BFIB and the Myth of “The Cardinals Way”


The two phrases that will make a baseball fan’s head spin the fastest today might be “The Best Fans in Baseball” and “The Cardinals Way”.   With the Cardinals unexpected, and mostly unexplainable, success heading into the 2015 All Star Break, it is understandable how these words that Cardinals fans say with genuine pride are often linked to a deep loathing of the team.  Instead of being upset about this, Cardinals fans should embrace the angst because it means that the team, and by proxy, the fans are relevant.  I fear the day that nobody is talking trash about the Cardinals because that means they have fallen from the headlines to the forgettable.

But are the Best Fans in Baseball and The Cardinals Way a real thing or just something invented to give us comfort in the face of all this disrespect ?

Well, they are real, but maybe not in the way that you might think.  Let me explain.

The Cardinals Way

george-kissellThe Cardinals Way is very much a real thing, dating back to the days when the Cardinals minor league farm system was spreading faster than the latest Kardashian selfie on Twitter.  The phrase is often associated with George “The Professor” Kissell, a minor league infielder in the 1940s and then manager and later coach in the Cardinals system.  It may mean different things to different people over the years, but the essence is paying attention to details, execute the fundamentals, honor the game (written and unwritten rules), honor the uniform (those that came before you) and work together as a team. Nobody in baseball taught it better and to more players than George Kissell.

Is this unique to the Cardinals ?  No, that’s absurd.  But it is one of the few things that ties together the various managerial and ownship eras of the last half century, from Johnny Keane to Mike Matheny, the Busch family to the DeWitts.  Bill DeWitt, Jr. clearly understands how much Cardinals fans value The Cardinals Way as an identity and has made it a very public part of the team culture and marketing programs to this day.

That is not to say that everybody wearing the uniform has followed the code.  Those that didn’t were frequently shown the door, often in a hastily arranged deal.  Once such example was during the cocaine scandal of the 1980s.  That hit the Cardinals very hard and cost them fan favorites such as Lonnie Smith, Keith Hernandez and Joaquin Andujar.  But the Cardinals Way persisted and good times returned, albeit for just a little while.

The big misunderstanding here is that The Cardinals Way is no secret handshake ritual that is guaranteed to win a championship nor is it somehow unique to the Cardinals.  Over the long haul, it has been a recipe for success, and thanks to the stewardship under the current owners, it remains that way today.  It is also good to remember that it has not always been that way.

While an entire generation of Cardinals have have never experienced a time when the Cardinals have not been successful, the truth is that there have been many dark times over the last half century.  Woeful times in fact.  I am referring to 1965-1966, the entire decade of the 1970s, first half of the 1990s and curiously 2007-2009.  While those teams were abysmal, almost laughable at  times, they were every bit The Cardinals Way as the team that just swept the Cubs in some of the scrappiest baseball that any Busch Stadium has seen.   It just didn’t work for other reasons – a critical injury or two, players aging and not being replaced or the front office not spending the money needed to lock up or acquire key talent needed to compete.  It is hard to believe, but that is true, especially under the Fred Kuhlmann era.  Apparently it takes more than just “The Cardinals Way” to win – it actually takes some talent.   And a front office that cares about success.

Perhaps we should be talking more about “Mo’s Way” today as that probably has a bigger impact to the Cardinals recent success than the teachings of George Kissell, Johnny Keane,  Hub Kittle or any of the other legends from the Cardinals past.

Best Fans in Baseball

So what does The Cardinals Way have to do with The Best Fans in Baseball ?  If you have been following along, quite a bit actually.  Showing up every night cheering on a winning team is easy to do – ask the Washington Nationals or Atlanta Braves.   In October.

There are a number of aspects to the Best Fans in Baseball that should bring a touch of respect to Cardinals fans.  Sure, giving a standing ovation to Shane Robinson or Daniel Descalso is the kind of thing St. Louis is known for.  Again, the big stars are easy to cheer for, but Cardinals fans love their scrappy overachievers just as much, if not more.  It may not be logical, but it is so St. Louis.

albert-pujolsThe interesting truth is that the Cardinals haven’t really lost all that many impact players to free agency or unpopular trade deadline deals, so we sort of have to cheer for the little guys.  Albert Pujols is the only big name player in recent years that “took the money and ran”.  Larry Walker and Chris Carpenter retired as a Cardinal, Jim Edmonds was injured and in late career decline as were Carlos Beltran and Lance Berkman.  I’m hoping that some of that is not lost on Jason Heyward as he ponders over his first free agency contract.  Of the current core of players, only Lance Lynn seems likely to take an early walk out of St. Louis.  Maybe that’s why we get so attached to the little guys.

