JUPITER, Fla. -- In historical times, when kings and queens ruled, the color gold was often used to depict wealth, luxury and a lavish lifestyle. Throughout the history of spirituality, gold has been used to signify enlightenment, superiority and sacredness of life. And psychologically speaking, the color gold has always been used to portray success, achievement and triumph.
In the view of the St. Louis Cardinals, gold means a little bit of all those things. With the Cardinals, gold is a standard that the franchise expects when it comes to its defense. And it isn’t something they just preach; they back it up with Gold Gloves.
Gold, particularly last season, was in abundance in St. Louis when the franchise had an embarrassment of riches in terms of stellar defenders. When Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill and Tommy Edman nabbed Gold Gloves, the five awards were the most in MLB history.
What the Cardinals did defensively last season certainly was no fluke as a franchise that has featured the defensive brilliance of Ozzie Smith, Keith Hernandez, Scott Rolen and Albert Pujols throughout the years, and extended its MLB-best total of Gold Gloves to 96. Solid defense is the expectation in St. Louis, and often that is a pervasive idea that leads to golden results.
“Great defense is absolutely contagious,” said Bader, who nabbed his first defensive honor. “If I make a good play, [rightfielder Dylan Carlson] makes a nice catch or O’Neill throws a guy out, that pumps our pitcher up. When you see a guy busting his butt on defense, it ignites the team, and you want to do the same thing.”
A disappointment much of last season, the Cardinals put it all together late in 2021 and recorded a historic 17-game winning streak that propelled them into the playoffs. Defense played a big factor in being able to pitch better down the stretch and shut down opposing offenses.
According to Baseball Savant, the Cardinals ranked first in the National League in defensive runs saved (15) and outs above average (14). According to FieldingBible, the Cardinals were far-and-away the best defensive team in the NL and second only to the Rangers throughout MLB. Goldschmidt and O’Neill were tops at their individual defensive positions, while Bader was second. Incredibly, Arenado ranked ninth, but that didn’t stop him from winning a ninth straight Gold Glove -- a record among infielders to start a career.
“When somebody says the number, first I can’t believe I’ve been in the league that long and that I’ve won it that much,” said Arenado, who is looking to challenge Brooks Robinson’s record for Gold Gloves at third (16). “I want to win it again and win it every time I can. That’s my goal every year.”
Gold Gloves are the goal every year for the Cardinals, making this season a Catch-(20)22, if you will. Stellar defense for the Cardinals starts from the first day of Spring Training when players flock to Jupiter, Fla., to work with famed coaches Jose Oquendo and Willie McGee. Oquendo, once dubbed “The Secret Weapon” because of his defensive versatility, holds the MLB record for fewest errors by a second baseman (three in 1990) and boasts a .career 996 fielding percentage as a Cardinal (1986-95). As for McGee -- a hero of the 1982 World Series win -- he often hits outfielders balls they must catch while looking into the sun.
Much of the Cardinals’ emphasis on defense -- which became known throughout baseball as “The Cardinal Way” -- can be traced George Kissell, who spent 50 years with the organization as a system-wide field coordinator. Cardinals Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog once told The New York Times this about Kissell, who had the spring clubhouse and four back fields named after him: “George Kissell is the only man I know who can talk 15 minutes about a ground ball.”
Throughout spring, Cardinals’ infielders do much of their work on a condensed field dubbed, “The Land of Oz,” in tribute to Smith, nicknamed “The Wizard” while winning 13 Gold Gloves. At “The Land of Oz,” fielders are greeted with this message: “Where Cardinal Infielders Become Wizards.”
That’s proven true in a variety of ways. Nine-time Gold Glove winner Yadier Molina and brother Bengie are one of five sets of brothers to win awards. Between Kolten Wong and Edman, a Cardinal had won the last three NL Gold Gloves at second base. Wainwright and Molina are one of five batteries to win Gold Gloves, doing it in 2009 and ’13. Former Cardinal Placido Polanco is one of just two players to win Gold Gloves in the AL and NL, while other former Cardinals such as Jim Kaat (16) and Hernandez (11) racked up droves of Gold Gloves in their careers.
Wainwright, who said his defense shapes how he pitches, said, “With the way our guys play defense, we’d be silly not to pound the zone with strikes and make guys put it in play.”
Gold is the perfect color for Bader, a brash center fielder who thought of himself as a Gold Glove performer long before being bestowed the honor last fall. This season, Bader discovered one of the perks of winning the Gold Glove is a shiny plate stitched across the wristband of his glove, signifying his stellar work in 2021.
“To see that gold patch, it’s a cool aesthetic look. I notice it during games, and I kiss it at night,” Bader explained. “Even if I had never won a Gold Glove, I’d still attack defense the same way and think of myself that way. Really, [the Gold Glove] is just a standard of how we operate around here.”