A boat without a rudder is wildly unstable. Waves and wind come against that rudderless boat, spinning it out to sea or crashing it into rocks or reefs. Weight shifts inside that boat become more dangerous without the stability of a rudder, sometimes causing the boat to capsize. A simple mechanism like a rudder provides a boat with stability, direction, and motivation.
A metaphorical rudder is exactly what the current Cardinals organization lacks most of all. Since the 2007 ouster of Walt Jocketty, the organization has lacked stability, direction, and motivation, producing four seasons of (mostly) terrible baseball, clubhouse catfighting, and confounding personnel moves. It has been one of the most disappointing and bewildering stretches of organizational ineptitude for the franchise since the seventies.
The last two years have been particularly frustrating in this regard. For example, why trade Ryan Ludwick because he was approaching free agency and was going to be “too expensive,” only to sign a damaged Lance Berkman for $8 million instead of Luddy, who signed with San Diego for $1.5 million less? This is a ridiculous manuever that destroyed clubhouse morale, and made little baseball sense.
Another example: why publicly insult and then trade defensive specialist Brendan Ryan because he “wasn’t hitting,” only to go out and sign light-hitting Ryan Theriot and Nick Punto, neither of whom can defensively do what Ryan could? Because they’re “older” or “grittier?” The Punto signing really bugs me because we already had a light-hitting defensive specialist in-house (Ryan), and the deal only underscores the lack of foresight within the organization.
Another example: why refuse to play Bryan Anderson at backup catcher because he “couldn’t hit in the majors” and we “need more pop from that position,” only to sign gritty veteran Gerald Laird for $1 million and watch him try to hit his way out of a wet paper bag?
Another example: The gifting of the major league hitting coach position to LaRussa buddy Mark McGwire, a lifetime .260 batsman with no prior coaching experience and the taint of steroids all over him. Is this how a truly successful team builds a proper coaching staff? Shouldn’t McGwire have “paid his dues” by learning the craft in the minors, or do the coaches not matter enough on this team?
Another example: Mozeliak fired bullpen coach Marty Mason – after 25 years of service – because the higher-ups didn’t like Mason’s criticisms of organizational trends. Real baseball men can argue and disagree over baseball without personal grudges, but insecure accountants without real knowledge of the game apparently cannot.
Another example: The farm system was supposed to be a priority, with ample new talents rising up to replenish the major league team at affordable prices. This was the main reason why Jocketty was fired. Now, three years later, our farm system is exhausted and discarded in favor of signing expensive veterans. Which one is it?
Another example: THE PUJOLS CONTRACT. Do they want him or not? The moves of the last two years have been (supposedly) geared around signing Pujols, yet they have dealt in fits of starts and stops in this area. The failure to engage Pujols last winter was a tactical disaster for this confused organization, and failing to trade Pujols last summer might be another one if he gets away.
It’s likely that Cardinals fans have been spoiled by one of the better periods of baseball in the Cardinals’ history. From 1980 – 1996, the team was directed by men who grew up on the game, loved every aspect of it, and knew how to play it and how to manage it. Gussie Busch loved the team, and generously gave Whitey Herzog free reign to build a team his way. Later, men like Dal Maxville, Walt Jocketty, and (ugh) Tony LaRussa came in with knowledge of the game and a focus on fundamental ways to win. Even when the team was losing (some of the early nineties editions, for example), the moves behind the scenes made sense and the direction seemed clear.
The people now in charge of the organization (Bill DeWitt, John Mozeliak, Jeff Luhnow, and LaRussa) are largely not baseball men (with a grudging exception made in the case of LaRussa) and have little ability to gauge talent. They are money-makers, stat-heads, and paper pushers. They have thin skins and absolutely no idea how to build a working baseball team.
In some ways, 2011 will prove to be the “sink or swim” moment for this rudderless Cardinals organization. Either the boat will sail proudly to the shores of a National League pennant, or it will crash against the rocks and capsize in shame. Without a rudder, one outcome is becoming more likely all the time.