|New Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has some big shoes to fill with Tony La Russa's departure. (US Presswire)|
Prince Fielder can admit it now that he's gone from the National League Central and now that Tony La Russa is gone too.
He liked Tony.
Really, he did.
"I didn't get him at first," Fielder said. "But Tony helped me grow up and focus by playing against him. I learned you can really take someone off their game."
For 16 years, La Russa took the NL Central off its game.
"There's always something here with these guys," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said last August, in the aftermath of one particularly contentious series with La Russa's Cardinals.
They argued with the Brewers. They fought with the Reds. They battled with the Astros. They were the enemy in Chicago. They even had issues with the Pirates.
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There were times the entire division seemed to revolve around St. Louis, revolve around La Russa.
The Cardinals were in the middle of everything. La Russa was in the middle of everything.
And now he's gone. He's gone, and Albert Pujols is gone, and while the Cardinals are still a very good team (I picked them to win the division), they're not the same team.
"It's not the same," agreed Fielder, who left the Brewers to sign with the Tigers as a free agent. "Tony brought that swag, and it made them seem better than they were."
Fielder's Brewers finally overcame the Cardinals to win the NL Central last year ... only to lose in the NLCS and watch the Cardinals win the World Series.
Now Fielder is gone, off to the Tigers as a free agent, but the Brewers open the 2012 season against the Cardinals on Friday. Right away, we'll find out just how different life without Tony will be in the Central.
"It might be toned down just a little," Brewers center fielder Nyjer Morgan said.
Morgan should know. He was the one who referred to La Russa's Cardinals as "those crying birds" in a tweet last September.
You know, the same way Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips had called the Cardinals "little bitches" the year before.
Yes, there was always something with those guys.
The La Russa Cardinals were always in the middle of everything ... partly because the La Russa Cardinals were almost always good.
In La Russa's 16 years in St. Louis, his Cardinals won the Central seven times, and finished tied with the Astros for the division crown in 2001. They finished second two more times, including last year.
So, yes, that was part of it. The Cardinals were everyone's rival because the Cardinals were always in the way if you wanted to win.
"Everybody wants to beat the Cardinals," Phillips said this spring. "They're a great organization and a great team."
"They're the champs," said Morgan. "And until we dethrone the champs, they are still champs."
But there was always more to it than that. There was always more to it than just the Cardinals' success.
There was the part Fielder spoke about, the part where La Russa specialized in getting under your skin, taking you off your game.
That was the part that had Morgan taking to Twitter last year. That was the part that had Phillips lashing out the year before.
"I'd play against these guys with one leg," Phillips said then. "I hate the Cardinals."
But will they be as hateable now, with Mike Matheny in charge and with Pujols gone off to the Angels? Will there still "always be something"?
"It's hard to say," Cardinals pitcher Kyle Lohse said. "I think it's really going to be wait and see on that one."
We may not have to wait long. After Wednesday night's opener in Miami, the Cardinals spend the rest of April playing within the Central. They visit every division opponent except for the Astros. The Cubs, Reds and Brewers all visit St. Louis.
They'll find a Cardinals team that includes most of the same players who won last year. Carlos Beltran is the only significant addition, and the only starting player who left was Pujols.
These are still Tony's players, still the guys who took on Tony's personality, still the "crying birds" or "little bitches."
Aren't they? Or was it all Tony?
Was he the reason that every Cardinal rivalry turned into a blood rivalry, why everything turned into a Midwest version of Yankees-Red Sox?
"When I was in Pittsburgh, we had a problem with them, too," said Aramis Ramirez, who later played for the Cubs and now plays for the Brewers. "It seemed like everyone in the division did.
"But he was good. He won."
The Cardinals may well win again, but without Tony, some things just won't be the same.