If the St. Louis Cardinals are still pushing “The Cardinal Way,” it’s time to give up the ghost.
The swift decline of the St. Louis Cardinals is like a grisly car accident: You can’t help but peek through your fingers, mortified at what you’re seeing. The 10-19 Cardinals lie in the cellar of the National League Central, and the foundation of the team has eroded to a point where no fan can mention The Cardinal Way with a straight face.
The Cardinal Way was pioneered by longtime Cardinals coaches George Kissell and Dave Ricketts, and while its full content remains mysterious to outsiders, its core tenets include displaying solid fundamentals on the field and developing talent from within. Kissell and Ricketts both died in 2008, but in 2011, The Cardinal Way evolved from a lesson passed down via word of mouth into a 117-page document that was given to each player on the team.
The Cardinal Way was a massive success for decades, as the Cardinals were the team every other National League squad aspired to become. But baseball has changed more over the past five years than it did over the 50 years prior, and The Cardinal Way now appears to be an archaic mantra for a team trapped in the past.
With the contraction of the minor leagues and players promoted to the majors faster than ever, young players are no longer as attuned to the fundamental aspects of the game. Instead of having skills drilled into them at the lower ranks, players are forced to learn on the fly at the highest level, which goes against a principal facet of The Cardinal Way. The degradation of this aspect of the game is especially notable in defense and baserunning, both of which have hurt the Cardinals in 2023.
At one point, the Cardinals were at the top of the heap in player development. Former pitching coach Dave Duncan was renowned for his ability to poach veteran hurlers off the scrap heap and reinvent them, and the team also had the uncanny ability to mold fringe minor-league position player prospects into legitimate major-league hitters. In the early 2010s, the Cardinals were at the front of the bullpen velocity spike that is now ubiquitous throughout the league. They sprinted to the World Series in 2013 with a young bullpen full of flamethrowers at a time when throwing 100 mph was still relatively rare.
The Cardinals have also nosedived in their ability to develop this talent in the system. Several cutting-edge teams have surpassed the Cardinals in getting the most out of young players, and the list of players finding success after leaving the Cardinals is growing at an alarming rate. Sandy Alcantara, Zac Gallen, Randy Arozarena, Adolis Garcia, and Johan Oviedo are a few former Cardinals whom new teams have taken to the next level.
The Cardinals have lost so much ground in the past several years, and their steadfast refusal to budge from The Cardinal Way has turned the team into an also-ran and given it an uptight, stodgy image in the eyes of fans and players around the league. Fans will remember the Cardinals unceremoniously dumping Tommy Pham after the outspoken outfielder criticized the way the organization was run. The Cardinal Way not only no longer reflects baseball reality; it doesn’t rub fans the right way, either.
Other fans recall Giancarlo Stanton turning down an offer from the Cardinals because the team didn’t appear ready to win. The Cardinals have reached a point where they can no longer rely on promoting their rich history and their values in The Cardinal Way to lure potential players and keep their fans loyal. Eventually, results need to follow.
The organization has lost its luster, and it’s becoming clearer by the day that The Cardinal Way is no longer the answer. The Cardinals are off to their worst start in half a century, and the team needs to recognize that it can no longer keep its heels dug into the ground and trust the process that worked for so long. We’re in a new era, and it’s time for the Cardinals to adapt to it.