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Imagine a world in which the Cardinals are not perennial champions. Major league baseball could be working on that scenario right now.
The 1970s in Southwest St. Louis
The Red Bird Express ran from Ivanhoe to Busch Stadium along Arsenal Street. For about seven dollars, I could get to a game and back, including bus fare, a bleacher ticket, and a hotdog and soda. My mom didn’t know how many times I made that trip, often for day games while she worked at St. Mary’s Hospital.
The ballpark in the mid and late 1970s was unkempt and barren reflecting the Cardinals teams of that era. From the time Bob Gibson retired through Lou Brock’s farewell, the Cardinals wallowed in mediocrity.
Still, we had our favorites. I loved Lou Brock, Ken Reitz, Ted Simmons, Bob Borsch, Bake McBride, and Roger Freed. (I can still recite Jack Buck’s call of Roger Freed’s walk-off grand slam against the Astros pitcher Joe Sambito in April of 1979 beginning with, “The runners will be going—watch the pick-off play. From the stretch position, the runners are going . . . . “)
When Whitey Herzog traded or released my three favorite players of the era (Reitz, Simmons, and pitcher Pete Vuckovich), I instantly disliked Herzog. Standing in line for lunch at Bishop DuBourg High School, I said “If we can’t win a World Series without Reitz, I really don’t want to win one.”
Herzog and the Cardinals proved me wrong only 22 months later. I was just fine with winning the World Series without my favorite players.
The Cardinals’ Dominance
Since that 1982 win over the Milwaukee Brewers, the Cardinals have remained one of the best teams in baseball. The Joe Torre era was a little bleak, but beginning with Tony LaRussa’s arrival in 1996, the Cardinals clawed their way to a reputation as the Yankees of the National League.
But something changed when LaRussa retired following the 2011 World Series.
I travel a fair amount for business. Invariably, I spend time in distant cities talking baseball with locals and other travelers. Somewhere around 2012, the national mood toward the Cardinals changed.
From my first immersive experience with people who didn’t grow up in St. Louis, the Navy, the Cardinals seemed to be everyone’s second-favorite baseball team. The favorite team was always the team they grew up with. And when their team bit the dust, they hoped the Cardinals would win it all. (Unless they were Cubs fans, of course. Cubs fans never seemed to realize there were teams other than Cubs.)
Even the 2011 World Series rings didn’t spoil the affection so many baseball fans held for the Cardinals. What changed everything was when LaRussa retired, Pujols left, Matheny took over, and the Cardinals didn’t miss a beat. What turned the baseball world against the Birds was the realization that the Cardinals might dominate forever.
Yankees of the National League
Suddenly the Cardinals’ squeaky-cleanliness became an irritant. Suddenly the baseball world decided it should be somebody else’s turn. “The Cardinals and the Giants,” one patron of a hotel lobby bar said in October 2014, “that’s refreshing.”
I wonder how many baseball fans around the country cheered when they heard Jason Heyward rejected the Cardinals’ offer and became a Cub yesterday? How many people celebrated the end of the Cardinals’ reign as the Yankees of the National League?
What St. Louis Cardinals fans must ask themselves is a little more painful: maybe St. Louis isn’t baseball heaven after all.
Pujols left. LaRussa moved on to Arizona. John Lackey left. And Jason Heyward seemed never interested in retiring a Cardinal. (He didn’t recognize Red Schoendeinst, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Bruce Sutter, or Ozzie Smith on opening day last year.)
As Ben Hochman said of Cardinals soul-searching:
And bewilderment, too. How could Jason Heyward not want to be with the 11-time world champions? That is the takeaway of Friday – not only that Heyward is gone (and not only is Heyward gone to that team in blue), but also that Heyward chose not to be a Cardinal, and did so after, as Derrick Goold reported, the Cards actually offered him the most overall money.
Maybe the Cardinals were living on borrowed time.
Playing Above the City’s Head
St. Louis is a city in decline, as I’ve written often. Both the city and the county are losing population. Household income in the region is falling faster than the national average. St. Louis is dead last among the 50 largest cities in new business formation. St. Louis is about to lose its second and last NFL franchise. And when people from outside the region hear “Saint Louis,” their minds’ eyes see riots.
Back in the 1970s when I was taking the Red Bird Express to Busch Stadium, I also rode my bike around the city. My friends’ parents owned Orpheum Cleaners on South Grand. We’d ride our bikes there from the city’s western edge. On a typical weekday in June, Arsenal, Grand, Gravois, and Jamieson were smog-spitting traps of congestion. A couple weeks ago when I was ferrying my son Patrick through his last days before boot camp, those same streets looked deserted.
Even commerce centers like the Central West End and the tech incubation hub near SLU are a driver’s dream. There’s just not much traffic on the streets and less on the sidewalks.
St. Louis looks deserted.
If the baseball world is over its love affair with the Red Birds, the Cardinals are in trouble.
The New York Yankees, the Braves, the Dodgers, the Giants, and the Cubs have more or less unlimited wealth to buy players. The Cardinals, on the other hand, relied on the best farm system in sports to supply championship talent to the big team. Combined with brilliant marketing of “baseball heaven,” the combination of great fans, great farm, and great history allowed the Cardinals to produce excellence year after year for a generation and a half.
But that was a precarious formula for success.
What if the league’s best players decide St. Louis is not baseball heaven? What if the league’s other GMs and owners decide any deal with the Cardinals must deplete the team’s legendary farm system? What if baseball makes the Cardinals overpay for talent, not with money, but with the team’s future?
Building a first-rate farm system is expensive and slow. The Cardinals started first and have maintained the farm since Branch Rickey. If you’re not the Cardinals, you have two choices: build your own system or destroy the Cardinals’ system. (Well, if you’re in a super-rich market, you have the choice of buying talent with cash. But that’s a short list of cities.)
It sure looks to me like the general managers of baseball have colluded to starve the Red Birds. They got some help in that quest when John Lackey and Jason Heyward decided that heaven is a place at the corner of Addison and Clark. And though the Cardinals have a lot of money for a small-market club, their bank account relies on a proven strategy of farm-raised young talent supplemented with a few high-priced veterans.
Baseball general managers once relied on guts. Now they rely on statistics and strategy. The best strategy to break the Cardinals’ dominance in the National League is the strategy I just outlined: treat the Cardinals like they’re desperate because desperate teams overpay. Demand young talent. Drain the farm system. Level the playing field.
I have no idea if the GMs of MLB colluded to kill the Cards, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
If you’re a die-hard Cardinals fan, you better elect people who get the region growing again. The region, the city, and the team need new businesses and a growing population to survive.