When we think of the Cardinals, we think of a distinct organizational culture: anodyne, diligent, supportive, resolute. Midwestern, really. And that includes fiscal discipline; St. Louis's next truly onerous free-agent contract will be its first. We think of red-clad fans who turn up at Busch Stadium even for midweek day games against very bad opponents—more than 44,000 showed for last Thursday's 12:45 start against the Mets—where they perform the wave without irony.
Mostly, we think of consistency. Since 1960 the Cardinals have had consecutive losing seasons just once, in '94 and '95. Their 11 championships have been well distributed. No son or daughter of St. Louis born since 1902 has reached the age of 25 without having lived through at least one victory parade.
Baseball changes. The Cardinals stay the same.
Although this is only partly true. While an overriding ethos—the Cardinal Way—has developed over the years, it is flexible enough to allow the team to capitalize on the game's changing realities better than any other. "We understand that we're going to have to zig and zag to stay successful," says John Mozeliak, the team's general manager. "We can't ever just get complacent and think that we've figured it out. The moment we do that, we're going to get passed."
In other words, if you're playing the long game, as the Cardinals are, you can't always play it the same way, even in the short term. The Cardinals' 11th title came 19 months ago, but of the 25 players who beat the Rangers in that dramatic seven-game World Series, only nine were in uniform last week against the Mets. The manager's office had a new inhabitant too. La Russa was gone. Albert was gone. Carp was gone (though injured, 2005 Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter swears he'll be back). Even the Man was gone: Stan Musial, the franchise's icon, died in January at 92.
At week's end, though, the Cardinals were where they have so often been over the decades: atop the National League, with a 28--15 record. They were there, in large measure, because of a starting rotation that has been historically good. Its cumulative ERA of 2.62 is not only close to the 45-year-old full-season record of 2.49—held by the 1968 Cards and set with the help of Bob Gibson and a pitching mound that was five inches higher—but also nearly 20% lower than the 3.20 put up by the second-ranked Reds.
The Cardinals have ended up with such a rotation by doing what they've always done, and what any team or corporation ought to do if it seeks success in the long term. Which is to ceaselessly, though judiciously, innovate.
WHEN ADAM WAINRIGHT was 22, the Braves traded him to the Cardinals. Atlanta was Wainwright's boyhood team, and the organization had drafted him out of Glynn Academy in Brunswick, Ga., in the first round three years earlier. Such a trade might have been crushing for many young players. It wasn't for Wainwright. He had a devastating curveball, but as he had advanced up the Braves' minor league system—he reached Double A in 2003, the year he was dealt with pitchers Ray King and Jason Marquis for outfielders J.D. Drew and Eli Marrero—hitters had begun to catch up with his four-seam fastball, which sat in the low 90s and came in flat. "I had started to be passed up by some of the younger guys," he says.
Upon arriving in Jupiter, Fla., for spring training in 2004, Wainwright began working with Dave Duncan, a former big league catcher who had been the pitching coach on teams managed by Tony La Russa since 1983: the White Sox, the A's and then, since '96, the Cardinals. Duncan had come to believe that in a game gone power crazy—the eight homer-heaviest seasons in league history were played between '98 and 2006—most pitchers only stood a chance by keeping their offerings down in the strike zone to induce grounders. "When a guy hits a ground ball, where does he have to hit it to get an extra-base hit?" the 67-year-old Duncan asks, as he has during hundreds of coaching sessions. "Down the first base line, down the third base line. However, if the ball is hit in the air, you have all kinds of opportunities to get extra-base hits."
Baseball's latest construction boom fed Duncan's philosophy too. "They began building all these new ballparks over the last 25 years, and they were bandboxes," says Duncan. "At the same time, we went through this period when it seemed like just about everybody could hit a home run." (Read: the steroid era.) "All of a sudden, you have 160-pound second basemen hitting opposite-field home runs, and you go, Oh, wait a minute, we gotta do something about this."