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Authors: Howard Megdal

The Cardinals Way

BOOK: The Cardinals Way
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To Rachel, the Branch Rickey of wives, and Mirabelle and Juliet, my favorite prospects with limitless ceilings

 

Prologue

For years everyone had been telling Mike Matheny how great the Cardinals were, and in April 2014, sitting in the visiting manager's office at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, Matheny finally had enough. It was Matheny at peak Midwestern modesty.

If somebody told you Mike Matheny was the newest star in Hollywood, you'd buy it. But really, he belongs to a different Hollywood era physically and in manner, with intense blue eyes and the countenance of the guy you'd bet your money on in a western blockbuster's climactic gunfight.

He looks like a manager. He sounds like a manager. And when Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak started looking for the person to continue the franchise's success after the 2011 World Series championship, Matheny's presence and ties to the organization made him the easy choice. His game-management skills are oft discussed and still developing. His relationships with people are why he has the job.

With reporters, Matheny answers the questions he wants to answer. And he doesn't dodge others: he flat out tells you he doesn't wish to respond.

But it would be a mistake to think his focus implies he has taciturn interactions with his players. Nearly every Cardinal has a story about a conversation with Matheny at a key time in his career, almost always initiated by the skipper. Still just forty-three as the 2014 season began, Matheny's ability to come in and succeed Tony La Russa, a legendary manager, isn't talked about often, largely because of how seamlessly it happened.

Matheny took over in 2012 and led the Cardinals to the NLCS. In 2013, his Cardinals won the pennant before falling to the Boston Red Sox in the World Series. In 2014, they returned to the postseason, and lost in the NLCS once again. And as this book went to press in August 2015, the Cardinals were on a pace to win well over 100 games, with a Tom Verducci story about them in
Sports Illustrated
using both “beast” and “superteam” in the headline.

Coming on the heels of Tony La Russa's 2011 World Series championship in his final season, the Cardinals have put together the kind of sustained success that is rare in baseball, drawing all kinds of attention and a simple question.

How are they doing it?

Accordingly, there'd been a great deal of talk about “the Cardinals Way.” It had come to represent many different things in the public eye and media discussions: a code of conduct, a particular outlook on baseball, a moral compass. It had been co-opted, used as shorthand, and Matheny was sick of all the praise.

“I don't even want to use the
Cardinals Way
term anymore,” Matheny said. “But that whole idea is really something to be inside this clubhouse and inside more importantly the minor league clubhouse. About what it's supposed to look like and not really for commercialization or for promotion.

“I think it got out of hand to the point where it's ugly to people outside of this organization. No good comes from it. And I think it's put people on the offensive. And they have all the reason in the world [to want to beat the Cardinals].… You know, it's like we're out there running, carrying this big banner, and that's not necessarily—not at all—who we are.”
1

You can understand where Matheny's coming from. After all, who needs teams more motivated to play you? Other fans around baseball took similar exception to the consistent refrain about Cardinals fans being the “best fans in baseball,” as if the way the Cardinals (and many, many other teams) choose to thank their fans for support had turned into a boast by those very fans.

A Twitter account even sprung up, @BestFansStLouis, highlighting awful things Cardinals fans would say on Twitter. What this proved, I couldn't tell you. Finding disgusting sentiments on the cesspool that is Twitter doesn't take long. And “best fans in baseball” is a fundamentally different concept from “perfect fanbase, purged of anything petty or nasty.” In my experience, Cardinals fans do boo less and are more gracious when an opposing player makes a great play. They show up more, and more consistently. Their local television ratings in 2014 were the highest of any MLB team.

But this isn't a group of fans trying to maintain modesty—this is a key member of the Cardinals, trying to avoid entirely deserved praise. Let's take a step back and think about that. The Cardinals largely avoid publicizing the Cardinals Way as an idea, large or small. The name itself comes from a manual, written originally by George Kissell, a coach whom the Cardinals employed from 1940 until his death in 2008. Kissell was signed by Branch Rickey, meaning that the team's minor league player-development staff is either directly trained by a man Rickey hired or works from a manual created by that man. This is how directly the Cardinals connect to the creation of the farm system itself.

That isn't new, though. The attention to the Cardinals Way in recent years stems from the Cardinals' winning. The Cardinals made the postseason and advanced at least one round each season between 2011 and 2014. Notably, this was the first time the Cardinals had made the postseason four consecutive years.

