Show Us a Tragedy, and We’ll Write You About Our Hero

There was a boy in the stands, tousled jet-black hair, wide-open dark eyes, mouth open, scarcely believing he’s watching his hero pitching against the Washington Nationals one week ago today.

694940094001_5140533466001_mlb-star-jose-fernandez-2-others-killed-in-boat-cOne kid, watching another kid tease back and forth with the umpires, one kid watching the other kid’s big smile visible from the farthest reaches of Marlins Park, competing with that garish contraption beyond the outfield fence for electric wattage.

The boy with his oversized jersey with his hero’s name across the back, the large 16 under it, cap that barely fits.

Oh, how we envy that boy, look at him, all energy, squirming, hopping around in his seat, slapping the little glove he brought in case a foul ball comes his way, he’s ready. The boy, he’s pointing and shouting at his dad with every strikeout from his hero. That boy, he’s going to grow up watching one of the finest pitchers to take the mound in the history of the sport. He’s going to be able to tell his grand kids about the tall, strong Cuban who played this hard game with such infectious passion.

Did you see what that boy saw? Twelve strikeouts in eight innings against a team a handful of days away from claiming a division title. That’s right, 12. His hero sliced through the Nationals lineup, and had FUN doing it. Did you see his hero in the top of the eighth, in a 1-0 game, with runners at first and third with two outs? Did you see his hero’s mom, on her feet, as the TV camera zoomed in, fanning herself in the excitement. That’s her nino, her hero who saved her in that oft-told story that’s reached the point of fable of the 15-year-old boy who saved her from hostile waters, saved her as they escaped for a better life in a country of dreams.

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Somebody Just Wrote the Book on The Cardinals Way — And it Wasn’t George Kissell

The best part of Howard Megdal’s new book, “The Cardinals Way: How One Team Embraced Tradition and Moneyball at the Same Time,” comes right in Chapter One. Megdal recounts reading a note from Baseball Prospectus in 2014 derisively pointing out that contrary to myth, the Cardinals did not invent player development, nor invent the idea of making sure there was a coherent philosophy running through their system.

cdc09793-ab7a-42d6-a5a0-e6cf2e3daef4Here’s the punchline: Actually, the Cardinals absolutely did invent the idea of developing players within a farm system with a manual to guide instructors and players from the lowest farm team to the major-league team on the Mississippi. Hall of Famer Branch Rickey in the 1920s decided to buy up whole teams rather than futilely fight with richer teams for young talent, and began the process to build from the ground up a way to teach those players The Cardinal Way of playing baseball.

It’s hard to draw a line from those days when scouting reports with fewer words than a Tweet were sent tap-tap-tap by telegraph, to this day of instant high-definition video shot on smartphones sent over wireless internet connections to front offices. If any team was capable of melding a respect for tradition with the advances of the early 21st century, Megdal says, it’s the Cardinals. Megdal has exhaustively built a case that contra Michael Lewis’ effort in Moneyball, the organizations best set up for sustained success in this game do just that. After all, the game is still played much the same way it was in Alexander Cartwright’s day; the biggest difference is that the amount of information and knowledge what to do with it to win.

Perhaps the best part of the book are the stories of legendary coach George Kissel, who spent nearly seven decades with the team, beginning with Branch Rickey and ending with John Mozeliak. Imagine! Kissell, using his bachelor’s and master’s degree education in history and physical education, literally wrote the book on fundamentals on playing the game (if you want, you can visit the Cardinals museum at Ballpark Village, where you’ll find his 1969 edition), but more importantly, was the personification of the Cardinals Way, teaching more about life as a professional ballplayer. Megdal follows the apocryphal advice, that if you want to know a general, speak to his troops. Kissell passed away in 2008, so Megdal spends time with not just the former players and coaches who felt Kissel’s influence to learn more about “the Professor.” Even in the final seasons of his life, Kissel would be on the field or in the stands, studying intently, talking with the newest draft choices. Why? Even after all those years, Kissell would say he’d learn something new every day — probably learning more from his students than they from him.

