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Cardinals OK with making baseball fun ... to a point

WASHINGTON -- Well before St. Louis Cardinals players reach the major leagues, they undergo organizational brainwashing, if you want to call it that.

“Cardinal Way, that sort of stuff,” outfielder Stephen Piscotty said.

One of the first times Piscotty got an earful of how the Cardinals like to comport themselves on the field came a couple of years ago at the team’s spring-training camp for elite prospects. Both manager Mike Matheny and general manager John Mozeliak addressed the room full of minor leaguers.

Here’s how Piscotty summed up the message:

“Just respect the game, respect the umpire, respect the other team. It’s really pretty simple,” he said. “In an era of smartphones and social media, people want to be a little flashier. It’s just the way it is.”

Washington Nationals superstar Bryce Harper has mounted a campaign to make baseball “fun again.” He sometimes wears a trucker hat that carries the message. It all began with some comments to ESPN The Magazine’s Tim Keown in which Harper called baseball “tired,” because its unwritten rules discourage flamboyant young stars from showing flair on the field.

The Cardinals, it can be safely stated, are on the other end of baseball’s culture wars, but they might not be quite as stodgy as many people believe. Matheny said his stance on on-field celebrations has softened over the years as the game’s culture has evolved with young talents like Harper, the Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig and Miami pitcher Jose Fernandez.

Team leader Yadier Molina has been increasingly showing personality on the field. When a Philadelphia Phillies hurler fired a pitch near his legs, Molina hit the dirt, got up and did a couple of pushups. After chasing a wild pitch recently, he stumbled, got to his feet and struck a surfer pose for several seconds, staring in the direction of the Chicago Cubs' dugout and smiling.

Under former manager Tony La Russa and ace Chris Carpenter, the Cardinals were known as one of the most hard-edged teams in either league. The reputation has continued under Matheny and Adam Wainwright, but it isn’t quite as severe nowadays.

“I’d like to think I had a little something to do with it. The game’s changed a little bit, too,” Wainwright said. “Managerial styles change. Even Tony started to lighten up a bit at the end of his tenure. I think you have to when you realize you play 162 [games] at the level we have to play nowadays. Guys are getting so good. Athletes are so talented now that if you grind, grind, grind without having any laughs and fun, you’ll wear yourself out. I think that’s become evident throughout the game.”

Wainwright said he loves watching Harper play because of the relentless energy he brings. He said he has no problem with the Houston Astros' Carlos Gomez, who has been criticized by denizens of baseball’s old school on multiple occasions.

“You don’t like playing against him because he’s going to grind out every at-bat and he’s going to run hard every time and steal the bases every time and try to make every throw,” Wainwright said. “You can’t help but kind of respect guys who go that hard at it.”

Matheny arrived in the major leagues in 1994. He was a 23-year-old catcher on a Milwaukee Brewers team run by veterans such as Tom Brunansky, Doug Henry and Bill Wegman.

“I would have loved to have been able to do that as a player. It just wasn’t in my DNA. It’s just a different generation,” Matheny said. “When I came into the league, and that makes it sound like it was eons ago, but it was different. I had veterans come up and say, ‘You sit at your locker and you’re seen and not heard until we tell you otherwise. If you’re asked a question, have an answer. Otherwise, just sit over there.’ Is that how it should be? The answer’s no, but at the time I was fine with it.”

The first lesson Matheny got when he started managing came from Jim Leyland, who prepared him to roll with changes as the game evolved.

“Things have progressively softened on it and I’ve softened on it, too,” Matheny said.

He isn’t crazy about Cardinal players celebrating with hand gestures in the direction of the dugout when they get big hits, but he has overlooked them because his team leaders said they’re beneficial to team-building. He might not like bat flips, but he also says he understands young pitchers, like Fernandez, who say they don’t mind them. He has even loosened the team’s dress code on team flights at the request of his veteran leadership core.

“If that’s what they want to do and it’s for their team and not necessarily to show up the opponent, let me get out of the way in my archaic viewpoint of that sort of stuff,” he said.

Matheny said the Cardinals’ culture has softened since the departure of Carpenter, who viewed bat flips and slow trots in much the same way as another Cardinals ace from a different era.

“It was like doing it to Bob Gibson,” Matheny said.

It’s probably fair to say that Gibson, in his playing days, wouldn’t have been a fan of bat flips or bubble machines. Some of these ways of thinking tend to spill down over generations.