Book Review: The Cardinals Way


Twitter is a wonderful thing.

I don’t know exactly why I started following Howard Megdal on Twitter, besides the fact that he was a nationally recognized writer who did a good bit of baseball work.  (He’s also a fairly entertaining follow with a passion for women’s sports that you don’t get everywhere.)  So when I saw that he was going to tackle the Cardinals in his newest book, I made sure to get a copy.  (So, for full disclosure, I got a review and a final copy, but that’s the only “compensation” for this review.)

Megdal starts out going old school, showing that this idea of “The Cardinal Way” isn’t some new gimmick or invention (nor, unlike most of baseball believes, a marketing ploy to pump up the organization) but the continuation of the ideas, policies, and designs of Branch Rickey brought to live with amazing vitality by George Kissell.  As the old writer Solomon put it, there’s nothing new under the sun.  A lot of people assume that the new hotness is the best way to do anything.  The Cardinals are showing that there’s a lot of value in the past.

As Megdal says on the first page of the first chapter, the Cardinals did create player development.  The whole idea of the minor leagues being a feeder for the big league club sprang from Rickey and would have been enough to get him into the Hall of Fame even if he’d not moved on to Brooklyn and started another revolution.  Some of the same drills and tactics that Kissell developed will be on display over the next few weeks in Jupiter as well as all summer long throughout the minor leagues.  This is a time-tested idea, modernized and tweaked for a new century but with the foundation still solidly intact.

While running through the bloodlines of Cardinal history and development is fascinating on its own, that general story most Cardinal fans know.  I’m not as sure that more recent fans really appreciate the contributions of George Kissell to this organization.  Most know of him, of course, and I don’t think anyone downgrades his accomplishments or anything, but still it’s easy, especially if you’ve come to being a fan since his passing in 2008, to not be able to get a handle on how he spent his life and how much the storied history of this club owes to that solitary man.  After reading this book and most especially the chapter dedicated to Kissell, that won’t be the case anymore.

If you need more than just the facts to influence you in that regard, Megdal has gotten some wonderful testimonials, including some from letters written to Kissell by former students thanking him for all he’d ever done for them, both on and off the field.  (It’s also telling of the humility of Kissell that these letters had never been seen before, sealed up in a box, as Megdal relates in the Q&A I was able to have with him, which will run here tomorrow morning.)  When you can be considered a mentor to both Earl Weaver and Sparky Anderson, that’s pretty meaningful.  To quote from Chapter 2:

“If you didn’t know better, you’d think George Kissell was an entirely fictional creation, a stand-in for the values most treasured by the game of baseball.  His record is too impossibly broad, his reach ridiculous to behold and incalculable in scope.”

There’s no doubt that, even though I knew about Kissell and what he meant, that appreciation was significantly increased after reading this book.  As great as that was, though, it’s somewhat background for the story Megdal really wanted to tell, the success of the Cardinals over the past 20 years.  The bulk of the book focuses on when Bill DeWitt Jr.’s group of investors purchased the Cards from the brewery and what’s happened in the interim.

This period of time is probably my wheelhouse of Cardinal history, because around half of it I’ve been blogging and for 75% of it I’ve been on forums and such, so it’s the time that I’ve been watching the game and what the front office is doing the most intently.  To see the curtain pulled back on some of the most discussed things over the last decade is a fabulous experience.  To see why the Cardinals decided to let Walt Jocketty go and, more importantly, what really led up to that.  How intense the scouts-vs-stats schism got, which makes it amazing how both sides were able to eventually come together to meld into one vision.  That melding came in large part because of the actions of John Mozeliak, who was already playing peacemaker and vision reconciler even before the GM position came open.

It’s to my everlasting shame that, when the Cardinals hired Mozeliak, I called it uninspired and lacking in the shakeup that the club needed.  (Can I claim rookie mistake, since I’d been just been blogging a few months?)  While a number of people saw Mo’s hiring as a placating of Tony La Russa, he was really the only one that could solve the tensions that were going in the front office.  Those tensions, coming out of a change in directions, are so well-drawn in this book that you feel like you are actually walking the halls of Busch Stadium’s offices.  However, when both Walt Jocketty and Jeff Luhnow, the leaders of both movements, can recommend Mozeliak, it’s a no-brainer to make that pick.

Megdal runs this all the way up to the recent hacking scandal, though a lot of this broke as he was putting the finishing touches on the book.  However, you can see some of the feathers that Jeff Luhnow ruffled while he was in the front office and after he took off for Houston, so you can see where Chris Correa might have gotten his motivation to start digging around.

If you are a Cardinal fan, I can not reiterate this too often, you really, REALLY need to get this book.  I know that Rob Rains has one coming out soon on a similar theme and I look forward to seeing what Rob’s take is on this, but it’s going to very tough to top Megdal’s research and writing.  I didn’t even get into the behind-the-scenes look at the 2014 draft, which is going to be catnip for some of the prospect/draft watchers in the fan base.  Megdal’s access was top-notch (as he said, more folks he talked to wanted to downplay anything rather than trumpet their successes) and he weaves a masterful story that will have you continually turning pages.

The Cardinal Way.  It’s not a slogan.  It’s not a marketing ploy.  It’s not a smug shorthand for success.  It’s a way of life that you’ll appreciate even more after reading this!

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