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It’s Going to Get Better

Anybody been paying attention to the Minnesota Twins lately?  Would you be surprised to learn they currently lead the Major Leagues in runs scored per game?  It’s true, Fangraphs told me so, and they explained why that might be. So what are they doing right? I’ll end the suspense: they’re selective at the plate to the point of absurdity, nibbling at only 40 percent of the pitches they face.

saint_louis_cardinals_logoAh, you may say, so our Favored Nine merely needs to be more selective at the plate and less hacktastic, and runs will rain down on us like a typical mid-April storm.  Except that’s not the problem. The Cardinals have struck out on a percentage basis fewer times than any other club save Colorado and are seventh in percentage of plate appearances turned into walks.  In a year where strikeouts are way up across the board, this actually is encouraging.  They could use more walks, but every team could, it’s like your doctor saying you should work out more and eat your vegetables, walks keep an offense healthy.

Then it must be those two-out base hits with runners in scoring position we keep hearing about.  Maybe.  Maybe not. The Cardinals’ batting average on balls in play (BABIP) as of Saturday afternoon’s futile performance is just 10th in the National League (.290), so they are hitting in some bad luck, it seems.  Like April showers begetting May flowers, bad luck in April turns into good luck in May.  That’s the plan.  And why, like the title of this piece, the evidence shows there’s a good chance the offense is going to get better.

St. Louis has the highest line drive rate in all of the National League.  Guess who their line drive rate is tied with?  The Untuckers.  But in contrast to the Cardinals, they have a .309 BABIP, good for sixth. Even the Cubs, the Cubs, for crying out loud, have a better BABIP than our Favored Nine. Continue reading

Are Cardinals Fans Going To Like Oscar Taveras?

So I played hooky on a beautiful 75-degree day and went to yesterday’s Memphis vs Omaha game. They say the worst day at the ballpark beats the best day at work, and for the Redbirds, it was the worst day at the ballpark. I left during the seventh-inning stretch — I’d seen enough in what ended up a 20-3 loss, and Memphis has no Aaron Miles to come in to pitch to have compelled me to stay.

OscarBut I got to see Oscar Taveras, who with just one swing was worth the price of admission. But watching him that afternoon, I came to a disturbing conclusion.

Cardinals fans aren’t going to like Oscar Taveras.

There’s no denying his talent, he CRUSHED a first inning home run to right off Storm Chasers’ lefty Chris Dwyer against a howling 25-mph wind blowing out to left. It’s like the wind just noped its way out of the baseball’s way and let it just go until it crashed into the Werner Park berm. His swing is almost exactly like Vladimir Guererro’s was, long and full of fury. Dude is SCARY.

But here’s what I thought about watching him other than at the plate. He never looks like he cares enough, and the biggest sin? He’s definitely not scrappy. He was kind of goofy, loping around in warmups, always grinning, slump shouldered, cutting up, laughing with his head bobbing around, that sort of thing. That sort of thing that will spark a working class Cardinals fan to take to Twitter or Cards Talk in righteous indignation that here we go, another “superstar” who doesn’t play The Cardinal Way.

I fear Oscar Taveras is going to be another J.D. Drew or Colby Rasmus, another of a line of extremely talented players who will appear never to get the fullest out of their natural talent. I say that like it’s a bad thing. Cardinals fans love their Scrappy Guys(TM) like David Eckstein, Stubby Clapp, Bo Hart, even Allen Craig, those sorts of players, while hating on guys who can help the team such as Ray Lankford, Rasmus and Drew (I have to admit calling him Lazy Drew myself — in hindsight, we all should have appreciated him for what he was, a near-superstar who really could play the game).

So will we appreciate Oscar Taveras for what he can do, or will we scowl and work ourselves up in a froth over all the things he won’t do? I hope we learned from our time blessed with J.D. Drew and Colby Rasmus … but I’m just afraid we won’t.

The One Weird Trick That Could Prevent Pitching Injuries

The news this week was startling.

On the heels of Kris Medlen, the projected ace of the Atlanta Braves, needing ligament replacement surgery for the second time in his career comes the bad news this week that Jarrod Parker of the Oakland A’s will undergo the same surgery, also for the second time. For the A’s and Braves, it’s been body blows this spring: Medlen’s teammate Brandon Beachy likely is headed in that direction as well as Parker’s fellow starter A.J. Griffen, who will be out at least through May with a sore elbow.

wallace_four_seamerThen there’s Patrick Corbin, the young lefty ace of the Arizona Diamondbacks, who the D’Backs said this week is out for the season after a partial tear of his elbow ligament and will undergo replacement surgery; lefty Jon Niese of the New York Mets had to leave Sunday’s game against the Cardinals with “elbow discomfort.” And the Dodgers’ top pitching prospect, Ross Stripling, first felt a sore elbow and then, after an MRI, got the news that he too would take the knife.

