Every time I see the Cardinals I ask myself, how in the world do they do it year after year?
The names change -- in the front office, in the dugout and on the field -- but the consistent success does not.
Is it something in the water? Is there an invisible cape on the back of those jerseys featuring the two birds sitting on the bat?
I ask because 1) I simply want to know; and 2) this is the team the Cubs are trying to beat and outsmart, and it's really important to understand what your chief rival does right.
I decided to seek the opinions of several trusted friends in and around the game, specifically national writers Peter Gammons and Joe Sheehan, MLB Network analyst and former big-league pitcher Dan Plesac, former Cardinals coach (now Cubs coach) Dave McKay and St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz.
The consensus points pretty clearly at good old, tried-and-true scouting and player development.
Gammons notes, "For years, the entire organization revolved around legendary player-development king George Kissell, whose drills and acumen began the day a player put on a minor-league uniform to the time he had six years in the big leagues, and Gary LaRocque and the rest of the development people today are his disciples."
McKay specifically mentioned the late Kissell, too, noting how he would teach minor-leaguers how to literally pack their bags ("Socks go first," etc.) on Day One of spring training. His teachings still carry great influence in "The Cardinal Way" instructional manual.
Sheehan adds: "The Cardinals get so much value from their own system that they're always betting on younger players with upside as opposed to digging into the free-agent morass.
"They produce some stars, to be sure, but the impressive part is the depth, the guys who come up and provide average performance for league minimum.
"The Cardinals have more self-generated depth than any team in MLB, and that means they always have options to cover for departures and injuries and changes in performance."
Pretty much everybody I asked kept coming back to their ability to not only find but truly mold players into productive big-leaguers. That concept gets lip service throughout the game, but the Cardinals are the embodiment of it.
And that focus starts at the very top of the franchise.
"Most of the credit should go to the Cardinals' chairman, Bill DeWitt, Jr.," says Miklasz. "Since (he took over in 1996), only the Yankees have competed in and won more postseason games, and over that time the Yankees have spent around $1.4 billion more on payroll.
"In 2004, even though things were going well for the team, DeWitt concluded that the franchise needed a new model for building and maintaining a winner.
"He recruited Jeff Luhnow, who was responsible for terrific drafts that enabled the Cardinals to strike the ideal balance of good young players mixed with several high-priced established veterans.
Miklasz concludes: "DeWitt's franchise is having it both ways: fielding one of the best teams in the majors, while also constructing one of the most heralded player-development systems.
"Most franchises can pull off one or the other -- if they're fortunate -- but the Cardinals have managed to do both. It's a direct result of DeWitt's vision and leadership. I honestly believe he's the best owner in baseball."
Believe it or not, this should actually give Cubs fans some hope.
How can that be, you ask?
Because if you believe in the process, you can't ignore the similarities in what the Cardinals have built and what the Cubs are currently constructing -- a self-sustaining factory of young, polished, championship-caliber talent.
Len Kasper is the TV play-by-play broadcaster for the Chicago Cubs. Follow him on Twitter @LenKasper and check out his [URL]blog entries;http://wgntv.com/news/stories/len-and-jds-cubs-baseball-blog/[URL] with Jim Deshaies at wgntv.com. To post comments or questions for Len, click on the comment link with his column at dailyherald.com.[/URL]