Nothing seems to knock Cards off winning track
St. Louis has lost key pieces in recent years, but success hasn't waned
OK, this Cardinals thing makes no sense. Somehow, they keep soaring with no end in sight, and get this: Tony La Russa hasn't been their future Hall of Fame manager for two seasons. After winning the 2011 World Series, he retired. So did Dave Duncan, his loyal lieutenant who ranks among the all-time best pitching coaches.
It gets stranger. Albert Pujols supposedly was a lifetime bleeder of the Cardinals' red, white and navy blue. For slightly more than a decade with the team, he was considered the most accomplished player on the planet, but he hasn't worked in St. Louis since 2011.
Then there is Chris Carpenter, the former Cy Young Award winner, three-time All-Star and owner of two World Series rings. Not only was he the Cardinals' ace forever, he served as a huge leader in the clubhouse. He's missed much of the past two years due to shoulder issues.
As for this season, St. Louis lost closer Jason Motte and shortstop Rafael Furcal to elbow surgeries.
Even franchise icon Stan Musial with his inspirational ways is suddenly gone from Busch Stadium. He joined that Great Redbird In The Sky after passing away earlier this year.
None of that has mattered for these Cardinals.
Nothing has. Not even Mike Matheny going from never managing at any level after a career as a Major League catcher to replacing the legendary La Russa to dealing with the following without a hitch: nine rookie pitchers, and seven of them made their Major League debuts this season. Four have been in the rotation at some point.
Despite it all, the Cardinals never lose. Or maybe it just seems that way for a relentless group that has spent much of the season leading the National League Central with baseball's best record.
The Cardinals also haven't a weakness.
Well, that's actually fact, because the numbers say as much.
Deep into last week, only the Tigers had a better team batting average than the Cardinals in the Major Leagues, and only the Red Sox had scored more runs. While the Braves led everybody in team ERA, the Cardinals were second. And no team topped the Cardinals in fielding percentage.
If that isn't enough, the Cardinals are hugged like crazy by those around one of baseball's smallest markets. Regardless of market, only the Dodgers and the Giants average more fans per home game than the Cardinals' mark of around 41,000.
No wonder so many Cardinals are excelling in the fan voting for the All-Star Game. I'm guessing the folks that pack Busch are punching those computerized cards early and often. Carlos Beltran spent much of the week leading all outfielders, and first baseman Allen Craig, second baseman Matt Carpenter and third baseman David Freese were running third in the balloting at their respective positions. Matt Holliday was sixth among outfielders.
This isn't to say those Cardinals aren't deserving of praise, especially since they're part of a lineup that has hit a ridiculous .300-plus all season with runners in scoring position. Consider, too, that Craig and Freese helped form St. Louis' kiddy corps that was too young to get nervous during the 2011 World Series.
They proved their big-stage experience wasn't a fluke, because they've continued to improve and prosper.
In essence, this unexpected success for the 2013 Cardinals has done what was thought to be impossible: It has deepened the love between the club and those around St. Louis, where gaudy attendance figures have been the norm.
There were the glory days of Sportsman's Park, where the Cardinals played from 1920-66. Afterward, the Cardinals thrilled fans for years inside old Busch Stadium, one of those circular structures from the 1960s. Now there is the latest Busch Stadium with its new-old design, but the results are the same: Cardinals fans come in large numbers, sing that Budweiser song as much as "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" and boo the home team only in silence.
Talk about consistency.
The word "superlative" also comes to mind when you analyze the Cardinals through the decades.
They've had superlative pitchers, ranging from Dizzy Dean to Bob Gibson to Bruce Sutter to Adam Wainwright. They've had superlative infielders, ranging from Rogers Hornsby to Frankie Frisch to Ozzie Smith to Craig. They've had superlative outfielders, ranging from Joe Medwick to Curt Flood to Willie McGee to Beltran. They've had superlative managers, ranging from Bill McKechnie to Red Schoendienst to Whitey Herzog to La Russa to Matheny. They've also had superlative announcers, ranging from Harry Caray to Joe Garagiola to Jack Buck to Mike Shannon.
They've had superlative ownership, too, especially during the past 60 years.
First, the Busch family made baseball in St. Louis synonymous with Clydesdales and beer. Then, in 1996, the Busch family scared those who feared the unknown by selling the Cardinals to a group led by William DeWitt Jr., but the new ownership continued the old ownership's tradition of hiring superlative baseball people.
I'm actually exposing the not-so-hidden secret behind the Cardinals' ongoing success, by the way.
It's those superlative baseball people. In past generations, for instance, the Cardinals produced general managers of note, including Branch Rickey, Bing Devine, Bob Howsam and Dal Maxvill. They all believed in strong farm systems, and they all captured pennants and World Series championships with St. Louis or somebody else.
During this generation, the Cardinals had Walt Jocketty, now doing wonders with the Reds, and John Mozeliak, the current GM who put together the 2011 champions.
Just like that, when nobody was looking, Mozeliak built these Cardinals for another mighty run into October.
You know ... somehow.