O’Neill: Baseball heaven? Not St. Louis – STLtoday.com

Since he left town to play for the Chicago Cubs, much of the sports talk in St. Louis has been about Jason Heyward.

Before he made that decision, he was presented as precious cargo, even a division-winning talent. Post-decision, his skills are marginal, his motives questionable, his impact minimal. It’s a natural process, the reverse caterpillar-to-butterfly mutation.

But there are other aspects to the migration north that shouldn’t be ignored. This has been yet another winter where the Cardinals have been promoted as serious suitors for free agents, another where they essentially came home empty-handed. Sorry, Jonathan Broxton, no reflection on your 6 feet 4 inches and 310 pounds.

This is not to suggest a premeditated plan. The bait-and-switch effect is largely fueled by an overzealous media. But it certainly makes for effective public relations. Each winter as the holidays approach, the Cardinals are cast as the jilted “finalists,” who tried everything to get their man but fell just short. They are sympathetic victims of a world gone mad.

In truth, most of us would have no problem with the Cardinals not participating in the open-market proliferation. We find it a morally repulsive and a risky proposition at best. We would have all the respect in the world for Team DeWitt if they simply said, “We’re not going there. We’ve been successful developing talent and making trades. We’re sticking to the program.”

The track record is 12 postseason appearances over the past 16 years. The Redbirds are to baseball’s postseason what the swallows are to San Juan Capistrano. They need not explain themselves. But if you’re going to say otherwise, if you’re going to suggest you’re in the Monopoly game, then buy some properties, throw up some hotels, be all in.

You want to get nuts? Get nuts. If you’re crazy enough to make the next-best offer to Albert Pujols, David Price, Jason Heyward, Edgar Renteria, Mike Hampton … then go ahead and be certified. Make them an offer crazy enough to get the job done. If you’re going to be in it, for the love of Pete Falcone, win it once in a while.

That said, can we please stop this juvenile posture that St. Louis is some irresistible Camelot, some enchanted baseball land that seeps into the playing soul and makes men want to stay forever?

St. Louis is a terrific place to spend a summer playing major league baseball for many millions of dollars, one of several such places. In fact, can you think of any place where it would not be good to spend a summer playing major league baseball for many millions of dollars?

In the case of Heyward, the overall value of the deal he accepted from Chicago is said to be less than he could have made staying in St. Louis. When you take less to leave, it kind of blows the “hometown discount” concept to pieces, doesn’t it?

The Cardinals did Lackey a big solid favor, adding incentives on his 2015 contract that allowed him to make more than a million. They didn’t have to. They could have held him to the deal that paid him just over $500,000. He engineered that contract, not them.

Lackey was so overwhelmed by the outpouring of generosity, so humbled by his surroundings, he passed on the $15.8 million qualifying offer and signed a two-year deal with Chicago, a team that has not won a championship since paper cups were invented. Broke his heart to do so, rest assured.

Oh, and you didn’t see any Yadier Molina tweets admonishing Heyward or Lackey for their cold-hearted business approach — as you did when the Cardinals traded Jon Jay.

You can’t have it both ways. The real world in baseball is either cold or sentimental, it’s not both. Heyward made a sound business decision, as free agents do. He joined the Cubs, where he will be a complement, not a headline. He can wait three years for the market to rise, opt out and do it all over again.

If you want to hold Heyward, Price or Lackey accountable, hold the Cardinals accountable. They keep saying they’re going after free agents, but they never get them. Agents and their clients want what’s best for the player, not what’s best for St. Louis.

Adam Wainwright signed a five-year with the club in 2014 and skipped free agency – that’s an exception, not the norm. The romanticism, the religion, the “baseball’s greatest fans” stuff is largely for media and fans to perpetrate. It’s promotional packaging, not ingredients.

Baseball heaven isn’t St. Louis. It’s a free-agent market crowded with eager shoppers. And in heaven, there’s no extra credit for almost signing someone.

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