Sunday, October 14, 2012

Why I'm Rooting For The Cardinals To Win It All

I've been a Mets fan for over 30 years.  My fandom began in 1981 when, at the age of 8, I saw Mookie Wilson running wild on the bases in a Memorial Day victory over the Phillies.  Although Dave Kingman hit a grand slam in that game, all I remember is Mookie going 2-for-3 with a single, triple, stolen base and three runs scored.  Watching Mookie steal a base or leg out a triple was breathtaking for this young Mets fan, and I was fortunate enough to see him do both in that 13-3 late May victory.

Soon after that game, baseball went on strike and I was left to daydream about Mookie and the Mets.  The strike didn't change my feelings on the player or the team.  I loved them both.

Four years later, I watched intently as the Mets and Cardinals played a season-long game of tug-of-war, with both teams competing for the division title until the last week of season.  The Cardinals won the NL East that season, beginning a four-year stretch where either they or the Mets won the division title.

The Mets and Cardinals didn't really have much of a rivalry in the '90s so all the negative feelings I had toward them stemming from being called pond scum and from the Terry Pendleton game waned over the final decade of the 20th century.

Then the Mets defeated the Cardinals in the 2000 NLCS to advance to the World Series.  Six years later, the two teams met again for the National League pennant, but the results were not the same.  So Taguchi happened.  Jeff Suppan happened.  Yadier Molina happened.  And Adam Wainwright happened.  What didn't happen was a swing by Carlos Beltran on a wicked curve by Wainwright, then the Cardinals' rookie closer.

I really thought the Mets would be holding the World Series trophy in 2006.  Sigh.

After two decades, I had a reason to hate the Cardinals again.  That hatred is still there, but some of it has been converted to respect, and that respect is causing me to root for the Cardinals to repeat as World Series champions in 2012.

It's hard to root against a team that shows the resilience the Cardinals have exhibited since September 2011.  St. Louis came back from being more than ten games out in the National League wild card race in late August 2011 to overtake the Braves on the last day of the regular season.  They then eliminated the five-time NL East champion Phillies in the division series, winning the do-or-die fifth game at Citizens Bank Park.  That was followed by an NLCS victory over the division rival Milwaukee Brewers and a thrilling seven-game victory over the two-time American League champion Texas Rangers.  In the latter series, the Cardinals erased two-run deficits in the ninth and tenth innings, finally winning it on a walk-off homer by David Freese, who would be cheered by Mets fans seven months later when he struck out for the final out of Johan Santana's no-hitter.

The Cardinals began their title defense knowing they'd be without manager Tony La Russa, pitching coach Dave Duncan and future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols, all of whom left the team following their World Series triumph.  They also were without playoff heroes Chris Carpenter and Lance Berkman, who would both be sidelined for much of the 2012 season with injuries. 

But they signed Carlos Beltran to a two-year deal to be their rightfielder.  Beltran responded with his best overall season (32 HR, 97 RBI, 13 SB) since 2008.  They allowed Allen Craig to take over at first base when Lance Berkman got hurt.  Craig produced Berkman-like numbers (.307, 35 doubles, 22 HR, 92 RBI in 119 games) as his replacement.  They gave hometown hero David Freese the everyday third baseman's job and he responded with a .293, 20 HR, 79 RBI season.  Those were just three examples.  Let's look at some others, starting once again with Craig.

  • Allen Craig: .307, 35 doubles, 22 HR, 92 RBI, .522 SLG
  • Jon Jay: .305, 22 doubles, team-leading 19 SB, .373 OBP in 117 games
  • Matt Carpenter: .294, 33 extra-base hits, 46 RBI in only 296 AB
  • Yadier Molina: .315, 22 HR, 76 RBI, 12 SB, .501 SLG
  • Lance Lynn: 18-7, 3.78 ERA, 180 K
  • Mitchell Boggs: 78 games, 2.21 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, .211 batting average against
  • Jason Motte: 42 saves (tied for NL lead), 2.75 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 86 K in 72 IP

All of those players produced outstanding seasons to help the Cardinals make it back to the playoffs in 2012.  But they also have something else in common.  Let's look at those players again, followed by the common trait they share.

