‘The Cardinal Way’

Throughout my observance of Cardinal baseball, I’ve had many conversations with many people about what the elusive definition of “The Cardinal Way” is. Some guys look at what happens on the field and say “The Gashouse Gang tells us what the Cardinal Way is.” You’ll also hear references to Stan the Man epitomizing what it is, that Whitey Ball was the essence of The Cardinal Way, that George Kissell taught it, or that Tony LaRussa’s teams embodied it.

To me, it’s not as much a baseball style as it is an attitude. As baseball has changed on the field, the Cardinal franchise has had to adjust to continue to be successful. Sure, great starting pitching and good defense up the middle will always be hallmarks of a winning team, but stealing bases and team speed don’t make the differences they used to.

The Cardinal Way isn’t one thing, but we sure are seeing it during this 2010 post-season, as we did last year. For my definition, I look for common denominators of winning Cardinal teams and how they went about their business. What they all have on common is competitiveness, love of the game, accountability and intensity.

The franchise itself has a manual for each minor leaguer, and each coach and manager, telling in detail what it is. But for a fan, it’s pretty easy to decipher what it’s all about.

Number one is competitiveness. Going all the way back to the 1930’s, the Cardinals have shown an insatiable desire to compete. In the 1934 World Series against Detroit, the Cardinals had to win the final two games at Tiger Stadium to take the crown. The Redbirds snapped a 3-3 tie in the seventh, then Paul Dean had to get out of a first and third, one out jam in the eighth to win game six. Then they rolled to a game seven win.

The same thing happened against Boston in 1946. Down 3-2, the Redbirds stole game six with a run in the bottom of the eighth, then did the exact same thing in game seven to win the World Series. These are just individual examples, but my point is that part of Cardinal lore is that their champions win in part because they hate to lose.

Everybody loves to win. But what separates the Cardinals is that they’ve always accumulated a bunch of guys that hate to lose, and zeal to compete is one of the hallmarks of The Cardinal way.

Number two is love of the game. It’s also notable the franchise plays with pride and joy. They know they represent a great tradition in St. Louis. It’s cool for me to hear a guy like Adam Wainwright talk about how proud he is to be a St. Louis Cardinal. Then he goes out and shows it by coming up with little pregame, in-game and postgame rituals. Watching Jon Jay fly around the field, seeing the joy a guy like David Freese has in playing, those are not only great for fans, but important for a clubhouse. From Stan the Man, to Mike Shannon to Ozzie’s flips, there’s a tradition of youthful exhuberance. There ARE baseball teams that don’t really love the game, they just happen to be good at it. The Cardinals have had guys like that…notably J.D. Drew and Todd Zeile, a couple of guys with immense talent that never exhibited joy in playing ball. They just didn’t fit, and it’s no surprise they couldn’t win rings here.

Third is accountability. Everyone in winning Cardinal clubhouses knows they have to live up to the standards set by the 40,000 fans in attendance every night, but more importantly to the leadership on the team. With Chris Carpenter pitching two months after having a rib removed, can any Cardinal be excused for not working his tail off? When you had a manager that had you as prepared as Tony LaRussa and a hitter that worked as hard as Albert Pujols, could another player not work as hard?

Whether it’s those guys, or in the 80’s Ozzie Smith and Tom Herr, or in the 60’s with Curt Flood, Roger Maris and of course Bob Gibson, Cardinal players have long been held accountable for the quality of their play.

My final word for the Cardinal way is intensity, and it really covers the other parts of the definition, too. Intensity has to be a part of hating losing. It has to be part of holding yourself and others accountable, and it has to be a part of getting out there every day and playing nine innings. But there’s more. LaRussa had that phrase “play a hard nine.” And that was a result of his intense drive. When the Cardinals came back from their huge deficit last year, it was because of their intensity. When they came back last Friday against Washington, it was the same thing. And when they rebounded to pound San Francisco on Thursday, it was in part because of their grinding intensity.

It’s remarkable to me to see other teams that will go through the motions, that won’t grind out every at bat to come away with a win. That don’t appear to just want to keep playing. That won’t hold their fans and teammates accountable to prevent some of that adversity. And that aren’t intense enough to make every inning of every game, especially the late innings, exciting for them and tough for the opposition.

It’s a great combination, and it makes it fun to be a Cardinal fan. Because we’re the same way. Let’s be honest, we’re competitive about being the best fans in baseball. We still experience joy in success (unlike Yankee fans, who quit showing up), we hold ourselves and our team accountable, and we’re intense enough to make a difference late in the season and late in games.

The Cardinal way is a fun discussion. And it’ll be fun to watch it in practice late into another October.