The St. Louis Cardinals officially opened up spring training camp today. With familiar faces and some new ones arriving in Jupiter, Florida to begin the 2018 season. You will see Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong, Yadier Molina, and Tommy Pham. You will also see Marcell Ozuna, Luke Gregorson, and Tyler O’Neill. But what I hope I don’t see is something I saw too much of last year, egos.
Sure I may be overreacting, when teams aren’t winning or living up to expectations that tends to put a spotlight on the little things. And maybe I should put on some shorts to wear with my black socks and sandals while yelling at kids to stay off my lawn. But I remember many times last year of being so taken back by some of the quotes I was seeing by the Cardinal players.
Maybe it is the modern-day athlete but last year’s players seemed very self promoting and concerned only about themselves. When watching interviews or reading articles with other modern day athletes I don’t see the same selfishness I saw from some of the Cardinals. Do you see Mike Trout, the picture perfect all-around athlete, commenting on his unique skills? Do you see Aaron Judge bragging about his raw power and then complaining when he was in a slump? Did you hear about Kris Bryant concerned with batting second in the Cubs lineup, taking away potential RBI numbers? Even Bryce Harper, a love him or hate him player who wears his passion on his sleeve and certainly brings an aura of confidence will say some dumb things but doesn’t boast about himself as much as some of the Cardinals. Yet, the Cardinals, a team that was 83-79 last season had several players that made nightly comments that undermined the team aspect of the game.
At the forefront of the Cardinal quote machine in 2017 was their breakout player Tommy Pham. Pham, who had always shown flashes, broke out in a big way by hitting .306 with 23 home runs while driving in 73 and stealing 25 bases; becoming the first Cardinal with a 20/20 season since Reggie Sanders in 2004. He totaled a 6.4 WAR, the fourth best mark in the National League last season. All of this despite starting the year in the minors and relegated to a backup role in the beginning. This is where his ego jumps in, just take a look at his quote after reaching the 20/20 mark.
“With everything I’ve gone through this year, to go out and have a 20-20 season is a proud moment for myself,” Pham said. “I wrote this down in 2012 that I could be a 20-20 player in the big leagues. Everything I’m doing now is something I’ve always believed I could do. It’s just no one else believed it.”
Now at first glance you may not think that isn’t too bad. He is just proud of his accomplishment. But you need to look at it in context. Pham was always thought of as a talented player. Why didn’t people “believe in him”? It was because he was always hurt, with a physical injury or problems with his eyes; Pham couldn’t consistently stay on the field. Until last year. Guess what happened when he was healthy, he played in 128 of the 134 games once he was recalled from the minors. So did the team not believe in him or was he just unable to stay healthy?
There were other moments that Pham’s ego shined as much as his talent, including a tweet in which he liked a FanGraphs image titled “Why is Matt Adams in the outfield?” While yes that was a failed experiment, the Cardinals were trying to get Adams’ bat in the lineup (the same Adams that hit 20 home runs in limited duty in 2017). Not much for team building there when you are calling out your own teammate. Pham also loves to talk about his talents. We mentioned the best all-around athlete in the game earlier, Mike Trout. Sorry no it is not you Tommy Pham; despite what you may think. During the off-season it was no secret the Cardinals were looking to improve. And Tommy Pham’s name came up as possible trade bait for a true impact bat or pitcher. What did Tommy think of that?
“When you look at the production of what I’ve done there are three players in the big leagues that are .300-.400-.500 guys and are 20-20 guys,” Pham said. “Look at those other two players. Are those teams trying to trade those guys? Then the question is why would this team want to trade me? And, I’m not making much money. That wouldn’t be a smart deal.”
Now no player likes to be traded. But much like when he was sent to the minors because he couldn’t stay healthy. If a team could include a player like Pham in a trade to get someone like Manny Machado or Giancarlo Stanton; they shouldn’t take it personally. The game is about getting better, and there is almost always someone better than you. Pham had a statisically great season last year but it was ONE season, by a 29-year old who has played just 264 total games (less than two full seasons) in four years in the majors. Maybe you should put it together for a full year before you start placing yourself in the same sentence as Trout.
One of the bigger storylines last year was the Molina-Matheny spat on Instagram. Molina, the face of the Cardinal franchise and a possible MLB Hall of Fame catcher made a subtle reference to former, and now back again, Cardinal coach Jose Oquendo on Instagram with implication of missing his former coach, implying differences with his current one (Matheny). This was just days after an initial social media flare up when Molina responded to Matheny’s suggestion that Molina may be tired from catching too much. I may be wrong but saying that Molina may be tired, the man who has caught more innings than any other catcher in the game over the last decade, might not be too far of a stretch. However Molina decided to take it to social media with a post.
“I train to play 174 games because that’s what it takes to be Champion, and the day I feel tired I’ll express it myself. #misinforming” Molina posted.
Molina is unquestionably the face of the franchise, and in my mind one of the best catchers of all-time. But if you can’t handle your manager saying you looked tired followed by him praising you for your skills, dedication, and leadership. Then that is on you. Don’t take it to social media. Don’t whine like a teenage girl and start sub-tweeting or posting about the issue. Let go of your ego.
Then there is the battle of the lineup ego going on between Dexter Fowler and Matt Carpenter. Carpenter, whose ego apparently won’t allow him to hit anywhere other than from the leadoff spot, and Fowler who was the Cardinals prized free agent signing for the 2017 season and spent his career as a leadoff man, decided that they both were the best fit at leadoff. With the 2018 season just beginning we don’t know who will bat where. But both of them need to check their egos at the door and do what is best for the team. There is no reason Carpenter shouldn’t be able to hit third, probably the best spot for the Cardinals lineup. But his numbers show that mentally he can’t make the adjustment. Fowler meanwhile has changed as a player as he has gotten older, becoming more of a gap and power threat, which would translate well into batting lower in the order. Yet he wants to hold onto his memories of youth and leadoff. At least he has let go of the idea of playing centerfield…so far.
I understand that baseball players must be confident in their abilities. Baseball players, more than any other athlete, need to believe in themselves because you are more often than not going to fail. Whether it is failing to get a hit 7 out of 10 times at bat on average or a pitcher knowing that their one mistake pitch or inning led to a teams loss; baseball players must be mentally strong. And mental strength and confidence can feed an ego. But there are also ways to be strong and confident without coming across cocky or like a teenage girl or not being a team player. Take a look around the league gentlemen, it can be done. Heck, all you really have to do is look out at the field on Opening Day at the men in red jackets; those players can tell you a little on how to behave. Those are St. Louis Cardinal Hall of Famers. And if they can check their egos at the door, then you should be able to as well.