Oct. 7, 2015 1:30 p.m. ET
All-star shortstop Jhonny Peralta figured he would attract plenty of offers as a free agent in 2013, but when the St. Louis Cardinals expressed interest, Peralta told his agent to stop shopping him around—just close a deal with the Cards as soon as possible.
Like most players, Peralta wanted the best chance to win, and the Cardinals afforded it. They begin their division series Friday, against the Chicago Cubs, with baseball’s best record. They are in the playoffs for the 12th time in the past 16 years.
It was more than just winning, though. Peralta, who had played in Cleveland and Detroit, also believed he’d be happy there. The Yankees have won more championships than the Cardinals (who are second overall), 27 compared with 11. But New York is hardly an easy place to play, with its tabloid media culture, relentless pressure and stands filled with boobirds.
He figured that playing in baseball-crazed St. Louis, in front of the most dedicated and supportive fans in the game, would improve his play, especially after a season when he was suspended for 50 games for using performance-enhancing drugs. He turned out to be right. The fans supported him, his statistics improved, and he’s not the only one. The numbers show that players tend to perform better in St. Louis than when with their previous or future teams.
“You go to St. Louis and walk onto the field and you can just feel how much the people care,” Peralta said last week, as the Cardinals closed in on a third consecutive Central Division pennant. “I knew if I came here, I was going to feel better and better and better.”
Cardinal Nation may be the only major market where the baseball team trumps all other sports. Here, even the yoga instructors wear Cardinals jerseys. The players work in a love bubble.
“It’s an easy place to play,” says General Manager John Mozeliak. He cites the city’s combination of attendance of three million-plus, high TV ratings, a comfortably medium-size local media contingent, short flights to most opponents’ stadiums, and a high quality of life.
“If you like going to work,” Mozeliak says, “then you’re probably going to have a better time doing your job and probably be better at it.”
Another Cardinals characteristic that makes St. Louis a little different: Manager Mike Matheny never curses, rarely raises his voice and focuses as much on his relationships with players as when to hit-and-run. “It comes down to managing people more than we manage the games,” Matheny says.
Player performance is about more than simply being comfortable, or playing in front of big crowds; or whether players hear cheers or boos when they step onto the field. The Cardinals, who must manage the budget constraints of baseball’s 19th-largest market, are as good as anyone at finding undervalued players on other teams and knowing when they have squeezed the maximum productivity out of even the best players on their roster. Mozeliak’s instinct for knowing when to cut loose the most beloved Redbirds when price exceeds value— Albert Pujols, 2011 World Series most valuable player David Freese—is legendary.
There is also the legend of the so-called “Cardinal Way,” the self-congratulatory phrase the franchise tries not to overuse when describing its dedication to winning. The franchise teaches its younger players the aggressive, yet disciplined approach to the game from the moment they are drafted through their years with the big league club. Want to infuriate other front-office executives? Drop “Cardinal Way” into the conversation. “As if other teams don’t care about winning or teach aggressive, fundamental baseball!” they will grouse.
And yet both current Cards and alums rave over the unique adulation the city brings to the sport and how it makes them better.
Tim McCarver, the catcher who played many years in St. Louis, mostly from 1960-69, ended a nearly three-decade run on postseason baseball broadcasts in 2013. He now returns to St. Louis, the team that drafted him out of high school, to do 30 broadcasts each season, something he says he wouldn't have done for any other franchise. There are some 75 Cardinals alumni who didn't grow up in the St. Louis area but have chosen to live their post-baseball lives there, including Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith.
Even though the population of greater St. Louis is just 2.8 million, the Cardinals have drawn at least 3.1 million fans every year since the new Busch Stadium opened in 2006. Since then, the Cardinals have won two World Series and three National League pennants and have made the playoffs seven times, including each of the past five years. The past two seasons the Cardinals drew more than 3.5 million fans, with average crowds that were 99% of capacity, and a completely unscientific estimation found that roughly 99% of those fans wore red when they attended the game. Moreover, the Cards are the only team in baseball to finish in the top three in local-TV audience share in each of the last 10 years.
