What Are the Cardinals For?

Heavy rains caused devastating floods across parts of Missouri, Illinois, and Arkansas last week, including in and around St. Louis, where the Meramec River crested at record levels and inundated homes and businesses in communities like Pacific, Eureka, and Fenton. Many smaller rural towns, lacking levees, manpower, and other resources, were hit even harder. At least 13 people were killed, and nearly 10 million people remained under a flood warning heading into the weekend. In many areas the effects are reported to be as bad or worse than the floods that hit the region in late December 2015, which damaged or destroyed over 7,000 structures in Missouri alone and totaled hundreds of millions of dollars in losses and cleanup costs.

Among the organizations helping with disaster relief efforts were local sports teams. The River City Rascals partnered with the St. Louis Area Foodbank and are offering free tickets to opening weekend in exchange for donations of bottled water. The Blues, who were in the middle of a heated playoff series against the Nashville Predators, teamed up with the Red Cross and turned Friday night’s Game 5 at Scottrade Center into an ad-hoc benefit of sorts. They even coordinated with the Predators to raise additional funds from fans in Nashville.

“We realize,” said Blues CEO Chris Zimmerman in a press conference on Friday, “that sports franchises in our cities play a really critical role: one, to bring attention to suffering, in this case, and the needs of our community; and on the other side, seeing how we can step up, both financially and in other ways to support the efforts.”

The Cardinals, who were rained out three times at Busch Stadium in the week leading up to the floods, don’t appear to share Zimmerman’s view of the role sports teams should play in their communities; the club hasn’t said a word about the flooding or how to help on its website, in a press release, on any of its social media pages, or through any other medium. With over twice the online audience and nearly three times the annual revenue, the Cardinals dwarf the Blues in influence and resources, and yet the smaller organization was the one that worked to make an impact last week, while the larger one couldn’t be bothered to do so much as tweet a link to a donation page. The contrast didn’t go unnoticed.

On its own, the club’s lack of immediate attention to a natural disaster stretching across the heart of Cardinals country, while conspicuous, may not be massively consequential. But it would be easier to excuse this kind of lapse if it weren’t consistent with a pattern that the club has fallen into over the last several years: the Cardinals, for all their on-field success and deeply-rooted popularity, have become a woefully aloof and disengaged organization. In an increasingly connected world, the club seems more out of touch than ever, and in turbulent times for the city and the country, it’s failing to pass even the most basic tests of social responsibility.

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In its most benign form, the club’s lack of engagement manifests as simple traditionalism and outdatedness, as was the case with the long-standing shoddiness of its approach to social media, which it finally took steps to improve somewhat last year. Even with the improvement, the Cardinals still seem much more comfortable with the top-down, one-way traffic of television, radio, and print than they ever have with the looser, more democratized and interactive modes of communication that define the internet and new media. (It’s no coincidence that when it comes to what remains of an “independent” old media, the club knows it can count on near-universally favorable and deferential coverage.)

Far more troubling, regardless of medium, is the organization’s extreme unwillingness to take a stand when a situation demands it. After Tyler Dunnington spoke out about experiencing homophobic abuse during his time in the Cardinals’ minor-league system, management pledged to investigate; more than a year later, it hasn’t said another word about it. It’s irrelevant what the club’s internal reasoning for its silence on the matter is; the failure to address Dunnington’s allegations publicly sends an unequivocal message that the organization is not particularly bothered by what he alleged.

Similarly disgraceful was the organization’s silence when protesters were subjected to racist abuse from Cardinals fans outside of Busch Stadium in October 2014. Even as the incident made national headlines, the club couldn’t be bothered to release a simple statement affirming the right to civil protest and condemning the abusive behavior from fans. Again, regardless of intent, to ignore such a high-profile case of offensive fan behavior is in effect to condone it.

Contrast the Cardinals’ repeated failure to do even the bare minimum in declaring bigotry unacceptable with Orioles COO John Angelos’ response to the unrest that gripped Baltimore not long after similar scenes in Ferguson. Replying to a radio host on Twitter, Angelos spoke up in defense of protestors, whom he called “innocent working families…whose lives and dreams have been cut short by excessive violence, surveillance, and other abuses of the Bill of Rights by government.” It’s impossible to imagine anyone in Cardinals management displaying even a fraction of that level of social awareness and conviction.

Of course, while words can make a real difference when coming from an institution as beloved and influential as the Cardinals, they’re ultimately less important than actions. The club deserves credit for the impact it makes in the community through various charitable programs, but there’s reason to think that impact could be a lot larger than it is. The team’s philanthropic arm, Cardinals Care, distributes about $500,000 in grants to various nonprofits each year; that’s half of what the Cincinnati Reds distribute annually through a similar program and only a quarter of the $2 million total the Kansas City Royals handed out in 2016.

There’s no reason that the Cardinals, in a city with a large African-American population and a long history of racial inequity, shouldn’t make it their goal to have the very best RBI-style initiatives in the country. Instead, they are by all accounts merely average, if not below. Information about St. Louis-area RBI efforts is hard to come by; unlike many other teams, the Cardinals don’t have a dedicated page for the program on their website. Nor have the Cardinals shown any interest in operating their own Urban Youth Academy, as teams like the Reds, RoyalsPhillies, and Astros do. And as the Post-Dispatch reported last year, many of the fields in North St. Louis built with funds from Cardinals Care are opened with ribbon-cutting photo-ops but soon fall into disrepair—all of which makes the Cardinals’ “charitable” contribution of $500,000 to Mike Matheny’s POWERplex project in an affluent West County suburb all the more objectionable.

There are plenty of other steps the Cardinals could take to avoid falling behind the rest of the league when it comes to social responsibility. They could do what 13 other MLB clubs did last year and hold an official LGBT theme night at Busch Stadium. They could aggressively expand their Spanish-language communications staff and broadcast program. They could use the leverage that comes with their new 30% equity stake in Fox Sports Midwest to begin to reverse the network’s abysmal diversity record.

But for the Cardinals to truly be an engaged, active presence in the community requires more than simply playing catch-up with the rest of the league—it means having the vision and resolve to get ahead of the curve and pioneer new ways of making an impact. The unfortunate reality is that St. Louis does not lack for problems waiting to be solved, dialogues waiting to be had, good works waiting to be done. Few institutions are in a better position to help lead the community in facing those challenges than the Cardinals could be, if they wanted to. To paraphrase a thought from Derrick Goold: not long ago, the organization had the foresight to embrace a bold, innovative overhaul of its scouting and development strategy; why shouldn’t it make a similar commitment to a forward-thinking approach to social issues and civic engagement?

Otherwise, we’ll be stuck with the cold, corporate, transactional version of the Cardinals we have now—unmistakably a Harvard MBA’s idea of what a baseball team should be, with KPIs and benchmarks and a balance sheet in place of courage and creativity and a conscience. It’s worked for the DeWitts and their ownership group up to this point, of course, and it may work for a while yet. But detached and disinterested institutions don’t exactly inspire devotion, and so if the Cardinals continue not to care about genuine engagement with their fanbase and community, don’t be surprised when for more and more would-be fans, the feeling eventually becomes mutual.