I can understand why Bill McClellan, my friend and colleague at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is tired of hearing about “The Cardinal Way” and would like to see the phrase be retired.
For the love of Don Zimmer, Bill is a Cubs fan.
That explains everything.
But seriously …
I can appreciate the irritation over the incessant use of “The Cardinal Way.” I can see why others find it arrogant and haughty. Why do the Cardinals act like they’re superior to other baseball organizations? Who do these people think they are?
“No one wants to be perceived as ‘Oh, we always have the right answers.’ We make mistakes,” GM John Mozeliak said. “We know it. Our intentions are to do the right thing, but we don’t always do that. I would say we’re human.”
The Cardinals are also good at their jobs.
Since 2004, the Cardinals have 50 postseason victories, or 11 more than any major-league team. That 10-season run includes four National League pennants and two World Series championships and a player-development system that’s become the envy of most teams.
During the 2013 NL division series between the Cardinals and his Pirates, Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle was asked about the winning culture in St. Louis.
“The thing that impresses me is sustainability, and they’ve been able to have sustainability throughout change many times,” Hurdle said. “They are a team that many look to when you try to model success.”
Hurdle’s assessment may not be perfect, but it’s accurate.
I do believe there’s something to “The Cardinal Way” characterization. I don’t think it’s contrived.
Misunderstood — definitely.
And the expression also puts the Cardinals in a tricky position. If this team fails to play up to reputation and expectation, it’s open season. They’ll be ridiculed and mocked.
Or when the Cardinals do something controversial like affiliate themselves with players or coaches stained by performance-enhancing drug scandals (Mark McGwire, Jhonny Peralta), then they’re fair game for charges of hypocrisy.
In my view, manager Mike Matheny has erred in attaching morality to the so-called Cardinal Way platform. The Cardinals aren’t better human beings than what you’d find in any of the other 29 big-league clubhouses.
The Cardinal Way is really about baseball philosophy, clubhouse culture and nothing more. The holier-than-thou vibe is a real turnoff and does the organization a disservice.
I asked Mozeliak what the “Cardinal Way” represents to him.
He has the floor ...
“If I had to try to sum it up in a sentence, I would say it’s recognition and appreciation for our past, and it’s understanding what we have to do today. Our past is ingrained, and it’s inspiring. There’s a standard of success that we all want to live up to,” Mozeliak said.
“So there’s acceptance of the past. And knowing what we have to accomplish during this present moment, but also having a vision for the future. In other words, we don’t simply rest on our laurels.
“I think that sums it up. But that’s not special. That’s not magical. And I think that one of the things that makes this organization special is how we adhere to certain baseball principles.
“A lot of people try to equate Cardinal Way with morality and ethics. We certainly want to be good people. And we certainly want to make the right decisions. But what we really want this to represent is players doing things right.
“Putting the organization ahead of themselves, teaching and leading the younger players. We always see players investing in our future by how they help the players who are just starting out. The culture that’s been created in this organization is very positive right now.”
My opinion? The Cardinal Way is the legendary and late George Kissell working an incalculable number of hours in spring training and in minor-league parks over more than 50 years, teaching a set of specific fundamentals to generations of future Cardinals.
The same applies to less acclaimed instructors, such as the late Dave Ricketts and Hub Kittle. And to current third base coach Jose Oquendo, who is always grinding away at the fundamentals in on-field sessions with players both proven and unproven.
It’s about Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday going out of their way to set a strong example of how to work and prepare and be a good teammate in a way that enhances the chances for success.
These qualities aren’t exclusive to the Cardinals. Theirs isn’t the only “Way.” And these hard-core baseball principles have nothing to do with morality.
The Cardinals franchise has had some lean years. The 1970s were a lost decade. The “Cardinal Way” didn’t lead to one postseason appearance. But this isn’t just about fundamentals and teamwork. You need to have enough talent. When the Cardinals are losing, no one espouses the virtues of the Cardinal Way.
Still, when the Cardinals were losing too many games in the 1970s or early 1990s, that didn’t change the fact that Kissell and Ricketts were still out on the backfields, trying to teach kids how to go about their business.
“The Cardinal Way, to me, is an expectation of winning, an expectation of professionalism that comes with that winning,” Wainwright said. “And trying to do things the right way. And that’s been taught over the years by men like Red Schoendienst, Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith. All of these (living) great Hall of Famers that you’ve grown to love, they’re still in our clubhouse hanging out. We’re blessed to have those guys in the red jackets around, and we still feel their presence, their lessons.”
I realize we live in a jaded culture, and we’re right to be skeptical. But what Wainwright said there: Is it really so awful? What do we want ... players who don’t care? Players who smirk at team icons and feel no personal duty to uphold the standards of a stellar franchise?
The Cardinals aren’t insufferable snobs because they’re proud to wear the Birds on the Bat uniform and feel obligated to add to the winning tradition. Whether we like it or not, the Cardinal Way does exist. It is real because the players believe in it.