The Cardinals are boring

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Hey, I’m not slamming them. That’s a direct quote from their general manager in this Bob Nightengale column:

The St. Louis Cardinals are the team the tabloids and shock-jock shows love to hate. You looking for a juicy quote? Maybe stir up a little controversy? Sorry, wrong camp . . . “We are boring,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak says.

. . . They are dull, dreary and monotonous. All they know how to do is win.

Adam Wainwright agrees they’re boring too. Says so right in the column.

Know what, though? I bet they’re not as boring as they let on. No one can be that boring, actually. What I think is really happening is that a reporter came into the clubhouse with the same sort of angle a lot of reporters have had on the Cardinals over the past several years — class acts, “they just go about their business,” etc. — and the team is smart enough not to push back against it. Partially because it’s flattering. Mostly because what the hell do most ballplayers care what the media narrative is? If the media and a segment of their fan base like to portray them as “aw shucks” Johnny Lunchbuckets, who are they to stop it? There are guys on other teams who would KILL for that kind of free pass from the media. Heck, A-Rod has had to engage in a year-long full court press just to be compared to deadly cancer as opposed to a literal murderer.

But it is important to realize that, whatever its source and no matter what amount of truth there is to the “the Cardinals are just a bunch of boring guys who just want to win” narrative, it is, in fact, just a narrative. A narrative that is different than that which gets applied to a lot of other teams, but one which works the same way as all narratives work: post hoc, and determined by the won-loss total. All narratives work backwards from winning or losing.

I figure the Cardinals will win a lot this year, and that a take like Nightengale has here will be seen as prescient (or a repeat from the last several years). But if they lose 90 somehow, what then? Maybe they didn’t have enough fire! It’s the reverse of that which applies to a team which wins with colorful characters. Win 95 and they’re lovable idiots. Lose 95 and they’re distractions. It’s not a long drive from Cowboying Up to Chicken and Beer. All that matters is the win total.

Talent determines who wins, mostly. That other stuff is just the vanilla sprinkles around the edges. Even if that other stuff takes on outsize significance in interviews and columns after the winning or losing is done. It’s understandable. We human beings have a few million years of evolution under our belts, and a big part of that evolution is attributable to understanding the world via stories and narratives which allow us to communicate things effectively via shorthand. It’s way easier to tell the next generation where the bison are or when the river will flood as a result of that shorthand than it is to start from scratch each generation.

Sports are no different. We tell stories about how they work because it’s easier than figuring out how applied athletic talent works in purely concrete terms. Especially to people who don’t much like math. Plus, we like to give meaning to the bison and the floods and the winning because it makes us feel less insignificant in the world. The river god flooded the valley because he loves us and wants our crops to grow. The baseball team won the game because its players are good and virtuous.

Which brings us back to the Cardinals. Yes, they win a lot of games. And yes they’ve done so while carrying themselves professionally and while mostly being good, boring boys. But make no mistake: they’ve done it mostly because they’ve had a lot of damn good baseball players, not because of their culture. I mean, Adam Wainwright could shave his head, put on crazy makeup and give interviews like he was Hawk from the Road Warriors and he’d still mow down the opposition most nights.

Why? Because he’s a good ballplayer. and that’s what matters most.