PITTSBURGH -- Near the end of spring training, the St. Louis Cardinals fell into a rut, the kind that is easily shrugged off before real games start and the kind that can cause a team to miss the playoffs if it pops up in August.
They won once during a stretch of 13 Grapefruit League games, which included a five-error slog-fest. Then they got word that respected third-base coach Jose Oquendo, nicknamed the “Secret Weapon,” would miss months, maybe the entire season, while he recovers from knee surgery.
It's not exactly a crisis, but a bit of a test for a team that has built a league-wide reputation for rising to such occasions. What manager Mike Matheny calls his leadership core -- veterans Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday and Matt Carpenter -- met for hours, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, long enough for those players and Matheny to miss batting practice entirely.
“We’re very committed to making things better, not content with what we’ve done,” Matheny told the newspaper. “How can we make this a better atmosphere?”
What some teams allow simply to take root, the Cardinals actively cultivate by monitoring and discussing their clubhouse culture and pruning behavior they see as distracting from the drive to another World Series.
Matheny has a stack of leadership books on his office desk, meaning he can thumb through words of advice from John Wooden, Bill Walsh or his preferred religious leaders at any moment of his work day. Holliday and the other team leaders take their responsibilities gravely. They see themselves as custodians of a tradition that began with the glory years of the organization in the 1960s and 1980s, even the 1940s, passed down from Hall of Famers such as Red Schoendienst, Bob Gibson and Ozzie Smith, all still frequent presences around the club.
The much-discussed, sometimes-ridiculed “Cardinal Way” pertains mostly to the development of minor-league players and stretches back nearly 100 years to Branch Rickey. It runs through minor-league teacher George Kissell, a legendary developer of talent. But the team’s major league culture also has come to be regarded across the league as one of St. Louis’ tangible weapons.
“It’s always tricky, because you don’t want to act like you’ve got some kind of secret culture,” Holliday said. “Those aren’t secrets that other teams can’t or don’t have.”
But it seems to work best, to linger longest, in St. Louis. Holliday said he was introduced to the standards of conduct around the team by club leaders Chris Carpenter, Wainwright and Skip Schumaker when he became a Cardinal seven years ago.
“There was just a very team-first attitude, rooting for each other, pulling one another along, making sure everybody’s pulling in the right direction in terms of trying to win games,” Holliday said. “We’re not into trying to celebrate individuals.”
Holliday, 36, said he has had to correct younger players over the years when he sees things “we won’t accept or that have to be changed.” He said he has, at times, cautioned young players that their behavior could work against them in their careers. He’s 6-foot-4 and 254 pounds. Who’s going to argue with him?
“We try to set an example by how we act, hoping young guys will follow,” Holliday said. “Most of the time, that works.”
It’s not the most happy-go-lucky clubhouse in the major leagues. There are no bubble machines on the bench when the Cardinals hit home runs, which their critics would argue they rarely do.
It might, in fact, be the most businesslike clubhouse in baseball. In the spring-training clubhouse, Cardinals players spent far less time on their tablets or smart phones than many players do nowadays. They spent more time sitting and talking about baseball situations, helping each other improve their games. Even pitchers and hitters exchange usable information, discussions some major league players, even respected team leaders, view as verboten because, in the era of free agency, those players might go on to other teams and use that information against the player who gives it.
Early in camp, outfielder Tommy Pham stopped pitcher Marco Gonzales in the clubhouse to discuss the young lefty’s curveball. Pham, who had just taken live batting practice off Gonzales, said the tight rotation of the pitch and its speed made it easier for him to track and either foul off or square up. He suggested Gonzales try a slower breaking ball to disrupt a right-handed hitter’s timing.
Gonzales asked a few questions and took it into his next bullpen session, varying the speeds of the pitch. He liked how it felt.
“I wouldn’t feel right as a teammate if we were to lose a close ballgame by perhaps him going out there and throwing that same pitch. I’d be like, ‘Damn, I could have helped him in spring training,’” Pham said later. “I wouldn’t feel right.”
Later in camp, veteran Brandon Moss sat around a clubhouse table and chatted with veteran pitchers Mike Leake and Lance Lynn about how they approach left-handed power hitters. He wanted to glean information, but he also wanted to share it.
“There will probably come a day when I’m facing those guys,” said Moss, who has played in the majors for six teams. “It doesn’t matter. I want them to know, as a hitter, what I would be thinking and see what they would be thinking and be like, ‘Hey, why do you do this?‘"
A few days later, second-year outfielder Stephen Piscotty was frustrated after failing to advance a runner from second base by hitting a ground ball to the right side. A left-handed pitcher, Ryan O’Rourke, was pounding fastballs in on his hands. Piscotty quietly sought out Holliday in the corner of the clubhouse to see what he would have done.
“When you get those gray areas where you’ve heard coaches say one thing and other coaches say another thing, it’s good to get their input as well to maybe tip it one way or another,” Piscotty said.
While they can benefit if they’ll listen, young players can also feel intimidated in the Cardinals’ clubhouse. Wainwright remembers what it was like when he was 23 years old, not far removed from being an Atlanta Braves’ prospect.
“When Albert [Pujols] or [Chris Carpenter] walked through the room, everybody sat up straight, making sure they’re not sitting around doing nothing,” Wainwright said. “They’d grab a shoe and act like they’re shining it or be like, ‘I need to be in the weight room.’ You didn’t want to be seen sitting around as a young guy and doing nothing. Hopefully, guys are comfortable, but they know this is a place of work most of the time.”
Matheny talked early in spring about fostering a looser environment around the team and into the season. He said he didn’t know whether it had worked, but after the team’s ragged late-spring play, that kind of talk dried up, anyway.
Matheny talked about broadening that leadership core to include younger players. As the careers of Molina, Wainwright and Holliday wind down, young players such as Kolten Wong, Piscotty or Michael Wacha will need to fill the leadership void. Just as Wainwright took the dais from Carpenter; Wacha or Carlos Martinez might one day have to take it from him.
“We have some young guys we’re trying to push to the next step, outside of their comfort zone of just being the sponge,” Matheny said. “We want to give them a little more responsibility also. Some of it is just having guys involved and seeing how the conversations go, even though they may not have much of an influence or say, let them know they will at some point have a voice and this is how it should look.”
Matheny isn’t one to leave details to chance. He’s entrusted with a long tradition to uphold.