From 2002-2006, the St. Louis Cardinals had a farm director named Bruce Manno. He was a guy who had his own ideas on how things should be done. One of them was to require that all Cardinal minor-league players – from Rookie ball to Triple-A Memphis – wear their pants pulled up to their knees so their stirrup socks would show.
Call it the Manno Mandate. It was even an edict that all four stripes on the stirrup sock be visible. I can still see the look of disbelief on the face of the Redbirds’ back-flipping second baseman Stubby Clapp as he told me: “This is ridiculous.” And yes, I left out the accompanying adjectives and adverbs.
But ridiculous, it was.
Today, of course, the Cardinals are in their fourth World Series since 2004. By the time they dispensed with the Hollywood, er, Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, the “Cardinal Way” had grown into a national narrative.
If you want to mock the Cardinal Way that defines this incarnation of the Cardinals, you can do so. There was a moment during the playoffs when TV cameras captured several Cardinal pitchers in the bullpen stretching in unison and someone in the booth noted that players even “stretch the Cardinal Way.”
Yet it strikes me that part of what has carried the Cardinals to where they are now, playing the Boston Red Sox in the Fall Classic, is the Cardinal Way. Manno was trying to manufacture something along those lines so many years ago, but it wasn’t natural. It was artificial, agenda-driven, nonsense.
“It’s supposed to create a team atmosphere,” Manno said then. “We think it’s an identity.”
Players didn’t. Literal, forced uniformity hardly was going to make the minor-league teams and their players better. And at the big-league level, then-manager Tony La Russa was going to do things his way. Remember, Buzz Bissinger’s La Russa book was called “3 Nights in August,” not “4 Stripes Always Showing.”
Manno likened the dress code for players to working for a company that required a shirt and tie. Exactly.
When John Vuch became director of minor league operations before the 2011 season, the socks requirement was dropped. Vuch notes that there are some rules regarding facial hair for the minor-leaguers, but they are reasonable. Mustaches and goatees are allowed, full beards are not.
“We don’t allow crazy stuff, Brian Wilson-like,” Vuch said, referring to the Dodgers reliever with a beard only a cough drop box could love.
So, yes, there is a stark contrast between the bearded BoSox and the more clean-cut Cardinals. And at the big league level, Cardinal players with a choice now often embrace “High Socks Sundays.”
Clearly, the Cardinal Way has worked well for the 2013 team under the direction of second-year and first-time manager Mike Matheny. They play hard for him. They trust him. There are savvy veterans willing to lead – from pitchers Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter (who’s not even on the roster) to catcher Yadier Molina and outfielder Carlos Beltran.
The roster is also full of kids, many of whom are younger than the players in the minors years ago that Manno wanted to treat like 5-year-olds. Dubbed the “baby birds,” pitchers such as Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal and others have adapted to their sudden, pressure-filled roles by being given room to breathe while also being held accountable for doing things the right way.
“We’re doing a good job of drafting high-character guys,” Memphis manager Pop Warner said.
And that’s a big part of it. But so, too, what happens after they are drafted. And if, as young players are wont to do, they stick a toe over the line either to test the limits or out of ignorance?
“It’s our job to teach guys to be professional,” Warner said. “There’s a lot more that goes into it than just teaching the game of baseball.”
Or how high you wear your socks.
“We’d rather focus on how they play on the field,” Vuch said.
That’s the Cardinal Way.
Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.