But it’s more than that.  Cardinals fans gladly cheer for an opponent player when he makes a great play on the field.   There is no tradition of throwing back home run balls, though some careful observation shows that Cubs fans may actually be keeping those balls, throwing junkers back on to the field.  None of this is unique to Cardinals fans, it is just the rule in St. Louis and not the exception.  Oh, there have been times when Cardinals fans were poor sports – the 1985 NLCS against the Dodgers was one such time, but those have been few and far between.   Heck, we even learned to embrace Will Clark though Brandon Phillips and Johnny Cueto still seem to rankle Cards fans.

I think the real essence of Best Fans in Baseball lies in remembering when times were not as good as they are now but treating the team with the same respect and admiration.  That certainly required some effort in the early 1990s when Joe Torre always seemed an inning too late in making pitching changes and Germimo Pena could not stay out of the hospital.

The other day, one of my Twitter buddies sent out this little reminder

@cigarmike
In 1995, Rich DeLucia led the St. Louis Cardinals with 8 
wins. 8. Those were dark days. 

Mike forgot to mention that DeLucia was a relief pitcher!  Dark times, indeed.  Yet the memories of that era are fond ones, not downing in angst.  And the fans did not stay away from the ballpark as they have been doing in places like Houston.

Let’s also not forget the 1970s when Gussie Busch traded away Willie Montanez, Steve Carlton, Jerry Reuss, Bake McBride, Mike Torrez, Richie “Dick” Allen, Reggie Smith and Jose Cruz.  Yet we came back night after night to watch the ones that remained, such as Silvio Martinez, John Fulgham, Jerry Mumphrey, haplessly playing the game until Whitey Herzog came along and rebuilt the team into a new generation of winners.

Maybe it is during those bad times that you really learn to appreciate the beauty of the game and not just the outcome – the game within the game.  For a couple of decades, that’s all we had.

Best Fans in Baseball does sound a terribly pretentious, but it is sure easier to say than Least Bandwagonny Fans in Baseball.   At the end of the day, both are true.  Not that there aren’t great fans of every team – there certainly are and we members of The Best Fans in Baseball should remember that.   Red Sox Nation and Yankees fans are just as rabid, though perhaps more on the bandwagon side of things and certainly with a more abrupt vocabulary, but I would never question their enthusiasm.  Dodgers fans buy tickets and either show up late to the games or not at all.  Giants fans kill all others with their use of social media and swarming the All Star Voting system.  Perhaps they are worthy of the title of Best Fans of their Team, sure.   Of baseball as a game, maybe not as much.   As with The Cardinals Way, BFIB is not an exclusive club.  It is, though, an accurate description of the unique relationship between the fans and players in St. Louis.

77ec85d9169ba4690cd3c295ee57c281If George Kissell was the architect of the Cardinals Way, who turned Cardinals fans into the Best Fans in Baseball ?   That one is easy, thanks to a wonderful comment from Wayne Grote (thanks, Wayne!).  For decades, the broadcast team of Jack Buck and Harry Caray taught us how to be fans of the game, not just the home team.  Harry was the emotional fan, with his voice and word choice matching what he was seeing on the field while Jack was the technician, carefully describing every little detail and explaining why it was important. They were both quick to praise opposing players when they made a great play as they were to criticize the home team when they did something wrong.   As with The Cardinals Way, Jack and Harry were not unique to St. Louis.  Mel Allen, Red Barber, Ernie Harwell, Bob Prince, Harry Kalas, Jack Brickhouse and Vin Scully were legendary broadcasters and equally loved by their listeners, but there is something different about how the lessons stuck with Cardinals fans.

Once we can all admit that the Cardinals Way has not always worked and that there are fans of other teams that love their players as much, though perhaps differently, than in St. Louis, we can move past all of this silliness and get back to watching and appreciating the game of baseball.

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5 Responses to BFIB and the Myth of “The Cardinals Way”

  1. Steve Wade says:

    Really like the article, and I realize this is extremely nit-picky and opinionated, but I firmly believe that, barring his shoulder injury, John Fulgham would have become a star and shouldn’t have been lumped with Martinez and Mumphrey (I liked Jerry too now that I think about it), no offense to those guys.

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    • Thanks, Steve. I meant absolutely no disrespect to any of those three – loved them all. I do agree with you that Fulgham might have really been something special. He sure beat up on a lot of my buddies in high school.

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  2. Wayne Grote says:

    Bob, this is a great summary of where many Cardinal fans have come from, and why. I remember the 70’s VERY well. We’d go to games with 5000 to 7500 fans during the week and sit DIRECTLY behind home plate and the guy with the radar gun. Living through those days made attending and WINNING game 7 of the World Series in 1982 one of the sweetest memories of my life.
    I would add Edgar Renteria as an impact player who left the team after the 2004 World Series sweep by Boston to play FOR Boston for a salary contract difference of $30,000. Boston came back during the regular season and we went to that first game. He was roundly booed by the fans who felt he had snubbed St. Louis for $30,000…. which I think was LESS than 1% of his salary.

