“Cardinal Way” isn’t the name of a city street near Busch Stadium, but it does represent a path that the 2013 team followed from the beginning of spring training. It was their gateway to a division title, the postseason triumphs, and the ultimate destination — the World Series.
The Cardinal Way is an organizational model for success. Scouting players, drafting players, developing players and shaping their personalities to fit into a winning environment. But the Cardinal Way is also an attitude. And more than anything, it is about people, and the bond that forges professional and personal relationships.
Any baseball franchise can come up with a blueprint and standards for a universal approach. But unless each and every player is willing to sign on and buy in, it won’t work.
The Cardinal Way is about trusting each other, working together, and always pulling in the same direction. It is about subjugating your ego in the pursuit of a more noble cause: fulfilling the goals of an entire organization.
“It doesn’t matter if you are a rookie or a veteran,” rookie reliever Seth Maness said recently. “It’s a team concept. It’s been instilled in every player that comes through here. There’s an attitude of, ‘What can I do to help my teammate? What can I do within my role to help my team win?’ Putting the team first is expected of you.
“You get a little taste of it in spring training, with veterans setting the tone of what it takes to play at the major league level, and what it takes to be a Cardinal. And you just watch the way they go about their business. Watch and learn. And there’s always a teammate there to help you.”
I’ve covered professional sports since the late 1970s, and I’ve never seen a team like the 2013 Cardinals. I’ve never seen a team of players so close, so unselfish, so enthusiastic about reaching out. Veterans go out of their way to help ascending, younger teammates who are on track to take the veterans’ starting job — or at least a larger percentage of playing time.
“It is truly special,” general manager John Mozeliak said. “Perhaps even unique.”
Professional sports have a way of undoing the ties that bind a team. Players stress over their contracts, and they worry about enhancing their next deal. In that sense, teammates can become rivals. If one bumps you from the lineup, they’re costing you money. And that can lead to resentment, disharmony and clubhouse fissures.
The me-first attitude can be corrosive.
And it simply does not exist among the 2013 Cardinals.
With encouragement from manager Mike Matheny, the veteran outreach is a constant. And it’s a priority for Matheny, who has easily validated Mozeliak’s decision to take a chance on hiring an inexperienced as manager before the 2012 season.
“You look at this club, and they like playing for Mike and his staff,” Mozeliak said. “A strong loyalty exists.”
Added Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr: “Mike has done a great job, he really has. His leadership skills, his presence, his character — that’s all a big part of what we have going here.”
Matheny has fostered this baseball-family environment. He often supports his players to his own public detriment, taking the criticism when he defends them during slumps. But by being there for his players, Matheny ensures that the players will be there for each other.
Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, David Freese, Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Jake Westbrook (and others) hold de facto classroom sessions for their younger teammates.
For their part, Cards’ rookies have no sense of self-entitlement, and are eager to absorb the lessons. The rookies make sure to let the outside world know that they wouldn’t be enjoying success — or even a career — without the steadfast devotion of veteran Cardinals.
“That’s what makes our core veterans so special,” Mozeliak said. “They have approached all of the players that have come up through our system with open arms and immediately become mentors. And on the other end of the equation, our minor league players have great respect for what’s happening at the major league level. A part of that is just due to the success of our big-league team. But when they get here, they certainly know how to act, and they respect where they are.”
That’s why you hear the spectacular rookie pitcher Michael Wacha paying homage to Wainwright and Carpenter. That’s why rookie first baseman Matt Adams thanks Allen Craig, Holliday, Freese and other elders. That’s why the young pitchers speak of their great catcher, Molina, in a tone that’s reminiscent of a son talking about his father.
That’s why Beltran is such a revered figure in the clubhouse; he is indefatigable in doing whatever it takes to raise the baby birds. That’s why every member of the Cardinals’ organization — especially the players — were happier for Beltran than they were for themselves when the team won the NL pennant to send him to his first World Series after a lengthy, distinguished career.
“It means a lot,” Beltran said. “As a team we all want to win a World Series. They have made it clear that they’re trying to get me a World Series ring. I think this team, we all want to do it together, in this clubhouse. It’s a special team. That’s why it means so much. We’ve done this together, and I know we win for each other, not just for individuals.”
Beltran rejected multiple offers from other teams and signed a two-year deal with the Cardinals before the 2012 season. He knew where he wanted to be. At this late stage of his career, he knew where he had to be.
“This organization has always had a lot of tradition and been able to put good teams out there — able to put players in that know how to play the game of baseball and play the right way,” Beltran said. “So being part of this organization has been great. It’s allowed me to understand how they do things and it’s allowed me to get to know the guys, the organization and the way they think.”
During the NLCS, the Cardinals’ seriousness of purpose became the object of ridicule from the Dodgers. Members of the national media quickly picked up on an easy narrative.
The Cardinals’ old-school persona and dedication to professionalism was mocked as being haughty and arrogant. By believing a team should compete in a way that respects the game, the Cardinals were said to be out of step with modern sports culture.
And that’s exactly what’s wrong with sports and our culture at large: The team that tries to do things the right way is somehow seen as abnormal. The team that plays hard but doesn’t try to embarrass opponents is portrayed as the bad guy.
The critics still haven’t figured it out — not even after the Cardinals clinched the franchise’s 19th NL pennant with Friday’s 9-0 victory over the showy, noisy, flamboyant Dodgers.
The Dodgers — with a $227 million payroll — were a collection of expensive individual parts. They weren’t a team; they were independent contractors. No wonder the Dodgers folded when the Cardinals opened a 4-0 lead in Game 6. The Los Angeles players were just 25 guys getting a lot of money to play ball. They weren’t playing for a cause.
It was dramatically different on the St. Louis side.
The players played to honor the Cardinal Way.
And if you want to be Cardinal, there is no other way.