Cards appease ghosts of Series past
Unlikely contender for title does everything right in postseason
ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis circle is unbroken. This was the classic Fall Classic get-even for what happened in 2004.
The 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, overlooked, underestimated, beat up and put down, are the World Series champions. Maybe everything does even out over time. Maybe it only takes two years for everything to even out.
The Cardinals won the World Series by beating the Detroit Tigers in five games. These were the same Tigers who had taken the mighty Yankees in four games in the American League Division Series, and then had swept the Oakland Athletics in the AL Championship Series. These were the Tigers who rolled through the best the supposedly superior American League had to offer.
But they couldn't beat the Cardinals, which tells you something about the Cardinals: In this October, they were the best in baseball. OK, all right, they set a World Series record for the fewest regular-season victories by a champion. That is interesting, but not because it makes the Cardinals relatively bad. It is interesting because it makes this October even more special.
"The way it worked out, no one believed in our club, and we just believed in ourselves," World Series MVP David Eckstein said Friday night. "And we went out one day at a time. We did not stay in the past and we weren't looking towards the future. We stayed in the moment."
All of St. Louis was in the moment Friday night. The new Busch Stadium record crowd of 46,638 was joined in celebration by untold thousands of citizens in the downtown streets. Extremities may have been chilled by the climate on this October night, but the baseball events warmed the heart. It was a rollicking occasion, the one that this town fully expected to occur two Octobers ago. And that's where the get-even occurs.
The 2004 Cardinals were a tremendous team of overpowering hitting, solid pitching, and Gold Glovers catching the ball everywhere you looked. They were winners of 105 games in the regular season. They were not only the best team for six months in 2004. There has not been a better baseball team by record in the new millennium.
And then, they ran into a force of nature called the Boston Red Sox. The Olde Towne Team, 86 years without a Series title, had staged an epic, unprecedented comeback from three games down against their sworn enemies, the Yankees. After that, they arrived at the World Series with an air of inevitability about them. It didn't hurt their cause that Chris Carpenter wasn't available to pitch for the Cardinals.
The one thing those Cardinals did wrong was simply to get in the way of history. They probably could have defeated any team on the planet in October 2004, except destiny's designees, the Red Sox.
These 2006 Cardinals, though, made their own history. And rather than having a team hotter than anybody in the galaxy going against them, this time the Cardinals ran into a team that gave them a helping hand.
Take nothing away from this St. Louis victory. The Cardinals performed the tasks necessary for victory, especially in the postseason.
"They probably did the best job of anybody all year of pitching to us," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said Friday night. "And they really hadn't seen us that much. They did a tremendous job. ... They deserved it. They earned it."
The Cardinals shut down a potent Detroit offense again in the clincher on Friday night, with Jeff Weaver working eight stellar innings. The resulting 4-2 victory gave St. Louis the championship, but it also symbolized the way the Cardinals stopped the Tigers.
Detroit pitchers committed five errors leading to seven unearned runs in this World Series. They had particular difficulty with bunts. Friday night, Justin Verlander threw another one away at a critical fourth-inning juncture. At least the Cardinals were sportsmanlike about it. If they had wanted to run up the score, all they had to do was keep bunting.
The Cardinals won this one going away, taking the last three from Detroit. This was a performance far above expectations when the postseason opened. But this was a healthier St. Louis club than the one on the field for much of the season. Manager Tony La Russa was asked if, during the darkest days of the regular season, doubt about how far this club could go had overtaken him.
"How about daily?" La Russa said with a smile. "And a couple of times a day during the game. You operate with ... you kind of prepare for the worst and you hope for the best.
"So there were many times that things just didn't seem like they were falling into place for us. But from the first [postseason] game in San Diego, and there was our center fielder [Jim Edmonds] and our shortstop [Eckstein], and our club got a lift, no doubt about it.
"This guy, right here," La Russa said, gesturing toward Eckstein. "The big guy with the trophy."
Eckstein, the little guy with the huge heart, embodied the spirit of this club. The constant this year -- through all the adversity and much more defeat than expected -- was, La Russa said, heart. And then the heart was joined by improved health. And then, in the postseason, there was the heart, the health, and the kind of lock-down pitching that makes a team a winner in October.
So St. Louis celebrates its first World Series championship in 24 years. Maybe this was supposed to happen two years ago. Maybe it was more likely to happen two years ago. But this is the St. Louis Cardinals team that won, the 2006 bunch that suffered defeat but persevered, and in October was better than anybody else the Major Leagues had to offer.
In the wonderful baseball tradition of this city, there have been many teams with bigger names, and bigger reputations. But the 10th World Series champion for St. Louis, this team, will have a special place on that long list of successful teams. It overcame disappointment and it defeated the expectations, and, surprise or not, it went as far as a baseball team can go.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.