By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) The Chicago Cubs used this offseason to go from good baseball team to odds-on favorite to win the National League. What’s extra special gravy on the crystalizing of the much ballyhooed plan of Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Co. is that it’s much to the chagrin of the rival St. Louis Cardinals.
And not just in the typical lamentation that a division opponent has grabbed the reins you’d held impressively for much of this century. Nope, this is the Cardinals. And with the Cardinals comes whining about people on other teams not meeting the hallowed Cardinal standards, the unwritten rules of the Cardinal Way.
It began with St. Louis manager Mike Matheny — author of something literally called “The Matheny Manifesto,” in which he promises to indoctrinate children with all the joy of a VFW bar. Rewind to early this month, prior to the Cubs making the biggest position player signing of this offseason in outfielder Jason Heyward, who starred for the Cardinals in 2015 before turning down a higher offer from St. Louis to sign an eight-year, $184-million deal with Chicago.
“At this point, to put on the hard sale pitch (to Heyward) from that perspective, it’s a waste of time,” Matheny told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch during the Winter Meetings. “I’ve had all of spring training and the season and postseason to show him what we’re about, and we’ve stayed in close contact all year.”
That’s the being-a-Cardinal-sells-itself hubris in action. But Matheny, to his credit, was sure to be diplomatic.
“It’s been an honor and a pleasure to get to know him as a person and realize that he’s in a spot right now to make a tough decision,” Matheny said. “It’s a no-lose situation in my opinion. He’s in a good spot to figure out what’s best for him as we’re trying to figure out what’s best for us also.”
It would appear Matheny was implying Heyward couldn’t hurt himself regardless of where he signed and that the Cardinals wanted him but would be fine otherwise.
Fast forward to Heyward’s signing with the Cubs — which neither Matheny nor most Cubs fans expected in their heart of hearts — and the shade cometh. After going out of his way to praise the Cardinal organization, Heyward explained at his introductory press conference on Dec. 15 that the collective age in Busch Stadium was a factor in turning down more money in favor of the budding youth at Wrigley Field.
To which Matheny responded, “I don’t think it’s going to ring too well with our club.”
Translation: You have dishonored the easily offended Cardinals.
“I told Jason this before: I’ve got a lot of respect for Jason as a person,” Matheny said, according to the Post-Dispatch. “He’s got to go make the decisions he’s going to have to live with.”
Remember when it was a “no lose” for Heyward a week before, though?
“If that (core group comparison) is a big deal to him, he’s just being honest with people,” Matheny said. “But I don’t think we have anything to apologize for in having a group like a (Matt) Holliday, a (Yadier) Molina, a (Adam) Wainwright. Those are the kinds of guys everybody wants on a club.”
In 2012, sure. Holliday will turn 36 next month and only played 73 games in 2015. Wainwright is 34. About two weeks ago, the 33-year-old Molina had his second thumb surgery in two months and is expected to miss most of spring training.
“I see where he’s coming from,” Matheny said. “I mean, look at what Chicago’s done. It’s very unique in this game — to have that many impact players at that young age. And he’s a young player. But I can’t say I’m in any kind of agreement with that (Chicago) core being better than any kind of core that we have.”
It’s understandable that you can’t publicly declare your team to be inferior, but Matheny’s wrong.
“That veteran group (that the Cardinals have) also helps drive what the younger group turns into,” he said.
Hey, in 10 years if the current Cubs look like the 2016 Cardinals, I’d say the North Side front office did a pretty good job. But that group Matheny lauds was better and healthier in 2011, the last time the Cardinals won a World Series title. And it had Albert Pujols, who St. Louis fans still consider a “trader” for departing for the Los Angeles Angels.
“I don’t blame him,” Matheny concluded. “But I don’t like it. I thought we created a really good atmosphere and he had to weigh what was most important to him.”
So you do blame Heyward — for not having some weird sense of loyalty in a business that would spit him out whenever he becomes useless. And for not treating Cardinal red like a blood oath. This is delicious pettiness.
Then former Heyward teammate Adam Wainwright, no stranger to rational public comments…
…got in on the sour grapery. In an interview with 101sports.com’s Bernie Miklasz last week, the Cardinals ace shared his take.
“Really comes down to a personality trait to me,” Wainwright told Miklasz. “The person that we want to give that kind of money to, that big money to, he needs to be a person that wants to be the guy that carries the torch. He needs to be a guy that wants to be the person, that after we leave, he carries on the tradition. And that’s just a personality thing, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But we’re looking for that guy who wants to be the man.”
“Personality trait” — check.
“Carrying the torch” — check.
“Tradition” — check.
“Being the man” — check.
Wainwright only missed “playing the game the right way” to bat 1.000 on stereotypical Cardinal-speak.
Wainwright’s doing the LeBron-to-Miami shade thing, the hypocrisy so many fall into when criticizing a player for seeking out the best scenario to win instead of personally selfish things.
“It just wasn’t the right situation for Jason and frankly it wasn’t the right situation for us,” Wainwright said.
Oh, your consternation and cognitive dissonance sustains me, Adam. And where is similar criticism of former Cardinal John Lackey spurning a qualifying offer and signing with the Cubs, too? Why for only Heyward is it a “personality trait”? Hmm…
Many teams have a literal or figurative handbook a la “The Cardinal Way.” All fan bases are perpetually salty to a degree, but nobody Cardinal-splains like the Cardinals and their fans, who bring a national distaste on themselves.
It’s easy to bathe in the superiority over Internet commenters so addicted to the red Kool-Aid and retweeted by @BestFansStLouis. What’s harder to do, but ultimately more satisfying, is Epstein’s approach.
“In the end, it was a very intelligent young man making a great life decision,” the Cubs president said when Heyward signed (emphasis mine). “He knew what he wanted, and there was mutual interest.”
Now that’s some professional shade right there. Then mix in a little killing with kindness.
“The Cardinals are going to be a formidable opponent next year and for years to come,” Epstein told the Tribune last week. “They are going to take the resources they didn’t commit to Jason Heyward and John Lackey and reallocate them to other players.”
You can smell Cardinal fans hair burning from here in upstate Illinois. Then the killshot by dismissing your opponent with a backhanded compliment.
“The approach I take with the Cardinals is the same one that I used to take with the Yankees when I worked in Boston,” Epstein said. “I don’t pay close attention to their moves in the offseason, and I kind of forget them, just focus on our own club and expect them to win their 95 to 100 games every year, and realize that’s a standard we have to set for ourselves if we want to win the division.”
Media game. Set. Match.
Heyward took less money for what he sees as the best chance to be part of sustained success. It cuts the legs out of the greedy athlete reflexive excuse so many bitter fans fall back on. So the goalposts get moved in St. Louis, and instead of being selfish about money Heyward is selfish about wanting to be surrounded by the most complete team.
It’s laughable. And it feels so good.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.