Ex-Dodger Rafael Furcal played cards right in joining St. Louis
Reporting from Arlington, Texas -- If Wall Street had a baseball team, it would be a lot like the one the St. Louis Cardinals started the season with.
Conservative. Button-down. Quiet. All great traits for bankers. But none of them describe former Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal.
There had to be some question about how Furcal’s boundless — and noisy — enthusiasm would fit with Team Tepid when the Cardinals acquired him from the Dodgers hours before the July trade deadline.
Turns out Furcal was just the spark St. Louis needed.
“From an energy standpoint,” teammate Ryan Theriot said, “Furky’s been great.”
“Helps you in every facet of the game,” Manager Tony La Russa said. “In not just his play, but his enthusiasm. He was part of the enthusiasm.”
He was also part of the reason the Cardinals were able to rally from a 101/2-game deficit in the wild-card standings to reach the World Series, which is tied at a win apiece heading into Game 3 here on Saturday.
“When I came here I found a team that was kind of quiet,” Furcal said in Spanish. “And I’m not the kind of guy who plays baseball quietly. I like to talk, joke and keep everyone happy. Like the Americans say, having fun. And that’s how baseball should be. You should leave the field happy.”
Since the trade, the Cardinals far more often than not have also left the field with a win, going 41- 26 since Furcal’s first start.
To be fair, Furcal didn’t change the clubhouse atmosphere on his own. Relievers Octavio Dotel, who joined the Cardinals four days before Furcal, and Arthur Rhodes, who was signed 13 days later, also have outsized personalities. But Furcal has been the ringleader.
No one has fed off his energy more than slugger Albert Pujols, who was hitting .283 entering August but batted .327 with 34 runs batted in over the final two months of the regular season.
When the Cardinals beat Milwaukee in the National League Championship Series last weekend, Pujols pushed through the celebrating crowd near the pitcher’s mound to hug his fellow Dominican, who is playing in a World Series for the first time.
“It’s something really important in my career,” Furcal said. “I’ve been in the playoffs nine times but I’ve never made it to the World Series . . . which has always been one of my dreams.”
Three months ago, that seemed like a pipe dream. In his final 31/2 seasons with the Dodgers, Furcal aged quickly, battling myriad injuries that caused him to miss 260 games. When it became clear the club wouldn’t pick up his $12-million option for next season, the Dodgers began planning for the future.
“We needed to give [rookie shortstop] Dee Gordon a true opportunity with an extended look. Raffy understood that completely,” said Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti, who sent Furcal a congratulatory text message in Spanish after the Cardinals won the NL pennant.
“He wanted to continue playing, which we understood completely. St Louis expressed interest and we didn’t want to deny him the opportunity.”
Furcal had to OK the trade first, which he said wasn’t as easy as it might seem.
“It was a tough decision,” he said. “I’ve got a house over there. I liked the team. I loved the fans. But I’m going to be 34 years old and they already got a guy [who’s] going to be great player, Dee Gordon.
“They gave me 24 hours to make a decision. And it was the best one I made in my career.”
The trade reinvigorated both Furcal and the Cardinals. After batting just .197 in 37 games with the Dodgers, the switch-hitter had at least one hit in 20 of his first 25 starts with St. Louis, helping push the team back into the playoff hunt.
“It seems like every time he gets on base early in the game he scores,” said Theriot, another former Dodger and the guy Furcal replaced at shortstop in St. Louis. “I was with him in L.A. and he’s just a great teammate and a good guy to have around.
“I know what he’s capable of. And I know the type of player he is from an intensity standpoint, how he prepares, how he goes about his business. He’s one of my favorites.”
One major league scout who followed the Cardinals went so far as to say Furcal is playing like a kid again.
Whether that will lead to many contract offers this winter remains to be seen. Although Furcal hit .255 with seven homers in 50 regular-season games with St. Louis, he’s batting just .196 in the postseason. And while he’s made some highlight-reel plays in the field, he’s also committed 10 errors since the trade.
However, he’s also proved that, when healthy, he can still be a factor. Aside from playing in a World Series, Furcal says that’s the most important thing.
“I always felt that if I wasn’t hurt, if I was fine, that I could do anything,” he said. “My wife and I would always speak about this, that I just wanted to be healthy for what was to come.”
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