto, a California League team managed by Sparky Anderson.

“He was so raw and inexperienced then that he didn’t even know how to stand correctly on the pitching rubber,” Anderson told The Sporting News. “You almost had to lead him to the mound.”

Throwing with a sidearm delivery, Sprague learned quickly and had an 11-7 record and 3.12 ERA for league champion Modesto.

After the season, Anderson joined the Reds as a minor-league manager and Sprague reported to the Cardinals’ 1967 fall Florida Instructional League team. Playing for manager George Kissell, Sprague had a 1.74 ERA in 11 starts.

Left off the Cardinals’ 40-man winter roster, Sprague was selected by the Athletics with the first pick in the Nov. 28, 1967, minor-league draft. Athletics executive vice president Joe DiMaggio made the announcement at the baseball winter meetings in Mexico City.

Finding his footing

Sprague pitched well at spring training in 1968 and earned a spot on the Athletics’ Opening Day roster. The Athletics moved from Kansas City to Oakland after the 1967 season, meaning Sprague would begin his big-league career with a team located a 15-minute drive from where he went to high school.

“He throws a sidearm pitch with considerable speed,” The Sporting News noted. “It sinks.”

On April 16, 1968, in his second major-league appearance, Sprague got the win with three scoreless innings in relief of starter Catfish Hunter at Yankee Stadium.

The outing started ominously when Sprague lost his balance on the second pitch he threw and fell off the mound.

“I don’t know what happened,” Sprague told The Sporting News. “All of a sudden, there I was flat on my face and everyone was laughing at me.”

Sprague regained his composure and finished the inning by getting Mickey Mantle to fly out to left.

In the ninth, the Yankees had a runner at second with two outs when Sprague sealed the win by getting his baseball school operator, Dick Howser, to ground out. Boxscore

Come and go

Sprague pitched for the Athletics in 1968 and 1969, but spent the 1970 season in the minors. The Reds, who won the National League pennant in 1970 in Sparky Anderson’s first season as manager, acquired him after the World Series.

In 1971, Sprague was assigned to the Reds’ top farm club at Indianapolis. The manager, Vern Rapp, had been in the Cardinals’ system when Sprague was there. Rapp taught Sprague how to throw a changeup and the pitch helped him achieve nine wins and five saves for Indianapolis.

The Reds called up Sprague for the last month of the 1971 season and he allowed no earned runs in 11 innings. “It’s pretty well known there are some among the Reds brass who think highly of Ed Sprague,” The Sporting News reported.

In 1972, when the Reds won the pennant, Sprague was 3-3 in 33 games. The Reds played the Athletics in the World Series, but Sprague didn’t pitch.

The next year, he was 1-3 with a 5.12 ERA when the Reds traded him to the Cardinals on July 27, 1973, for infielder Ed Crosby and catcher Gene Dusan. The Cardinals also got a player to be named, first baseman Roe Skidmore.

“My arm is fine,” Sprague told the Post-Dispatch. “My trouble has been lack of work.”

In his first appearance for the Cardinals, on July 29, 1973, in the second game of a doubleheader against the Cubs at Chicago, Sprague relieved starter Rich Folkers with the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh.

Jose Cardenal hit Sprague’s first pitch on the ground. “It looked like an easy out,” the Post-Dispatch reported.

The ball took a high hop and bounced over the head of third baseman Ken Reitz for a fluke single, tying the score at 4-4. The Cubs won, 5-4. Boxscore

“I did what I set out to do, make him hit the ball on the ground,” Sprague said.

Sprague made eight appearances for the Cardinals and was 0-0 with a 2.25 ERA when they sent him to the minor leagues, preferring to go with a left-hander, John Andrews, as a reliever.

In the genes

After three appearances with Class AAA Tulsa, Sprague’s contract was sold by the Cardinals to the Brewers on Sept. 4, 1973.

Sprague had his best big-league season in 1974 with the Brewers. He was 7-2 with a 2.55 ERA in 10 starts and 0-0 with a 2.10 ERA in 10 relief appearances.

Sprague pitched eight seasons in the majors and was 17-23 with nine saves and a 3.84 ERA.

His son Ed Sprague Jr., was a big-league third baseman for 11 seasons, mostly with the Blue Jays, and played in two World Series with Toronto.

