A good friend of mine used to say, “This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.” Think about that for a while.
~Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Bull Durham)
Many St. Louis Cardinal players are starting to head south to Jupiter, Florida for Spring Training. We are still 10 days away from the start date for pitchers and catchers but many big names are already there. I love this time of year. You start to get a feel for the kind of team the clubs are going to have. It is a much more relaxed atmosphere and players tend to readily wax nostalgic about the previous year or begin their prognostications about the upcoming season. New players arrive and everyone gets a fresh start. The Cardinals enter this season as the prohibitive favorite to win the NL Central.
Upon reflection of last years team and their unlikely run to a World Series Championship I began to wonder exactly what it was that propelled them to the title. Teams like the 2011 Cardinals are special for a lot of reasons. They were not supposed to win the title, yet they still did. When trying to answer why they were able to put together a ridiculous run I keep circling back to one thing. Team chemistry. They were a cohesive unit. While they had a few stars, it was the supporting cast that carried the club. The timely rise of David Freese and the career resurrection of Lance Berkman that took place were not only unpredictable but also essential to the championship effort.
Team chemistry is a difficult thing to quantify. While Albert Pujols (barring one freak performance) and Matt Holliday were the “stars” of the team, their contribution during the playoffs paled in comparison to their normal production. Albert hit .353 with 5 HR’s and 16 RBI’s during the playoffs. Holliday who was hampered with a wrist injury hit .294 with 1 HR and 5 RBI’s. This required the team to come together even more and play for each other. This also allowed hometown hero and MVP David Freese (.397/5 HR’s/ 21 RBI’s) to be propelled into the national spotlight. I believe this sense of team not only launched them into the playoffs, but also carried them to the Championship.
I feel this desire to play for something bigger than their individual self can be traced back to two specific incidents. The first of these was the trade of pariah Colby Rasmus. This trade brought in quality men and solidified key areas (Starting Pitching, Bullpen, etc.…) that were crucial to the playoff run and got rid of a noted clubhouse distraction. My colleagues, national columnists, sports reporters and countless other journalist have spent this entire offseason discussing and glorifying this unlikely scenario of the Cardinals winning the World Series. The Birds could not have gotten to postseason if not for a remarkable regular season finish and with a little help from the epic failure of the Atlanta Braves. This remarkable run to the finish can be traced back to a players-only meeting that was led by Chris Carpenter but reportedly included input from several other key players. This meeting took place after being swept by the Dodgers at home. The team really became a family after this and went on to close the season by finishing 23-9 in their final 32 games and closing a 10.5 game deficit when the Braves lost on the last day of the season. They decided to not embarrass themselves and do everything they could to win and let the chips fall where they may.
Unbeknownst to the team Tony LaRussa had made up his mind to retire. He was smart enough to keep this to himself and allowed what was taking place to continue to work. Chemistry of a team is a funny thing. It takes the right mixture of stars, supporting cast, and leaders of a team to be successful. If chemistry were something that could be calculated and quantified every team would do it. This year has brought so many changes that it is going to be interesting to watch how things unfold. The Redbirds have a new manager and have had some significant departures take place this offseason. How will the club react? While many of us assumed that Albert was a vocal leader in the clubhouse and that he was “the man”, things to discredit that have crept out after his departure. The nucleus of leaders is still here. Chris Carpenter, Lance Berkman (remarkable presence for only being here for one season), Yadier Molina, and Matt Holliday will be able to lead their new and old teammates. Mike Matheny has the luxury of having some serious talent along with leaders in his clubhouse. The Cardinals are in an enviable position of having pitching depth and a quality lineup that make them the favorites. Many people predicted gloom and doom after losing Pujol$. They wrote the Cardinals off. I almost wish the rest of the league hadn’t gotten the memo and thought that was still the case. I like this team when they play hungry and perceive that they are being slighted. The attitude they have developed as an underdog is more fun to watch than when they are the favorite. Here’s to hoping that Matheny and his Birds come together as well as last year’s team. I like the fact that they are out to prove that they were more than a one horse team and that they can win without that player that left for the West coast. Here’s to hoping for number 12 in 2012!!!