The roller coaster has finally come to a complete stop and it is now safe to unbuckle your seatbelts.
The twenty-eleven Cardinals’ season will go down in history. Not necessarily as a knee-jerk reactionary thing, though, but because they won the final game of the baseball season and teams that do that get to forever go down in history (the NCAA isn’t around to revoke anyone’s titles in this sport). However, in a knee-jerk reaction kind of way, the Cardinals very well may be talked about for some time to come. There is no shortage of hyperbole to describe what that team of former somebodies, future somebodies, and Albert Pujols was able to accomplish- namely from mid August until late October.
Around February, this team had high hopes but was picked to finish no better than third in the NL Central by most. Then they failed to reach a contract extension with The Great Pujols. Then Adam Wainwright had Tommy John surgery. Then those hopes that had been high began to lose altitude and the faint predictions from experts dimmed to almost total darkness. Somehow, as the All-Star Break came and went, the team that almost never got out of an inning without grounding into a double play found themselves well within striking distance of first place in the Central and not far from the Wild Card lead. Then came the trade that sent shockwaves around the continent- at least the two biggest countries on it- sending Colby Rasmus to the Blue Jays for an inconsistent starting pitcher, an outfielder who could barely remember his prime anymore, and a left handed reliever whose last name haunted substitute teachers all through high school. That’s the best MO could do? Yup.
As we all watched anxiously as they came plowing into the playoffs in a real life “tortoise and the hare” reenactment, you just couldn’t help but feel like something was different about this team. Those ragtag players that led to the “future of the franchise” being shipped out were logging key innings on the mound and in the outfield and the town had caught Scrabble mania and soon the whole nation would (almost) be able to pronounce his name- at least the fans in Philly, Milwaukee, and Dallas. This team did so many things that had never been done before and that no one who knew anything expected them to do. First and foremost, they survived two rounds of TBS coverage. This feat cannot be overstated in itself. No team should ever be put through such torture. And, in those two rounds, they knocked off the best two teams in the National League. Two teams that, if we’re honest, were a lot more complete than the Cardinals. They had better pitching and just as many quality hitters. These Cardinals didn’t care though. Even at that, there was no way they stood a chance against the vaunted Rangers, though. No chance. This team just refused to listen to anyone, apparently. They made us sweat it out but eventually pulled it out in a fashion that was an impeccable cross-section of the entire 162 game schedule that had led to that point.
But this wasn’t the first team to surge into the playoffs and win the World Series. This was far from the worst team to ever win a title. They were not the first to go back home facing a 3-2 deficit and pull the series out. They definitely weren’t the first St. Louis team to win a world championship. And Freese wasn’t even the first over-looked David to win the MVP this decade. So what made them different? What made them so special that you just felt like something magical was going to happen every night? Lots of things.
Maybe it was the fact that almost every player who donned the Birds on the Bat each game played above his normal potential. The baseball world was introduced to many new names that seem to be here to stay and was reintroduced to some old faces that seemed lost at sea. Whether it was Freese or Craig or Dotel or Berkman or Lynn or Rhodes, they all found some extra life and pop in the playoffs. It was the mix of young and old that changed the dynamic of the clubhouse and made it such a cohesive group. The young guys were just cocky enough to not be scared of the moment and the grizzlied veterans showed them to appreciate every ounce of the experience. It all added up to a team ready to take on the next competitor into the ring. But that couldn’t have been all it was.
This playoff run just felt different for too many reasons to list. The most significant one, to this particular fan, was the fact that Tony LaRussa genuinely appeared to enjoy this run through the playoffs (foreshadowing perhaps?). He smiled and joked and celebrated more than any other time in his sixteen years as the manager of the Cardinals that I ever remember. And that is adding all of the smiles I have ever seen from him. It was far from a perfect exhibition on his part, though. He had his fair share of mistakes or decisions that didn’t work out just as he calculated them but that is not the debate here. He just looked happy. Truly happy to see this particular team succeed. Maybe that’s because it was one of his more difficult managerial assignments, although the 2006 team presents a good argument. But TLR has always loved his players and defended them til he was blue in the face but you just got the feeling that he thought of these 28-29 guys (we’re counting a few guys who floated on and off the roster) as his sons who he’d take a bullet for. There were always personalities that butted heads with him in the past but there was no feeling of that on this squad. They loved him and he loved them. He clearly had the support of management and the owners, too, as was exposed when they sent Rasmus packing. Everyone was on board with him and his philosophy and they were ready to ride that wave as far as he could take them.
Maybe all of his smiles were because he already knew he was hanging it up after this season. Who knows? Better yet, who cares? The man was passionate about this team. You could see it each time Allen Craig drove in the go-ahead run or every time David Freese showed off his immense talent or every punch-out one of his misfit pitchers recorded and he got to go shake their hand and wave the next one out of the pen. And it was never more apparent than when the last fly ball was hit in game seven. As soon as it left the bat, he reverted back to his 12 year old self for a brief moment that seemed like an eternity to all engrossed. In a moment of pure joy he ripped his glasses off and hugged the closest man to him in a confused, panic-stricken state. It was great to watch. It will be the image that forever defines his career for this young fan.
I stop short of calling this the greatest World Series ever or the greatest game 6 ever. I’ve only been around for 23 of them. I can say without a doubt that it was the most intense Series I’ve ever witnessed though and game 6 was the craziest game I’ve ever gotten the pleasure to watch. And I’m not even trying to say that it was the best World Series of my lifetime, it was just the most tense I’ve ever felt watching one. Things like that just don’t happen every year. I’m not sure if it was the baseball gods or fate or Bud Selig, but someone clearly wanted these Cardinals to win the World Series this year and this group was able to make it happen. A group that will never look the same again, and that rarely looked the same from one night to the next, but it was a group that came together at the right time under the right manager and made just the right plays to accomplish their goal: 11 in ’11.