St. Louis Cardinals

Judging Jimmy Ballgame: Cardinals great deserved a better shot at Cooperstown

Jim Edmonds at Cardinals spring training in 2012, after his retirement from the game.
Jim Edmonds at Cardinals spring training in 2012, after his retirement from the game.

We called him Jimmy Ballgame, not for the comparison to Ted Williams but for the flair and elan and drama he brought to the ballpark every day.

One of the St. Louis Cardinals’ most popular players ever — Jim Edmonds — fell off the Hall of Fame ballot after one swing of the bat Wednesday, and that just-a-little-bit-sad fact got me to reflecting on No. 15’s stay in St. Louis.

If you didn’t see him play every day, you couldn’t appreciate all the things he brought to Busch Stadium: A catch slamming into the outfield wall one day, a three-run homer the next, a diving catch in left center the next, a spectacular strikeout with the game on the line the next. Yes, he did that too.

I remember watching him play his first week in St. Louis — the start of the 2000 season, after Cardinals General Manager Walt Jocketty acquired him in spring training from Anaheim for pitcher Kent Bottenfield — and marveling at his play in center field. I turned to my cohort, David Wilhelm, and said, “Geez, he’s the Ozzie Smith of the outfield.”

Edmonds was a showman: He never got to a fly ball before absolutely necessary, making some plays more dramatic than they really were. Sometimes he dove when he didn’t have to, and sometimes he stubbornly played too shallow in center field, necessitating some of those crashes into the wall as he chased too far for a ball hit over his head.

Yet: We never saw anybody quite like him. And some of his signature moments — his home run to win Game 6 of the National League Championship Series against Houston in 2004, and his series-saving diving catch in Game 7 the next night — rank among the most important moments in franchise playoff history.

At the plate, I never thought Edmonds got credit for being in the middle of those great 100-win Cardinal teams last decade, the straw that stirred the drink in the middle of that lineup with Scott Rolen, Albert Pujols and all the rest.

His first five seasons with the Cardinals — from 2000 to 2004 — the team averaged 95 wins, including a 100-win season in 2004, Edmonds’ best year as a Cardinal: .301, 42 homers, 111 RBIs, 102 runs scored.

Consider: In the five years previous to Edmonds’ arrival — from 1995 to 1999 — the team averaged 76 wins.

And there’s this: In that five-year span from 2000-04, Edmonds averaged 36 homers, 100 RBIs, 102 runs and a .298 batting mark per season.

Admittedly, he was a streak hitter, hot or cold, sometimes maddeningly so. That uppercut swing? When it was off, the offense was off. When it was right? So were the Redbirds.

And, admittedly, that streakiness made him moody, especially early in his tenure with the Cardinals.

I won’t forget when he complained that the grounds crew mowing the outfield was making it more difficult for him to play. Honest to God: Edmonds said the mowing patterns made some leaves of grass tilt toward him in center field, while others tilted toward home plate. And so, he argued (if a little pitiably) that the ball would skip differently off the grass depending on which way it was tilted.

I. Am. Not. Making. This. Up.

But as his stature grew in St. Louis, so did his leadership. Not afraid to tangle (sometimes playfully) with Tony La Russa over issues between the manager and the clubhouse, Edmonds grew as a team leader and spokesman. He led a group of veteran players not afraid to dress down an unknowing newcomer in the room, telling that player in no uncertain terms: We run out ground balls here. You’re part of something bigger here. Play hard or you’ll be singled out.

That tradition of leadership has continued to this day, assumed in recent years by the likes of an Adam Wainwright or a Yadier Molina or a Chris Carpenter. But no one played the role more emphatically than Edmonds, not afraid to publicly call out his team if it wasn’t playing up to the standards set by him and other veterans in the clubhouse.

Gifted athletically, complicated personally, not always easily understood and appreciated.

Certainly, he was too complex a character to be easily judged by one year’s voting for the Hall of Fame. If he wasn’t worthy of Cooperstown — and 97.5 percent of the nation’s qualified baseball writers said exactly that Wednesday — it remains a shame he didn’t have more than one trip to the plate for that judgment.

Finally, we are left with this: Edmonds joins catcher Ted Simmons as the two best Cardinal ballplayers to be one-and-done in the Hall of Fame vote. And that may be the latest and lasting singular distinction for the guy we called Jimmy Ballgame.

Joe Ostermeier, chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, has written about the Cardinals for the News-Democrat since the 1985 season. He can be reached at 618-239-2512, @JoeOstermeier