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Ray Sadecki was the player the Cubs wanted in exchange for Lou Brock, but the timing wasn’t right. Sadecki got hot at the same time as the trade talks did and the Cardinals opted to keep him.

In May 1964, the Cubs and Cardinals discussed a proposed swap of Brock, an underachieving outfielder, for Sadecki, an underachieving starting pitcher, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Cubs general manager John Holland indicated “the Cardinals have shown a strong interest in Brock” and he wanted Sadecki in return.

In the story, which appeared on May 26, 1964, under the headline, “Cards Balk Cubs Bid for Sadecki; Brock Dangled as Trade Bait,” the Tribune reported a proposed swap involving Brock for Sadecki “was stalled by reluctance of someone in the St. Louis front office.”

Three weeks later, on June 15, 1964, the Cardinals dealt starting pitcher Ernie Broglio, reliever Bobby Shantz and outfielder Doug Clemens to the Cubs for Brock and pitchers Jack Spring and Paul Toth.

The deal, initially viewed as a steal for the Cubs, became the symbol for lopsided trades, with Brock becoming a Hall of Famer and Broglio, who damaged his right elbow, posting a 7-19 record in three years with Chicago.

Up and down

Sadecki was 17 in June 1958 when he signed with the Cardinals. Two years later, in May 1960, he made his major-league debut at 19 and earned nine wins as a rookie.

In 1961, Sadecki, 20, was an emerging ace. He was 14-10 and led the Cardinals in starts (31), complete games (13) and innings pitched (222.2).

The Cardinals offered him a $13,000 salary for 1962. Sadecki, who wanted $18,000, asked manager Johnny Keane to back him, but was sharply told to accept what was offered. They settled for $15,000, but a strain developed between Keane and Sadecki.

On June 5, 1962, in a relief stint in St. Louis against the Reds, Sadecki faced five batters, allowed five runs, committed two errors and was booed off the field. Keane called Sadecki’s performance “the worst display of effort I’ve ever seen on a big-league diamond” and fined him $250.

Sadecki, upset about his effort being questioned, asked to be traded and continued to struggle. On July 31, 1962, with a 6-8 record and 5.54 ERA, he was demoted to the minors.

Back with the Cardinals in 1963, Sadecki was 10-10 with a 4.10 ERA.

Pressure to perform

When Sadecki, 23, went to spring training in 1964, he was in the back of the starting rotation, behind Broglio, Bob Gibson and Curt Simmons.

“Sadecki should be our No. 4 pitcher,” Keane told The Sporting News. “It’s important for us to get Ray off to a good start.”

Instead, Sadecki lost his first three decisions. Cardinals fans were “booing him at every turn,” The Sporting News reported.

The slow start didn’t help Sadecki’s relationship with Keane. According to author David Halberstam, Keane “believed that professional, as well as financial, success had come too quickly to Sadecki, and that somehow he had not paid his dues.”

Keane valued speed in a lineup and was urging general manager Bing Devine to trade for Brock. Before the 1964 season began, the Cardinals offered Phil Gagliano for Brock. The Cubs needed a second baseman to replace Ken Hubbs, who was killed in a plane crash in February 1964, but they opted for Joey Amalfitano of the Giants instead of Gagliano.

The player the Cubs desired was Sadecki.

Change in plans

If the Cardinals were open to the notion of swapping Sadecki for Brock, they changed their minds in mid-May. Locating pitches better and throwing breaking balls for strikes, Sadecki surged, winning six of seven decisions from May 11 to June 9. Two of the wins were against the Cubs, giving him an 11-3 career record versus them.

“Ray’s progress, from my standpoint, has not been unexpected,” said Cardinals pitching coach Howie Pollet. “I’ve felt he’s a key man in our pennant chances.”

In an editorial, The Sporting News credited Keane.

“Had Keane sought the easy way out, he could have dealt Sadecki to any of several clubs which sought him,” The Sporting News declared. “The manager, however, determined that the southpaw could help the Cardinals. He stayed with him doggedly and patiently.”