    One other note, we have attended the last game of the season for the last 15 years or so. Craig Biggio (Houston) played his last game in St. Louis on that date. The fans gave him a 5 minute standing ovation at his final at bat. He was CLEARLY moved by the ovation, and it took him a minute or two to compose himself before grounding out. That type of respect for a player and the game doesn’t happen in Boston or Yankeeland. That makes St. Louis fans the best fans of BASEBALL – the sport, the game, not the best fans of any one team. So I agree with your point that other towns have at least equally loyal fans, and from personal experience, I would say Boston probably should be considered the SECOND BEST fans of BASEBALL. That full page add that the Red Sox put in the St. Louis Post after the 2013 World Series thanking the city of St. Louis and the FANS for the respectful way their team and their fans were treated is a testament to how REAL that designation is and how it is seen by fans of other teams coming to St. Louis.

    I would also say that MUCH of the credit needs to go to Jack Buck as a leader of Cardinal Nation. Through his analysis of the game, he developed fans that understood and appreciated a great game, regardless of the final score or a GREAT play regardless of the player’s uniform. He made sure fans understood a ground out to the right side of the infield was a GOOD PLAY when it moved a runner from 2nd base to 3rd base with less than 2 out. Players see it when they are CHEERED for making an out that strategically advances the team’s chance to score. I do NOT believe you will see that type of fundamental understanding of the game by a majority of fans in any other city. That type of fan and 3.6 million more of them every year, makes an inviting place to play for players who respect the game and WANT to win (not just make a buck or two). Those players PRODUCE because they are recognized and appreciated for efforts AND results – not just results. To the list of WINNERS like Edmonds and Carpenter, I would list Berkman and Walker and Will Clark and McGwire and Beltran and McGee as players who wanted to play in St. Louis because of the fan support, and not because of big money. If you look at players who left St. Louis to go elsewhere, you VERY seldom see a good player that plays BETTER after leaving St. Louis – Pujols, Freeze, Craig, Edwin Jackson, Rasmus, Ludwick to name a few. Another example of a player’s demise is the infamous shortstop swap of Ozzie Smith for Garry Templeton in 1981, necessitated and completed shortly following Templeton’s obscene gesture to the St. Louis fans during a home game. Garry Templeton was a great switch hitter for several years in St. Louis, and went on to play 10 more years with little notoriety. Ozzie Smith went from St. Louis to Cooperstown, largely due to his fit with Whitely Ball and Herzog’s efforts to make him a better hitter by not hitting pop flies and his emotional ties to St. Louis fans – Go Crazy Folks.

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    • Thanks for the wonderful comment, Wayne. I should turn the writing duties over to you for a while.

      Great call on Edgar Renteria. It is amazing how many players have commented on how much they appreciate the fan support in St. Louis. I hope that plays a big part in signing Jason Heyward to a contract.

      I also like the part about the role that Jack Buck played. I did go back and rewrite a section based on your comments, including Harry Caray as he was a big part my Cardinals education. He and Jack were as different as night and day, but what a pair they made. Too bad it didn’t last, but that is a story for another day 🙂

      Thanks again for taking the time to write up that comment. I do so appreciate it.

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      • Wayne Grote says:

        Bob; Thanks for your nice reply. Your writing skills are just fine, keep it up. I read Bengie Molina’s book last week. It really provides an insight into Yadi’s personality and the fundamental reason why the Cardinals some how some way this year are 25+ games over .500 WITHOUT their ACE. It is Yadi’s skill as the “captain” on the field and his leadership role (along with others) to get the MOST out of the pitching staff AND keep the team together as a family that pulls together and supports each other. They win as a team or lose as a team. Case in point, the recent start by John Lackey where there was clearly some intense discussion between him and Molina after an inning that didn’t go so well. After the game Lackey and Matheny were asked about that apparent heated discussion. Matheny didn’t say anything and Lackey said the discussion was between him and Yadi and he and Yadi were just fine. That is what a real team sounds like and how a family keeps any family issues within the family. At one time I was convinced that there would eventually be 2 statues outside Gate 3 – the second one of a former first baseman whose name I prefer not to mention :-). I believe now that the second statue may be Yadi’s. After reading the book about his father, it is clear that his “respect” for the game, for the fans, for his team mates, for opposing players, and for opposing players that desire something else (Brandon Phillips) is very much like the way The Man played the game and treated others on and off the field. I see Yadi retiring as a Cardinal after a long successful 20+ career and taking his place alongside “eternal” Cardinal favorites like Stan, Gibbie, Dizzy, Ozzie, Willie, Whitey, and the others, and perhaps having contributed as much to the Tradition of the Cardinals – on and off the field – as Stan.

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