A Q&A About The Cardinals Way

You’ve heard me talk about Howard Megdal’s book The Cardinals Way a number of times, including the review that ran yesterday.  Howard was gracious enough to answer some emailed questions about his experience writing the book.  As noted elsewhere (and often, with the Playing Pepper series coming), you can purchase the book here and it’ll be out on Tuesday.

C70: Let’s get the background first.  How long have you been writing, how many books did you have published before this, and where can people find your work on a regular basis?

HM: So I’ve been writing professionally since I got out of school, starting as news and sports writer at a small daily in upstate New York, the Hudson Register-Star. This is my fourth book: previous efforts have been The Baseball Talmud, Taking the Field, and Wilpon’s Folly. Easiest way to follow my current work is on Twitter @howardmegdal—I am Contributing Editor at Excelle Sports, a startup covering women’s sports, and write regularly on baseball, basketball and soccer at VICE Sports, USA Today Sports, POLITICO New York and other outlets as well.

C70: So I can see where you have the passion for the front office of baseball, but how does a Mets fan decide he wants to write about the Cardinals?

HM: Well, I am a fan/student of baseball, both historical and contemporary, which informs my work. Accordingly, back in 2013, I decided it was time to investigate precisely why the Cardinals were experiencing so much success. I flew to St. Louis for the story, spent several days in town, spoke to Bill DeWitt, John Mozeliak, Dan Kantrovitz and others, and came away with the story. But it felt to me like the what of it—to get the how and the why, and the historical throughline from Branch Rickey to the modern Cardinals, it would require vastly more time and space. And in that decision, the book was born.

C70: Reading through The Cardinals Way, it seems like you had pretty much a blank check when it came to access to involved people.  How did that access compare to some of your past projects?

HM: It’s the best I’ve ever experienced. From Bill DeWitt on down, no question went unanswered, no one was made unavailable. No question was off limits, and if anything, sensitive subjects were dealt with head-on, while the team’s top brass was most reticent talking about its successes. It was a remarkable experience, and one I have to believe improved to overall final product.

C70: Who was the person you enjoyed speaking with the most during the writing of the book?

HM: That’s a really hard question to answer because there’s almost nobody I didn’t enjoy talking to. Bill DeWitt’s scope of experience, willingness to engage and consider alone was fantastic, but there are so many fascinating voices within this narrative to me. To hear Jeff Luhnow reflect on perhaps the unlikeliest rise to general manager in the history of the game, or Sig Mejdal and Dan Kantrovitz detail the sabermetric revolution from within, or John Mozeliak deconstruct the internal team civil war and current process for player acquisition—how do I choose? And then there’s the scout, Charlie Gonzalez, unheralded and such a uniquely baseball figure. There was the eloquent Corey Baker, Cardinals minor league pitcher who provided insight into what it means to play in this farm system. And so many more. I met so many interesting people writing this book.

C70: The hacking scandal happened before you finished your writing, so you were able to spend a little time addressing it.  Were you surprised that this organization was involved and how much credence do you give to Chris Correa’s “defense” that he was looking for Cardinal proprietary information?

HM: So in terms of my surprise, it was considerable. I’d spent a bunch of time with Correa, both in person and then extensively on the phone once he’d been promoted to scouting director, and the extent to which he emphasized the indepedence of the team from the Luhnow years, unprompted, made the way it unfolded all the more shocking.

As for Correa’s defense: no, I don’t put much stock in it is probably the easiest way to summarize my feelings. I was appalled that the judge in the case allowed him to essentially publicly besmirch Luhnow and the other Cardinals-turned-Astros at his guilty plea, frankly.

C70: Jeff Luhnow took a lot of folks with him to Houston.  How did that sit with those that remained and is that a hole that is still being filled?

HM: Undoubtedly, there was some frustration over it, which is understandable on one level and not on another. After all, the apparatus Luhnow built provided an engine for success in St. Louis, so concern about a drain of intellectual talent is reasonable. On the other hand, this is how it always works in baseball, and generally those who left were promoted, not making lateral moves. I can tell you at the top, it was respected, not just tolerated, and the relationship between Bill DeWitt and Jeff Luhnow to this day reflects that original mutual respect. The two are like-minded in so many ways.

C70: As much as Luhnow was respected and appreciated in St. Louis, would he have been allowed (if the situation was similar) to be as drastic with his actions if he’d been in the Cardinal organization as he was in Houston?

HM: Well, the easiest answer here is no, but that’s not as much about “allowed” as the reality that the Cardinals had a good many things that already worked, while in Houston Luhnow and Mejdal were essentially presented with a blank canvas. So there were things that it didn’t make sense to change, but you could easily design differently starting anew.

C70: There are some letters from George Kissell in the book, letters that you told me were in a sealed box that no one had ever seen before.  How surreal and amazing was that?

