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Nearing the crossroads of unconditional fan support

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The Cardinals don’t have a problem drawing fans but there’s no guarantee that will last forever.

Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Yesterday, Jose de Jesus Ortiz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote that it was time for Bill DeWitt III and John Mozeliak to feel some heat from fans for falling short in their efforts to build a roster that matches the riches enjoyed by the franchise. To paraphrase a few of his points, the Cardinals missed out on David Price, didn’t upgrade beyond Zach Duke at the trade deadline, and worse, marched into the season with the 11th highest payroll even though they’ve consistently been one of the top draws in the league.

How much blame should DeWitt and Mozeliak get for missing out on Price when the Red Sox upped the price tag to a near-$220 million? And is this the right year for the organization to throw down the gauntlet with the checkbook when the free agency class is so weak? These are fair and legitimate questions. But where Ortiz hits the mark is noting that a payroll outside of the top ten is no longer cute and admirable when the team finishes 17.5 games out of first and misses the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

Once that happens the franchise loses a bit of whatever prestige they had and just starts to look like any ordinary team. Only one that is also plenty wealthy and has a fan base that has been known to be loyal to a fault. From Ortiz’s column:

It’s trite to say DeWitt’s Cardinals practically print money at Busch Stadium, so we’ll put it another way. The Cardinals merely need to turn on the lights to get 35,000 to pay just to see why the lights are on. That’s an exaggeration, but not by much.

He’s right, of course. The Cardinals didn’t have attendance problems in 2016. They ranked second behind the Dodgers in all of Major League Baseball in tickets sold at 3,444,490, which represented the fifth highest total in franchise history and fourth highest for new Busch Stadium. They (like most everyone) played 162 games last year and their top-50 fewest attended/ticketed games were all on the road.

None of this is new. The Cardinals have eclipsed the 3 million mark at home every year but one since 1998. And in 1990 they suffered through their only last place finish since 1918 and still ranked third in the National League in attendance.

St. Louis is now a city with only one other major sports franchise, but one that above all typically likes and supports their baseball, circumstances be damned. That probably won’t change anytime soon, but I think even Ortiz overestimates just how much complacency the fan base is willing to tolerate.

Of the Cardinals’ 40 fewest attended games at home in 2016, 26 occurred in the second half of the season. This culminated in a four-game, Monday through Thursday series with Cincinnati in late September in which attendance (again, or tickets sold) dropped below 40,000 for the only time all year. (Apparently, a lot of people missed out on the chance to see in person Yadier Molina’s walk-off double to score Matt Carpenter from first even though it clearly should have been ruled a ground-rule double. What a time.) Attendance hit a season low even though the Cardinals were never more than a game out of a playoff spot during this series and the season was winding down.

I don’t want to exaggerate here. Again, attendance was more than healthy in 2016, and fans in the seats is hardly the be-all end-all of a strong organization. (And there’s zero shame for anyone who chooses to forego overpriced beer and bad food.) Still, it seems on some small, measurable scale fans grew tired of what they were seeing and started to stay home.

There could be several things at play here. The Cardinals were dreadful at Busch Stadium in 2016 (tied for fourth worst home record in NL), and played a consistent yet uninspired brand of baseball throughout the year. And frankly, spending time and money to see the lowly Reds on a school/work night is not everyone’s idea of a great time.

All fair. But it will be interesting to watch attendance numbers in the coming years if the Cardinals concede the NL Central to their long-standing rival, as has been predicted by most everyone, and they aren’t able to backstop that with must-see talent. That 1990 Cardinals team spoken about earlier had Ozzie Smith in his prime, whose career at that point had already been earmarked for the Hall of Fame and whose popularity was nearly unrivaled. He was followed soon by Mark McGwire and the show he brought with. By the time McGwire left Albert Pujols was already on the scene along with the golden age of Cardinals baseball. After Pujols the Cardinals were still able to maintain deep runs in the playoffs and win multiple division championships.

Now, that’s over. Fans didn’t revolt but if DeWitt and Mozeliak were paying attention during that late-September series with Cincinnati, and I suspect that they were, they likely noticed that something was a bit off. Trying to close the talent-gap with the Cubs by next season may be close to impossible. Must-see talent is currently unavailable via free agency or would require a trade of remarkable ingenuity (or possible stupidity). The flip side to that is possibly another year or two similar to 2016 which would really put this baseball town to the test.

I have no idea what the right answer is here. In the end it’s fair to conclude that we were possibly spoiled by the aforementioned golden age, but I’m certain this franchise has been spoiled by the unconditional fan support for much longer.