Monday, December 18, 2017

Cardinals’ Hearts Match Minds in Piscotty Deal

By Jeff Kallman

When the Cardinals were bumped out of their final National League wild card hope at September's end, I noticed several things. Including the trio of Stephen Piscotty, Randall Grichuk, and 2016 rookie star Aledmys Diaz dropping off the OPS+ table to a collective 87 between them. The Cardinals, I noted, were going to have to figure out how to re-adjust the trio.

Shows you what I knew. Piscotty played with a monstrous weight on his heart. He took a leave from the team for a week in May, when learning his mother was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS).

"It was time to get back and spend time with her," Piscotty told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch when he returned to the team. "It just really puts life in perspective. When I got the news it was a little tough to focus, and I felt it was the right decision to go home and Mike was great about making that real easy. I was very thankful for that, especially my mom. It's time to get back to work and get rolling."

Piscotty would have to have been beyond human to roll very well the rest of the season after receiving news like that, even with the Cardinals putting him onto every last medical connection they have in and outside baseball for assistance. And manager Mike Matheny knew it.

"Our world revolves around winning for nine months out of the year and we tend to lose sight — or at least compartmentalize and put stuff off to the side on the back-burner," the skipper told the Post-Dispatch when his man returned. "That's how most of the guys are wired. But when something like this comes up, that can't happen. You've got to go deal with the tough stuff."

As the winter meetings began to wind down last week, the Cardinals showed they have more heart than many when it comes to helping a man deal with the tough stuff. In baseball terms, strictly, trading Piscotty to Oakland — after he became an odd outfielder out with the fire-selling Marlins dealing them Marcell Ozuna — made enough sense.

But the Athletics play their home games a mere 25 miles from where Piscotty's mother lives. And while the Cardinals had interest in Piscotty from other teams, they were going to do right by him and his family if they could help it.

"You are never making a player trade simply for geographic or sentimental reasons," said team president John Mozeliak. "It had to be something that made sense for us. There were certainly some opportunities to move him elsewhere. When you are looking at how to break a tie, clearly that did play into it."

A day before the deal was done, Matheny told A's beat writer Susan Schlusser of the San Francisco Chronicle that they wanted to get Piscotty to the Bay Area if they could help it.

"You just hurt for him," Matheny told Schlusser. "You can't even really go there to understand him and at his age and what it is that he had to endure or what that is like for a family. You let him know that you care. You acknowledge. You have compassion. We're trying to be support for him, and we have to look to do anything we can." (Piscotty is 26.)

After his breakout 2016, during which he hit 22 home runs, drove in 85 runs, and hung up a respectable .800 OPS with just shy of three wins above a replacement-level player, Piscotty's 2017 season was torpedoed by his family burden. Playing so much closer to home should lift a huge burden off his heart, if it can't relieve his mother of the insidious disease.

Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig's name became attached to it after the Yankee first baseman took himself out of the lineup and retired; the disease killed him two years later. Hall of Fame pitcher Catfish Hunter turned up with ALS almost two decades after he retired; he died a year later after a fall in his home injured his head too severely. Former college baseball star Peter Frates inspired the Ice Bucket Challenge after receiving his ALS diagnosis.

When her son went home for that week, 54-year-old Gretchen Piscotty watched a few Cardinals games with him on television before all but ordering him to get back to work. "I know she enjoys watching me play, so I want to give her that," he said when he returned. "She thought it'd be a fun, weird idea to have me there watching. So we did that. The whole family was able to come back and spend some time and kind of gather ourselves. My mom is very strong. So we're going to be behind her."

Mrs. Piscotty told the San Jose Mercury-News her son's homecoming trade was a bittersweet gift, even as her husband, Michael, is more than prepared for Athletic's games — he's been a season ticket holder for two decades. Their son was on the links at Pebble Beach when he received a text message telling him about the trade.

"I wasn't 100 percent sure how to feel about it," she said. "The Cardinals have been really good to Stephen and good to us. We made a lot of friends there. I feel like one of the luckiest people to have been able to experience their hospitality. I still have immense gratitude that they drafted Stephen back in June 2012. But then my phone just blew up with congratulations that he was coming home. I thought about how it will be easier for all of our friends and family to come see him play. (And) it will be nice to not have to fly on a plane to go see him play. It will be nice to have him around and closer to home."

The Cardinals often speak of themselves as a family from the players up through the entire organization. Some of that may be hyperbolic, of course. But as with actual families there come times when the best you can do for one of them is let them go. Especially if it means letting them go home where they're needed the most.

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