Lefty relievers a luxury for La Russa
by Jerry Crasnick
PHILADELPHIA—Steve Kline grew up in the hills of western Pennsylvania and never forgot his roots, which are knee deep in manure. His family ran a pig farm, and the five Kline boys took turns doing their share. When young Steve wasn't helping out with chores, he was getting his uniform dirty on the ballfield. His teammates called him "Pig Pen" and "Groundhog."
Ray King was born in Chicago, where he spent the first 14 years of his life surrounded by concrete. His athletic exploits were limited primarily to the local rec league. Then the family moved to Tennessee, and King discovered baseball, football, basketball, cross country and fresh air—not necessarily in that order.
The two pitchers, now Cardinals teammates, are different in many ways. King is black. Kline is white. King is urban. Kline is rural. King, while amply proportioned at 6-foot-1 and 242 pounds, looks GQ-worthy when he's all dressed up for a road trip. In a perfect world, Kline would opt for the John Deere look.
But they're quietly having an impact in St. Louis. While the Cardinals have dual MVP candidates in Scott Rolen and Albert Pujols, a lineup that's downright American League-ish with the addition of Larry Walker, a rotation that's a monument to stability and an effective closer in Jason Isringhausen, King and Kline give Tony La Russa a luxury that few managers have: Two dependable relievers from the left side.
Former Pirates manager Jim Leyland, now a special assistant in St. Louis, advocated carrying three lefties in the pen, but most clubs feel blessed if they have one who's reliable these days. The Padres and Angels are exclusively righthanded in the bullpen, and there's a reason why teams pursued Tom Martin and Mike Myers so actively in July and August.
Where have you gone, Bob McClure and Tony Fossas?
Kline, a Cardinal since 2001, and King, acquired from the Braves in the J.D. Drew trade, get up and stretch by force of habit when the bullpen phone rings. King calls them "dummies," because they're too dumb to beg off even when they're too sore to pitch.
"Tony can use them early or use them late," Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty said. "And they pitch every day. It's almost like having two more everyday players."
The comic relief is refreshing, too. King and Kline both enjoy signing autographs, bantering with fans and busting on each other in the bullpen when they're not pitching.
"When the TV cameras come down there it looks like a circus sometimes," King said. "Kline and Julian Tavarez are about 51 cards short of a deck."
Kline, 31, is a walking reality show. Three years ago, he was so offended when Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins flipped the bat after a home run that he stalked Rollins around the bases, lecturing the rookie on etiquette. Kline is so prone to muttering obscenities to himself on his way back to the dugout that the Cardinals asked Fox Sports Net to stop showing his rants because the family audience might take offense.
"It's just his way to blow off steam," Jocketty said. "But people can read lips."
During a 10-9 win over the Cubs in June, Kline gave La Russa the middle finger from the bullpen when the manager warmed him up and never used him during a six-run inning. La Russa was so angry, he went looking for Kline in the showers after the game. They eventually made their peace, and the Cardinals disciplined Kline before Major League Baseball had the chance.
"People thought I was mad at Tony," Kline said. "I was more mad at the situation. We were playing the Cubs, our big rival, and we were getting beat pretty good. I was warming up and I didn't get in. I lost my marbles for a second there, but you learn. What I did was wrong, and I'd never do it again."
The cap that holds Kline's marbles in place is virtually toxic by August. At the start of the season the Cardinals distribute four hats—one home, one road, one for batting practice and one for Sunday. Kline never replaces them, so they're all caked with grime and dried sweat. It's his personal tribute to the folks back home and to his father, who told him, "Don't ever forget where you're from."
The running gag with King revolves around his weight. During batting cage banter in June, Ken Griffey Jr. told King, "You're tough on lefties because your gut hides the ball." King, who is self-assured enough to laugh when teammates or opponents call him "Burger King," took it as a compliment.
Truth is, King is a workhorse. He's appeared in 82, 76 and 80 games over the past three seasons, and habitually tends to the important stuff. After each outing, he makes sure to ice and perform his Dr. Frank Jobe range of motion exercises. He's also big on keeping his pitch counts low in the name of self-preservation.
"I look at it this way—I go out and perform every day and every night," King said. "I answer the bell, and a lot of guys with 2 percent body fat don't."
Facing The Iron
Some prominent lefty hitters would attest to King's bell-answering acumen. The Reds' Big Three of Griffey, Sean Casey and Adam Dunn is hitting .161 (9-for-56) with no homers against him. Bobby Abreu is 1-for-13 against King, while Barry Bonds is 1-for-10 with only one walk.
King's game plan for Bonds is unabashedly aggressive. He attacks Bonds with a hard two-seamer on the hands for strike 1. Then he'll throw fastballs and sliders away. But he has no fear of coming inside against the game's best hitter.
"A lot of guys try to pick, pick, pick against him," King said. "Now it's 3-0 or 3-1, and he knows you have to come in the zone, and he'll hurt people. If you put him on the defensive, you have a good chance to have success with him."
St. Louis's two lefties give opponents a slightly different look. King throws his fastball 94 mph and complements it with a tight slider. Kline typically pitches in the 88-89 range, and relies on a more traditional hook. But they approach their jobs the same way—as dummies who just can't say no.
"We know we're the grunts of the team," Kline said. "The guys in the bullpen and on the bench aren't the superstars. Sometimes you wish you were the closer because you could start that ninth inning fresh instead of coming in with guys on second and third, one out and Barry Bonds up. But that's our job. We understand the rules."
Every single day.
Jerry Crasnick is a contributing baseball writer for ESPN.com. You can contact him by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.