I’d like to think it was just a coincidence that the recent passing of the inventor of the ligament replacement surgery on pitchers, Dr. Frank Jobe, came as the news of so many pitchers becoming patients casccaded across MLB Network and ESPN. It was Dr. Jobe who first performed the groundbreaking transplant surgery on Dodgers’ lefthander Tommy John, taking a tendon from his right arm to replace the shredded ligament in his left elbow. The surgery was such a success that it became one of the few medical procedures named for the patient rather that the doctor who invented it.

I’d also like to think it was coincidence in light of the news of so many pitchers needing surgery that the Cardinals announced Tuesday they’d cut ties with longtime team physician Dr. George Paletta.

It’s that last bit of news I’d like to address here.

For years, some Cardinals fans had blamed Dr. Paletta for the drawn-out, stumbling, bumbling treatment of the team’s pitchers, from Matt Morris to Andy Benes to Mark Mulder to Matt Clement to Chris Carpenter to Jaime Garcia and I’m sure more pitchers I’ve forgotten to list. The team announces a pitcher is day-to-day, then on the disabled list, then “progressing nicely” (a phrase used so much it became an internet meme — once, I saw the phrase used as a caption of a prostrate Abraham Lincoln on his deathbed). And finally, the seemingly inevitable: surgery.

So many fans have become used to a track record of pitchers coming back after surgery that they’ve taken to chat boards, social media and sports call-in shows asking why, if surgery is inevitable, the Cardinals don’t simply send their pitchers into the operating room at the first sign of trouble? And it seems at first glace to be a pretty good argument; delaying surgery only delays the successful return of a fan favorite to the mound and to the cheers of the crowd, right?

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Throwback Thursday: Jack Clark Played Baseball Angry

You know, kids, Jack Clark didn’t used to be the rotund, angry guy bellowing about Albert Pujols and steroids, and suspicions and all of that stuff. He wasn’t the guy who got fired from talk radio for that. He didn’t used to be a sad guy who bankrupted himself buying all manner of sports cars, losing his home in the process.

jack-clarkJack Clark used to be a tight, sinewy, coiled cobra. An angry cobra, whipping his bat around like a snake’s tail, ready to swat baseballs great distances and with great anger. Jack Clark didn’t play baseball like a game, you never heard him say “Let’s Play Two,” or “The umpire doesn’t say ‘Work Ball.'” He was at his best when he played with a snarl.

Jack Clark played baseball with a barely controlled fury, like was once said of Baltimore Colts’ linebacker Mike Curtis. Jack Clark’s rage playing baseball was like a part of his anatomy, like a muscle, he flexed it and built it up. And when the game was on the line, he was by far the most dangerous hitter at the plate, the one guy pitchers absolutely did not want to see on deck in the late innings.

And I loved him.

I imitated his swing, that twitching, coiling anticipation, that furious whip through the zone. He played for the San Francisco Giants then, and I envied Giants fans for having him on their side.

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Cardinals Throwback Thursday: Chris Carpenter Was A Grown-Ass Man

He was like one of those heroes from a World War II movie, leading the team over the hill through a hail of German bullets, taking a shot to the leg, a rifle to the side, brushing back a bayonet as he fired a grenade into a nest of enemy soldiers.  He’d stalk right up to them as he’d fire hot lead, growl some swear word, let’s be honest, a string of f-words in all their permutations, as he’d kick aside the bodies like leaves on a fall afternoon.

There he’d be seen by his amazed troops, fighting until he’d be taken off the battlefield in a stretcher, cursing all the way again, only to get fixed up in a hospital as the nurses would blush and flee at his scant sprinkling of regular words amongst the swearing.  He’d rush to rejoin his men on the road, yanking out his stitches, pulling off his bandages, where he’d fire his rifle one handed and wave a fist toward them with the other.  Until, finally, at long last, the old soldier was taken off for good, just too wounded to return.

“That’s okay, Sarge,” Corporal Wainwright surely would say, if he were, in fact, a corporal.  “We got it from here.  You trained us, you led us, we learned from you.”

