St. Louis's Second Most Valuable Player

Forget David Freese and Albert Pujols: The Cardinals owe their World Series victory to a middling retired pitcher named Kent Bottenfield

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Early in the 2000 baseball season, I attended a St. Louis Cardinals game with my father at Busch Stadium, where he's held season tickets for over three decades. Midway through the game, Fredbird, the team's San-Diego-Chicken-style mascot, climbed onto the dugout and started shooting balled-up T-shirts into the stands with an air canon. One sailed a perfect trajectory into my father's outstretched hand. Our excitement gave way to disappointment when we unrolled the shirt and found Kent Bottenfield's name emblazoned across the back. "Well, this one's going to the rag pile," my father muttered while stuffing the shirt beneath his seat.

His frustration was understandable—the Cardinals had traded Bottenfield during spring training and now were cynically flinging his leftover memorabilia into the crowd. Besides, few people would choose to attire themselves in Bottenfield gear anyway. The double-chinned journeyman pitcher with a head the size of a bowling ball labored on eight teams during his nine-year major league career, compiling an unremarkable record of 46-49. Before signing with the Cardinals as a free agent in 1998, Bottenfield had been downgraded to a relief pitcher after having failed to amass more than five wins in any given season. The Cardinals converted him back to a starter in 1999, and Bottenfield improbably transformed into the ace of the staff, tallying 18 wins and a selection to the All Star game. Even though Bottenfield's ERA hovered around 4.0 that year, his teammates gave him nearly 5.4 runs per start in support, which contributed greatly to his success. It had all the makings of a fluke season, and the Cardinals shrewdly decided to peddle their number-one starter while his value was still high. On March 23, 2000, Bottenfield was swapped alongside Adam Kennedy, a promising rookie, to the Anaheim Angels for All-Star center fielder Jim Edmonds. It was a trade that would shape the Cardinals for the next decade.

Bottenfield lasted four months on the Angels before the team shipped him and his swollen 5.71 ERA to Philadelphia—a victim of high expectations and low returns. The trade wasn't a complete wash for the Angels: Adam Kennedy developed into a reliable second baseman whose timely hitting helped the team capture its first World Series championship in 2002.

The Cardinals made out like bandits (as they did so often around that time—Blake Stein, Eric Ludwick and T.J. Matthews for Mark McGwire, anyone?). With his pretty-boy physique, exaggerated reactions at the plate, and penchant for unnecessary dives in center field, Jim Edmonds quickly became one of the most popular Cardinals for male and female fans alike. He was streaky, dramatic, maddening, and utterly captivating—more fallible than the metronomic Albert Pujols and more good-natured than the stoic Scott Rolen. His game-winning homerun in the extra innings of game 6 and game-saving, over-the-shoulder catch in Game Seven of the 2004 National League Championship Series against the Houston Astros propelled the Cardinals into the World Series that year, where they were steamrolled by the surging Boston Red Sox. But he would earn a deserved ring two years later, even though injuries dogged him that entire season.

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Luke Epplin is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, the New Yorker Page-Turner, and n+1

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