Opening Day is on the clock. The countdown is moving fast. Cardinals vs. Blue Jays, Thursday afternoon, and a scheduled 3:10 p.m. first pitch at Busch Stadium. The ballpark will be packed to capacity and saturated in red. Voices will carry. Hearts will beat in one rhythm. Meet Me In St. Louis is the hymn of the day.
As usual, the Cardinals have been talking about winning the World Series. They do this every year but haven’t actually taken the World Series crown since 2011. A generation of players have come and gone since then.
Chris Carpenter glared at a hitter for the final time in 2012. Yadier Molina retired after last season. Adam Wainwright is entering his final year. Oli Marmol is the team’s third manager since Tony La Russa rode in the 2011 World Series parade.
Franchise immortals Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Red Schoendienst and Bruce Sutter have passed away. Though they’ll live forever in our memories, it’s still sad to look down to the home-plate area on Opening Day and not see them standing there in their resplendent red jackets.
And if the scheduled plans come to full fruition, we can look forward to seeing Ozzie Smith, Whitey Herzog, Willie McGee, Ted Simmons, Mike Shannon, Matt Holliday, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Ray Lankford, Vince Coleman, Mark McGwire, John Tudor and Jason Isringhausen grace us with their presence Thursday in the annual pregame ceremony.
This bountiful and beautiful St. Louis Cardinals heritage rolls on through the decades.
It is true: Baseball marks the time.
The more things change, the more the Cardinals stay the same. The consistently successful Bill DeWitt Jr. and John Mozeliak model has produced nine playoff teams during the last 12 seasons – second to the Dodgers among MLB over that time. This should be respected and appreciated – and it is by much of the fan base. That said, this franchise has played 994 regular-season and postseason games since collecting its last set of World Series rings.
The Cardinals are hardly alone in this frustration; the Yankees haven’t won a World Series since 2009, and the Dodgers haven’t captured a World Series in a full season since 1988.
The Cardinals can proclaim their World Series ambition all they want, but the words don’t count. Wins count. And the Cardinals have lost 17 of their last 22 postseason games. The problem has turned more severe, with the Cardinals scratching for only one victory in their last 10 encounters.
The 2023 Cardinals have many positives.
* The bulk of the offense returns after posting the best team OPS+ in a season since DeWitt became the owner-chairman in 1996. That 114 OPS+ ranked No. 1 in the NL last season. And since then the Cardinals added established power-hitting catcher Willson Contreras to upgrade the offense, and top-four MLB prospect Jordan Walker is here after directly graduating from Double A baseball. Four members of the Opening Day Lineup – Walker, Nolan Gorman, Lars Nootbaar, and Brendan Donovan – are heading into their first or second MLB season as a lineup regular. It’s an exciting time.
* The team defense and baserunning – exceptional.
* A manager, Oli Marmol, who embraces the information provided by the analytics department [– but also embraces the human element and doesn’t run the team as a robot would.
* A freshened coaching staff, with new voices adding smart ideas to the team’s sharp manager.
* A solid bullpen led by a closer, Ryan Helsley. If you have any doubts about him after the Game 1 blowup that cost the Cards a playoff win against the Phillies … well, don’t. Of it helps, read what FanGraphs wrote about Helsley earlier this week:
“Things really clicked for Ryan Helsley last year and he somehow had a velo spike, going from averaging 97 mph to 99. He also nearly doubled his curveball usage from 6% to 10%. He was in baseball’s 97th percentile or better in many categories, including fastball velo, opponent’s expected batting average and SLG, and whiff%. Quite simply, a healthy Helsley is one of the best couple of closers in baseball.”
* Enhanced depth: the Cardinals go into the season with better starting-pitching options to support the original five starters. Jake Woodford and Matthew Liberatore lead that group. This week the Cards sent relievers to Triple A Memphis who could be working in many MLB bullpens. Phenom shortstop Masyn Winn is ready for the show right now, but the Cardinals want to give him more time to fully develop. Corner outfielder Juan Yepez had a .447 slugging percentage as a rookie last season, and came off the bench to bomb a two-run homer that gave the Cardinals a 2-0 lead over the Phillies in Game 1 … and he couldn’t make the big club. He’ll start the season at Memphis.
The top and most concerning area is starting pitching. As usual. Nothing new. I’m feeling some optimism about this rotation – and please feel free to ridicule me later. The rotation should be solid during the regular season but lacks the kind of enforcers who can dominate in the postseason. And that’s the drawback here.
The offense should be fearsome during the regular season. But if the Cardinals (if expected) win the division, key parts of the lineup will come in with a recent history of vanishing in the postseason – Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado included.
I would suggest that we worry about the postseason when it’s time to play postseason ball. And I suppose there’s at least some possibility of the front office making upgrades by the Aug. 1 trade deadline.
And as we continue the countdown to tomorrow’s Opening Day, I’ll politely suggest something else: put those worries and blues and anxieties away. Calm your frustrations. Dwell on the positives. Savor Opening Day in St. Louis, and appreciate all that comes with it: family, friends, tradition, ceremony, breezes, and ballpark nachos and hot dogs. Cherish the sweet memories of yore, and make sure to save some room for the feel-good optimism and the inevitable rush of new memories to treasure. Honor the past, salute the future, and raise a cup to absent friends.
And if you get emotional, that’s even better. Opening Day is extra special and deeply meaningful and should move you. Depending on your age, and the intensity of your fandom, Opening Day has been an important day in your life. It is good for the young, good for the old, and good for everyone who loves the Cardinals. You may have been in the seats at Sportsman’s Park for Stan the Man’s final game in 1963. You may have been there for the 1964 World Series, or jumping up and down after the Cardinals won Game 7 of the 1982 World Series and celebrated on the carpeted playing surface at Busch Stadium. You may have been in the house for Big Mac’s 70th home run in 1998, or rookie reliever Adam Wainwright closing out the 2006 World Series, or David Freese’s mighty blow in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, or watching in awe as Albert Pujols had his epic farewell season as a Cardinal. The cycle starts anew on Thursday, and we should enjoy baseball for as long as the Cardinals will take us.
Here’s the new rule: I don’t care what Tom Hanks hollered out in “A League of Their Own.” There IS crying in baseball. Baseball is back in St. Louis, and it’s the most wonderful time of the year.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
Listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and Miklasz. It’s available on your preferred podcast platform. Or follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.