New Directions

by on January 30, 2009 · 17 comments

The following guest post is brought to you by today’s UCB blog swap project.  We’re all swapping blogs, and seeing if you can figure out who is writing where!  Make your guesses down in the comments section, and be sure to check out the other UCB blogs to see where my post wound up!  It could be at any of these…C70 at the Bat, Cards Diaspora, Fungoes, Play a Hard Nine, la BeisbolistaOn to today’s guest post:

For the first time in a long time, the Cardinals have an image problem, unfamiliar territory for the current regime who swept in like heroes the AB days dwindled to an unceremonious end. Following two-straight seasons of 100 or more wins that ended with an embarrassment at the hands of destiny in 2004 and a heartbreaking NLCS loss one year later, a mediocre Cardinals team got hot at just the right time to reward fans with an improbable championship.

It might have been the worst thing that could have happened to the team.

In the wake of a World Series dominated by unlikely heroes like Jeff Weaver, Anthony Reyes, and the always scrappy David Eckstein, expectations reached the stratosphere, while the nasty curse of regression to the mean caught up with a bunch of overachieving no-names. But the mold was there, and assumptions that any broken down arm that at one time had a prodigious OPS or a good sinker stymied by a bum shoulder quickly turned Championship euphoria into disappointment that grew to disillusionment with each of 2007’s 84 wins.

The next season brought a new GM, a promotion from within, who quickly flipped a couple of the aging malcontents once so essential to the team’s mid-decade successes for a talented prospect and a run-producing 3B. And the overachievement continued, as more and more of those over-performing heroes carried the Cardinals to a hot start. Then that nasty thing called reality caught up to them again. And now, after tantalizing hungry fans with publicly discussed efforts to upgrade the team with marquee talents, like Matt Holiday and Brian Fuentes, the Cards second year GM can’t even command respect on in an internet chat.

It’s hard to blame Cardinals GM John Mozeliak. He seems to be legitimately trying, and despite the PR foibles – never promise a Brahma bull to hungry lions, only to throw them a pound of ground beef – I think he’s legitimately stuck between the conflicted forces of a declining regime. On one end, you’ve got the salty old manager, once the game’s premier innovator whose deference to squeezing 110% of “experience” has since been replaced by a new paradigm. Young, cheap talent is the fan infatuation, the new superstars with the rosy-cheeked innocence of youth. All over the country the last generation has been pushed aside by the new; it’s no coincidence, whether you like him or not, that the nation elected its first post-Boomer President in a landslide.

The forces of youth within the Cardinals organization have built an impressive farm system once gutted in favor of those more experience vets, since claimed by the statistical mean and the team’s incompetence in dealing with injuries. Unfortunately, La Russa, now the traditionalist, prefers not to use the prodigious youth awaiting their chance, if he can at all help it.

The manager is at time assisted by the other force making Mozeliak’s job that much harder, unsure ownership. DeWitt’s shown more than enough deference to La Russa, but has worked hard to have it both ways, letting his front office people deftly acquire that next generation of Cardinals. Without a doubt, profits motivate this waffling. One the one hand, winning teams sell tickets, and he’s got a proven winner hiding behind a pair of dark sunglasses, reminiscent of the fascist shades worn by the cruel camp guard of “Cool Hand Luke.” DeWitt tasked his GM with a simple goal build a winner, but has left him in the to mediate the team’s two conflicting paradigms, an impossible request when both sides continue to court and carry the owner’s divided loyalties, something only complicated by DeWitt’s other, unwritten mandate to maximize profit margins. That profit mandate has only been made more difficult by the giant wound in the earth next to new stadium and a shrinking economy that won’t help fill another Metro area strip mall.

I feel for Mozeliak, really. He’s got an impossible task. However, I also understand the frustration fans are feeling; though, it is pretty tough to excuse their descent into sophomoric name calling in that now infamous chat at the Post-Dispatch. There’s just not really anything poor guy can do. The Cardinals just don’t have the team to compete in their division this season, and so many prospects that might – might – help matters are blocked by fairly compensated fourth and fifth starters and all but one questionable, inconsistent hitter. I won’t even touch the ridiculous sacred cow that is Tony La Russa’s closer spot.