After the Chicago Tribune revealed the stall in a Brock for Sadecki swap, Devine said “Brock’s name had been mentioned in trade talks, but there is no serious thought of a deal now,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

Soon after, Devine’s perspective changed. The Cardinals lost five of their first six games in June, dropping to 26-25. After winning two of three against the Giants despite scoring a total of three runs, the Cardinals were swept by the Dodgers, scoring two runs in three games, and fell to 28-29 on June 13.

Needing a spark to the offense, Devine called the Cubs. The starting pitcher he was prepared to offer was Broglio.

An 18-game winner in 1963, Broglio won two of his first three decisions for the Cardinals in 1964, but was 0-3 in five starts from May 3 to May 24. Broglio’s right elbow ached and he couldn’t throw without pain, but the Cubs were unaware of the problem.

On May 30, 1964, Broglio pitched a complete game and beat the Reds. In his next start, a 3-0 loss to Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers, Broglio yielded only one earned run in 6.1 innings.

The Cubs jumped at the chance to acquire a proven winner who, at 28, appeared to be entering his prime.

Brock, batting .251 with a lame .300 on-base percentage, was not well-received by Cardinals veterans. Brock told the Chicago Tribune he felt “unwanted” when he reported to the Cardinals. “Some of his teammates concurred that there was a feeling of resentment” over the trading of Broglio for such a raw talent.

Acquiring Brock and keeping Sadecki proved to be a winning combination for the Cardinals, who clinched the pennant on the last day of the season. Brock batted .348 and produced an on-base percentage of .387. Sadecki was 20-11.

In the 1964 World Series against the Yankees, Sadecki won Game 1, and Brock hit .300 with five RBI, helping the Cardinals to their first championship in 18 years.

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Ron Kline had an ominous start to his stint with the Cardinals, foretelling of rough times ahead for the right-handed pitcher.

On Dec. 21, 1959, the Cardinals acquired Kline from the Pirates for outfielder Gino Cimoli and pitcher Tom Cheney. Kline, 27, was expected to join a starting rotation with Larry Jackson, Vinegar Bend Mizell, Ernie Broglio and Bob Miller in 1960.

Two weeks after the trade, on Jan. 3, 1960, Kline was on a commercial flight to St. Louis to sign his contract when one of the airplane’s engines stopped working.

“Our plane had an engine conk out half an hour out of Pittsburgh and the pilot invited anybody who felt shaky to get out at Indianapolis,” Kline told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Apparently, no one accepted the offer and the plane landed safely in St. Louis.

The precarious arrival set the tone for Kline. Over the next 15 months, he experienced a series of predicaments both on and off the field as a Cardinal.

Pirates product

Kline was born and raised in Callery, Pa., a railroad junction of about 400 residents located 27 miles north of Pittsburgh. He played for a town baseball team, got a tryout with the Pirates and signed when he was 18.

After two years in the minors, primarily at Class D, Kline, 20, earned a spot with the 1952 Pirates. Overmatched, he was 0-7 with a 5.49 ERA but bonded with a veteran starter, ex-Cardinal Howie Pollet.

Kline served in the Army in 1953 and 1954, returned to the Pirates in 1955 and lost his first two decisions, giving him an 0-9 record for his major-league career.

On May 1, 1955, Kline got his first big-league win, a shutout against the Cardinals at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Boxscore

Kline developed a reputation as a hard-luck starter whose record didn’t reflect his skill. His best Pirates seasons were 1956 (14-18, 3.38 ERA) and 1958 (13-16, 3.53).

In 1959, Kline was 11-13 with a 4.26 ERA. Disappointed he was limited to 186 innings after topping 200 in each of the previous three seasons, Kline said he wanted “to pitch more often or be traded,” the Pittsburgh Press reported.

“I have to pitch to make money,” Kline told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The Pirates shopped Kline for an outfielder. After being rebuffed by the Giants in a bid to get either Willie Kirkland, Felipe Alou or Jackie Brandt, the Pirates came close to shipping Kline and shortstop Dick Groat to the Athletics for Roger Maris.

Betting on a breakthrough

Kline was shoveling snow outside his home when he got a call from Pirates general manager Joe Brown, informing him of the trade to St. Louis. Kline was recommended by his former teammate, Pollet, the Cardinals’ pitching coach.

“I saw a lot of potential in the kid,” Pollet told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. “He has great desire and I have enough confidence in my ability to think I can make him a regular winner. He has a good fastball, but for some reason he didn’t throw it last season. He tried to be cute and too fine with his control.”

