Like most of the rest of us, Mike Matheny couldn’t wait for Sunday to get here.
The St. Louis Cardinals manager, in his fifth year in the corner of the dugout, was eager — no, anxious — to get the 2017 season underway.
“I always feel good about them all, but there’s a different air to this team,” Matheny said several hours before the Cardinals’ not-for-the-faint-of-heart 4-3 win over the Chicago Cubs. “I’d say it’s a little bit of an edge, a little bit of a chip on the shoulders. Since the first day we walked in this spring, I could sense it.”
Last fall, the Cardinals missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010. They’ve been waiting six months to scrub that taste from their mouths, and it all began with a commitment to a cleaner style of play in spring training.
“I think you mix in good people, you mix in people who are maturing into a voice, all those things kind of come together to give you whatever that atmosphere is,” Matheny said. “It’s been very positive, but it’s also been very intentional on getting better, intentional on making it look right. Overall, I just couldn’t be any happier with the way guys went about their business and how they competed.”
It showed Sunday night, with the Redbirds going toe-to-toe with their arch-rival Cubs before a national television audience and a sellout Busch crowd that included Cardinals Hall of Famers Tony La Russa, Bob Gibson, Red Schoendienst, Whitey Herzog, Bruce Sutter, Ozzie Smith, Ted Simmons, Mike Shannon, Jim Edmonds, Willie McGee and Joe Torre.
Oh, and Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred was on hand, too, standing with Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. and the Redbird Hall of Famers to greet the St. Louis coaching staff and players as they were introduced behind home plate.
Matheny and brethren seemed anxious to hop off the convertibles, ready to get their feet on the ground and get the season in full swing.
“You spend all winter waiting to get going, not just spring training, but getting right back at it for real,” Matheny said. “This is just a unique experience. We have a couple guys who have never seen it, but I don’t care how many times you get to experience Opening Day in St. Louis, it’s still special and something always to look forward to.”
The season dawned on a perfect Sunday evening at Busch Stadium, awash in Cardinals red with a sprinkling of Cubs blue and alive with the promise of great moments to come.
From a Cardinals fan’s perspective, those moments had already begun — with an early-afternoon announcement that Yadier Molina would be a Cardinal through the 2020 season, likely finishing his career with the Birds on the Bat across his chest.
Throngs of fans were downtown by mid-afternoon, gathering at Ballpark Village and in nearby parking lots to celebrate the Molina news a full four hours before the 2017 season got going.
The cheers continued inside Busch Stadium as the first pitch loomed, with the traditional parade of Clydesdales and convertibles around the ballpark warning track, escorting the players to a full-throated welcome at home plate.
The biggest roar was for Molina, followed by loud and sustained applause for ex-Cub, now Cardinal Dexter Fowler.
Only a handful of Fowler’s former teammates watched from the dugout as the Cardinals were introduced, though Fowler remains popular among the 2016 World Champions.
“He’s still part of the family, and we miss him and we’re happy for him,” the Cubs’ Kyle Schwarber said. “Obviously, we have to play against him, and we like him until it’s time to go out on the field to compete.”
The teams began 2017 with a clean slate Sunday night, a far cry from the 17 1/2 -game edge in the standings for the Cubs over the Cards a year ago. Is it realistic to expect the Cardinals to bridge that gulf? Or should they content themselves with a run to a wild card berth, knowing that would put them in a perilous one-game playoff for the postseason?
Hard to imagine the Cardinals making up all that ground themselves, but there is history to support the notion the Cubs will not be the 103-win club they were a year ago.
Consider: Going back 100 years, the Cubs have finished in first place 10 times. In the nine seasons that occurred before last year, the Cubs fell off dramatically the next season.
Those nine first-place Cubs teams – in 2008, 1989, 1984, 1945, 1938, 1935, 1932, 1929 and 1918 — averaged 94 wins. The very next year, those Cubs teams dropped off to an average of 82 wins a season, finishing second three times, third three times and fourth three times.
Can we expect this Cubs team to drop 12 wins in the standings, from 103 to 91? Not likely – not with a veteran pitching staff and some of the best young position players in the game. But if it were to happen — and every year is different for every team, no matter how many players are a holdover from the previous season — it’s not a stretch to think this Cardinals team could finish with 90-plus wins.
After all, even with 86 victories last year, the Cardinals have averaged 92 wins a year in the five seasons they’ve been managed by Matheny. And they’re coming off their first 20-win spring training in 20 years. They arrived in camp determined to be better in the field and smarter on the basepaths, and that was evident Sunday night: starting pitcher Carlos Martinez, Matt Carpenter and Jhonny Peralta all made stellar defensive plays, while Aledmys Diaz stole two bases and Fowler went first-to-third on a ground single past Chicago second baseman Javier Baez.
“To me, that’s just a result of the process,” Matheny said. “That’s something we just need to get the guys to continue to buy into. If you continue to buy into the process, keep putting a lot of priority on doing those little things right, the results are going to be the natural byproduct.”
Joe Ostermeier, chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, has written about the Cardinals for the News-Democrat since 1985. He can be reached at.: 618-239-2512, @JoeOstermeier