There’s no easy solution. Throwing money at free agents won’t solve the problems of an organization in decline. Ownership needs to commit to one or the other paradigm. Parting ways with La Russa after this season would seem like a start, but as much as I support that move, I don’t know that it will ultimately fix things.

Look at the Rams. Still red-headed stepchild in a baseball town, since Chip Rosenbloom took over the franchise, he’s cleaned house and brought in new, committed leadership on the field and in the front office, mandating only that they work together to rebuild the team. Sure, the two sports a lot different, but running a winning team isn’t. Maybe it’s time for a new owner.

Let me suggest one. The great city of St. Louis, a place my family called home since its colonial past through the urban flight of the 1960s (sorry about fair city, you deserved better), stands on the precipice of crisis. Our city figures to see unemployment rates even higher than the national average, which will surely make the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression even worse for the Gateway City. Morale is low; civic pride is hurting and will only get worse with the inevitable impacts of the recession. Rubbing salt into the wound was last year’s sale of AB, as much a part of the city’s identity as that big metal arch, to a foreign company, InBev.

What better way to inject a little emotional capital into the city than for the Busch family to buy the Cardinals? We know they’ve got the time to run a team now, and I can’t imagine they couldn’t come up with enough scratch to buy a majority stake in the Cardinals (after all, cheap beer has proven to be fairly recession proof, and they still even hold some interest in the new company, I think). Busch Stadium really would be Busch Stadium again. Give La Russa a gold watch and a hearty handshake, and make Joe Oquendo the manager, making for a double dose of iconography recalling the team’s glory days. New (old) owners and a managerial icon in place, the team could then turn the operations of the franchise over to the new paradigm, as the Secret Weapon coaxing each ounce of potential out the cost-controlled youngsters filling out key spots on his roster.

And while they’re at it, how about a discount beer day? I know recession-plagued fans would embrace that.

Crazy? Is it any crazier than watching the Cardinals battle it out with the Pirates and Reds for third place?

Writing about the Cardinals and other loosely associated topics since 2008, I've grown tired of the April run-out only to disappoint Cardinal fans everywhere by mid-May. I do not believe in surrendering free outs.
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Sarah-bug January 30, 2009

I love the idea of the Busch’s buying back the club. I might start drinking Budweiser again.

PHE January 30, 2009

Do they still do ‘fresh beer’ days at the ballpark? Now *that’s* a good promotion.

Sarah-bug January 30, 2009

I don’t think I’ve been there on a “fresh beer” day. I’m intrigued.

Jeff January 30, 2009

Whoever wrote this did a fantastic job.

PHE January 30, 2009

@Sarah – they bring cold Budweiser up from the brewery straight out of the vats the morning of the game. Fresh beer is the best you’ll ever taste.

@Jeff – agreed, maybe I should post less around here and get guests to do all the writing! 😉

Cardinal70 January 30, 2009

This might just be the best of the blog swap entries. And that’s saying something.

PHE January 30, 2009

We have some great writers in our ranks, no doubt.

undorgre January 30, 2009

I did not grow up in St. Louis, so while I know a little about the Auggie days of running the Cardinals I certainly don’t have any personal tie as I was not entrenched in Cardinals baseball during his reign. It sounds like he was a good man and that he loved the game of baseball to nearly no end from what I’ve read and heard.

That said, I moved to St. Louis in 1997 and have been an avid fan since. I plunk down my money for season tickets every year and go to a lot of games, so I do have a vested interest these days… very much so.

