When the St. Louis Cardinals last won the World Series, their current starting catcher, Yadier Molina, was on the field. Adam Wainwright was in the dugout as a Cardinals employee but not a 2011 Cardinals player, having been shelved for the season in Spring Training due to Tommy John surgery. Matt Carpenter had appeared on the 2011 team, but as a minimally-used reserve, and while he did become a full-time Major Leaguer the next season, he was never used in the 2011 postseason.
That the Cardinals only have one holdover from their end-of-season 2011 team a full decade later should come as a surprise to nobody even tangentially familiar with aging curves or modern player movement. The current Cardinals’ roster actually has more players from the final roster of the 2011 Boston Red Sox–Jon Lester and Andrew Miller–than of the 2011 Cardinals.
There seems to be a perception of the Cardinals as a permanent fixture of the World Series, an inevitable and dynastic and frustratingly efficient juggernaut, and certainly, a team that will soon play in its third consecutive postseason and which has only missed the playoffs three times in the last eleven seasons is not worthy of anyone’s sympathy. But barring a miraculous Carlos Martínez injury comeback, only three players who have ever played in a World Series with the Cardinals will be on the postseason roster–Matt Carpenter (who will probably make the roster, but isn’t a mortal lock), Yadier Molina, and Adam Wainwright.
Of the Cardinals’ current, 28-man roster, twelve were in professional baseball at any level the last time the Cardinals won the World Series. The only other Major Leaguers not previously mentioned were Paul Goldschmidt and J.A. Happ, of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Houston Astros, respectively. T.J. McFarland (Cleveland Indians) and Miles Mikolas (San Diego Padres) were in AA; Nolan Arenado (Colorado Rockies) was in high-A; José Rondón was in the Dominican Summer League as a prospect for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Kwang Hyun Kim was pitching in the Korean Baseball Organization with SK Wyverns, and Luís Garcia spent the 2011 season out of baseball after having washed out with the Washington Nationals’ organization in A-ball (he spent 2012 with the Newark Bears, an independent league team managed by former Cardinals World Series winner Ken Oberkfell).
The majority of the 2021 Cardinals were nowhere near the big leagues in October 2011. Paul DeJong was a college freshman and Giovanny Gallegos was still an unsigned, twenty year-old amateur in Mexico. Harrison Bader was a senior in high school. Six Cardinals were high school juniors–Tommy Edman, Dakota Hudson, Andrew Knizner, Tyler O’Neill, Alex Reyes, and Kodi Whitley. Two more, Jack Flaherty and Edmundo Sosa, were sophomores. Genesis Cabrera, Lars Nootbaar, and Jake Woodford were freshmen. And Dylan Carlson was in eighth grade.
Much of the sports blogosphere has depended upon old tropes, bygone vestiges of a bygone era, to pin the Cardinals as a force of evil. They are painted as the fun police of Tony LaRussa, the guy who now manages Tim Anderson’s postseason bound team. They are a regressive blight on the country, a team whose religiousness just must be a precursor for refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine (this, of course, proved to be very demonstrably false, but if you want to follow along with all of Craig Calcaterra’s other righteous baseball-turned-political causes, tune in to his Atlanta Braves this postseason, a team with absolutely no skeletons in their closet).
I understand on some level why there is such nostalgia for this era–it’s considerably easier to hoot and holler about how some guy spelled it “Bush Stadium” than it is to have a nuanced conversation about American regional diversity and how coexistence is vital for the future of the nation, and it’s more satisfying to try to rationalize your sports hatred as rooted in some sort of intellectual rigor rather than being an almost exclusively tribal and arbitrary distinction. On some level, I am pleading with the coastal snark magnates to make jokes about the actual, current St. Louis Cardinals. David Eckstein hasn’t been on the Cardinals for fourteen years!
The Cardinals are in the midst of a seventeen-game winning streak, and it would be naive to claim that such a long run of excellence is not at least partly, or even mostly, attributable to luck, as no team in baseball history is good enough that you would expect seventeen straight wins against any MLB team, much less a streak where most of the wins have come against preseason postseason favorites still motivated to win their games for their own October hunts. And while I would love to lean into the “Cardinals Devil Magic” trope, the reasons for the win streak are largely pretty predictable. Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, extremely well-compensated corner infielders who were MVP candidates and household names before they ever came to St. Louis, are hitting well. The team’s most surprising hitter, Tyler O’Neill, isn’t a scrappy middle infielder getting by on sacrifice bunts and some nebulous “Cardinal way” that means whatever the observer wants it to mean–he is a physical specimen in left field who makes Matt Holliday look like Jarrod Dyson. The only starting pitcher throwing well enough that “Devil Magic” would even be considered an apt phrase is Adam Wainwright, and given his fast-tracked to the Hall of Very Good career, unless Devil Magic has an extraordinarily long statute of limitations, I think it’s safe to say he’s just a good player. And for anyone inclined to cite bullpen surprises Luís Garcia and T.J. McFarland, I would like to refer you to the FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement leaderboard among relief pitchers. There are a few familiar names–Liam Hendriks and Josh Hader, for instance–but do you really want to assume any sort of internal logic exists with a position where Scott Barlow and Paul Sewald are among its top performers? This isn’t Devil Magic–it’s the natural state of relievers.
Unlike the early 2010s Cardinals, whose Gold Gloves were won by Yadier Molina plus one year of Jason Heyward but were largely a team of steady but unspectacular defenders, the current iteration of the team is loaded with defensive charisma. Goldschmidt and Arenado, former multi-time winners, are likely to win again in 2021. Tyler O’Neill, who won the left field Gold Glove in 2020, is leading the National League in Ultimate Zone Rating at the position and should certainly contend again, while Harrison Bader, probably the most spectacular to watch fielder on the team, leads among NL center fielders and, frankly, is owed an award from prevoius snubs. Paul DeJong was a Gold Glove finalist just two seasons ago at shortstop and has largely been relegated to the bench in favor of Edmundo Sosa, arguably the more exciting player in the field.
While the “Whiteyball” era of Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, and company running all over the diamond is long over, the 2021 Cardinals have more stolen bases on the season than any other if-the-season-ended-now playoff team. Tommy Edman’s 28 steals are good for second in the National League, and even Paul Goldschmidt, playing a position in first base not exactly known for high volumes of steals, has reached double-digits while not being caught once. An offensive strategy based on stolen bases might be antiquated, but it sure is fun.
I don’t expect any fan of a non-Cardinals playoff team to root for the Cardinals at the expense of their own team. Like, even though they’re at 103 wins, I find the San Francisco Giants to be a thoroughly uninteresting collection of perfectly amiable but also dull-as-dishwater veterans (“boring”, as Giants trade deadline acquisition Kris Bryant, who fits their aesthetic like a glove, might put it), but if I were a Giants fan, I would absolutely not care–having rooted for the 2014 Cardinals, I am not above rooting for the baseball team equivalent of a perfectly timed Saturday afternoon nap. And if you decide you think teams with speed and flashy defense and big belting home run hitters isn’t fun, well, that’s an aesthetic preference, and you have a right to that. But the Cardinals of sacrifice bunts and Pete Kozma are over.