Friday, 10 October 2014

Clash of the Model Ballclubs

Lucky men at the helm.

Six of the last ten World Series' have featured either the San Francisco Giants or St Louis Cardinals, including the last four straight. Similarly, ten of the last fifteen National League Championship Series' have featured either either one, or both, of these vaunted organisations, including the last five straight. In 2002 and 2012, they met at this stage, warring for a pennant with all their might. To find a postseason without either St Louis or San Fran, one must traipse through the record books all the way to 2008.

This consistency, this stoic and repeatable success, isn't the result of mere coincidence, nor is it the product of blind luck or kind fortune. No, what the Giants and Cardinals achieve, in terms of perennial contention deep into October, is far more planned and far more natural than that. It's persistent success by design.

Neither club is inclined to throw money about in giddy spasms, nor wait for all eternity to “rebuild” in calmer weather. Rather, St Louis and San Francisco conceive an idea, usually a brilliantly innovative one, about how best to run a contemporary ballclub, and then they pursue it with uncompromising effort in the most natural, organic and self-sustaining way possible. They're flexible. They're versatile. They're willing to change.

In a baseball age of greater competitive balance and extreme financial parity, it's difficult for any team to totally step out of line and distinguish itself as special or unique. The margins, once wide and gaping, have been reduced to paper-like tenuity. Yet, the Cardinals and Giants still stand out as different. They were the first two ballclubs to emerge wholeheartedly from the Moneyball era of absorbing fixation with statistical analysis; the first two ballclubs to cross the Rubicon and bravely go beyond the data; the first two ballclubs of the postmodern realm to return to the somewhat traditional methodology of viewing players as human beings.

Statistics can only take you so far. Sure, they can inform a general manager's decision in evaluating players, and, in some cases, even lead him to acquire a guy otherwise overlooked. However, data doesn't take to the field. The regular season isn't played out in the laptops of number-crunchers any more than it is in the mind of idealistic executives. Ultimately, baseball, this intricate and beguiling game, is played on grass, with real men possessing real minds competing in real battles. Mining the troves of data may yield a strong, balanced and exciting team, but heart and grit and fight and spit over nine grueling months wins you rings.

In San Francisco and St Louis, two seats of baseball power divided by 1,700 miles yet united in a new view of the game, the respective general managers started with this base premise and set about building a deep organisation around it, in an almost backward fashion. The internal philosophy informed the decision-making, rather than the other way round.

At present, the Cardinals have perhaps the greatest blend of strong veteran characters I've ever seen assembled on one team. Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, John Lackey, Matt Holliday, Matt Carpenter, Tony Cruz. These are serious guys who know the game of baseball; guys who know how to carry themselves, know how to respect this sport, and know how to win; guys who know what gargantuan effort is required in order to compete. They play baseball the right way, with an inward fire and intensity that hearkens back to a bygone age.

The exemplary actions of this veteran core sets the tone, conditions the atmosphere and provides the structure about which subtle free agent pick-ups can be welcomed and to which burgeoning homegrown stars can be seamlessly added at their moment of optimum ripeness. Such is the consistency and ability of it's sagacious big league core, St Louis can wait for highly-touted prospects to fully matriculate. See: Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, Matt Adams, Kolten Wong, Jon Jay, Oscar Taveras.

Additionally, these young guys, primed early to one day assume the mantle of team spirit themselves, have amongst their number a distinct and separate chemistry; a familiarity and comfort with one another that compliments the veteran-led camaraderie on the big club. When finally they reach the Majors, having been shepherded through the minors by a supreme player development machine, these future stars find they've got a cornucopia of role models and leaders on whom to lean for advice and guidance, and from whom to learn the very real, very successful Cardinals' Way.

This is nothing new in St Louis. The Cardinals have been shedding skin and tweaking the cast whilst maintaining an enviable level of performance for generations, right back to the Gashouse Gang of Ducky Medwick and Ripper Collins in the mid-1930s. In this regard, they can be viewed as an organisation of people, rather than an organisation of egos like the Dodgers, an organisation of numbers like the Athletics, or an organisation of commerce like the Yankees. The Cardinals value people. People who are willing to fight. People who have a “can do” attitude and ain't afraid to show it. People who get baseball. The 2014 iteration, in all it's balanced mass of experience and luminosity, honours the historical identity and bedrock philosophy of a club most illustrious and most underestimated.

Of underestimated teams, meet the Giants. For years, they've just kept chipping away in the shadows, tinkering on teams of awesome character and resolve that proceed to win divisions and pennants and world championships. San Francisco won the World Series in 2010 and 2012, contributing nicely to their National League duopoly with St Louis, who won in 2006 and 2011, giving the NLCS foes three of the last four, and four of the last eight, world titles.

