ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 9: Nick Punto #8 of the St. Louis Cardinals is mobbed by his teammates after hitting a game-winning sacrifice fly ball against the Atlanta Braves at Busch Stadium on September 9, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri. The Cardinals beat the Braves 4-3 in 10 innings. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
In a recent article posted on stltoday.com, Post-Dispatch writer Joe Strauss addressed the St. Louis Cardinals' intangibles entering the 2012 season against the backdrop of the 2011 and 2010 teams. Employing the verbage of "vibe," "chemistry," and "mix" to describe this indefinable quality so often found in winning teams by the sportswriters who cover them, Strauss offers a lengthy analysis with many quotes from players as well as general manager John Mozeliak. Strauss's thoroughness makes the article well worth reading as it contains many interesting and thought-provoking statements.
The article revisits a theme of the 2010 season and its aftermath regarding that incarnation of the Cardinals, that the group lacked that much-desired team trait of chemistry. As the club battled the Reds that summer, Mozeliak famously stated that he was looking for "a straw to stir the drink" that would transform the Cardinals into a tasty cocktail of success. If Pedro Feliz was that straw, his clubhouse cocktail mixing would seem to be about on par with his hitting. As Strauss notes in the article, that Cardinals team was in first place at the non-waiver trade deadline but finished the season 5.0 games back of the division champion Reds.
Strauss reports that the Hot Stove moves of post-2010 offseason were motivated not only by talent but also by straw-mixability:
Mozeliak last winter imported Berkman, Ryan Theriot, Nick Punto and Gerald Laird, among others, to help the team contend but also to decompress what many, including the general manager, believed had become a tight clubhouse that one veteran confided "walked on egg shells."
The arc of the article's narrative is from walking-on-egg-shells underachiever in 2010 to chemistry-based World Series champions in 2011 to a chemistry question mark for 2012. While it is unclear whether the chemistry was good in 2011 before or during the sweep in late August to the visiting Dodgers, the article details a closed-door clubhouse meeting that, as the story goes, flipped the good chemistry switch.
A rare players-only meeting that followed the Cardinals' unsightly three-game home sweep by the Los Angeles Dodgers coincided with the surge. Chris Carpenter led the meeting, but several players offered input. Team members who had performed shabbily began to play for each other as well as themselves.
As we all know, a wonderful, fantastic, magical fairy tale followed. Combined with a historic collapse by the Braves, the Cardinals' 23-9 record in the season's final 32 games helped close a 10.5-game deficit in the Wild Card and clinch a postseason berth (only after a Braves' loss in Game No. 162).
Strauss's attempts to differentiate the clubhouse makeup is where his narrative begins to wobble under the strain of a tenuous causal stretch. The reporter lists those players considered to be "clubhouse pillars" as the following: Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, Skip Schumaker, and Lance Berkman. All but one of these clubhouse pillars was on the 2010 club. After listing the pillars, Strauss's story begins to crumble as he transitions to the role players brought in for the 2011 sseason.
However, Theriot represented part of the clubhouse glue even when removed as starting shortstop. Rather than grouse, he accepted a smaller role that moved him to second.
This is, of course, a statement that completely ignores an article with Strauss's own byline from the 2011 season that turned even the most steadfast Theriot apologists against the former shortstop. The article was an airing of grievances by Theriot worthy of a Festivus gathering which concluded with the now infamous closing passage that gave rise to the #TheriotLogic Twitter hashtag:
The Cardinals led the division until July 27, four days before the Furcal acquisition. Speaking only about his own role, Theriot noted, "When I was playing shortstop we were in first place. I know that. It is what it is."
After praising Theriot's selflessness in spite of his own prior reporting, Strauss shifts to praising Gerald Laird as "a teaser and fantasy football enthusiast." There will forever be a place in my heart for Leaping Laird but that does not mean that I'll forget what Hall-of-Fame Post-Dispatch scribe Rick Hummel described as "an animated argument" between Laird and Molina at the team hotel during a road series against the Marlins. (The incident was described as a fight on Twitter.) The paragraph concludes with praise of Nick "The Shredder" Punto as a clubhouse guy, a seemingly unassailbable assertion despite the many shirts and jerseys that the infielder has shredded.
Despite Strauss's attempt to tie it in with his "good chemistry" theme, the up-and-down nature of the Cardinals' season futher strains the narrative constructed in this article. After stumbling out of the blocks and a Berkman pep talk, the Cardinals surged and at one point were owners of the best record in baseball. But the team then foundered through the summer and were left in the Brewers' dust as Milwaukee zoomed to the division crown. Was the chemistry good in April and May but bad in June and July? If so, why? Was the chemistry good in late July when the Cardinals were in first place but bad two weeks later when the Brewers had a comfortable division lead? All of this is unanswerable.
Having played and coached baseball, I believe in the notion of team chemistry. The being said, I still don't entirely know which comes first, the chemistry or the winning. To put it another way, do teams win more games because of good chemistry or does winning more games lead to better chemistry? Like the chicken or the egg, we may never know.