Now my comments on a couple of points in this blog entry…

First, I do not believe that the 2006 championship had any impact on the direction in which ownership and the front office was taking the Cardinals. I understand it’s easy from the viewpoint of fans to draw conclusions and say that they rested on their laurels but I don’t see how they would be running this team any differently had they NOT won the World Series. DeWitt had already brought in Luhnow as it was obvious that the organization’s minor leagues had been grossly ignored for years. So I think that the movement towards youth was in place and there was not going to be any intention of bringing in the “big” names. And they have never been known to sign pitchers to long term deals and/or huge salaries… so they’ve stayed consistent with that.

My other point is toward the notion of the Busch family looking to buy the Cardinals. With the passing of Auggie I’ve seen nothing nor have I heard anything that leads me to believe that his lineage has the kind of passion about the game that he did. In fact, I would rather not see my favorite team in all of professional sports go to a family that squandered away one of the most iconic companies in American history. It was never any secret that A-B was run very inefficiently and the Busch family continued to diminish their ownership, and therefore accountability, to the point of being nothing more than empty suits by the time a takeover was underway. Know that I hold no bitterness about A-B being purchased by a foreign entity but I can recognize that the Busch family (as well as a few others) were largely responsible for where the company ended up going. So for me I would rather have some better business minds running the Cardinals franchise.

PHE January 30, 2009

I think you make two interesting points. One, you’re right, the team was already headed in the direction of youth prior to the 2006 WS. I think the loudest complaints are coming from the portion of Cardinal fans who expected that to be a jumping off point for greater things, when in reality it was a ‘last hurrah’ of sorts. The 2006 squad was an overachieving bunch of “got hot at the right time” aging veterans. The last remnants of the Jocketty-built Birds. There’s almost an entire generation of young Cardinal fans now who know nothing of losing records and/or having to rebuild an organization. All they’ve known is McGwire home runs, Pujols, and the 2004 juggernaut. What is often lost in all of that was that many of those players were either signed to deals significantly below market value, or a lucky late-round pull that was still cost-controlled (Pujols). You can’t just go out and put together a team like that in free agency unless you’re the Yankees. Look at the success that Milwaukee and Tampa are having right now with their homegrown players, and picture a 2010, 2011 Cardinal team pretty similar. It’s exciting to think about, for me.

Two, with regard to the Busch family – I think you make a strong case about the Cardinals being Gussie’s baby, and not so much about the family. I hadn’t really considered it in that light. You certainly never saw August III riding around the stadium on top of the Budweiser Clydesdale mount.

undorgre January 31, 2009

Thanks for the input PHE. I will never get on board with the Busch family, post-Auggie, in terms of making this organization better. Look at where they stood from 1989 until A-B sold them… nothing positive happened. In fact, looking at current ownership, they sort of embarrassed what the Bush family did after Auggie passed away. I just think too many people actually underestimate what the current regime had done to maintain the St. Louis tradition as the 2nd greatest MLB franchise in baseball history.

undorgre January 31, 2009

Re: my previous post… I meant, that post people OVERESTIMATE what the Busch family did post-Auggie.

PHE January 31, 2009

Well, I think it’s important to try and take a step back and separate some things in the discussion.

You have to be able to keep independent your thoughts on how A-B was operated versus how the baseball team was operated. They just are two completely different businesses. Apathy is perhaps one constant, but other than that – I really just believe that beyond Gussie’s enthusiasm for his Cards, the rest of the family (and by extension, the brewery and its companies) could care less.

That being said, it’s clear that the years between ’87 and ’96 were tough – but look at the years between ’68 and ’82. A really rough patch there, but Gussie’s legacy is no worse for wear. That’s what three World Series titles will do for an owner, regardless of tenure.

Make no mistake, the love affair with the Busch name typically and generally refers to Gussie – but you have to also understand that for 40ish years, Gussie *WAS* Anheuser-Busch – there was no distinction between man and company. I think that’s the general reference being made here. Bring back that enthusiasm, bring back someone who is literally in it because his heart breaks with every loss – not every lost dollar.

undorgre January 31, 2009

Of course it would be great to find an owner (or set of owners) that truly puts winning ahead of profit, but considering the price tag these days to get into a sports franchise it’s going to be very rare that you see one person buy a team (e.g. Mark Cuban)… and as soon as you get more than one person buying a team it almost always becomes an investment first and foremost.