In the post-Bonds era, San Francisco seemed almost to take stock and relaunch the entire operation. Now, despite playing as thoroughly entertaining a brand of baseball as you're likely to see in an age of offensive suppression, the Giants don't court the spotlight, seek praise or even demand disproportionate attention. They've a consistency of emotion instilled and monitored by legendary manager Bruce Bochy, and, in a vein similar to St Louis, they're cognizant of how difficult baseball is.

The Giants are defined by a pervading acknowledgement, awareness and mastery of situation and circumstance, as embodied by Brian Sabean, the general manager who, for the best part of twenty years, has delivered unimaginable success and constructed some truly outstanding teams simply by virtue of knowing his resources, knowing his limitations, knowing his needs and knowing his market. San Francisco is intelligent enough to know what it takes to win, wise enough to keep believing in its own mehtodology, and calm enough to let a season take its natural course before making major adaptions. In a grand, omniscient, relaxed manner, the Giants always find a way to make it all click. Always.

When these two organisations, these two paragons of modern franchise management, collide this week in the National League Championship Series, we'll be treated to another bout in their alternate tug-of-war for the pennant. The Cardinals won in 2011 and 2013; the Giants in 2010 and 2012. Moreover, aside from the ubiquitous New York Yankees, these two teams have visited the Fall Classic more than any other in history: nineteen times apiece. Something gotta give.

So, who'll be the hero? Well, the cast is encrusted with megastars and budding stars. In Buster Posey and Yadier Molina, we'll see a battle between arguably the two greatest catchers this side of Pudge Rodriguez. In Adam Wainwright and Madison Bumgarner, we'll see a tussle between two gutsy, fire-breathing Trojan aces. In Hunter Pence and Matt Holliday, we'll see a duel of arguably the two most consistently unheralded superstars of the past decade.

We'll also see plenty of homegrown players.

The Giants and Cardinals believe wholeheartedly in the power of player development; in the power of one learned man making another open-minded man better. On their respective NLDS rosters, 14 of 25 San Francisco Giants were drafted and developed by the team, compared with 15 of 25 St Louis Cardinals. Again, model ballclub, exemplum business, prototype organisation.

It'll be intriguing to see how Joe Panik, a young Giant with impressive instincts, performs on this humongous stage. Likewise with Matt Adams, the burly Redbird with extreme raw power. It'll be fun to watch Pablo Sandoval, that most clutch of all Giants. Similarly with Matt Carpenter, the most supreme and regal wizard to bestride the plate for St Lou in a long while.

Obviously for a meeting of two ballclubs so similar in construction and spirit, the Championship Series is bound to be attritional. The Cardinals have a ruthless self-belief. They're entirely unfazed by anybody, as Clayton Kershaw will attest. No matter who occupies the adjacent dugout, St Louis is convinced, absolutely and totally convinced, that they have a superior ballclub. Often, they're right. However, the Giants have a pool of resilience largely unequaled in modern sports. All season long, they're forced to deal with the Dodgers' pantomime taking place right before their eyes. All season long, they battle and fight and drive onward at their own pace. All season long, they cautiously, pragmatically, and feasibly round into shape for the dark and cold nights of fall when trophies are won and heroes are born. 

No quarter will be asked nor given.

That a meeting of two teams ranked seventh (Giants) and thirteenth (Cardinals) in payroll can resemble a joust of the best in the business is testament to those in charge, steering the ship. The general managers are simply ideal, but the respective managers are also of ample worth.

Bochy is a past master of maintaining an even keel within a group; a genuine ace at milking every last drop from every last guy wearing the same uniform as himself. Mike Matheny, on the other hand, is that rarest of breeds: a manager who's fun to watch. Only a few have managed it, and they have names like Lasorda, Cox and Torre; La Russa, Francona and Guillen. Matheny is so intense, one can literally see the cogs whirring in his head, weighing the next move, scheming endlessly in search of a merest advantage which can be manipulated.

The heir to La Russa in 2012, Matheny had the unenviable task of assuming control of a world champion ballclub but, in delivering 275 regular season wins, three consecutive playoff berths, one National League pennant and a genuine shot at a second straight, he's illustrated his worth. Matheny harnesses the character of his player better than any manager presently working in Major League Baseball. He affords the stand-up guys, such as Molina and Holliday and Wainwright, autonomy with which to make his Cardinals a self-policing, self-motivating ballclub. And a great one at that.

If you throw in two loud, large and loyal fanbases, among the finest in baseball, and the evocative bunting of October, this contest has all the makings of a classic. This National League Championship Series is to fans of well-constructed ballclubs and sophisticated front office mastery what the Red Sox & Yankees of 2004 was to fans of high-octane drama and caustic front office sniping. An opus. An orgy. An occasion not to be missed.

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