Need to meet someone? Just tell them to get to the Stan Musial statue outside Gate 3. Can’t get a ticket? Join the thousands of others at Ballpark Village, the $100 million bar and restaurant complex beyond the center-field fence.
“St. Louis is the only place where—if you try—the fans are with you whether you win or lose,” said Tony La Russa, the Cardinals manager from 1996-2011, who also managed in Oakland and Chicago.
All the love and attention seem to consistently improve performance. Take Peralta. The stat baseball nerds favor most these days is Wins-Above-Replacement value, because it cleanly and analytically measures how much better a player is than a generic, entry-level substitute. Peralta’s WAR number jumped to 5.7 in 2014, the highest of his career, when he joined the Cards (a WAR of 5.7 means that the Cardinals were 5.7 wins better than they would have been if the team had to replace him with a generic player added for minimal cost).
During the last 10 years, 40 players have either had 500 plate appearances or pitched 100 innings for the Cardinals before moving to another team. For 27 of them, or about two-thirds, the level of performance dropped after they left, measured once again by WAR. The pattern holds for superstars such as Pujols, and also-rans, like former shortstopDavid Eckstein.
Pitcher John Lackey, the 36-year-old right-hander, is 16-13 with a 3.10 earned-run average since arriving in St. Louis last season. He went 47-43 with a 4.46 ERA during parts of four seasons in Boston, struggling at times to live up to an $80 million contract.
Lackey said moving to the National League, where the pitcher bats, has made his job easier, but the supportive culture of St. Louis has helped, too. “It’s got to be the politest fan base I’ve ever been around,” Lackey said.
Even opponents get treated with respect. Last month, Michael Reed, a 22-year-old rookie outfielder for the Milwaukee Brewers got his first major league hit against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Fans gave him a rousing round of applause. Skip Schumaker, an unspectacular former Cardinal second baseman and outfielder, got a standing ovation when he returned with the Cincinnati Reds earlier this year.
Sports psychologists say Lackey and his teammates are benefiting from a phenomenon known as “social facilitation,” which is a person’s awareness and response to being observed by someone who appears to care about what they are doing. In one of the landmark studies in the field from 1983, 36 college-age runners were timed while running two, 45-yard segments of a path. Only runners who were observed by someone ran the second segment faster.
Cardinals outfielder Jason Heyward had the best year of his career after getting traded from the Braves in the off-season. He said he quickly noticed that baseball-savvy fans applauded little things he did that had gone overlooked in Atlanta: a quick throw from the outfield preventing a runner from taking an extra base, advancing a runner with a ground-ball out; or trying to go from first to third on a hit to the outfield—even if the aggressiveness resulted in an out.
“Playing well is all about your surroundings,” Heyward said. “It’s all very positive here,” whether he is on the field, in the clubhouse, or in the local supermarket.
Mozeliak refers to manager Mike Matheny as “the eternal optimist,” whose only experience managing before taking over the Cardinals was with his son’s travel baseball team. Matheny, 45, was a catcher for the Cardinals from 2000-04 and began working as an instructor and adviser to the organization in 2008.
He approaches his role as a kind of surrogate parent for players who aren’t much older than his own children. In Matheny’s mind, positive support, whether it comes from fans, the front office, or the coaching staff, creates an environment where players will feel safe playing aggressively.
“They take risks and we celebrate it when they do, even if it doesn’t work,” he said. “If you only celebrate when it works well, then you’re going to push guys to be pretty tentative.”
In other words, he trusts them, and in turn, they learn to trust him. Sometimes, to build that trust, Matheny will do more than give a pat on the back after a game. Last week in Pittsburgh, left fielder Stephen Piscotty left the game barely conscious and on a stretcher after a full-speed collision in the seventh inning with center fielder Peter Bourjos. Piscotty’s face crashed into Bourjos’ knee and blood immediately began streaming down his cheek.
Matheny saw to it that someone grabbed Piscotty’s phone from the clubhouse, then touched the screen to Piscotty’s thumb to open up his contacts. He called the injured player’s parents. After the nearly four-hour game ended, Matheny and several coaches and players went to Allegheny General Hospital, where he called from Piscotty’s bedside to update the family on their son’s condition.
Two days later, with Piscotty back in uniform, the Cardinals clinched the NL Central pennant.