Sports

St. Bede alums J.A. Happ, Kyle Dinges enjoying ride on Cardinals streak

If there are two people I wouldn’t mind trading places with for a day [OK, maybe longer than that], it’s J.A. Happ and Kyle Dinges, two St. Bede alums employed by the St. Louis Cardinals.

Happ, a 2001 St. Bede alum and BCR Athlete of the Year, became a member of the Cardinals in a July 10 trade with the Minnesota Twins, a veteran of 15 big league seasons.

Dinges, a 1995 SBA graduate, has been with the Cardinals since 2008, manager of Cardinals radio sales.

They both enjoyed the recent historic 17-game win streak that vaulted the Cardinals into the postseason as the second Wild Card winner in the National League.

The funny thing is, both grew up big Chicago Cubs fans in the Illinois Valley.

“Yeah, I was a die-hard Cubs fan,” Dinges said. “It was rough being a Cubs fan. Being a Cubs fan at that time is like dating a girl who is constantly cheating on you. You always got your heart broken. Finally, I smartened up. Obviously, the paycheck with the Birds on the Bat helped out a little bit.

“Getting to know the players and having that personal kind of bond to the organization is such a huge part being a fan for me. And a Adam Wainwright and a Yadier Molina, having those guys in the clubhouse and just how great of people they are.”

As manager of Cardinals radio sales, an account executive for corporate sales and marketing, Dinges deals largely with the sponsorship side of sales. The Cardinals help make his job easier with their longstanding tradition reaching legends of fans via the flagship station, KMOX Radio, dating back to the days of Harry Caray, Jack Buck and now Mike Shannon.

“Just like the Cubs were synonymous with WGN TV, that’s how everybody became Cubs fans. Well, here in St. Louis, everyone is synonymous with KMOX and the Cardinals Network over nine different states,” Dinges said. “The Cubs had the TV side, but we had the radio side. So, much of being a Cardinal fans is Jack Buck and Mike Shannon. They kind of make you feel like you’re at the game. It’s so cool to listen to and hear, for sure.”

Shannon, a hometown Cardinals star whose playing career was cut short by a kidney ailment, is in his 50th and final season calling Cardinal games on the radio. This Cardinals fan cannot begin to tell you how many nights I spent listening to Shannon and Buck call ballgames in my childhood, albeit largely due to the losing 70s decade.

“We were very fortunate and lucky and blessed to have him. For him to do 50 years, is such a great feat, but to also have him retire and go out the way the Cardinals are playing is really special,” Dinges said.

Dinges, 43, who played baseball and golf at the Academy, and went to play baseball at Quincy College, likens the Cardinals family atmosphere to that what he experienced at St. Bede with Brother George and coach Bellino being among his favorite people there.

“Just a family atmosphere that St. Bede brought, similar to what the Cardinals are,” he said. “Our partners and our fans, we treat them like part of the Cardinal family, and that was really the way St. Bede was, too, and kind of built that foundation with everything.”

Happ has found new life in St. Louis, going 3-0 with a 2.22 ERA in his first five starts with the Cardinals. Since the trade, he sports a 5-2 record with a 4.00 ERA and 1.28 WHIP. He has given up more than two runs in only two of his 11 starts.

“From my first day as a Cardinal on, I just tried to have a fresh start and kind of start over. Just a new scenery and new teammates welcoming from since Day 1. It’s been fun,” Happ told Jim Hayes of Bally Sports Midwest.

He said the Cards win streak was unbelievable.

“These last couple weeks have been something special. I’ve been on a couple really good teams and haven’t done anything like this,” Happ said. “It’s awesome and to get the clincher (Tuesday) to make sure we’ve punched our ticket into that wild card game. I think we’re coming in to (Wednesday), we’re going to keep focusing on the rest of the season and knowing that we have a big task ahead of us. But man, that was fun to celebrate (Tuesday night).”

Happ attributed his success with the Cardinals to pitch sequence and confidence in those pitches and trusting Cardinals catchers Yadier Molina and Andrew Knizner.

Any coincidence that the Cardinals’ successes came after Happ joined the team?

“Oh, I think 100% that’s why. I may be a little bias,” Dinges said with a laugh.

Because of COVID restrictions in the clubhouse, Dinges said he hasn’t been able to talk to much to Happ since he’s arrived in town. His sister, Karissa, who was in Happ’s class at St. Bede, will be coming to town this weekend for the Cubs series and perhaps they will all get together.

Happ’s arrival, along with fellow veteran lefty Jon Lester at the trading deadline, is certainly an instrumental part to the Redbirds revival. They were 53-52 at the time of the trades and have gone 36-18 since, now standing 89-70 after Thursday’s win.

“I think a lot of it is getting guys throwing strikes, No. 1. That’s a huge part of it. I think they really solidified the rotation. And make better contact,” Dinges said. “Our strikeout rate was almost 30% at one point of the season. It’s just making better contact rates and throwing strikes. It’s really simple baseball. It’s been a fun ride for sure. It’s pretty neat that J.A. is here, too. It’s kind of cool.”

Bringing in veterans like Happ, 38, and Lester, 38, Dinges said, helped bring in stabilization on the field as well as in the clubhouse. They are part of what jokingly is referred as the “geriatrics” staff with Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, 40, who’s won 17 games this year, and until he was injured, newcomer Wade LeBlanc, now 38.

The veteran lefty has won 133 big league games and struck out 1,661 batters. The Birds and Bat is the eight big league uniform Happ has worn. In a Friday text, Happ told me he’s always had the Cardinals on his radar.

“I remember putting the cardinals on my wish list during my free agencies because of the tradition and fan base they have,” he said. “The longer you play the more you prioritize the desire to play for a team that has a chance to win. I feel fortunate for the opportunity to come here and experience this.”

Dinges, who played baseball and golf at the Academy, and went to play baseball at Quincy College, said the 17-game winning streak was crazy.

“It’s almost like you keep waiting for something bad to happen and then they just keep winning,” he said. “And now you’re at a point, ‘Oh the playoffs are coming. Could all this be for nothing? It’s one game.’ Just get hot, you don’t know what could happen.

“It’s definitely the tale of two seasons. It’s been a fun ride.”

With his 10th overall win of the year, Happ is now only one of three MLB pitchers to post double-digit victories dating back to 2014, not counting the 2020 abbreviated COVID-19 season. The other two are Max Scherzer and Zack Greinke.

When asked if he hoped to pitch next year, Happ, who turns 39 this month, said in the press conference at Busch Stadium Thursday, “That’s the plan.”

BCR Sports Editor Kevin Hieronymus has covered Happ since his days at St. Bede, including the 2009 World Series. Contact him at khieronymus@bcrnews.com.