In one of its periodic fits of boredom, the Internet has decided that it hates the Cardinals: “a giant sucking red hole of good old-fashioned Midwestern piousness”; “a giant, red-clad, 8th-place participation trophy come to life”; “Never mind that St. Louis is otherwise not so great: The nation’s third largest city at the turn of the 20th century, it is poverty plagued, racially polarized and has lost more than 60 percent of its population since 1950.” (Wait, what?)
The last of these was gleefully reprinted in the Chicago Tribune, shortly after the city’s news outlets memorialized the time the Cubs’ fanbase drove a man into hiding. (You’d think after a century of losing they’d be a bit more chill. Nope. If you’re new to the city, the first thing you need to know about the Cubs is that Lee Elia was right.)
It’s fine. Developing narratives about baseball teams is what keeps us from cheering for laundry, or, alternately, the purveyors of generic lager who own that laundry. If designating the Cardinals as the Manchester United of self-righteousness helps engage people in baseball, we’re all the better for it.
Of course, now they’re playing the Red Sox. Hope you like kitschy beards and “Sweet Caroline,” America! If not, the Cardinals are not quite the team the lamestream media sold you on shortly after the Pirates’ bandwagon got parked. In an era when fans are as conscious of contracts and metrics as players and personalities, the “Cardinals Way” isn’t pious self-regard; it’s a new way of thinking about what we root for when we root for a franchise. If players, managers, uniforms, and even stadiums disappear year to year, why not root for a system?
1. Yadier Molina.
At the end of 2011, the Cardinals had a choice between two lifelong Cardinals with two World Series rings: the best defensive catcher and arguably the best staff manager in baseball; and the best player in baseball over his career, the best Cardinal since the sainted Stan Musial.
In truth, it was a fait accompli. Some team with more money than sense would offer to pay Albert Pujols a ludicrous amount of money well into his dotage and the team would move on with Molina. Enter the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, a team that renamed itself to reflect its lack of identity, who offered Pujols $240 million over 10 years. He hasn’t broken a .900 OPS since, and the Angels’ contract could go down as one of the worst in the history of the game.
It began as the fear that we’d only get one glimpse of the insane, perfect, healthy Albert Pujols who carried the Cardinals in April of 2006, hitting 14 home runs and striking out seven times. It metastasized when he hit 30—when he just missed a .300 average and 100 RBI, despite a heroic late-season run at both numbers. And it was active enough that offseason that a significant minority of regular fans, the spreadsheet-and-basement averse in Pujols sherseys, were guardedly optimistic about not signing him.
When Pujols departed St. Louis, former colleague and fellow Cardinals fan Michael Miner lamented that he had turned his back on the team and the city. But what’s replaced allegiance to players, for many fans and teams, is method: if Pujols the player was irreplaceable, Pujols the statistical abstract was not. Cardinals fans whipped out their calculators: “Beltran was worth 4.4 bWAR last season, and having him effectively replace Pujols on the roster, in combination with Wainwright’s return, would put the Cardinals ahead of the game”; “If the Cardinals had signed Pujols, they would have engaged in the most typical of MLB gluttony: overpaying at first base.”
People seem to hate the “Cardinals Way,” insofar as all right-thinking people hate being asked to root for an organizational concept, as if they were management trainees trapped in a team-building exercise in the O’Hare Mariott instead of fans of the one constant through the years. But the one constant through the years for the Cardinals, since they began their “loathsome hegemony,” hasn’t been a star player, or a manager, or a general manager. It’s been reason. Well, reason and a tough, cerebral catcher.
2. Pete Kozma
This Cardinals Way includes an unmatched developmental system that gives the major-league club an endless stream of gifted (and cheap) young players in reserve. (And I don’t recall a World Series team as dependent on rookies as the 2013 Cardinals: three starting pitchers, three relievers, and a first baseman shored up a team beset by injuries and a shaky bullpen.) It also includes signing experienced veterans to affordable short-term deals, like the aforementioned Carlos Beltran.
But sometimes the Cardinals Way doesn’t work, and then you get Pete Kozma.
Pete Kozma should not really be a starting major league shortstop. He is a starter only because the Way didn’t work: the Cardinals traded for the aging Rafael Furcal in 2011, who was aging badly at a position players age badly at. Furcal played a total of 87 games for both teams that year. The Cardinals then resigned him as a free agent at $7 million a year; he played 121 games in 2012 and missed all of 2013 with an injury. He’s 35.
Enter Kozma, a former mid-first round draft pick who hit above .270 exactly once as a minor leaguer, in 2008, in A-level ball. Among players with at least 400 plate attempts, Kozma was the second-worst hitter in baseball by weighted runs per plate appearance. He’s Darwin Barney without the pedigree. Thanks only due to his defense, Kozma is, by Fangraphs numbers, literally the definition of replaceable.
And as a defensive replacement for Daniel Descalso (himself a .238/.290/.366 hitter, to put that in context), Kozma saved Game 4, with two of the critical defensive plays he’s made this postseason:
Armed with a lead, this was the Cardinals’ preferred defensive alignment, and though defensive replacements seldom make much of an impact in the later innings, Kozma helped to preserve this game. There’s an argument, not altogether ridiculous, that Kozma turned out to be the Cardinals’ most important player. I don’t know if I believe it, but I might as well advance it.
He also went 1-15 during the series, not a surprise coming from one of the worst hitters who’s ever played for the franchise. He’s a major-league player only because of luck and defense, exactly what the Cardinals needed during Game 4. And he’s a fan favorite, despite—or because—he survived the threshing machine of the Cardinal Way.