As Cubs rebuild, La Russa explains 'Cardinal Way'

As Cubs rebuild, La Russa explains 'Cardinal Way'
June 16, 2013, 2:45 pm
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NEW YORK – Milton Bradley’s parting shot resurfaced when the Cubs suspended Ian Stewart for his negative TwitterGate comments.

“You understand why they haven’t won in 100 years here,” Bradley told the Daily Herald near the end of the 2009 season, sparking another grievance with the players union. 

The St. Louis Cardinals seem to have the opposite effect and create their own sense of momentum, whether you’re a first-time manager replacing a legend (Mike Matheny), a potential Rookie of the Year with 97 mph velocity (Shelby Miller) or a late-career veteran pushing for a World Series ring (Carlos Beltran).

The Cardinals don’t wish for a magical Jumbotron or talk about changing the culture. Within the past two years, they’ve replaced an iconic manager (Tony La Russa) and withstood the losses of an MVP (Albert Pujols) and a Cy Young winner (Chris Carpenter) and still have the best record in the game.

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When the Cubs open a four-game series against Miller and the Cardinals on Monday night at Busch Stadium, they will be staring at the organization they want to become.  

“I understood when I first got there, and this is the same thing that’s benefitting Mike – there’s almost a hundred-year history there,” La Russa said. “When you go there, you have a responsibility to try to maintain or add to, and it’s a very powerful force. The fans have positive expectations, and then you have Hall of Famers walking around all the time, and they’re really encouraging. They want you and the team to do well. Now Mike’s got that.”

The Cardinals have the best catcher on the planet (Yadier Molina), a potential Cy Young winner (Adam Wainwright), a lightning-in-a-bottle closer (Edward Mujica) and perhaps the industry’s best farm system.

As the Cubs prepared to make the No. 2 overall draft choice earlier this month, general manager Jed Hoyer stressed how every pick is valuable for the best organizations. Hoyer pointed to the later-round success the Cardinals found with Daniel Descalso (third), Allen Craig (eighth), Matt Carpenter (13th) and Trevor Rosenthal (21st) between 2006 and 2009.

Scouting and player development have helped make the Cardinals a kind of Midwest/National League version of the New York Yankees with 11 World Series titles. They’ve had only one losing season since 2000. The last time they hit 100 losses was 1908.

Manager Dale Sveum made sure the Cubs were on the field watching in April 2012, when the Cardinals and first-base coach Dave McKay received their World Series rings at Busch Stadium.

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“It goes unsaid when you look across (the field),” Sveum said. “There’s a reason why the Cardinals are in first place and 20 games over .500. They lead the league in hitting. They lead the league in pitching. They have the least amount of errors. (They) know how to hit with men in scoring position. 

“That’s what you build for, (to have) that kind of team. (But) they’ve done it pretty much through their minor-league system.”   

The Cardinals play with an edge and a sense of urgency. As an example, McKay has used Matt Holliday taking out Starlin Castro with a hard slide in 2011. Every game counts when you don’t clinch a playoff spot until the final day of the regular season. 

McKay spent 27 seasons on La Russa’s staff and switched sides in the rivalry after the future Hall of Fame manager retired – and a meeting with Sveum. 

“It’s not fair to compare anybody to Tony La Russa,” McKay said. “That’s like comparing one of your good players to, you know, Willie Mays. That’s not fair. You got to let a guy get some years under his belt before you start doing that. 

“But there are similarities. (It’s) attention to detail. There are guys (who say): ‘Well, I’ll let that slide.’ Dale doesn’t let it slide. You make sure this is taken care of.

“(It’s) just the way he reacts to certain things or explains certain things. There are similarities and I said that the first day to Tony, when Dale and I met and talked (about a coaching job). I told him: ‘This guy’s got a lot of you in him. I see you when I’m talking to him.’”

The national media sees what’s happening in St. Louis. Sports Illustrated put it on the cover last month, “THE CARDINAL WAY” spelled out in all caps above a subhead that should be a reality check for Cubs fans: “Injuries? Superstar Free-agent Losses? Nothing Slows Baseball’s Model Organization...Past, Present and Future.”

So when all these young core players grow up and the Cubs are finally ready to contend again, the Cardinals will still have the same DNA, a wealth of playoff experience and all the muscle memory that comes with winning.       

“It’s a strong mentoring system, the veterans teach the young guys,” La Russa said. “They do it throughout the system. Great development. It’s a very, very healthy organization.”