Forget David Freese and Albert Pujols: The Cardinals owe their World Series victory to a middling retired pitcher named Kent Bottenfield
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.
With Edmonds showing signs of decline, the Cardinals flipped him to the San Diego Padres in 2008 for David Freese, a hometown minor leaguer who would spend more time on the disabled list than on the field over the next few years. It was a maligned trade that bore fruit years later when Freese went full-on Babe Ruth in the 2011 playoffs. His walk-off homerun in the eleventh inning of the stunning sixth game of the World Series sent his teammates into such a Dionysian frenzy that they nearly ripped off Freese's limbs before he crossed home plate.
No one mentioned Kent Bottenfield's name when Freese hoisted the World Series MVP trophy above his head late Friday night. After lackluster seasons in Philadelphia and Houston, Bottenfield drifted out of baseball in 2001 and started a second career as a Christian pop artist who had yet to master the art of lip-synching. But make no mistake about it: His all-star season in 1999 paved the way for both of the Cardinals' subsequent championships. If Bottenfield hadn't pitched out of his mind that year, the Cardinals wouldn't have had enough assets to convince the Angels to part ways with Edmonds. And if the Cardinals hadn't acquired Edmonds, they most likely wouldn't have toppled the Astros in 2004 or have been strong enough to hang on in the National League Central division in 2006. What's more, they wouldn't have been able to dump the aging Edmonds on the Padres for the developing Freese. It's possible that the Cardinals would have forged divergent paths to those championships—any team with a nucleus of Albert Pujols, Chris Carpenter, and Yadier Molina was bound to show up in the World Series at some point—but the leverage that Bottenfield gave the Cardinals rendered those scenarios moot.
So perhaps it's time for my father to rescue his Kent Bottenfield T-shirt from the rag pile and wear it with pride. Albert Pujols may have been the most valuable player on the team over the past decade, but in many ways the Cardinals' fate was determined by Bottenfield's atypically brilliant 1999 season.