On August 28th, I found myself sitting in Row 13 behind the home dugout of Busch Stadium. My family sat with me – an unusually relaxed bunch of Cardinal fans for this late in the season – and the redbirds were set to face the Pirates on what turned out to be a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Let’s pause here for a bit of a flashback…
During the drive up to St. Louis, my 12-year-old son asked me, “Dad…how are we doing? Are we going to make the playoffs?” At that time, the Cardinals were well behind the Brewers in the NL Central. I said, “No…not really…not a chance. The Brewers have the division all but locked up.”
He thought for a moment before asking, “What about the Wild Card?”
Now, you have to understand…my son is not a dedicated baseball fan. Like many his age, other things are going on, and baseball simply requires too much sitting in one place and waiting for something to happen to hold his interest. But because it’s important to his dad, he makes the effort (that’s probably selling him short…he does like baseball…the results and the live games…just not the unending, marathon-like season in between). So I was a bit surprised that he even knew what the Wild Card was, much less knew enough to ask about it at that point.
I answered, “Well…the Braves are in the Wild Card lead…and it’s kind of even worse than the Brewers…we’re pretty far behind them, too. Really, it’s just too late for us.”
He quietly said, “Oh.”
And of course my wonderful wife stepped in to save the day as she – in her most chipper voice – said, “But we’re just going up to enjoy the game and not let it ruin our trip if they lose, okay?”
We both said, “Yeah!”
Back to Busch…
And so it was that hours later we sat in our seats – four in a row as my 2-year-old daughter was absolutely thrilled to have her own seat at the “hup-ball” game – on an 82 degree day in the shade. The Cardinals started poorly, falling behind early, but quickly came back (imagine that!) and won the game 7 – 4. We all pronounced the trip a success and jubilantly walked to our car, giggling and reminiscing on our horror when the Cardinals fell behind…and reveling in our surprise when they came back and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat (cliché is quite popular in our family).
It was one game in August…one game in a long, disappointing season. But it was the fourth game of the Cardinals’ historical run…the third win in what would be an unprecedented streak. You see, just three games before, the Cardinals started this four game series against the Pirates a staggering 10 1/2 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the Wild Card race. A now famous team meeting was held, veterans spoke, players came together, and the Cardinals beat the Pirates 3 games to 1. And they never looked back.
I have to admit, I’m divided. On one hand, I’m embarrassed to admit that I told my son our team was out of it. On the other hand, I loved the free and easy baseball watching experience I so rarely get at Busch Stadium in August…a pressure free zone that allowed me to focus on my daughter literally cackling and clapping fiercely at every Cardinals run. It truly was one of our best trips to Busch Stadium.
But I have a secret…
Deep down, as I delivered each word of my “the Cards are done” monologue during that 5 hour drive from Joplin to St. Louis…I still believed.
For some insane, crazy, desperate reason…I believed. As my wife and I were discussing the impossibility of pulling off a contending season, contenting ourselves with musings like, “If we could just win today…” or “I just hope they can make it interesting…”, I had partitioned off a small piece of my brain to do calculations.
Three out of four in Busch against the Pirates. Win 80% of our games going forward. Sweep the Brewers. Sweep the Braves just in case. Wake up on September 12th four games back of the Braves and four back of the Brewers. Then…just maybe…we have a shot at this.
My heart would not allow my brain to give up. When all seemed lost, my body responded by engaging survival mode. Sacrifice the outward appearance to maintain the inward hope I needed to sustain myself through the rest of the baseball season. Capitulate to nearly every statement of despondent surrender…even join in…especially join in!…but never stop believing.
I think that’s the best way I know how to answer people who ask me, “If they’re still behind by so much, why do you keep watching the games?” Because I still believe. A part of me will always believe. Until that little “E” shows up in the standings next to the Cardinals name, we still have a shot. What this team – this organization…these players…this manager – is capable of will astound people if they only give them the chance.
What this Cardinals team did was nothing short of a baseball miracle. You’ve heard the numbers – 10 1/2 back on August 25th, 8 1/2 back in September, 3 back with 5 to play – and all of that just to MAKE the playoffs! Once the postseason started, the Cardinals were required to run a gauntlet of swinging Phillies, Brewers, and Rangers, oh my! Consider for a moment…
*Track down a Wild Card team that could have won every other division in the National League but found themselves in the same neighborhood as the Phillies.
*Win a playoff berth on the final day of the season, in the final 3 minutes of the season, on what most are calling “The Greatest Day in Baseball’s Regular Season”…ever.
*Beat the number one team in baseball – picked by many/most to win the World Series – at home in a best of five series just to START the postseason.
*Beat two Cy Young award winners in Lee and Halladay in a best of five series…a series that would see the Cardinals face these hurlers three games out of five!
*Win a deciding final game five in Philly against the game’s best pitcher…1 to nothing!
*Beat the home-cookin’ Brewers in Milwaukee where they boasted the game’s best home record…in a best of seven series…in six…in a series where only one starting pitcher made it past the fifth inning.
*Win a one-run game in St. Louis against the power-hitting Rangers…a team that seems to enforce a 30-homer season prerequisite for players to even try out for the team!
*Win a game in Arlington against that same power-hitting team in their own home run happy ballpark in which Albert Pujols put together the statistically greatest individual offensive performance in World Series history.
*Return to St. Louis down 3 games to 2 and fall within 1 strike of losing the whole thing in Game 6…twice!
*Rally five times – a record! – to defeat the Rangers 10 – 9 in 11 innings in what some are calling the most dramatic World Series game in history…a game in which the Cardinals’ starting pitcher threw only three innings before turning it over to a severely gassed bullpen.
*Close the deal on a Rangers team that jumped out to a 2 – 0 lead in the first inning of Game 7…against Chris Carpenter (at this point, renamed Chris “I pitch a sh** load of innings” Carpenter) on three days rest.
In short…don’t ever tell me the Cardinals did not face a single disadvantage as the Wild Card team. This team’s postseason run started with the Phillies…in Philly…moved on to Miller Park…and then took a three-day layover in Arlington. ‘Nuff said.
I’m sure as I digest this World Series winner, I’ll have much more to say and write over the coming weeks…but for now, I’ll leave you with this statement made by an analyst sitting in front of Busch Stadium during one of the deliriously happy post game shows last night:
“I don’t know what destiny is…I really don’t…but I think I just watched it happen.”
From dramatic and historic comebacks to Carp vs. Halladay in Game 5 to an improbable Game 7 clincher…it seemed nothing would keep this team down…nothing could stand in its way. I don’t know if it’s destiny, but I do know that after winning 11 games this postseason, for the 11th time in their rich history, the Cardinals are the World Series Champions in 2011 (*sigh*…that never gets old).
11 in 11 indeed.
Belief takes many forms…public, passionate statements of undying faith…muted, mumbled pledges when others are not paying close attention…and deeply private, unspoken prayers when all things appear grim. In Cardinal Nation, we know them all.
Congratulations to the Cardinals organization – their shockingly resilient players…their tremendous manager…and their deliriously love-struck fans – for what has been one of the most entertaining and club-defining seasons in recent memory. It started with hope…it became something more…and it ended with The Ace taking the mound to leave his stamp of approval on the final game of the 2011 baseball season, as perhaps all baseball seasons should.
Within 24 hours of a World Series winner, for perhaps the final time on a 2011 St. Louis Cardinals post…