But the Cardinals won the World Series in 2011 and were one game away from returning to the Series in 2012. They're still among baseball's elite this summer.
After 2011, they lost what was then considered a superstar talent in Albert Pujols and a Hall of Fame manager in Tony La Russa. As prominent as these two were, the Cards as an organization were big enough, good enough to withstand these departures.
What sets the Cardinals apart from most organizations? One correct answer is their remarkable organizational depth of talent, particularly in pitching. But that fact has already been established.
The Cards win with talented personnel, but they also win with a clubhouse culture that may be superior to most of the competition.
The Cardinals are in Milwaukee for a three-game series that now stands at 1-1 after a 6-3 Brewers victory on Tuesday night. Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke has been competing against St. Louis for nearly three seasons.
Part of that competition was the Redbirds' victory over the Brewers in the 2011 NL Championship Series. In 51 games between the two teams over that period of time, Roenicke only recalls one trace of the Cards beating themselves.
"I can only remember one game in the three years I've been here, when they've kicked it around a little bit," Roenicke said.
So what is the difference with the Cardinals?
"For me, it's personnel, and it's culture, some," Roenicke said. "It's what the teammates don't allow you to get away with."
Roenicke illustrates that point with the story of an unnamed player who went from the Yankees to the Angels when Roenicke was coaching in Anaheim.
"When he first got to the Yankees, he hit a popup and jogged to first," Roenicke said. "When he got back to the dugout he said [Derek] Jeter was waiting for him. Jeter told him: 'We don't do that here. You run hard and you get to second base.'
"When you have that kind of leadership and that type of an atmosphere, it's irreplaceable. You can't do that as a [coaching] staff."
Asked if his team had that kind of vocal leadership, Roenicke replied flatly:
"No. There aren't many. When I say we don't have that, it's not like all teams have it. I don't know if there's one true leader on half the teams. We have guys who lead by example. They're leaders, but they lead by example because they're quiet guys."
Cards manager Mike Matheny is a proponent of giving his veteran players the opportunity to lead and to set a positive tone for the team. He not only accepts the culture concept, he encourages it.
"First of all, you have to have players who are taught the right way all the way up through [the Minors]," Matheny said. "And they have that exemplified to them by veteran players, veteran players who aren't afraid to stand up and call them out if something's not going the right way.
"But I think it also comes from the culture. That is something where I think our Minor League staff does just a terrific job, our coaches and managers. They've invested in these young players, more so as people than as commodities. And [the young players] realize that doing things the right way and taking pride in what this stands for, [makes] that stand for something higher. They buy into that and then it just kind or replicates itself as those young players eventually become your leaders on the club. And we now have some home-grown veterans. They've seen it done right a long time."
Beyond that, the Cardinals have the presence of legendary St. Louis baseball figures to reinforce lessons in the Cardinal Way.
"Plus, I'd say, there is the influence we have from a Red Schoendienst, a Lou Brock a [Bob] Gibson, an Ozzie [Smith], a Whitey [Herzog], the Hraboskys," Matheny said, referring to Al Hrabosky, former St. Louis reliever, now Cards broadcaster, who conveniently enough was sitting next to the manager in the dugout at the time.
"They keep passing along the stories of how things have always been done here," Matheny said. "They show you and tell you that there's a level of expectation when you wear this jersey. And I think all of that is pretty special."
It is special. And it is a recipe for making a successful organization into a perennially successful organization.