Cardinals third baseman Ken Boyer, who hit .222 against Kline in his career, was glad to see him become a teammate. “Kline gave me as much trouble as anyone,” Boyer told The Sporting News.

At spring training with the Cardinals in 1960, Kline was impressive. In 28 innings pitched in exhibition games, his ERA was 0.64.

When the season began, it was a different story. Kline had a 5.06 ERA when he got his first Cardinals win, beating the Pirates on May 2, 1960, at St. Louis. Boxscore

Let’s make a deal

The satisfaction of beating his former team was short-lived. Kline lost six of his next seven decisions. He made his last start for the Cardinals on July 10 before being moved to the bullpen.

Kline finished the 1960 season with a 4-9 record and 6.04 ERA. Three of his wins were against the Pirates. He struggled both as a starter (3-7, 5.92) and as a reliever (1-2, 6.35).

In 117.2 innings pitched, Kline gave up 21 home runs. His average of allowing a home run every 5.6 innings was the highest in the National League in 1960.

The Cardinals (86-68) finished in third place, nine games behind the league champion Pirates (95-59). While Kline faltered with the Cardinals, Mizell, traded to the Pirates in May 1960 for second baseman Julian Javier, was 13-5 for Pittsburgh.

After the season, the Cardinals approached the Yankees and offered to trade pitcher Larry Jackson, catcher Hal Smith and Kline for pitchers Whitey Ford and Ryne Duren and catcher Elston Howard. The clubs “surveyed the pros and cons of such a trade” before the Yankees backed out, the Globe-Democrat reported.

The Cardinals also proposed sending Kline and Bob Gibson to the Senators for pitcher Bobby Shantz, but Washington preferred an offer from the Pirates.

Also, the Cubs and Cardinals discussed a swap of pitcher Moe Drabowsky for Kline but it didn’t get done.

Flummoxed by his inability to deal Kline, Devine said, “I realize his value is down, but I’m not going to throw him out the window.”

Spitball specialist

During the winter, Kline was hunting in Pennsylvania when a gun shell blew up in his face. Fragments of the brass shell lodged in each eye, but were removed without damaging Kline’s eyesight, according to the Society for American Baseball Research.

Kline reported to Cardinals spring training in 1961 and said he planned to work on a knuckleball. Unimpressed with the result, the Cardinals sold Kline’s contract to the Angels on April 11, 1961.

After stints with the Angels and Tigers, Kline thrived as a reliever for the Senators. In four years (1963-66) with them, he had 83 saves and a 2.54 ERA.

His turnaround came when he mastered the spitball, an illegal pitch. Sports Illustrated reported Kline had one of “the finest spitballs in the American League.” In his book “The Wrong Stuff,” Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee said, “Ron Kline had a great spitter.”

Kline pitched for nine teams (Pirates, Cardinals, Angels, Tigers, Senators, Twins, Giants, Red Sox and Braves) in 17 seasons. His career numbers: 114-144 record, 108 saves, 3.75 ERA.

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The Cardinals tried for a year to acquire second baseman Fernando Vina and when they finally succeeded they were rewarded for their effort.

Twenty years ago, on Dec. 20, 1999, the Cardinals got Vina from the Brewers for pitchers Juan Acevedo and Matt Parker, plus catcher Eliezer Alfonzo.

Vina gave the Cardinals the consistent leadoff batter they’d been lacking and solidified the infield defense.

AL all-star

Vina was born and raised in Sacramento, Calif., where his parents settled after immigrating to the United States from Cuba. His father took a maintenance job with a local college. In 1989, when Vina attended Arizona State, he toured Cuba with Team USA.

A left-handed batter with speed, Vina played for the Mariners (1993) and Mets (1994) before being traded to the Brewers. In five seasons with the Brewers (1995-99), Vina batted .286 and produced 559 hits in 528 games. His best season was 1998 when he was named a National League all-star and batted .311 with 198 hits and 101 runs scored.

After the 1998 season, the Brewers shopped Vina because he had “the highest trade value” on their roster, The Sporting News reported, and rookie Ronnie Belliard was available to replace him.

