THE BLOG
10/25/2013 06:10 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Cardinal Way: Built to Last

St. Louis Cardinals: Built for the Long Term
I love baseball. I played it as a kid and in college and still play today. I much prefer a 1-0 game to a slugfest because the former brings out the chess game between the two opposing coaches and between the pitcher and batter--one out at a time. It's October, and that means one thing to Cardinal fans--our team is in the thick of yet another World Series pursuit. While sportswriters and baseball fans will examine the Cardinal's strategy inning by inning, business leaders may also want to take note.

Why? For more than a century, the Cardinals have fielded a great product year after year. Like any successful business, the team has a proven track record of managing talent, mitigating threats and capitalizing on opportunities. If one translates the sports language that is used to describe the success of the organization into the language of what it means to be a well-run business, both financially and socially, the St. Louis Cardinals should be considered to be in the same category as other popular consumer brands like Starbucks or even Unilever.

"The Cardinal Way"

Ask any person in St. Louis to define "the Cardinal Way," and they will tell you that it's a style of play that both pays homage to and respects the fundamentals of the game dating back to when the team began playing baseball in this city in 1882. The style of play is described in phrases like "old school" and "respect for the game."

For any player drafted by the organization, the Cardinal Way is an 86 page handbook that outlines expectations of each player in areas ranging from infield and outfield positioning, bunting a runner over to another base, executing a suicide squeeze and the manner in which players should conduct themselves off the field.

From a business standpoint, the handbook defines the organizational philosophy, a philosophy that places a greater emphasis on home grown talent coming up from its farm teams than on buying high priced talent across the 30 teams in major league baseball.

Built vs. Bankrolled
The urge to win now is as ingrained in baseball as it is in any sport and, indeed, in any business. Many clubs have a "win at any cost" mentality, where the focus is on fielding a team through trades and free agency signings. This short term focus has teams swallowing contracts whole to make trades and outbidding teams to sign key free agents in order to win today. The Los Angeles Dodgers, with its player payroll that exceeds the Cardinals by more than $100 million, illustrates this type of team that is focused on the short term. (Under this business approach, it makes it easier to understand why management would start in Game 6 a shortstop who was significantly compromised and make their best young pitcher, already over worked during the regular season, throw nearly 50 pitches in one inning on a cold night.)

The Cardinals, on the other hand, bucked the pressure of a short-term approach and decided to focus significant resources on scouting, drafting and player development. Today, the Cardinals have a homegrown roster that has the youngest average age in the playoffs and 20 players on a 25 man roster who were drafted or signed as amateur free agents.

Connecting with Customers and Community
This business model has also created a loyal customer base that has an emotional attachment to the brand, surpassing the 3 million-attendance mark in each of the past nine seasons, with an average of more than 42,000 fans seeing each home game. The only other team that has surpassed the 3 million attendance mark over the same period is the New York Yankees, and that city has more than five times the population of St. Louis.

The result? The Cardinals have won 19 National League pennants, the most of any team in the national league. And they've won 11 World Series, second only to the New York Yankees. Since the turn of the 21st century, the Cardinals have been in the World Series four times, of which they won two (potentially 3 in a week or so). They have won four National League pennants, and they have been in the postseason six times, amassing more postseason wins than any other club during this time frame.

Additionally, the Cardinals are also ingrained in the community. Through their charitable arm, Cardinals Care, they have distributed nearly $18 million to support St. Louis area non-profit youth organizations, built 19 youth ball fields in local disadvantaged neighborhoods and served over 4,500 kids per season as part of the Redbird Rookies program since its inception in 1997. They're also trying to reduce the environmental impact of their operations in a number of ways including the installation of more than 100 solar panels. Collectively, they've been able to reduce their energy use by 23 percent and water use by 10 percent since their new stadium opened in 2006.

Storied Franchise and Responsible Business

Confining the language to describe the success of the Cardinals to sports metaphors and baseball speak is doing a disservice to its business approach and its corporate culture. In many respects, this iconic franchise, which has been in existence for more than 120 years, emulates the type of business approach CSR and sustainability leaders say is needed to create a well-run and successful business in the 21st century.

The Cardinal Way is much more than a baseball strategy for a midsize market team to successfully compete in Major League Baseball. It's a model for how any business can efficiently manage finite resources, distinguish itself from competitors, strengthen customer relationships and remain competitive for the long term. Many companies, regardless of industry sector, would be wise to steal a chapter out of the Cardinals playbook.