‘Cardinals Way’ author is bullish on baseball

Author Howard Megdal

By Larry Levin, Publisher/CEO

Howard Megdal is an accomplished author and sportswriter. He’s a contributing writer to a number of national publications, including USA Today, Sports Illustrated and Vice Sports, and writer at large for Capital New York. 

Megdal has published four baseball books, including “The Baseball Talmud,” about the history of Jews in the major leagues. His latest is “The Cardinals Way,”  a thorough look at the cutting-edge management practices of our local franchise through the decades. He took time for a back-and-forth email conversation with the Jewish Light  about the book, baseball and more: 

 

In deciding to take on the Cardinals with your current book, you had the opportunity to focus on a mostly happy baseball tradition (with a few notable exceptions we’ll get to later). This contrasts, to some degree, with telling the story of the New York Mets through the very public Bernie Madoff scandal and ownership’s financial struggles. What brought you to focus on “The Cardinals Way,” and was it personally restorative to have a rather uplifting topic to tackle, contrasted with the Mets’ serious issues in recent years?

A chance to examine an organization succeeding, and detail the specifics on how and why, was a welcome change following not only “Wilpon’s Folly,” but even “Taking the Field,” a pair of books discussing the baseball and financial problems that beset the Mets. 

To me, though, this story became book-worthy after I flew out to St. Louis in the summer of 2013 to try and write a long-form piece about the team. I came away with 5,000 words, a real sense of what they do. But the extent to which the organization was open to me, from owner Bill DeWitt on down, only reinforced in my mind that there existed a deeply powerful how and why that could and should be written. 

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A baseball team reinventing itself while losing is nothing new. DeWitt and the Cardinals did it while winning, and that fascinated me.

 

That is fascinating, and in my mind it raises a question about what truly comprises the “Cardinals Way.” There is, of course, the accumulated bible of knowledge that is employed from the lowest level of the minor leagues to the MLB club, the stuff that George Kissell and his progeny imparted for decades. 

But the more expansive meaning that I took from your book is showing how no matter the era – from Branch Rickey’s foresight, through the struggles of the Jeff Luhnow-Walt Jocketty times, to the current regime under John Mozeliak – there is a singular insistence on finding the next new methods to attain and maintain a competitive advantage on the field, while synthesizing those with the ideas and principles that got you there in the first place. Is that an accurate characterization, and what would you add to that about what the phrase means?

I think you captured it well here. I’d add that this combination of pushing forward through innovation while maintaining those basic precepts is Rickey’s distillation of how to play the game of baseball writ large. What’s fascinating about it is how much of the sabermetric revolution was treated as something new. It really isn’t. It’s a restoration of Rickey’s approach dating back a century. He hired Travis Hoke, a baseball statistician, while still with the St. Louis Browns in 1914.

 

Speaking of computers: The monumental “center” of the book to me was the chapter about the very significant changes Bill DeWitt Jr. foisted upon the club by hiring Jeff Luhnow. Those of us who, as local fans, watched the ensuing events unfold were pretty aware of the conflicts in the front office; the tension was almost palpable simply by reading the newspaper coverage. 

But what’s striking in your account is how much the dramatis personae in the story, particularly Bill DeWitt, Luhnow, then-GM Jocketty, analyst Sig Mejdal and current GM Mozeliak, were willing to share about the stresses of the time, and how their perceptions changed as they looked back through a historical lens. 

Were you at all surprised that they were so open about discussing the conflicts, and what were some of the things that surprised you the most about their reflections?

So I was amazed by how devoted everybody was to exploring everything I asked about, and this was no different. But to hear everyone speak so intelligently about themselves in relation to others – it was remarkable, the introspection involved. Seeing Walt’s evolution, in particular, was striking – the odd man out from all the changes. Speaks well of him but also reflects the massive shift in the industry.

 

In some ways, St. Louis is the Edwards Demming Quality Circle of the baseball world, with continuous innovation and evolution. You mentioned the Cards being the rarity by remaining competitive while effecting roster development and improvement. It seems like a bunch of teams have resigned themselves to the dump and rebuild model. No less than six teams in the National League this year have all but admitted they are in transition mode or, less politely, in “tanking” mode. 

Is this going to be the state of things for the foreseeable future?

So what’s interesting to me about the tanking conversation is that dumping veterans and going with kids once a team’s core is judged to be short of championship quality isn’t a new thing at all. I remember when the Mets traded late-20s David Cone to jumpstart their rebuild, and Bobby Bonilla, and even Tom Seaver. (The Mets rebuild a lot.)

But, in essence, what teams couldn’t do for the longest time was a complete and total teardown, and for a simple reason: Fans would stop showing up, and teams needed fans to show up to make money. 

So here’s where the model gets interesting: It’s not really true these days for every team with a big local TV contract. The Phillies could get zero fans next year, and their television contract will largely fund their payroll. It helps to have fans through the turnstiles, of course, and teams who do it have more money to either fund their team’s activities with (or take a money bath). But whether that changes or not has to do with the value of marginal, non-championship players on rosters across baseball. 

As long as local TV makes it all pretty moot, teams won’t care much whether they employ midcareer talent.

 

So when you became a baseball fan as a kid, surely your first attraction wasn’t to models of front office excellence or Fred Wilpon’s checkbook, right? How did you develop your passion for baseball, and who were the most instrumental people in helping develop your love of the game?

So this came from my father, and from a very early age. Not any kind of pushing, but exposure to the game of baseball, early on at Veterans Stadium just a few minutes from my house, and through the sports pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Times on the kitchen table. From there, I really took to the game right away. It doesn’t hurt when your favorite team wins the World Series in dramatic fashion when you are 6 years old, as the Mets did in 1986.

 

And did you, as many Jewish kids do, have Jewish heroes in the game? If so, who were they and what connected you to them? And fast forwarding, do you keep particularly focused on Jewish players today, and if so, who in particular, either in the minors or majors? 

Oh, absolutely. My first book, “The Baseball Talmud,” came from a lifelong fascination and following of those heroes, from Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax to Steve Stone and Shawn Green. My favorites at this point are those I spent time with for the book – Green, Jason Marquis, Gabe Kapler. But Joc Pederson is one to watch, of course.

 

On the theme of Jewish fathers and sons, my own son worries that despite its current popularity, baseball is at some risk in the long run as it competes with the other major sports. And another concern is whether baseball is getting the needed attention from this generation of kids, who have lots of choices in what they play and competition for their fandom. 

Add in the sport’s difficulties in attracting diverse youth, especially among African-American kids, and the veneer of financial success right now holds some peril. 

So are you bullish or bearish about the long-term future of the sport, and what are the reasons for your prognosis?

Your son is right to worry. But I am bullish, for a simple reason: the game itself. Many ill-advised decisions through the years have been made on behalf of the game, and still baseball flourishes. The “baseball is dying” idea is a common one throughout the sport’s history. So what keeps it going? I would argue one thing: baseball.