I considered not participating in this year’s top 5 project. Won’t we all have roughly the same top 5? Or at least top 4? But in the end, my love for the UCB and the sheer enormity of the top 5 stories that crammed themselves into a single season won me over. So, below are my top 5 stories if for no other reason than to “contribute a verse” to this crazy year in Cardinals baseball. Enjoy!
1. 11 in ’11
I have to believe anyone who doesn’t put this unlikely championship in their number one slot is just trying too hard. Early in the postseason – Game 3 of the NLDS, to be precise – I found myself in Busch Stadium for the Cards/Phillies game and standing outside the press box ramp with a copy of Derrick Goold’s book, 100 Things Cardinals Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. Goold had promised via Twitter to sign the book for me if I was able to get it to the box, but meeting at the same time in the same place was proving difficult. Instead, I left the book and picked it up later. The inscription inside read something like this, “Looks like we’re in need of a 2011 update.” Indeed. Coming back from a 10 1/2 game deficit so late in the season and running the postseason gauntlet we ran to win a World Series Championship was as close to impossible as anything gets in baseball. Unreal…and clearly deserving of the top spot in any top stories list. (To read an earlier post I wrote that includes a staggering list of obstacles and impossibilities that happened for the Cardinals to make this all real, CLICK HERE – it just keeps the win in perspective.)
2. The Albert Pujols Drama
I’m throwing the whole thing into one spot – the ludicrous deadline imposed by Albert, the stalled contract talks, the slow start to the season that saw most offensive categories continue their decline, the “broken wrist” and “early” return, the resurgent second half, that historic night in Game 3 of the World Series, and the eventual departure (*cough* BETRAYAL! *cough*) of “the great” Pujols when it was all said and done. The entire Pujols story was, if nothing else, intriguing. But Albert doesn’t get the number 2 spot simply because it was “intriguing”…he gets it because of the impact his defection will have on the Cardinals organization for the next 10 years. This changes everything. For the past 11 seasons, the Cardinals have been Albert Pujols’ team. That ends now. It’s time to see what they will become without him.
3. Tony LaRussa Retired
Wow. I still can’t believe this happened. I haven’t watched a different Cardinals manager in the home dugout of Busch Stadium since I was in high school. Don Tony shaped Cardinal baseball for so long that fans who had babies born during his first year in office are taking those same “babies” car shopping this season. That’s staggering. Tony saw the end of old Busch Stadium with a World Series appearance the year before its demise in 2004, ushered in the birth of the new Busch Stadium with a WS win in 2006, and said goodbye to the whole thing with a win in 2011. He managed the Cardinals through two General Managers, two stadiums, two championships, and two untimely player deaths. He ended the career of one Hall of Famer (Ozzie) and helped establish the beginning of another (Pujols). Hell…personally, he managed the Cardinals through my two college degrees, my two marriages, and my two children. It’s going to be odd seeing a different manager occupying the steps in the home dugout. It sure was a helluva a run, Tony.
4. Adam Wainwright Meets Tommy John
When this happened – when I first heard Waino had gone down – I literally said, “There goes the season.” The mere fact that this now warrants no better than the #4 spot on this list is a testament to the drama of the Cardinals’ season. The loss of a true staff Ace – an Ace among Aces and a Cy Young favorite – was a real punch to the gut. So many people wrote us off. How could we win with our best pitcher down for the count? How could this team, fresh off so much disappointment in 2010, recover from such a grievous blow? But recover they did. They got off the mat and rallied to win it all with Adam Wainwright as their lead cheerleader through the whole thing. The loss of Wainwright cannot be overstated, but it didn’t turn out to be the death knell so many feared it would be in the beginning. That alone makes this an interesting choice for the list. It could go either way. Is it a top story because we lost Adam Wainwright for the season? Or because we won it all without him? How ’bout both.
I struggled with this one. The Colby Rasmus trade was huge, yes (for years even before his arrival, he was “the future” of the club)…but as I thought more about it, it seemed simply a piece of the true story of change for the Cardinals organization. For 16 seasons, Tony LaRussa has managed the St. Louis Cardinals. No longer. Enter Mike Matheny, an untested manager with a completely different persona than his predecessor. For 11 seasons, the Cardinals boasted the game’s best player in Albert Pujols. No longer. Instead of constructing a club and lineup around a single individual, the Cardinals are shifting gears and looking to flesh out a deeper, more well-rounded roster for the next decade. Even our All-Star closer faltered and gave way to the closer of the future in Jason Motte. For what seems like an eternity, the Cardinal Way seemed to be “acquire offensive veterans and surround them with good-enough pitching and a supporting cast of so-called prospects to take a shot.” Now, with the departure of Tony and Albert, that’s all changed. The Cardinals are about to embark on a prospect-focused, defense-and-pitching heavy search for consistency that seeks to unify old school baseball with newfangled metrics and drafting strategies. A once-splintered organization that saw spats and feuds fester gives way to a well-oiled machine chugging towards family harmony from the GM’s office all the way to the Cardinals’ carefully constructed draft boards. Shoot…we even lost my favorite Cardinals scribe in Matthew Leach of mlb.com! Instead, we welcome the former Pirates scribe, Ms. Jenifer Langosch to Cardinal Nation. Not only will Cardinal games, teams, and seasons play differently…they’ll even have a different flavor than they’ve had for years. (God bless, Matthew. We wish you all the best.) Throw all that in a pot, and the number 5 story has to be simply this – things have changed, and they will never be the same again. An era has ended – in many ways – and a new one waits over the horizon.
P.S. Be sure to check out the UCB’s site for a list of more Top 5 Stories posts from other UCB’ers. CLICK HERE to go there now!