The Cardinals, seeking a replacement for departed free agent Delino DeShields at second base, became serious suitors for Vina in December 1998, according to The Sporting News, but couldn’t come up with a pitcher the Brewers wanted.

On May 9, 1999, Vina collided with Brewers teammate Jeromy Burnitz while pursuing a pop fly and injured his left knee. He returned to the lineup three weeks later, developed tendinitis in the knee and was shut down for the season after June 3.

High praise

Joe McEwing was the Cardinals’ second baseman in 1999 and batted .275, but the the club wanted a leadoff batter with a high on-base percentage and speed.

The Cardinals pursued a deal with the Dodgers for second baseman Eric Young, offering reliever Ricky Bottalico, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, but when talks stalled they turned their attention to Vina, who had 22 stolen bases and a .386 on-base percentage for the Brewers in 1998, his last full season before the knee injury.

The Cardinals offered pitcher Garrett Stephenson, but the Brewers insisted on Acevedo and the deal was made.

“He’s a legitimate top of the lineup guy,” said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.

Vina said, “My plan is to get on base any way I can. This lineup is incredible … If I get on base, good things are going to happen.”

At spring training in 2000, Vina impressed coach Jose Oquendo, a former Cardinals second baseman.

“He’s the best I’ve seen turning the double play, ever,” Oquendo said.

Vina said, “Defense is a big part of my game. I don’t underestimate the momentum that can turn our way when you come up with a good defensive play or turn a double play.”

Key contributor

On April 3, 2000, in the season opener against the Cubs at St. Louis, Vina had a successful Cardinals debut, producing two singles, a triple, scoring a run, driving in a run and turning a double play. Boxscore

Vina, who turned 31 two weeks into the season, batted .300 for the 2000 Cardinals, scored 81 runs, had an on-base percentage of .380 and led National League second basemen in fielding percentage.

He also was hit by pitches a league-leading 28 times in 2000. He achieved the total even though he was on the disabled list for two weeks in June because of a hamstring injury and sat out 14 September games because of a rib injury.

The Cardinals’ single-season record for most times hit by pitches is 31 by right fielder Steve Evans in 1910.

Vina had three more seasons of double-figure hit-by-pitch totals for the Cardinals _ 22 in 2001, 18 in 2002 and 11 in 2003.

According to The Sporting News, “Vina is the key to jump-starting the team’s offense … When Vina gets on, it makes it easier for No. 2 hitter (J.D.) Drew to hit the ball in the hole.”

Vina had his best Cardinals season in 2001 when he batted .303 with 191 hits and 95 runs scored.

He won Gold Glove awards for his defense in 2001 and 2002.

Vina played four seasons (2000-2003) with the Cardinals, generated 570 hits in 488 games and sparked them to three postseason appearances.

Ill-advised decision

After an injury-marred 2003 season, Vina became a free agent and signed with the Tigers. In December 2007, he admitted using Human Growth Hormone, a performance-enhancing drug banned by Major League Baseball, in 2003 with the Cardinals in an attempt to heal more quickly from hamstring and knee ailments.

“I tried everything rehabbing,” Vina said. “I came to a point that I was desperate.

“Was it right? No. Obviously, it was wrong. I’m embarrassed by it. Bottom line, it was stupid. I’m embarrassed now and it didn’t help, either.”

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The Cardinals wanted Joe Girardi to be their backup catcher but settled for Mike Matheny.

Twenty years ago, on Dec. 15, 1999, the Cardinals signed Matheny, a free agent, after failing in their bid to get Girardi, who went to the Cubs.

The Cardinals’ No. 2 choice turned out to be a No. 1 catcher.

Matheny became the Cardinals’ starter in 2000, helped them become division champions and won a Gold Glove Award for his defensive excellence. Matheny played five seasons for the Cardinals, who got to the postseason in four of those years, and won the Gold Glove Award three times.

In a nifty twist, Girardi became a free agent after the 2002 season and signed with the Cardinals to be Matheny’s backup in 2003.

Prayers answered

After five years (1994-98) with the Brewers, Matheny was a backup to Blue Jays catcher Darrin Fletcher in 1999 and hit .215 in 57 games.

“Matheny is an intelligent, studious catcher with a quiet motion behind the plate and an easy rapport with the pitchers,” The Sporting News noted, but his weak hitting was keeping him from being a starter.

