Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 10, 2013

Contrasting Approaches To A Common Goal

It would have been easy to miss the significance of the moment. It was only the bottom of the second inning in Wednesday night’s NLDS Game Five between Pittsburgh and St. Louis. There was still much baseball to be played when Pirates catcher Russell Martin set his glove low and away for the rookie pitcher Gerrit Cole. Cole had retired the first five batters he faced, and after issuing a full count walk to center fielder John Jay, he was ahead 1-2 on the Cardinals David Freese. But Cole’s pitch never came close to Martin’s target. Instead the slider wandered over the inside part of the plate, and Freese turned on the offering, lining the ball into the Pittsburgh bullpen for a 2-0 St. Louis lead.

Yet for all the at-bats that remained one had the inescapable sense as the Cards’ third baseman rounded the bases that St. Louis starter Adam Wainwright had just been given all the run support he was going to need. The 32-year old right hander had allowed just one run and three hits while striking out nine over seven innings in the opener of the series; and on Wednesday he started out in even more dominant fashion. Backed by a defense that turned three double plays on the night, Wainwright faced just one batter over the minimum through the first six frames. In the end he would throw a complete game, and when Pittsburgh third baseman Pedro Alvarez swung and missed at an 80 mile per hour curveball for the final out the Cardinals were into the NLCS for the seventh time in thirteen years.

There they will face the Los Angeles Dodgers, with Game One set for Friday evening at Busch Stadium. It’s a matchup of two of the Great Game’s most storied franchises. The Cardinals lead the National League and are second overall to the Yankees with 11 championships; while the Dodgers have emerged triumphant at the end of the World Series 6 times. Both teams have made 18 appearances in the Fall Classic, tied for third most, one behind the Giants. Among the fourteen former players and club personnel honored by retired numbers in St. Louis are Rogers Hornsby and Dizzy Dean, Stan Musial and Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Ozzie Smith. The roll of greats honored at Dodger Stadium is no less grand, including Pee Wee Reese and Duke Snider, Roy Campanella and Don Sutton, the pitching duo of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, and of course Jackie Robinson.

Yet for all that the two stalwarts of the senior circuit have in common, the Cardinals and the Dodgers have taken very different routes to their League Championship Series rendezvous. The contrasting approaches reflect a geographical symmetry. St. Louis has built from within in a steady and sturdy fashion welcomed in the nation’s heartland; while Los Angeles, reflecting the glamour, the glitter, and the short attention span of Hollywood, has created a behemoth in a hurry through dramatic trades and big contracts.

The Cardinals won the World Series just two years ago, but this year’s roster looks very different. Wainwright, the hero of the moment, was forced to sit out the 2011 season after Tommy John surgery. Chris Carpenter, who in turn can now only watch from the dugout after injuries have likely ended his career, was the hero on the mound back then. On offense St. Louis relied on slugger Albert Pujols. But Pujols was a free agent after that Series, and he eventually found a willing suitor with a big checkbook in Anaheim. Instead the St. Louis roster for the NLDS featured 18 homegrown players, including several rookies. Among them was Michael Wacha, who nearly no-hit the Pirates in Game Four on Monday.

In contrast the Dodgers’ new ownership group, which paid a record $2.15 billion to free the team and its fans from the agony of Frank McCourt, bulked up this year’s payroll to $216 million, more than twice the number of Opening Day 2012. Such big spending doesn’t always pay off, and for much of the early going it looked like the Dodgers were going to be just one more cautionary tale. But the team finally came together just in time to save manager Don Mattingly’s job, and through the second half the Dodgers were the dominant franchise in the game.

It likely matters little to the fans at Chavez Ravine that at last year’s All-Star break Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, Zack Greinke, Ryu Hyun-jin and Yasiel Puig were all plying their trade elsewhere. In fact a majority of the players on L.A.’s NLDS roster weren’t wearing Dodger blue the last time the team took the field with McCourt as its owner. But Dodger Stadium has now replaced the Staples Center as the sports venue of choice in Los Angeles. With the ever-popular Magic Johnson as their public face, the Dodgers’ owners have captured the hearts of fans throughout southern California.

So there they are, two of the oldest franchises in the Great Game, set to square off in the penultimate series of this year’s postseason tournament. For all the history that the Cardinals and Dodgers share, their 2013 versions represent profoundly different business models, contrasting approaches to getting ever so close to every team’s Spring Training goal. In the end only one will advance, and when that happens there will be those who will see in the victory a decisive moment for that particular route to the mountaintop. But as every fan knows, in a short series anything can happen. In truth, both of these teams are worthy.

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