As a disagreement escalated into a shouting match between Cardinals Class AA manager Mike Shildt and a home-plate umpire during a game last week, Shildt rushed to the defense of his catcher by citing The Cardinal Way.
He mentioned the lineage of catchers in the organization. He stated that the organization had won 10 of the past 21 Gold Glove Awards at the position. He argued that young catcher Audry Perez was not out of position behind the plate because he was following the instructions of the manager of the major league club, who, by the way, had won three of those Gold Gloves.
If pressed, Shildt could have quoted chapter and verse. He could have thumbed to the page and found proof for the umpire.
After all, Shildt carries The Cardinal Way with him.
"Everybody has a player's manual now, and as much as anybody I feel strongly about using it. I'm sure all the coaches do," Shildt said. "I tell the players, 'This is the blueprint. This is the recipe of what this organization is asking of you. Have you read it?' This is their career. This is what it means."
For decades the phrase "Cardinal Way" has been bandied about the ballpark, used to describe a style of play, an approach to player development, sometimes a marketing slogan, and many years ago a pejorative for penny-pinching. Former Cardinal manager Tony La Russa mentioned it during the World Series run last fall. Mike Matheny said it at least a half dozen times on the day he was hired as La Russa's successor. While the catchy slogan can border on cliché — gaining usage, but losing meaning — the Cardinals have worked internally to reclaim the phrase for its original use, that of an organizational philosophy.
In his locker this spring, every minor-league player found an 86-page handbook that outlines The Cardinal Way, from infield positioning to off-field responsibilities and team policies, from the virtues of a Cardinals catcher to where Perez setup to receive a 3-2 pitch. Coaches and managers received the unabridged version, at 117 pages. The guides hold proprietary information and are not for the public. These "organizational manuals" are the result of several years of work to collect the lessons from former coaches George Kissell, Dave Ricketts, and others, blend them with the modern views of La Russa, Matheny, Dave Duncan and Dave McKay, and create a standardized approach to developing Cardinal players.
It is The Cardinal Way, the book.
"We wanted to make sure we didn't lose the knowledge that they have," farm director John Vuch said. "It's the way we practice as a team and the amount of time we spend working on certain things. It's what we value as an organization. We're not going to always be able to out-talent teams. We have to make sure we're playing fundamentally sound baseball. We have to maximize the talent in that way but playing the game the right way. This organization always has."
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At his desk at Busch Stadium, Vuch has a stack of papers held by a black binder clip with a cover page that reads, "Managers' Syllabus." The pages were written, compiled, edited, and updated in 1969 by Kissell, the Cardinals' longtime minor league coach and keeper of the Cardinal Way. Inside his syllabus are drawings of the field and where position players should go for cutoffs and relays. There is a chapter on every infield position. It is a stack of institutional knowledge that became Vuch's inspiration for a project in October 2010.
With the help and persistence of Gary LaRocque, a special assistant to the general manager, Vuch and his staff gathered drills, insight, and instructions from Cardinals coaches past and present. The writing and organizing processes came at a time when the Cardinals were mending a rift between the major league coaching staff and minor league development.
The book was part of binding the club.
The Cardinals Way "is so that when they get to the big leagues they know exactly what they're doing," said McKay, a member of La Russa's staff for 16 years and now the first-base coach with the Cubs who helped that organization put together a "Cubs Way" handbook this past winter. "I think that was missing a little bit in this organization. When John Vuch took over he hammered in that we wanted to do things the same way — pitching, hitting, and whatever. That's what the manual got going."
McKay helped write the section on base running. Duncan, the longest-tenured pitching coach in major league history, signed off on the pitching portion, some of which was written by coordinator Brent Strom. Shildt and field coordinator Mark DeJohn contributed and edited. Matheny wrote the entire chapter on catching. Team policies were included, and much of the manual is for internal use only. The Cardinals allowed The Post-Dispatch to view several non-proprietary pages.
The manuals went to coaches for the first time before last season, and in 2011 the players received a 63-page streamlined version. A Spanish-language version was delivered to the club's Latin minor-leaguers. It is believed to be the first time that a written "Cardinal Way" was distributed.
"It puts everybody on the same page," Matheny said. "They're all speaking the same language now. Most of those characteristics are all pretty consistent with what the Cardinals stand for."
Many of the things that Kissell, who joined the Cardinals in the 1940s, had written in that 1969 'syllabus" had passed verbally through the organization to his protégés. Same with the lessons and skills that Ricketts taught catchers such as Matheny and Yadier Molina. Both coaches died in 2008, and there was an internal movement to make their philosophies permanent in print. The whole manual is dedicated to Kissell, and it's his quote that greets players and coaches after the introduction.
"Tell me and I'll forget," Kissell told his charges. "Show me and I'll remember. Involve me and I'll understand."
In a 1989 article in Sports Illustrated, Kissell and Hub Kittle were identified as "distinguished professors of baseball" at "the College of Cardinals." The article went on to detail the lessons these minor league coaches shared with players, managers, and all who wore the birds on the bat. The new manual is the latest edition of the textbook they would have had.
"In a simplistic way when we graduate players to the major leagues we're in essence putting a stamp on them that they're ready," general manager John Mozeliak said. "George Kissell or some of the other coaches would take the time to explain why you're doing it. It wasn't just the X's and O's of where to stand and just do it ... it always came with a reason. Sometimes those reasons are open for debate. When you look at the evolution of this (manual) you couldn't whip something up today, put a (cover) on it, and say, 'OK, this is it.' This is something that took decades to form. And it's still changing."
Matheny described how they trimmed some bunt defense from last year's version. Ongoing editing is how the Cardinal Way becomes a "living" monument.
His chapter on catching is dedicated to Ricketts. His goal was to recall and recapture as much as he remembered from his former coach. A few days before his argument with the ump, Shildt took his catchers aside and read with them the chapter, which dissects the position, from exercises to drills to selflessness. Matheny lists 16 characteristics that a Cardinals catcher must have. They range from a "high baseball IQ" and "good communicator," to "exceptional flexibility in the lower ½ muscles" and "capable of taking blame even when it is unjustified."
These traits are non-negotiable, he said.
"There's a list of them that I believe are not just important, but critical," Matheny said. "They have to be there or it's going to hurt the team, it's going to hurt your career, and you might as well go somewhere else to another position or another organization if those aren't a part of who you are."
That is the overriding sense of the manual. It does have the standard baseball drills in it. A reader can see how Kissell breaks down the infield positions into the 11 different plays a third baseman will see, the 13 a shortstop has to handle, the 12 for second base and so on. But there are also lessons that transcend the field. There are suggestions for the man as well as the Cardinal when it comes to "all things that go into how you're defined," Mozeliak said.
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Kolten Wong took note.
The Cardinals' first-round pick last summer and Class AA second baseman, Wong has referred to the handbook often for positioning in different situations, things he hadn't been taught before.
"Relays, infield setup, different situations. If you have a question and a coach can't answer, it will be in the handbook," Wong said. "The most important part, I think, of the book is how it talks about living the Cardinal Way, respecting the Cardinal Way, and realizing what it means to abide by the Cardinal Way."
The history of it is right there on the third page, under the headline, "The Cardinal Way."
So it is written.