  • Allen Craig: selected by St. Louis in the 8th round of the 2006 amateur draft
  • Jon Jay: selected by St. Louis in the 2nd round of the 2006 amateur draft
  • Matt Carpenter: selected by St. Louis in the 13th round of the 2009 amateur draft
  • Yadier Molina: selected by St. Louis in the 4th round of the 2000 amateur draft
  • Lance Lynn: selected by St. Louis in the 1st round of the 2008 amateur draft
  • Mitchell Boggs: selected by St. Louis in the 5th round of the 2005 amateur draft
  • Jason Motte: selected by St. Louis in the 19th round of the 2003 amateur draft

"Who?"  "Motte!"  "Who?"  "Motte!"  "Okay, we're bringing in Rzepczysnki."

That's seven homegrown players who all became major contributors to the Cardinals' success in 2012.  They're not the only homegrown players on St. Louis' roster, as Daniel Descalso, Skip Schumaker, Tyler Greene, Pete Kozma, Jaime Garcia and Joe Kelly also helped the Cardinals return to the postseason.

The Cardinals have put together a championship-caliber team with shrewd free agent signings and an outstanding scouting team who has repeatedly noticed talent that remained available in the lower rounds of the draft.  That's not to mention the coaches in their minor league system who have turned these lower picks into the major league talent they've become.

The Mets have also developed a number of players in their minor league system over the years, but many of them have become so-so players at the major league level.  Jonathon Niese finally had a breakthrough season with the Mets in 2012, but it took him until his fifth season with the team to do so.  Ike Davis has been with the team since 2010, but has still not been able to put it all together (his low batting average cast a dark shadow over his 32 HR, 90 RBI campaign).  Daniel Murphy also has a number of question marks, as do Josh Thole, Bobby Parnell and Jordany Valdespin.

For now, only David Wright and Ruben Tejada have done what's been expected of them at the major league level.  (Matt Harvey is still too raw to be included with Wright and Tejada.)  That's not enough to produce a contending team.  If the Mets want to contend, they should follow the blueprint created by the St. Louis Cardinals.  They must draft and develop their players properly, not rushing them to the majors and only bringing them up when they're ready to contribute at the major league level.  They must also not make silly trades or free agent signings.

Prior to the 2010 season, the Mets and Cardinals were both looking for a leftfielder.  The Cardinals re-signed Matt Holliday, who they had traded for during the 2009 season.  The Mets settled for Jason Bay.  Since then, Holliday has averaged .302, 39 doubles, 26 HR and 93 RBI per season, while Jason Bay has 41 doubles, 26 HR and 124 RBI.  That's not his average season.  That's his combined total in three seasons with the Mets.  Oh, and let's not forget his .234 batting average over the same time period.

Jason Bay would probably have just as much success if he hit with his eyes closed.

So that brings us back to the topic of this post.  Why, you ask, am I rooting for the Cardinals to win it all?  Because they're run the way I wish the Mets were being run.

When I became a Mets fan in 1981, they were not a good team.  But they drafted well.  They had good, young players being developed properly at the minor league level and these players were being called up when they were ready to compete at the major league level.  Soon after, they also acquired quality veteran players like Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter, who complemented their young talent well.  Three years after I became a fan, the Mets competed for a division title.  Two years later, they won the World Series.

The Cardinals are now seeking their second consecutive World Series championship and third in six years.  Since 2000, they have had only one losing season and have qualified for the playoffs nine times, advancing to the NLCS on seven occasions and winning three pennants (2004, 2006, 2011).  Should the Cardinals advance to the World Series this year, it will give them as many National League pennants in nine seasons as the Mets have had in their 51 seasons.

St. Louis has a tradition of winning.  But unlike the Yankees, they don't feel the need to buy their titles.  They win because they do it the old-fashioned way.  They develop and keep their young talent, rather than trading them away for higher-priced stars.  Their front office doesn't try to break the bank with their acquisitions.  Instead, they make smart trades and free agent signings, ones that usually lead to immediate and long-term success. 

Mookie forgive me, but I want the Cardinals to win it all this year because they do it right.  Hopefully, the Mets can follow their example so that I don't have to feel like I'm betraying three decades of fandom with that statement. 

Forgive me, Mookie, for I have sinned.  Please don't frown at me like that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I still haven't forgiven them for '06. I'm rooting for the Giants bec. they're not the Cards & I'm rooting for the Tigers bec. they're not the Yanks.