03/28/12 11:08 PM ET
Cards don't want pity, but your respect
By Richard Justice / MLB.com
Respect? St. Louis packs its own, but thanks for asking.
Not that the Cardinals are without perspective.
When rookie manager Mike Matheny asked for a quote of the day during a Wednesday team meeting, first baseman Lance Berkman addressed the group.
Might this be one of those special moments that galvanize a team, a moment that players and staff remember years from now?
The floor is yours, Lance.
"When you walk a mile in another man's shoes," he said.
"At least you've got his shoes," Berkman said.
That's as close as the Cardinals are going to come to deep thinking at a time when they've been challenged the way few World Series champions have ever been challenged.
The Cardinals will begin the defense of their 11th championship without arguably the three most important figures from 2011.
La Russa retired. Pujols signed with the Angels. Ace Chris Carpenter is sidelined indefinitely with nerve weakness in his shoulder/neck area.
In addition, Dave Duncan, arguably the greatest pitching coach who ever lived, the man who helped dozens of pitchers salvage their careers, is on an extended leave of absence to be with his sick wife.
Despite it all, the Cardinals are convinced they're still going to be a pretty good baseball team, possibly a very good team.
"I think we've got the potential to be as good, or better, than we were last year," right fielder Matt Holliday said.
Wait, it gets better.
The Cardinals are completely unbothered by outside perceptions. Matheny said there are players who believe they didn't get the credit they deserved for last season's championship, but there's no playing that card to the public.
These Cardinals are simply a bunch of really good baseball players who like one another and root for one another. In terms of work ethic and professionalism, they're as good as any team in baseball.
"Our group is really, really tight," Holliday said. "It's what made last year fun to come to the park even when we were struggling. It was still fun to be around the guys. For the most part, we have the same core."
In the end, they're a reminder that good organizations endure.
"I think when you look at roster construction, certainly performance drives decisions," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. "But there is a certain type player you're trying to have fit in here. High character. High values. When you look at the faces on this team, you see that. They are people who have common goals and common practices. They have common dreams."
When the Cardinals are asked about playing this season with a chip on their shoulder, about showing the world they can win without Pujols and La Russa, they swat the question away.
"I don't think anyone's in here to prove anything like that," pitcher Kyle Lohse said. "I think we're smarter than that. We're obviously going to have a little bigger target on our backs. I don't think anybody is going to try any harder or lose our focus. The thing we're good at is staying focused."
In the hours after learning Pujols had signed with the Angels, Mozeliak spent about an hour feeling like he'd been punched in the stomach.
"And then I went to work," he said.
He signed Carlos Beltran to replace Pujols in the lineup. He knew that getting Adam Wainwright back from Tommy John surgery would put a second ace at the top of the rotation. And he believed that young players like David Freese, Allen Craig and Jon Jay would continue to improve.
That was a nice plan until Carpenter, who pitched 273 1/3 innings, including Game 7 of the World Series, went down.
Good organizations survive, right? Right-hander Lance Lynn, the 39th pick of the 2008 Draft, is going to be given the ball.
He appeared in five out of seven World Series games as a reliever, and with the mentoring of a veteran staff known for its work ethic and professionalism, the Cardinals are confident he'll do his part.
As for that lineup, it could again be one of the best in baseball, with Berkman, Holliday and Beltran in the middle of the lineup.
The Cardinals have a deep and battled-tested bullpen, and they have a manager who comes to the position with zero experience.
Matheny's credentials are the fact that during a 13-year career, he was among the most respected players in the game, one of those guys seemingly born to lead others.
"It's the intangibles that make a good manager," Berkman said. "You either have 'em or you don't. He's got 'em in spades."
For his part, Matheny said he has been pleased with the work ethic and sense of accountability he has seen from his group. He knows the challenge of trying to win without Pujols, La Russa and perhaps even Carpenter, but he clearly believes in his guys.
"I don't think you can just turn it when [the season opens] after not going about it the right way," he said. "We've had guys playing the game right."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.