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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Cardinals Way: A Review

To the uninformed, the game of major league baseball may look simplistic. You run; you throw; you hit; and at the end of a game, a winner is determined. However, as fans know, an enormous amount of work goes into each franchise and how they cultivate and maintain their organization from year to year. Some teams have greater track records than others, and there are few that can match what the St. Louis Cardinals have done over the years. Howard Megdal has thrown the curtain back and provided a glimpse behind the scenes at what makes the team click with his recent work, The Cardinals Way: How One Team Embraced Tradition and Moneyball at the Same Time (Thomas Dunne Books- an Imprint of St. Martin’s Press).

The Cardinals are probably the least ballyhooed of all the major sports franchises with their level of success. In existence for well over a century, St. Louis has won 11 World Series; rarely going lengthy stretches where they have not been in contention. Although they may not always get as much publicity as others for the work they put into their team, they are widely respected for how they go about their business, especially for their most recent model that has maintained their winning ways.

Michael Lewis’ 2004 Moneyball was a bestselling and groundbreaking look at how the Oakland A’s embrace analytics and other ways of evaluating talent beyond typical scouting to field a contender. For all intents and purposes, The Cardinals Way is the St. Louis Moneyball. But don’t dismiss it as a copycat work, as the Cardinals have just as unique an approach as their American League counterpart when it comes to how they do things.

Megdal breaks down some of the major people and disciplines that the Cardinals have used in recent years to achieve their great success. One of the first noticeable things is their impressive continuity; right down to the way some current staff can be linked all the way back to former General Manager Branch Rickey, who forged a Hall-of-Fame career with the team from 1919-1942 with innovation and insight that was leaps and bounds ahead of his contemporaries.

The Cardinals are currently renowned for their use of both old school player scouting and coaching along with the newer push for analytics (think WAR and VORP). Some teams have found it difficult to balance what can often be such diametrically opposed philosophies, but St. Louis has found a way to balance the two to great effect.

There are a number of individuals who have been key to the success of the Cardinals. There’s George Kissell, the god-like coach, who spent over 60 years with the team (after playing in the minors for them) knowing just what buttons to push to get the most out of and develop an amazing number of young players. There’s also Bill DeWitt Jr., the current team owner, whose father was also a baseball executive and was allowed to learn at the feet of some of the best minds in baseball when he was growing up.

Megdal digs deep in showing how the Cardinals invest a painstaking amount of resources and time in putting their team together. Fans will likely be enthralled by the blow-by-blow descriptions of how the draft war room can play out, as scouts and analytics staff debate which players to take and why.

Not everything with the Cardinals is always positive, and Megdal doesn’t hold back in exploring those sides as well. The death of prized prospect Oscar Taveras in 2014 is perhaps the most sobering part of the book, while the recent “hacking scandal,” where a St. Louis employee was accused of illegally accessing the electronic files of Jeff Luhnow (current GM of the Houston Astros and former Cardinals’ front office staffer) is a recent embarrassment.

Unlike some baseball books, The Cardinals Way may be hard-pressed to find wide readership outside of baseball circles, and perhaps even outside of Cardinals circles. That is not a reflection on the quality of the book, which is very well researched and written, but rather the acknowledgement that it is deep enough that some prior knowledge of the franchise is almost required reading before diving into this gem.

Discovering how the Cardinals have managed to be so consistently successful is absolutely intriguing. St. Louis fans should hope that with Megdal doing such a good job of establishing a blueprint that the cat hasn’t been let out of the bag.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free advanced copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

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