Why My Cardinals, In Fact, Do Not Suck

Baseball is a game of passions, especially for those of us raised on it.  Every so often, it fuels some vitriol that needs to be answered.  This is one of those moments.

Drew Magary shared a post yesterday, “Why Your Cardinals Suck.”  You can read it here.  I’d like to share some thoughts overall, then a few point-by-point responses.

I was born and raised in St. Louis.  Still live there.  Being a Cards fan is part of your life.  My earliest memories include sitting at my grandfather’s feet while he sat in his recliner, smoked his pipe, listened to the game on the radio and cursed at Mike Shannon for three straight hours.  (He hated Mike Shannon.  I don’t know why, but I kinda hate him too for no good reason.  Nature vs. nurture, I suppose.)  I vividly remember Joaquin Andujar taking a line drive off the knee from Ted Simmons in game 3 of the 1982 World Series, then limping back to be the game 7 winner.  Watching the Denkinger call in ’85.  Coming so close in ’87.  But I also remember proudly wearing Cardinal Red while watching guys like Gregg Jefferies, Todd Zeile, Scott Coolbaugh and Ozzie Canseco.  Good or bad, they are our team.  They are part of our identity, and proudly so.

Let’s take a few points from the article.

“The St. Louis Cardinals beat the Pittsburgh Pirates last night, because the Cardinals don’t like it when another team like the Pirates or Nationals dares to threaten their self-appointed status as America’s Baseball Sweethearts.”  That’s not actually why the Cardinals won.  They won because Wainwright was great on the mound and the offense and defense played well.  I don’t imagine the team image was part of the locker room pep talk.  If it was, they might have beaten the Giants last year.

“…somehow the Cardinals and their fans will brand themselves lovable underdogs to LA despite boasting a top-10 payroll.”  Actually, they are 14th per ESPN.  Who are they paying?  Matt Holliday (acquired via trade), Yadier Molia (homegrown), Carlos Beltran (free agent, signed for two years), Adam Wainwright (acquired as a minor leaguer, never thrown a pitch in another uniform), Jake Westbrook (acquired via trade, and isn’t even in the conversation at this point, but they let him start a game at the year’s end to thank him for his time with the team).  Only ten players make more than a million per year.  Sixteen of the twenty-three players listed on that page have never worn a big league uniform other than the Cards.  That’s a pretty great way to build an organization.  When you mistaken quote a top-ten payroll, there is an implication that they went out and bought a bunch of great players.  Clearly, this isn’t the case.  In fact, their payroll is less than half that of the Dodgers or the Yankees.

“They are Tim Tebow in baseball organization form.”  If you mean adored by the many, then yes.  The Cardinals have drawn more than 3 million fans fifteen of the last sixteen years.  Including the years we were below .500 (two of those) and the years we were double digits out of first place (three of those). We crossed 3.5 million twice.  For a metro area that is under 3 million in population, it’s pretty impressive.  But if you mean a hollow reputation with no real winning to back it up, then no.  So I guess you mean the former.

“It’s no coincidence that sabermetric punching bag David Eckstein spent a few years playing for the Cardinals, because no team in any sport puffs up its grittiness credentials quite like this one.”  This one confuses me.  A scrappy middle infielder who doesn’t lead the league in any category, a guy who had to put his whole body into every throw, a near .300 hitter with just defense and enough clutch performance to win the 2006 WSMVP award (and have his name botched in the process).  And beloved by the city for leaving it all on the field.  Because we understand that the stats don’t always tell the whole story.  Are you arguing for us or against us as a great baseball town?

“I don’t trust any fanbase that brands itself as being the Best Fans In Baseball…”  It’s not just us.  Plenty of others agree.  Over and over.  Even the players agree.  And we roll with it, because we were brought up to believe its not polite to argue with guests.

“The Cardinals are a giant sucking red hole of good old-fashioned Midwestern piousness, with a fanbase that does “classy” things specifically so that it can humblebrag about doing classy things.”   Actually, it is just kind of who we are.  And while this kind of statement begs for a response, any examples I give will be met with an “AHA! HUMBLEBRAG!” retort.

“You are poorly disguised Yankees fans in ugly Christmas sweaters carrying a Jell-O mold to your neighbor’s door. And your constant attempts to turn every October into an extended production of Our Town makes me want to hang myself with a extension cord.”  Ok, fine.  I will give you three examples.

