You know what I really like? The Eagles. Not the football team. The band.
Now, you have to understand, for me, that was a very difficult thing to admit. Stay with me here, I'm getting to the Cardinals. I have certain indie credential that I have to maintain. I happen to be one of the very few people in the world who have ever debated, in complete earnest, which album was more influential to the post rock movement, Tortoise's "Millions Now Living Will Never Die," or Slint's "Spiderland." If none of what I just said there made any sense to you, congratulations! You clearly have better things to do with your time. For someone like me, though, my love for the Eagles just isn't the sort of thing you bandy about casually.
I tell you all of that to tell you this:
A couple of days ago, as I was considering how best to introduce this little corner of the Internet, an Eagles song, one of my personal favorites, "After the Thrill is Gone," came on the radio. As I was listening, still thinking on the Cardinals and this upcoming season, a particular line of the song reached out, grabbed me by the throat, and shook me.
"You don't care about winning, but you don't want to lose."
It suddenly hit me. That, in a nutshell, is the perfect description of this baseball season for our St. Louis Cardinals.
This is a team that is clearly in transition; the giants of the early 2000s are gone, with the notable exception of Albert Pujols. This is a team that needs desperately to develop new talent, a team that can't afford to hand out long term contracts that would compromise future flexibility.
At the same time, this is a team that publicly refuses to acknowledge a rebuild; instead, we're subjected to the term 'retooling' at nearly every turn. A team that fears how its fan base, long accustomed to playoff runs, would react to an admission that this is probably going to be a down season. They don't care about winning, but they don't want to lose.
This is where the St. Louis Cardinals find themselves, only a year and a half removed from a championship parade down Market Street. The year 2007 was the end of the era; the future begins now. Walt Jocketty, the architect of so much success, is gone, replaced by his former, more player-development friendly, lieutenant, John Mozeliak. New faces abound both on the field and in the front office. Mozeliak has made it his priority to make only moves which maintain the team's flexibility going forward, while still attempting to compete this year. The farm system will play a larger role than it has in a long, long time.
All of the pundits predict doom for this Cardinal team. Personally, I think the pundits are mostly wrong. The wheels aren't falling off this year; they came off last season. Surgery for your ace, Chris Carpenter. Surgery, again, for your No. 2 pitcher, Mark Mulder. The death of Josh Hancock. Surgery, again, for Scott Rolen. Time finally catching up to Jim Edmonds. Last year was the end.
This year is a new beginning. A new, rising star on the pitching mound, in Adam Wainwright. Dynamic offensive talent in the outfield, in the persons of Chris Duncan and Rick Ankiel. On the horizon, the future of Center in St. Louis: Colby Rasmus. A warchest of young relievers stashed away at Memphis, ready to contribute. The future of St. Louis baseball looks bright.
What I fear, though, is the present. This Cardinal team is not used to losing. The fans are not used to losing. How much patience will be shown? How well will we all sit on our fears and frustrations, secure that the ship is moving in the right direction, no matter how choppy the seas? Will the organization panic if the stands begin to look a little bare? For that matter, will the fans stay home if the team starts slow? I fear the team that needs to rebuild, yet brings back Tony LaRussa, the ultimate "win-now" manager. Is the promise of the future enough to sustain, if the present looks bleak? They don't care about winning, but they don't want to lose.
Those are the questions I most care about this season for the Cardinals. This year should be the beginning of a new, bright era. Patience, on all sides, will be required. Can we all take a step back, and look toward tomorrow, toward the bright days ahead? Or will the new beginning prove to be a false start, lost in the rush to maintain respectability?
For the Cardinals this year, winning may not be a likely outcome. I think they'll be better than the predictions, but how much better, I can't say. What matters most for the 2008 St. Louis Cardinals, though, is to maintain the course. The ship is pointed in the right direction; the talent is slowly but surely creeping closer to being ready. I only hope that everyone keeps in mind, no matter how much you don't want to lose, sometimes losing a little now is the only way to win long term.
Opening Day. The future of St. Louis baseball begins right here. Let's hope it isn't sold away before we have a chance to see it arrive.