I haven’t given up on the current ownership group (in fact, not even close). I think they’ve got a direction that will help sustain long term competitiveness that will remain affordable for them. I might be proven wrong but I think in some respect I will have to reserve judgment for 2 to 3 more years to see if the new direction makes some valuable gains on the field.

PHE January 31, 2009

Don’t get me wrong – I’m with you – I don’t find as much fault with the DeWitt group as most others do.

I think where they’ve gone wrong is making promises to “add payroll” or “leave flexibility to make moves” and any other number of excuses.

If the idea is to make the organization self-sufficient by building up a strong minor league system (which it obviously is), then just tell people that. Tell your fans there might be some rough seasons in between.

As Ryan wrote above, I think the key is the divide between front office and manager – and the fans’ unrealistic expectations for the direction of the franchise after 2006.

StLCards January 31, 2009

I don’t think the Cardinals need new ownership in the least. Baseball is a business and these guys are out to make money, that is fair enough. The good thing is that these owners, are baseball fans. They are spending enough money to be in the top third.

I rather liked the old Busch stadium, but having the new stadium let the city of St. Louis be host to the All Star Game this year too. When ballpark village gets done I think it will be a great thing to have downtown, especially on weekend games and for people visiting from out of town. This ownership was able to get that done, at least the stadium and ASG anyway.

The image problem results from overselling. I think they are too caught up in a business deal mindset and they are trying to sell Cardinal Fans as consumers rather than thinking of Cardinal Fans as part of the team. They are afraid if they say they want to rebuild that will be some sort of rebellion. My guess is they don’t say rebuilding or building from within, because if they did Tony wouldn’t have resigned. So they do enough to keep Tony appeased while rebuilding the farm team.

If you do decide to trade for a big name player, you better make sure you get it right. Giving up 3 or 4 decent prospects for a big name and big salary bust will have long term repercussions.

So, is the problem Tony LaRussa and we should get a new manager? Easy to say, but the reality is that players win the games and Tony gets the most out of his players. The belief is that younger players don’t get to play under LaRussa, but his philosophy is to bring guys along slowly, putting them into the best chance to succeed. The truth is, when is the last time that the Cardinals have had a bright shining star just waiting to bust out but has been kept on the bench or in the minors? This year’s Rasmus will be the first one I can remember for a long time. And if you look at prospects traded away in deals for old guys, how many besides Haren can you point to that are tearing up the league? I’m not so quick to buy into youth over veterans. Sure, people like to root for the Bo Hart’s, but results are what really matters.

As far as Mozeliak goes, I’m willing to give him time to learn on the job. He seems to be honest, and says what he wants to do, the problem is that it isn’t so easy to do what he wants. Basically every team wants the same thing, a stud for a bargain price. Mo has said all along that the Cardinals are restocking the farm system. How that farm system is used is yet to be seen. The past arguments were that the Cardinals needed a better farm system in order to be in deals for the big names studs at the trade deadlines. So, will those youngsters now be shipped out in big deals, or will they all be kept with the expectations that the Cardinals will be home built?

Back to Tony and the comment about Oquendo taking over, that doesn’t seem to fit to me. Oquendo has mentored under Tony so would likely manage in the same mold. What is to say he would be any different?

The Cardinals will likely be competitive as the Brewers, Pirates, Reds, and Astros don’t look like much right now. That leaves the Cubs to contend with, but the competitive part will likely come from a hunt for the wildcard.

Right now I would say the Cardinals are still looking pretty good and I expect a very competitive season, and if Carpenter can actually pitch this year then they could actually contend.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, at least for now 😉

PHE February 1, 2009

Well, when did you hop on the optimism train?!?! 😉

I think you’re spot on when you talk about just telling the fans how it is. Only they’d probably tell them “we’re rebuilding so we can win 5 WS in the ’10s.”

And of course, when that didn’t happen, we’d be in the same boat.

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