A break from reality: Why Cardinals fans wish the ride didn’t have to end
The St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series this year. Or, to be more accurate, they won four “World Series” this year, at least that is how it felt to many in Cardinal Nation. Oddly, the final victory – the actual Commissioner’s Trophy winner – was in a sense the least thrilling because it meant the, at times surreal, run was over and it was time to return to the bleak reality we as Americans have become accustomed to.
As exhausted as Cardinal Nation was by the end, our adrenaline spent on improbable hits and strikeouts and our bank accounts drained on tickets and memorabilia, no one wanted this historic run to end — ever. No one wanted to go back to talking only about unemployment, war and other miseries. You see, St. Louis is a microcosm of the United States – we haven’t had much good news lately.
Making it into the playoffs on the final night of the regular season, the Cardinals began the improbable journey that surprised – nay, amazed – even the most loyal of fans. A city that bleeds Cardinal red once again had a chance to enter the post-season fray.
The night the Cardinals beat the Houston Astros and the Philadelphia Phillies topped the faltering Atlanta Braves felt like we in St. Louis had won the World Series. After a month of winning salvaged an otherwise mediocre regular season, we were in the post-season. I still recall the final regular season victory as if it happened earlier today; all I could say was “Wow, what a run.” Little did I (or anyone else) know, the miracle had only just begun. Was fate on our side?
By becoming a Wild Card team, the Cardinals earned the right to face the heavily favored Phillies, the team with the best regular-season record. With its lights-out pitching and renowned sluggers, the Phillies were a daunting foe, but we in Cardinal Nation felt like we were playing with house money. We had nothing to lose; and that is a great position to be in when your team is finally gelling into a cohesive force of nature.
We were not even supposed to be in the post season, so any success would be a bonus. Fast-forward to game 5 of that series; Chris Carpenter pitched a complete game shutout and shocked the baseball world. As we counted down the outs, “fate” began to mean something entirely different. We were not only playing with house money, we were winning big on every bet Cardinals Manager Tony LaRussa made. This was good. It was very good. Again, the rush of a “World Series” win overtook us.
Facing the Brewers had a different feel. The Cardinals had swept the Brewers in their home stadium late in the regular season, and Cardinal Nation was confident we could beat our less-than-intimidating division rivals in a seven-game series, assuming our “fate” had not been exhausted. Thankfully it wasn’t, and we did, despite (or perhaps in part because of) the immature taunts of a not-to-be-named Brewers player. The ecstasy of what amounted to a third “World Series” win set in as we took the National League pennant. It was nothing short of surreal.
Then the actual World Series arrived, and by that time, even those St. Louisians who normally have little to no interest in the Cardinals were out in force cheering for the team. We were a city united and for a happy moment we took a break from focusing on the lack of jobs in the area, local boys coming home in coffins from the Middle East, and all-too-common murders that have earned our fine city a reputation as once of the most dangerous in the country. All of those things still mattered to us – a tremendous lot – but with all of this sadness as a backdrop we needed to catch our collective breath, or perhaps we needed to have it taken from us. That’s what the Cardinals did.
Having watched the Texas Rangers demolish their American League foes in the playoffs, as we entered the World Series we had to hope that our “fate” was fully charged and prepared for a trying run.
Game one was the first World Series game ever attended by this writer, a lifelong Cardinal fan who got half his DNA from his father, half from his mother, and the other half from the Cardinals. A last-minute purchase yielded an excellent seat for just a few hundred dollars – a paltry sum it would turn out. While it was freezing outside and there was a constant drizzle, the weather did nothing to dampen the spirits of Cardinal Nation. We cheered our team to a victory and left the stadium wondering what fate might have in store.
Game three in Texas was a blowout, to the point where Albert Pujols’ astounding three homeruns were seemingly unnecessary to secure the Cardinal victory. It was pulse-pounding, however; the bar where my wife and I were watching turned chaotic when Pujols went yard for the third time. In fact, the margarita glass I knocked from the bar as I jumped and yelled now sets on our fireplace mantle (upside down because the base broke when it bounced off my irritated wife’s leg).
The Rangers were not about to go down without a fight, however. The pitching of Derek Holland temporarily derailed the Cardinals’ freight train offense and the Texas team breathed a sigh of relief with a much-needed victory. In fact, the Rangers took Game five as well, and the Series headed back to St. Louis with the team ahead 3 game to 2.
Facing elimination, Cardinal Nation was fired up. We wanted to know how our team would react to playing two (we were being optimistic) elimination games at this level. There was no question the post-season Cardinals could pull it off, but there was concern that the “regular season” Cardinals (who showed up and went down with a whimper in games 4 and 5) make an appearance back at Busch Stadium.
What happened in Game 6 looked like a miracle to us. The Cardinals trailed and pulled off what may well be the greatest comeback(s) in World Series history. Twice down to their final strike, the Cardinals just would not give up. It must have been terrible for Rangers fans to witness.
Like their fans, the Cardinals simply would not – could not – let this amazing thing slip away until there was no one left to beat. Thanks to the heroics of hometown hero David Freese, the Cardinals won Game 6 in extra innings, giving Cardinal Nation a victory many will tell their grandchildren about. We were like zombies, just wandering around our daily lives muttering “wow” and trying to avoid stumbling into furniture.
When the Rangers took the lead early in Game 7, oddly, Cardinal Nation was not fazed. We had watched our team erase so many deficits in the post-season, comebacks had become routine – even expected. This writer was on a metro train to Busch Stadium listening to Game 7 on a handheld radio as the Cardinals fell behind. Instead of expressing dismay, the Cardinal fan in front of me succinctly summed up what we were all thinking: “That don’t mean nothing,” he said.
He was right. The Cardinals came back and won Game 7 by a score of 6-2. Fans danced in the streets outside of Busch Stadium and anywhere else that the team’s fans gather. But even as we reveled in this improbable championship, there was a creeping disappointment – that this amazing post-season run did in fact have to end. As it turns out, even fate runs its course.
PHOTO: St. Louis Cardinals celebrate advancing to the World Series after defeating the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 6 of the MLB NLCS baseball playoffs in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on Sunday. (REUTERS/Jeff Haynes)