A grown-ass man, that Chris Carpenter was.

But were weren’t sure when he took the mound for the first time wearing the Birds on the Bat if it was all going to work out.  We’d like to say that Carp leapt from his poor mother’s womb with a perfectly cut fastball, a frightening curve and the filthy mouth of a soldier who hasn’t felt clean sheets in months.

But ’twas not, in April 2004.

Cardinal Love Letter: John Mozeliak

Dearest John,

I hope you don’t mind my love letter from the Great Beyond.

Somebody should write a song about us, something a little torch, a little blues, a story of lost and unrequited love. Brains are sexy to me, John, a man who can make his way around a spreadsheet makes me blush to the clavicle. Don’t even tell me how much I adore your long scarves and when you talk draft choice signability and advanced metrics, well, now, I do believe I’m getting the vapors.

I wish you could see me right now — I’ve put on a little black dress for you, my trademark ruby red ribbon in my ebony bouffant tresses, fresh lipstick, and do you like my new pumps, big boy? Oh, sigh, you probably can’t see them. Well, if you did, I’m sure you’d compliment me on them. I think I’m going to grab my hairbrush and pretend I’m offering you a private performance of a song off my best album: “Rehab.”

Your giggles aren’t funny, you.

I think scarves on men are fashion-forward, and courageous. Bravo, my dear.

But enough of my me, John. I want to talk about you.

In the past year, you’ve grown so, and honey, when I read stories of your roster construction, your deep understanding of sabermetrics, your adherence to the player development plan you worked out with that rascal bounder cad who left us for that den of hussies in Houston, your refusal to listen to the misguided fools clamoring to deal our big, strapping, strong young men for another broken-down Proven Veteran(TM) … why, dear, you make this lady feel like a woman.

You’re such a swifty on your feet that when you do want to grab a veteran bat for our team, you don’t spend much, certainly none of our team’s delightful youngsters. You have a crafty eye for a Lance Berkman, a Carlos Beltran, decent enough chaps that are, like me, a little damaged and a little unappreciated.

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Because He’s Going To Be 32 In August

Look, I know. We get attached to our favorite players, and the thought of them wearing another team’s laundry is hard to take. We want our heroes to stay young, wear the Birds on the Bat logo, play for 20 years, and end their careers doffing their hat to a packed, cheering Busch Stadium crowd. But that’s not the way things work, do they?

Our heroes end up playing for a few years, then moving on. For every Ozzie Smith, I give you Willie McGee, Matt Morris, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds, Edgar Renteria and J.D. Drew. Okay, maybe not J.D. Drew.

But speaking of Drew, the kid we got in that trade with Atlanta for him?

He’s going to be 32 years old in August.

Branch Rickey had a brilliant strategy — get rid of a player one year too soon rather than one year too late. Easy for him to say; he wasn’t emotionally invested in watching his favorite player on the field every game. He considered baseball a business. We consider it our passion.

Hey, I’m not going to gum up with post with a bunch of statistics proving beyond a reasonable doubt what happens to big league pitchers after the age of 32, especially in the post-steroid age. I’m not going to bring up the overwhelming evidence that handing millions of dollars on a multi-year contract to a pitcher in this game on the wrong side of 30 is a profoundly bad idea. You’re smart, you know all this already.

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If Loving Him Is Wong, I Don’t Wanna Be Right!

So where are you going to be Saturday night around 7 p.m.?

In front of your TV watching the MLB Network’s presentation of the Arizona Fall League’s Military Appreciation Night.

Why would you want to do that instead of, say, going out with friends or to a movie?

Because one of the two teams in that Arizona Fall League game will be the Surprise Saguaros.

And who plays for the Surprise Saguaros? Kolten Wong.

This is Kolten Wong the day he was drafted.  Clip and save.  You’ll thank me later.

Yes, Kolten Wong, the future of second base for our Favored Nine. He’s currently hitting .329 with an OPS of .733, mostly singles, but he did make the Rising Stars Game last Saturday.

But that’s not all!

Why, you might see Mike O’Neill and Colin Walsh, and maybe, just maybe, if you’re really good, Seth Blair or Boone Whiting, both of whom have been solid in Arizona, will pitch for us.

So, are you set? Will you join the rest of Cardinals Nation in front of your TV watching The Wong Saturday night?