HM: It was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. Tommy Kidwell, Kissell’s grandson, took me to his garage and left me with boxes and boxes of old material. So much of it, I didn’t get to use, but just being among it all made me feel like I’d gone back in time. And Kissell was so meticulous, it really provided such a window into the history of the Cardinals—one spanning 68 years. He kept everything, and so did Tommy, and I am so grateful. It is a gift to baseball’s historical record.

C70: As you note, The Cardinal Way has become a divisive slogan, a phrase to be mocked even though other teams have their own “Ways” and the Cardinals don’t put that out as a marketing tool.  What’s the biggest reason for that and do you think that’ll ever change?

HM: The biggest reason? The Cardinals are winning. They win all the time. And so fans of rival teams, and this isn’t just about St. Louis but across the sports landscape, prefer to snipe rather than respect excellence. There’s no way to win without inducing the rage of the mob. Do it and be proud of it, you’re bragging. Do it and downplay it, it’s false modesty. Call your fans the best in baseball, something virtually every team in every stadium and arena I’ve ever covered does routinely, and it’s somehow different because Cardinals fans actually do boo less and show up more consistently. Oh, and there are fans saying disgusting things on Twitter? What a shock, not like Twitter includes a cesspool of abuse from every conceivable angle, right? It’ll change if the Cardinals stop winning consistently. But with this brain trust, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

C70: What makes Bill DeWitt different than many of the owners in baseball?

HM: I think there are two things, primarily. There’s his lifetime of historical experience in the sport. This is a man who was raised by a Branch Rickey disciple, who learned the game directly from him, and who fundamentally speaks the language in a way you can speak a language coming to it as a child. You know how educational theory dictates you teach languages as young as possible? DeWitt learned the language of baseball, and very young.

But the other part is the language he learned is one of baseball innovation, not just baseball itself. I think it’s probably how he’s wired anyway, but it takes a very specific way of thinking about the game to purchase the Cardinals of the mid-1990s, have the on-field success they did, and come to the conclusion so much needed to change. It was right, but it was also unprecedented.

C70: Obviously things worked well under Walt Jocketty, but it seems DeWitt and John Mozeliak have a next-level relationship.  If Mo were to leave, would the system continue to work as well, do you think?

HM: That’s hard to say—so much would depend on who replaced him. But Mozeliak does many things well vital to a GM. One is, the guy is so smart, he’s able to distill all the information he gets from so many sources into what matters the most to turn around and make split-second decisions, and simultaneously keep the macro outlook in mind. He’s an expert politician—something that allowed him to rise to the GM role, with the support of both sides in the team’s internal civil war. And he has loyal lieutenants up and down the organization—I can’t tell you how many times people would provide information, but only once they knew “Mo” had signed off on it. A replacement might do as well, but it wouldn’t be easy.

C70: There’s obviously a direct connection between Houston’s recent success and the methods of the Cardinals, given the similar personnel, but how much do you think the Cards have influenced the actions of teams like the Cubs and others?

HM: I think the Cardinals changed the paradigm. I really do. The Athletics had to employ Moneyball techniques. Many around baseball saw it as a desperate tactic and a fad. But Bill DeWitt and the Cardinals did it? And had success doing it? Now it’s undeniable. Now it is the new way of thinking. And I think much of how the 21st century has unfolded since, a merging of scouting and statistical data, follows from other teams building on what the Cardinals started. The best part, for the Cardinals, is how directly this all follows from tradition built under Rickey and Kissell. It came naturally in St. Louis because they did it first, decades ago.

C70: Having a front-row seat at the behind-the-scenes dealings leading up to and during the draft had to be an extremely enjoyable experience.  What did you learn during that time that surprised you?

HM: I think the most fascinating part at the draft itself is seeing the way signability is king. This balancing of a team’s draft pool with a specific player’s demands ahead of time says so much. I knew the role it played in individual negotiations, but it was remarkable to me to see players slide up and down draft boards on nothing more than that player’s ability to accurately estimate his own worth in a largely opaque system, and how an individual team relies so much on the intelligence provided by scouts about how much it will cost to sign that player. I also really enjoyed the process just after drafting a player, when Gary LaRocque and others look at video evidence and numbers to slot that player into the organization.

C70: Now that this is under your belt, what will be your next project?

HM: An excellent question. For a book, it will need to be something I want to devote as much time and energy to as I did the Cardinals. That won’t be so easy to find. In the meantime, the writing I do now at Excelle, and my other outlets, and my wife and two children provide plenty of thrills and challenges.

Again, my thanks to Howard for his time and insights.  It’s always great to get a peek behind the scenes and this is one that Cardinal fans, especially of recent vintage, are really going to enjoy!

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