And the Cardinals were not just winning but doing so while seeming to have a bottomless pit of talent to draw from, should anyone currently on their major league team falter. Also, the major league team was largely homegrown: seventeen of the twenty-five players on the 2014 postseason roster came through the Cardinals farm system.

Had the New York Yankees managed to build the kind of organizational strength the Cardinals have, can you imagine them trying to step back from the praise and, yes, the envy engendered by what the St. Louis Cardinals have created? Please—they'd have told Mariano Rivera to step aside, and named Rivera Avenue “The Yankee Way” instead.

But when I first started looking deep into what the St. Louis Cardinals were, how they'd created what has to be considered the model organization for Major League Baseball in the twenty-first century, I heard the same pleas from nearly everybody I spoke to—that the Cardinals weren't trying to prove they were smarter than everybody else, weren't trying to draw attention to themselves. I spent hundreds of hours with scores of people from the organization, and I can tell you, this was no pose of false modesty.

In working on this book, spending days, weeks, and months with everyone in this organization from owner Bill DeWitt Jr. to current and former Cardinals John Mozeliak, Dan Kantrovitz, Jeff Luhnow, Sig Mejdal, Gary LaRocque, and many others, I've learned those claims come from a deep sense that, while they take pride in what they've built, and what the Cardinals mean to the whole of baseball, they don't believe in relying purely on what has already worked as the road map to what will work now and in the future. Sure, there are traditions and practices—particularly through the rediscovery of statistical analysis, first pioneered by Branch Rickey, and reintroduced to the Cardinals by DeWitt's hiring of Luhnow, along with the on-field, dynamic work of Kissell—but they are the starting point for how the Cardinals determine what to do moving forward. And the upheaval caused by the hacking scandal—an effort by a member or members of the Cardinals' front office to break into the Houston Astros' computer database, where Jeff Luhnow is now the general manager, leading to an FBI investigation and the termination of Scouting Director Chris Correa by the Cardinals already—has only expedited the team's need to search for how to maintain that continuity, even as the team's succession plan gets challenged on multiple fronts.

But the challenge, from within and without, is not new. That need for innovation not only drove the fundamental realignment of how the Cardinals operated over the past decade and powers everything Mozeliak and company are doing even now, but also simultaneously reflected and traced back to the work Branch Rickey himself did—Bill DeWitt Sr., father of the current owner, at his side—to take the Cardinals out of the poorhouse and into a position of royalty in the National League, a place they've held for a disproportionate amount of the one hundred years since.

How the Cardinals find themselves in this enviable position within the league, drawing so much attention for a phrase that does little more than describe how and why the Cardinals act, is not some secret formula or words scribbled by George Kissell many decades ago.

The Cardinals of today are very much a product of Kissell's work for many decades. They are also the Cardinals of today because of decisions DeWitt made, back in 2003, to completely change the business model of the team, from an old-school approach to a balancing between traditional methods and analytics. They are reformed in a vision put forward by Jeff Luhnow, who made the leap from business-turnaround expert to senior baseball executive in weeks, in the teeth of an often hostile working environment (more than we even knew at the time, it turns out) and skeptical press. And it is up to all of them, led by DeWitt and Mozeliak, to continue innovating, with the need to find consensus within a battle-scarred organization renewed by what DeWitt has described as “a rogueish act.” In essence, this is the reverse of the original action that led to DeWitt hiring Luhnow in the first place back in 2003. As this book goes to press, the Cardinals, without any desire to change philosophies, are deciding just what the hacking scandal means to their future. No one will question a decision to change course, and future decisions by Major League Baseball or a court of law may force greater changes upon them.

But for the Cardinals of the last decade, the changed course was voluntary, enormous. And in the midst—from 2000 to 2006—of six play-off appearances, a pair of National League pennants, and the 2006 World Series championship, it appeared to many to be close to madness.

The Cardinals who ultimately emerged from this process begun by Luhnow and DeWitt were a collection of extremely bright people of utterly divergent backgrounds and personalities. You couldn't sit in a room with the understated brilliance of Dan Kantrovitz and masterful scout Charlie Gonzalez, as passionate as he is encyclopedic, and conclude that the Cardinals employ one specific personality type.

BOOK: The Cardinals Way
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