“It’s a simple matter of the requisite bat speed being absent,” The Sporting News concluded in September 1999. “Barring a miraculous transformation at the plate, his destiny is to be a backup catcher.”

When Matheny, 29, became a free agent after the 1999 season, the Brewers showed interest, but not the Cardinals.

St. Louis general manager Walt Jocketty “thought he had a good chance to sign Joe Girardi,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

Girardi was with the Yankees from 1996-99 and played in three World Series for them before becoming a free agent. Though the Cardinals offered more money than the Cubs did, he signed with Chicago to be near his home.

Pitcher Pat Hentgen, whom the Cardinals acquired from the Blue Jays in November 1999, urged them to sign Matheny.

The Cardinals gave Matheny a one-year deal for $750,000 and planned to have him back up incumbent starter Eli Marrero.

“I like to think I’m an unselfish player and will be helpful whether I’m playing or not,” Matheny said. “That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in playing, because I am.”

An Ohio native who attended the University of Michigan, Matheny was residing with his wife, Kristin, and four children in Weldon Spring, Mo., about 25 miles from St. Louis. Kristin grew up in the St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield and she and her husband had decided to raise their family in the area.

“She must have some powerful prayers because we really didn’t think about the Cardinals being interested in us,” Matheny told the Post-Dispatch.

Fighting for a job

A couple of weeks before spring training began in 2000, the Cardinals signed another free-agent catcher, Rick Wilkins, creating competition for Matheny. Wilkins had been in the big leagues for nine seasons (1991-99) and hit .303 with 30 home runs for the 1993 Cubs.

If Matheny didn’t hit, Wilkins gave the Cardinals an option.

“I wish I could take a little of the enthusiasm I feel when I’m behind the plate and have it when I get into the batter’s box,” Matheny told the Post-Dispatch. “I just love being behind the plate, all the strategy that goes unseen there, but I’m working on revamping my swing and improving on the things that have held my statistics back.”

The Cardinals entered spring training committed to Marrero, 26, as their starting catcher. Marrero, diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 1998, hit .192 in 114 games for the Cardinals in 1999, but management expected him to be stronger and better in 2000.

Initially, all three catchers struggled to hit in spring training. Two weeks before the season opener, their batting averages were .091 for Matheny, .100 for Marrero and .217 for Wilkins.

“I put a lot more pressure on myself early on than I should,” Matheny said. “I was trying to do too much and open eyes … Then I started to panic, trying to make up for lost ground.”

A hot streak near the end of spring training earned Matheny the backup job over Wilkins, who was sent to the minor leagues. Wilkins “was very much in the picture until Matheny had a stronger last week offensively,” the Post-Dispatch reported.

On March 29, 2000, manager Tony La Russa informed Matheny he was on the Opening Day roster. “It was like making the big leagues for the first time,” Matheny said.

Taking charge

When the Cardinals opened the season on April 3, 2000, at home against the Cubs, the starting catchers were Matheny and Girardi. With his father and brothers attending from Ohio, Matheny contributed a single and a double and scored a run in the Cardinals’ 7-1 triumph. Boxscore

Experiencing an Opening Day in St. Louis for the first time, Matheny said, “I can honestly say it was about the most fun I’ve ever had playing in the game.”

Hitting and fielding well and displaying a quick release on throws, Matheny supplanted Marrero as the No. 1 catcher. In May 2000, The Sporting News declared, “Matheny continues to exceed expectations.”

On July 1, 2000, Marrero tore a ligament in his left thumb. A couple of weeks later, Matheny cracked a rib but continued to play. He wore a flak jacket and had his chest taped before every game. Carlos Hernandez, acquired from the Padres at the trade deadline, gave the Cardinals insurance at the catcher position.

Matheny hit .261 with 47 RBI in 128 games for the 2000 Cardinals and led National League catchers in number of runners caught attempting to steal (49). He sat out the postseason after he severed two tendons and a nerve in his right ring finger while using a hunting knife he received as a 30th birthday gift.

After their playing careers, Girardi and Matheny became big-league managers. Girardi won a World Series championship with the 2009 Yankees and Matheny won a National League pennant with the 2013 Cardinals.

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