First was being at a game in 2004.  Ray Lankford had rejoined the team after spending a couple of summers in San Diego.  He was 0-4 with three strikeouts, I believe.  He was playing part time and struggling, eventually ending up hitting .255 in his final season.  He comes up in the late innings with runners on base.  And the crowd went crazy, chanting his name and willing him to come through.  He didn’t.  And not a single boo was rained upon his head for it.  At least, not that could be heard.

Second was later that year.  The Red Sox came into our house and busted their curse, sweeping us in the World Series.  Their fans, who were out in large numbers that night, were estatic.  And while were a little concerned they might burn down our town in their euphoria, we watched them celebrate.  No stabbings, no gunfire, no network-newsworthy brawls.

And finally, on the other side of that ledger, the 2011 series.  I was there for games 6 and 7.  There were a lot of Rangers fans in attendance as well.  Game 6 was amazing.  Greatest World Series game ever, by just about any yardstick you’d like to use.  But even better was the celebration after game 7.  The sea of red included a few drops of blue, as dejected Texans trudged back to their cars.  But rather than meet them with scorn or narcissistic triumphant calls, the most common reaction was, “Hey, thanks for being here.  Your team played great.  Sorry it didn’t work out.”  And every word was sincere.

If that kind of sportsmanship and love for the sport is offensive to you, might I suggest you take up watching basketball.  We don’t have a pro team any longer, so you’ll be safe there.  But I think most people would agree that acting like civilized fans instead of savages in those moments are what we need more of, not less.

“St. Louis, the town, is a fucking dump.”  Maybe.  But it’s our dump.  And you are always welcome to visit, take in a game, and see what we are really like.  Here’s a hint:  We don’t really suck.  We’re pretty nice.  Come and see!

 

Lessons from the 2012 Cardinals’ Collapse

 

As defending world champions, there were high hopes for the Cardinals this year.  What started as a great playoff run with flashbacks to the 2011 World Series (universally hailed as the greatest of all time) ended with three straight losses to the San Francisco Giants.  In the wake of the team collapse, here are a few lessons you can take and apply in your own organization.

It’s Not All About Leadership

The Cardinals made an interesting move this year, appointing Mike Matheny as the heir to Tony LaRussa. While my feelings on TLR are well documented, Matheny came in with no managerial experience. On any level.  But he was a great field general as a player, and he was given a shot.  It wasn’t an easy gig, to be sure.  While the team had hoisted the hardware in 2011, they would face 2012 without Albert Pujols.  Then they lost Lance Berkman.  And Chris Carpenter.  And Rafael Furcal.  And Jamie Garcia.

Despite all that, the Cards had a commanding 3-1 lead in the NLCS over the Giants.  A fine job by a rookie skipper, to be sure.  But the offense, pitching and defense all disappeared in game 5, never to return.  While there were some questionable decisions made by Matheny along the way, the player have to execute.  An no manager in the word can field a ground ball from the dugout.

You have leaders in your organization that will, from time to time, be given too much credit for a success.  The good ones, you may have noticed, pass that credit along to their team.  They may also get too much blame for failures.  The good ones keep that for themselves. But we all know that leaders can only set people up for success. Execution has to happen on the field.

Be Careful In Selecting Your Stars

With Pujols likely on his way out of town, the Cardinals invested a lot of money and years in acquiring Matt Holliday in 2009 and then signing him to a long term deal.  He’s a solid investment, at least on paper.  He’ll hit 25-30 home runs,drive in 100, hit .300 or so each year.  But Matt also has something in common with almost every car I’ve ever owned.

No clutch.

When your talent team is sifting through candidates, trying to find the right person to add to your team, remember that it’s not all about the results.  How you got there matters, too. A leader who makes their goals by burning out their team and running off their players isn’t one you want.  Nor do you want a team member that can’t come through when the pressure is on.  Dive a little deeper, and find the ones that strive when the spotlight is on them.  You’ll be glad you did.

Sometimes It Really Is A Team Sport

The Cardinals may have had a better group of players, more experience, and a bunch of rings that make them the better bet, but they were beat by a team that outperformed them in every aspect of games 5-7.  Would you trade rosters straight up if you ran the Cards?  Probably not.  But the process equation holds true.  The team’s outcome is a function of their inputs, and no two groups of inputs will react in the same way.

When you put your team together, they will form in their own way.  You can’t recreate an old team, even with the same people, in a new place.  And you can’t hope to succeed long term on the backs of one or two people. Pay attention to who you acquire, create an environment that accepts them for who they are and allows them to play to their strengths, and you’ll be amazed at what they can accomplish.  It’s why the business world sees David whoop the pants off of Goliath over and over and over.

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