BOSTON — When last the St. Louis Cardinals played this deep into October and rolled into a World Series, general manager John Mozeliak was one of the few who knew before it began where it would end.
He couldn’t map the twists and turns and triumphs that would bring the franchise its 11th championship in 2011, but he recognized every one brought the club closer to the inevitable, to a secret revealed to only a select group. Through a veil of highlights — Albert Pujols’ three-homer game in Texas, David Freese’s dramatics in Game 6, Chris Carpenter’s Game 7 clincher — Mozeliak saw to the horizon. Manager Tony La Russa’s retirement loomed. Pujols would hit free agency days later. Winning wouldn’t alter the future.
A turning point was coming.
The Cardinals just had a parade to get there.
“I was looking at it as a fleeting moment in time,” Mozeliak said. “I knew that we were going to have to replace the manager. I knew we were going to have a difficult negotiation coming up with Albert. Sort of like the balance of the club was in limbo, directionally. Where (were) we going?”
Mozeliak’s first step was to hire a compass.
Two years after they won the World Series and lost a Hall of Fame-bound manager and a three-time MVP, the Cardinals are where they always expect to be: four wins from a championship. The 109th World Series opens tonight at Fenway Park between the two top teams in baseball, the National League champion and 97-win Cardinals against the American League champion and 97-win Boston Red Sox. The winner of the series will have won three titles in 10 seasons and be the first to win three in this century.
How the Cardinals found their way back to the World Series in such a short time is a product of a strong core, the dazzling prospects who adorn the roster and the man the Cardinals hired to point them on the right path, the compass — manager Mike Matheny.
As the Cardinals completed their unlikely comeback in 2011 and stormed to the championship, Mozeliak began quietly measuring potential replacements for La Russa. He decided early on the hire had to have Cardinals ties — only a candidate with roots in the organization could keep what they had going growing.
“I thought it would be very difficult to have somebody come in here and try to do something drastically different. It wouldn’t work,” Mozeliak said. He added: “The most important thing was I thought Mike understood the culture of the Cardinals. And knew what it was all about. I was nervous about bringing in someone who didn’t really understand the history or understood how this city reacted to baseball. It is unique. I don’t think people realize how much St. Louis is a true baseball town. They demand winning.
“It cannot be taken lightly.”
Mozeliak saw in Matheny someone who had played in St. Louis, lived in St. Louis, retired to St. Louis and, perhaps most of all, won in St. Louis. Bred in red, he had the desired pedigree and an eagerness to follow a win-now ethos while learning on the job. Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday described Matheny on Tuesday as “the perfect storm of what Mo was looking for in a new manager.”
Adam Wainwright, Wednesday night’s Game 1 starter, called him “the perfect torchbearer.”
“He knows this culture,” veteran ace Chris Carpenter said. “He knows what’s expected. He had that instant credibility. He knows what we’re doing here because he was part of who started it. He was one of the players at the beginning of this. Yadi (Molina) learned it from him. I learned it from him. He knows what it’s all about. He passed it to us and we passed it on …”
Carpenter, Molina and Matheny are the only players still in uniform remaining from 2004, the first of the four World Series trips in 10 years and the last time the Cardinals faced Boston in the World Series. That year the Cardinals took a 105-win titan into the Fall Classic and lost in four games, or about the same time it took them to make the $80 cab ride from their hotel to Fenway. Boston won the World Series for the first time in 86 years, slaying a curse at the Cardinals’ expense.
The Cardinals would return two more times to the World Series in the next seven years, winning both. The Red Sox returned in 2007, sweeping Colorado. David Ortiz is the only tie these bearded BoSox have to the “Idiots” of 2004.
A lot has changed since, except the expectations of two baseball-mad cities.
If the division series pitted the Cardinals against a team trying to change a culture in Pittsburgh and the league championship series tested them against a team trying to buy a better culture, the World Series forces the Cardinals to look in the mirror. This is the first World Series to feature the teams with the best record from each league since 1999. The Cardinals led the NL in run differential (plus-187), runs (783) and on-base percentage (.332). The Red Sox led the AL in run differential (plus-197), runs (853) and on-base percentage (.349). Both teams have passionate fan bases. Both fuel civic identity. Both lean heavily on history. The Cardinals are in their 19th World Series, Boston its 12th.
Both hired managers forged with familiarity.
While Mozeliak sought a skipper to keep a club on course, Boston general manager Ben Cherington hired one to correct it. After blowing a lead late in 2011, the Red Sox lost 93 games in 2012. The 2011 collapse ousted Terry Francona as manager. The 2012 toxicity led to the firing of Bobby Valentine. Cherington churned the roster, going outside to sign Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli and four other free agents to get back on track.
“Ben set out to execute his vision and … the players that he was able to identify who matched that vision,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “This was a group of veteran guys that have come from winning environments, and we were getting a core group back healthy — guys who had won championships.”
An essential piece was Farrell.
The pitching coach for the Red Sox before leaving to take the manager job in Toronto, Farrell returned to Boston with a lot of the same traits the Cardinals affixed to Matheny. He knew the expectations. He had existing relationships with players. He had immediate credibility. He was for the Red Sox, of the Red Sox, and by the Red Sox. He was coming home. Second baseman and former MVP Dustin Pedroia called him the “perfect match.”
A year after the Cardinals hired Matheny, you could hear the echo.
Players like Carpenter and Molina, who learned it from Matheny, “have established a culture they’ve gotten from the guys before them — it’s an element of toughness that comes from guys like Carpenter and feeds on itself,” Holliday explained. Boston “has done a great job of bringing in tough guys who play hard and are all about winning. (Then) they added a manager they’re comfortable with.”
Matheny has said often this past week how the Red Sox team he reads about the quotes he hears from Red Sox players remind him of his own team.
The similarities run deeper than their celebrated cultures of winning. Wainwright makes his first career start against the Red Sox Wednesday night and his first World Series start, but he’s clinched a World Series title as a closer. Red Sox Game 1 starter Jon Lester’s last World Series was the Boston’s last World Series win — the Game 4 clincher at Coors Field in 2007. Combined the rosters could have as many as 28 homegrown players, including both leadoff hitters and five of the eight starting pitchers.
There are even operating from likeminded scripts, ones presented by their managers during spring training. Lester described how Farrell came into the clubhouse for his first meeting of camp and had “a presence.” He explained how he wanted to clear the cobwebs from the last-place finish and how he expected them to play. Lester said Farrell “set the tone day one.” Matheny began his first full-team meeting with one stated goal: win the World Series. He used the franchise’s tradition and the city’s expectations — the things Mozeliak knew his manager had to understand and embrace — as guiding lights for what this team, pursuing a 12th title and a third in seven years, could become. He urged them to make history, not just follow it.
Where this ends, no one knows, but the managers gave both rosters direction, and a third World Series in 10 years is there for the taking.
“Two historic franchises with a lot of history and a lot of success,” Matheny said. “We take a lot of pride in what (we’ve) been able to define as the Cardinal Way. But we also realize we’re about right now.”