When the Colorado Rockies and St. Louis Cardinals arrived to their respective spring training facilities back in mid-February, there was nothing you could have said that would have convinced me St. Louis had the better baseball team.
And that was before Adam Wainwright went down for the season.
I would have told you the Cardinals were a solid team with a chance to maybe reach the higher 80s in wins, which would position them to contend in the NL Central. I also would have told you the Rockies looked like a 92-93 win team with Ubaldo Jimenez established, Jorge De La Rosa back, and a lot of really nice pieces in place offensively.
Didn't work out that way. Which is strange, because both teams faced similar challenges with injuries, players not performing up to standard, stretches of poor bullpen work, more injuries, desperate searches for band-aids. Basically, both teams took a step backwards on several levels from where they were to begin the season.
Yet the Cardinals are celebrating their 11th world championship, and the Rockies are coming off their most disappointing season to date.
How the hell did the Cardinals overcome all of that, while the Rockies collapsed underneath it?
Well, to me it boils down to three things.
1. The Cardinals have better leadership from top to bottom in their organization. From John Mozeliak to Tony La Russa, and Albert Pujols to Yadier Molina, the Cardinals have take charge people in power positions. Even throw Chris Carpenter in there, even if I'll never be the president of his fan club. Sometimes they lead by example, other times they are holding people accountable. Bottom line, when something needs to be said or done, it's taken care of.
And I don't think they needed six or seven team meetings to get their point across.
2. They aren't perfect, but they aren't stupid either. The Cardinals made their share of mistakes both mentally and physically, but they survived them by not compounding them. The Rockies this season, to me, qualify as the dumbest team around. No awareness, few instincts, always compounding their errors, which led to disastrous results.
It also exacerbated the following.
3. The Cardinals are a strong as hell team mentally. So many times they could have packed it in this season, yet they constantly kept their heads above water and kept the pressure on those ahead of them to maintain their pace. As we've learned several times over the years, that formula works. Those pace-setting teams are going to falter to some extent, and the team lying in wait is able to strike.
That's what these Cardinals were all about. They preyed on the Atlanta Braves, Milwaukee Brewers, and Texas Rangers. All three teams with equal or more talent, but when the chips were down and the pressure was on, teams that couldn't overcome themselves or the Cardinals relentlessly consistent and steady play.
I'm telling you the majority of that was mental, because if it was all based on talent, St. Louis wouldn't have overcome that 10.5 game deficit in the Wild Card. They wouldn't have even had the opportunity to rally in Games 6 & 7 of the World Series, because they would have finished that same 10-12 games out.
They stayed above water. They stayed consistent, even if their consistent wasn't great. Atlanta started coming back to them. They chipped away. The rest is history.
Meanwhile, our Rockies lose a tough game or two in May and the entire month has to become an unmitigated disaster. They don't respond well to adversity. They don't respond at all to expectations. They are definitely capable of going on ridiculous winning streaks, but they lack the consistency, the strength between the ears, and the leadership to make those successes significant.
That's the difference. The Cardinals stayed the course no matter what. No Adam Wainwright. Pujols went down for awhile. The Colby Rasmus debacle. No set closer basically all season. Hell, Matt Holliday was a negative factor the entire freaking playoffs, and they still beat three teams more talented than their own.
Obviously you need talent to win any championship. But this Cardinals team should show us that the numbers and even physical scouting can't and never will tell the whole story, because that crap is all on the surface. You need to get under that.
You need to find players, coaches, scouts, executives, willing to lead, willing to teach, willing to share, willing to work their ass off, willing to sacrifice, and always determined to improve.
Filling a hole at third base or at the bottom of the rotation will not fix this Rockies team. A good draft next June doesn't guarantee a sunnier future. The problem lies deeper, and a complete mental makeover is necessary in my view to move this team up a level. I just don't believe the people are in place to make that happen, and I don't know how we go about finding the ones who can. At least not before we're doomed to another half decade of disappointment.