The words thrown around most often to describe the St. Louis Cardinals were “resilient,” “tough,” and “scrappy.” The 2011 Cardinals “refused to give in” and “battled” their way to a World Series title. It was like 300 but with fewer ogres.
(Cue Joe Buck to wonder if that could be the last 300 reference with Albert Pujols in a Cardinals uniform.)
The Cardinals indeed showed resilience, specifically in their epic Game 6 comeback, but like many outstanding teams their true greatness risks getting lost in such labels. Call it “Dustin Pedroia Syndrome.” So many fans admire the Red Sox second baseman’s hustle and heart that they forget he has led AL second baseman in on-base percentage two of the last three years and hasn’t ranked lower than second since 2007.
That’s not called being scrappy. That’s called being good.
Perhaps no teams wore such labels as proudly as the 2003 and 2004 Red Sox. They came up with silly slogans — “Cowboy Up” in 2003, “Idiots” in 2004 — to match their dirty uniforms and sweat-stained caps. Their second basemen has long hair and the biggest base in franchise history was stolen by an outfielder who started more than 100 games just twice in five seasons before coming to Boston.
That’s probably how these Cardinals will be remembered as well. The World Series MVP was David Freese, who once quit baseball and had as many postseason strikeouts (14) as extra-base hits, which sums up these Cardinals as a motley band of grinders and dirt dogs.
Yet one statistic, tweeted by St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz, brings to light how good these Cardinals really were and underscored that those Red Sox teams of nearly a decade ago weren’t so bad, either. The 2011 Cardinals won the World Series by beating three teams that combined to win 294 games; it’s the most since the 2004 Red Sox beat three opponents who had 298 total wins.
Nobody beats teams like those on will alone. That 2004 team, remember, needed only five spot starts from pitchers outside their starting rotation. The pitching staff as a whole allowed the fewest hits and earned runs in the AL. The lineup scored the most runs and had the highest on-base percentage and slugging percentage in the league. Not bad for a bunch of idiots.
Oh, and that 2003 team? Mock the comparisons of the 2011 Red Sox with the 1927 Yankees all you want, but the reality is Murders’ Row doesn’t even have the highest team slugging percentage in baseball history. That honor goes to the 2003 Red Sox with an obscene .491 — and even that team, with its fearsome offense and supposedly all the intangibles, wasn’t good enough to win it all.
As the Red Sox prepare to trudge into another season after the disappointing end to 2011, it’s worth remembering that clubhouse chemistry and player accountability is a lot easier to develop than a keen batting eye. Heck, if Kevin Millar can get Manny Ramirez to smile, Carl Crawford can figure out how to hit again.
It wasn’t necessarily the Cardinals’ scrappiness that enabled them to overcome Matt Holliday‘s mental lapses or Tony La Russa‘s inexplicable managing decisions. It was an offense that led the NL in batting average in the regular season, a bullpen that allowed the fewest home runs of any team to make it out of the first round and a 35-year-old right fielder in Lance Berkman who batted .423 in the World Series.
Given a choice between skill and toughness, it’s nice to have a guy like Pedroia, who has both. Barring that, feel free to choose toughness alone and have fun in fourth place. I’ll take the team that bashes in the skulls of the other team and have faith that, most of the time, that team will figure out a way to get along and win a few games at the same time.