MLB Playoffs 2011: Why the Cardinals Deserve the Wild Card

St. Louis has long been the prototype of the successful small-market team


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If there is anything that can redeem the appearance of "wild card" teams in this year's post-season (and frankly I don't think there is, however unreasonably reactionary that view is) it is the chance afforded the St. Louis Cardinals to vie for the World Championship. The Cardinals are the sport's ultimate, long-term, small-market success story. Second only to the New York Yankees in the number of World Series titles won (ten), the Cards have long been underdog upstarts overcoming unpromising beginnings and an unfavorable environment (whether in terns of business climate or climate climate). Since winning their first National League pennant—and World Series—in 1926, the Cards have appeared in the World Series in every decade since (the 1950s and 1990s excepted), a record of consistency on a par with that of the far more favorably situated and endowed "evil empire" in the Bronx. Perhaps most strikingly, in the three decades between 1923 and 1955, the Cardinals were the only National League team to beat the Yankees in the World Series.

Such success did not come easily. It struggled to gain the upper hand in a highly competitive battle with the American League's Browns in the smallest two-team metropolitan area in the majors. And it played out of a city that declined from the fourth to eighth largest in the nation in the first half of the last century—and now ranks 58th (smaller than, say Wichita or Fresno)—and with a metropolitan area population (18th largest in the nation) that is among the smallest in the major leagues. Nonetheless, the Cardinals have long been the prototype of the successful small-market team. Like the much celebrated Billy Beane's Oakland A's, the Cards had to do it with the same basic tools—innovation and intuition—and their own resident genius, general manager Branch Rickey, who found in the front office the chance to achieve the greatness that had eluded him as player and field manager.

The era of Cardinal preeminence ended in the years after World War II, when Rickey moved over to the Dodgers and Cardinal ambitions crashed against the color bar which the border state team maintained until well after the Dodgers, Giants and Braves fielded integrated teams which swept past the Redbirds in the standings. Not coincidentally, the 1950s, when the border-state Cardinals resisted racial integration of their roster (fielding their first black ball player only in 1954, seven years after Jackie Robinson's debut with their Brooklyn rivals) was the low point in the team's competitive history. Stan Musial could not do it all by himself.

However, the Cards rebounded thereafter and continue to stand as the sport's great small-market success story , with World Series titles in 1964, 1967, 1982, and 2006, National League pennants in 1968, 1985, 1987, and 2004 and division titles in 1996, 2000, and 2002, along with a wild card playoff berth in 2002. The winning tradition first crafted by Rickey over eight decades ago lives on, backed by a loyal fan base, resplendent in their red shorted pride, at home and also on the road, with the children and grandchildren of the dust bowl migration to California's Central Valley flocking to Los Angeles' Dodger Stadium when the Cardinals come to town, cheering on the team that first thrilled the sporting imagination of St. Louis's vast southwestern hinterland six and seven decades ago.

So if there have to be wild card teams in the post-season, let one of them be the Cardinals.