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The Cardinals are the Cardinals, which is to say they are successfully boring and boringly successful. The Dodgers wear gold; the Cardinals invest in it. The Dodgers go out in Hollywood; the Cardinals watch movies made there. The Dodgers are daring; the Cardinals ooze comfort. These are not regional stereotypes. Each franchise happens to typify where it is located. Just watch Friday, when they meet here in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. The Dodgers will send to the mound Zack Greinke, their $147 million free-agent treasure. The Cardinals will counter with Joe Kelly or Shelby Miller, a pair of homegrown kids who make a combined $983,000 this season.
Dollar signs in this series matter, because wherever Los Angeles ends up, its season story will begin and end with the size of its $220 million payroll and its transformation from bankruptcy to beaucoup bucks in the matter of a year. So long as Mark Walter and Magic Johnson and Stan Kasten are running the joint, it always is going to be about the money. The Dodgers are – how can we say this kindly? – filthy freaking rich. If the U.S. Mint ever makes a million-dollar bill, it should feature Vin Scully’s face.
And, no, that matters not an iota to the Cardinals, who are professionally ambiguous. Since Tony LaRussa managed the franchise to its recent glory years and Mike Matheny took over last season without missing a beat, their tunnel vision has defined them. They don’t care about anyone else. Really. They spend more time looking in the mirror than the queen in Snow White. Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the most vanilla of them all?
“It’s not a financial competition,” Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. said. “You play on the field. Our guys will play very well. I feel good about our team.”
Around him, bubbly sprayed and beer splashed and the Cardinals toasted themselves. They’d won another elimination game, this one 6-1 against the Pirates, whom they dispatched in consecutive backs-against-the-wall affairs. It was classic Cardinals. Adam Wainwright twirled a complete game. One home run came from David Freese, the hero of the Cardinals’ 2011 championship. The other was launched by Matt Adams, who spent the season as the backup first baseman to the injured Allen Craig, who spent his first two years in the big leagues the backup first baseman to Albert Pujols, whom the Cardinals let go to the Los Angeles Angels because they knew spending $240 million on an aging first baseman is the sort of move only a team in Los Angeles, a dumb team or, in this case, both would consider.
Now, it’s important to note that this is not the Little Sisters of the Poor, or even the Little Sisters of the Middle Class, facing some evil hybrid of Exxon, WalMart and Monsanto. The Cardinals, by baseball standards, and especially by those in small- and middle-sized markets, are awfully well off. Their present-day payroll is $103 million, good for 14th in the game. They just aren’t the Dodgers. Right now, nobody is.
Here are some of Los Angeles’ long-term contracts: $160 million, $154 million, $147 million, $142 million, $85 million, $80 million, $70 million and $68 million – and that doesn’t include the $200 million-plus its Game 2 starter, Clayton Kershaw, is primed to get. Twenty of the 25 players on the Dodgers’ NLDS roster make $1 million or more.
The Cardinals’ top eight long-term deals look like this: $120 million, $97.5 million, $75 million, $31 million, $27 million, $26 million, $21 million and $14 million. Their NLDS roster included 17 players who make somewhere between $490,000 and $525,000.
“It’s been proven in the past that payroll doesn’t matter,” injured Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter said. “If you look at the Devil Rays, look at the Pirates, look at ourselves – we’ve got a good payroll, but we’re not at the top, and we continue to win. Bottom line is, it goes to the quality of the people you have in your clubhouse and the people who coach them.”
It is fair to say money has allowed the Dodgers to upgrade their quality. While former owner Frank McCourt was busy dragging the team into the middle of his divorce, the product suffered, though perhaps not as badly in hindsight as might be remembered. From 2004-11, when McCourt owned the Dodgers, they had only two sub-.500 seasons and made four playoff appearances.
Of course, they weren’t the Cardinals, who have ridden their player-development machine to the NLCS in three consecutive seasons and are looking for their third championship in eight years. Every one of those 17 players was drafted by the Cardinals and rose through their farm system. It is an almost-inconceivable number, and it personifies where this franchise is and why it can look askance at other teams and not seem as though it’s looking down. While it may be fashionable to be a Dodger these days, it’s always fashionable to be a Cardinal.
“This is why I signed back here,” Wainwright said. “There's no amount of money worth what this city and this team means to me. I'm honored, I'm privileged, I don't deserve any of this.”
Like Carpenter before him, Wainwright is the heart of the pitching that drives this Cardinals team into playoff spot after playoff spot. His sprint from the dugout to the mound before the bottom of the ninth inning, Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said, “was a statement.” To Matheny: You are not taking me out. To the 47,231 at Busch Stadium: Damn right I’m going to finish this. To the Dodgers: You’re next.
Surprisingly, this will be only the second time the teams have met in 45 NLCSs. Arguably the two most historic franchises in the National League – only the Giants have an argument otherwise – are about to fight for the right to go to the World Series. The Cardinals started playing in 1882, the Dodgers in 1884. There is more than a quarter millennium of baseball between them.
And the fact that they’re so different makes it all the more compelling. Sure, the Dodgers could become that player-development machine if they want. They outfoxed everyone to get Yasiel Puig, believed in Hanley Ramirez when others saw him as washed up, acquired a number of their veterans by offloading prospects and still find themselves flush with Corey Seager and Julio Urias and Joc Pederson and plenty more who can supplement the largesse already there.
For now, though, they are a $7 billion TV contract, a basketball-star owner, a dynamic Cuban refugee who demands attention and $350 million worth of starting pitchers ready to step into Busch and silence it. And the Cardinals? Well, they’re the Cardinals. Which is to say they’re back in the NLCS again, boring as it may be, successful as they always are.
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