The Cardinals Way: Infuriating Success
Early last month, the Porch Drinking sports gang was asked to predict the World Series winner. I thought about it for a few minutes, and then realized that the answer was obvious.
“The Cardinals will win the World Series,” I wrote, “because they are a pain in my ass.”
Fortunately, over the last few weeks, much of the country has started to notice all of the delightful things about the Cardinals and their fans that have annoyed me for years. Judging by what I have read online, and heard from baseball fans and non-fans alike, I don’t need to rehash the air of condescension that radiates from St. Louis fans (and now players too!), but I will give credit where credit is due.
Contrary to the prevailing sentiment in St. Louis (actual headline in the Post Dispatch: “The Cardinals’ Way vs. the Dodgers’ Pay”), the Cardinals are not a scrappy group of underdogs and baseball rejects that have somehow managed to remain competitive through their grit and a superior knowledge of “the right way to play the game”. The Cardinals are, however, an extremely well-run mid-market franchise that has dominated the competition in the current era of baseball (since the 1994 strike and realignment into 3 divisions per league).
The Cardinals opened the 2013 season with the 11th highest payroll in baseball. While their payroll is dwarfed by that of the Yankees, Dodgers, and even the Phillies, St. Louis spent more than any other team in the NL Central, and just over a million dollars more than the Washington Nationals, a popular preseason pick to win the National League, if not the World Series.
Where the Cardinals have excelled financially is by not making big mistakes in terms of payroll. The four players on the roster making more than $ 10 million – Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina, and Adam Wainwright – have all turned in solid seasons, and in the cases of the latter two, exceptional ones. Those two guys are locked up through 2018 at affordable rates, and Holliday, who has seen his performance dip somewhat, is on board for the next three seasons, with a club option for 2017. Beltran will likely be allowed to walk after this season, something the Cardinals have had no problem doing.
The thing that jumps out the most when you look at the Cardinals’ payroll is what isn’t on it – namely Albert Pujols at $25 million or so per year. St. Louis had the discipline two offseasons ago to refuse to pay their cornerstone player what he was commanding on the open market. A weaker franchise might have reasoned that Pujols had been such a great contributor to the Cardinals’ success over the last decade that the team owed it to him to pay for past, rather than future, performance. Or one could have lacked the confidence that winning ways would continue without the superstar. Not St. Louis. The Cardinals let him go, and Pujols has turned in his worst two seasons since 2002 over the last two years, and Arte Moreno can look forward to writing him checks for a total of $212 million from now until 2021. Good luck with that.
What once looked like key cogs for the Cardinals have ultimately proved themselves to be interchangeable parts. General Manager Walt Jocketty left for Cincinnati in 2008. After the last World Series win, Tony LaRussa retired to go live in a house with seventeen cats (this is true). The same offseason, Pujols signed with the Angels and was last in the news for filing a lawsuit against a radio personality who suggested that he had using steroids. None of these departures has derailed the Cardinals.
Since the strike in 1994, the Cardinals have won 64 playoff games (with another four there for the taking this month). The rest of the NL Central? 20. The Reds come in second with a robust 9.
So does that earn the Cardinals begrudging respect from this Cub fan? Of course not; it just makes them all the more insufferable. Go Red Sox.