VERO BEACH, FLORIDA – Time was when nearly every baseball team, from Little League to the majors, endeavored to play the game “The Dodger Way” or “Cardinal Style.”
For most of the 20th century and beyond, those two highly successful MLB ballclubs represented the gold standard for the proper way to perform on the diamond — from the way you wore your uniform to fundamentals and strategy.
So, how fitting was it that the Cardinals and Dodgers, once so envied and emulated for their old school methodology, battled it out last week for the National League pennant.
In recent years, each has changed a bit — the Dodgers more so than the Cards. But both still adhere to certain aspects of their traditional approach.
Dating back to 1930s, when Dizzy and Daffy Dean and the rest of the famed “Gas House Gang” cavorted on and off-field, St Louis has always built its game on contact hitting, speed on offense, excellent defense and intelligent pitching.
Plate power has always been a bonus, not a prerequisite, because the long ball has traditionally been accompanied by slow-footedness.
(Consider the Mark McGwire period a chemically-induced anomaly.)
Whether it was the colorful days of Ducky Medwick and Enos “Country” Slaughter, the Stan Musial era, hurler Bob Gibson’s heyday in the 1960s, the years Vince Coleman and company stole over 200 bases annually or 2011 when David Freese led St. Louis to their most recent World Series title, the Cards have pretty much stuck with their manner of playing the game.
The biggest thing all those teams had in common was mandatory schooling in the Cardinal-style fundamentals.
You learned from the time you signed a contract with the Cards, that it was their way or the highway. MAS received a second-hand Cardinal education.
My Pop signed with the Cards organization way back in the early 1930s. William “Sonny” Wiggins, an infielder, had everything the Redbirds liked in a player: he was scrappy, sound afield and a good contact hitter who could fly.
He then spent a couple of seasons in the low minors in the St. Louis system at such out-of-the-way whistle stops as Danville, Illinois, Keokuk, Iowa and Scottdale, Pennsylvania.
Then, during his third off-season, Dad caught scarlet fever which affected his legs and robbed him of his speed.
Sayonara, Sonny. Pop no longer fit the Cardinal mold and was released.
His speed may have left him but the belief in fundamentals never did.
Growing up, Li’l MAS played catch with him almost every summer night in our backyard. When I dared throw the ball sidearm or tried to sling a curve, Pop would bellow down-home style: “Tho’ da ball RIGHT — over the ear!”
Regarding my batting stance, it was: “Keep your elbows away, up and back!”
And so on.
Watching the Cards this season, I saw the same emphasis on fundamentals.
They rarely beat themselves or commit embarrassing gaffes.
And as always, the Cardinals still grow their own mostly — see position players Freese, Allen Craig, John Jay, Matt Carpenter among others and hurlers like rookie sensations Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller.
Except for a Carlos Beltran here and there, most came up through the Cards system learning the St. Louis Cardinals way of getting the job done.
One big difference this year, though, is the Cards reluctance to use their considerable speed to steal bases. They pilfered but 45 sacks this season — last in MLB.
Earlier this campaign, St. Louis skipper Mike Matheny told MAS why they pass on steals: “We have considerable thump throughout the lineup, not just the 3-4-5 hitters; so, we like to put guys on base and just go from there.”
As per usual, the Cardinals don’t depend on the long ball.
Other than Matt Holliday, the Redbirds don’t feature a true slugger. They were 27th in the MLB in homers in 2013 with just 125.
Rather, the Cardinals depend, as always, on clutch contact hitting. They had a phenomenal .340 batting average with runners in scoring position — 52 points better than the second-best team.
Can you say vintage St. Louis style?
The current Dodgers, to the contrary, seem to have departed somewhat from their traditional way of doing things that dates all the way back to Brooklyn’s “Boys of Summer” — Campy, Pee Wee, Jackie, Duke and the guys.
The once-strong emphasis on fundamentals looks to now be missing.
Something that hasn’t changed, though, is Dem Bums ability to develop at least one great starting pitcher to build a strong rotation around.
From Don Newcombe in 1950s, on through to the Sandy Koufax-Don Drysdale era, followed by the Orel Hershiser and Fernando Valenzuela periods, the Dodgers have always featured a tremendous ace hurler.
This season, it was lefty Clayton Kershaw, one of MLB’s best.
However, except for Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Yasiel Puig — who pretty much do things their own way, not The Dodger Way — most of the position players came to Los Angeles via trades or free agency.
Remember when, for over 10 years, the Dodgers starting infield consisted of farm products Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey?
This year’s foursome are all from the outside.
Thus, only here and there are these current Lads of LaLa Land following the ol’ Dodger Blue blueprint.
Maybe it’s no coincidence, then, that the ballclub which has stuck the closest to The Plan — St. Louis — won out in the recent battle of old school systems to earn a spot in their 19th World Series.
The Cardinals went back to the future and are, again, the envy of everyone who plays the game.
Pop would be proud.
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