Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

October surprises

In Baseball, Long form on October 26, 2011 at 10:58 am

I remember the balls that sailed off into the night. I remember Molina rounding the bases, struggling to contain his excitement before touching home plate. I remember Wainwright throwing the greatest curveball I’ve ever seen — twice. I remember bright stadium lights illuminating 45,000 fans on a dark October night in St. Louis.

I didn’t really follow baseball until 2004. I was 16 and a sophomore in high school, which I suppose made me a latecomer in terms of sports awareness. I also suppose that many in St. Louis would call it sacrilegious. For them, the Cardinals are Whitey and Ozzie, the Runnin’ Redbirds and the Clydesdales, Jack Buck and Gussie Busch.

I know the names, and I’ve seen the replays of so many moments of Cardinals lore, but I’ve never really been able to forge a connection to those pre-2004 teams. I remember 1998, Mark McGwire and the home run chase. I remember thinking McGwire was the greatest baseball player in the world, and I remember drawing a red goatee on a paper doll of a baseball player because I knew it would make him great.

I suppose each person has an era, a season, maybe even a particular moment, when he knows he’s become a fan. My grandparents, now in their 80s, can remember the great Cardinal teams of the 1940s — although I’m not sure if they’d admit it. Stan Musial and Red Schoendienst were in their prime. Sportsman’s Park occupied the corner of Grand and Dodier, and Anheuser-Busch bought the team and kept it in St. Louis, forcing the Browns to the greener pastures of Baltimore. Sportsman’s Park has long since been demolished, but Musial and Schoendienst are still around. Musial still makes it out to opening day, and Schoendienst still dons a uniform for Spring Training. They’re pleasant reminders of the past, but they’re not my Cardinals.

My parents are just old enough to recall having seen a 43-year-old Stan Musial jog around the bases as a player well past his prime, a relic in cardinal red. Their season came in 1982, when Whitey Herzog turned the team around, pulling from a decade of underperformance a team of world champions. They beat the Milwaukee Brewers in seven games that year, bringing the World Series trophy back to St. Louis for the first time since 1967. The Cardinals won two more pennants in the 80s, although they never managed to win it all again until over 20 years later. But it didn’t seem to matter. My parents can tell stories about watching those 1980s teams on television; they were excited by every Cardinal at bat. Stolen bases, suicide squeezes, amazing catches and back flips: That was standard fare for those Whiteyball-era teams, and my parents reveled in it. I’ve seen the video of Darrell Porter jumping like a little kid into Bruce Sutter’s arms after that 1982 game 7 victory. I’ve heard Jack Buck’s “Go crazy, folks” call a seemingly innumerable number of times. I’ve also seen the video of Todd Worrell beating Jorge Orta to first base, and I’ve seen Don Denkinger call him safe. But those still aren’t my Cardinals.

Most of my friends who follow the Cardinals started in the 1990s, which wasn’t exactly a great time in the team’s history. Whitey Herzog left the team, and he apparently took the Cardinals’s winning ways with him. Joe Torre, a beloved ex-Redbird himself and former MVP, took over the team, but management fired him after four-and–a-half uninspired seasons. At the same time, Ozzie Smith was reaching the end of his illustrious career. I saw him play once, around 1993. I remember eating a lot of stadium food, but I don’t remember anything about the game. I still have Ozzie’s baseball card, but the greybeard veteran pictured on the front isn’t the back-flipping, gold glover of the 1980s. He’s the aging veteran who’s lost a step and been benched for Royce Clayton. I doubt many of my friends recall the 1996 NLCS, when Tony La Russa’s first great Cardinals squad blew a 3-1 series lead to Bobby Cox’s first iteration of the Atlanta Braves’s dynasty. No, I’m sure, for them, Cardinals history begins Sept. 8, 1998, when McGwire broke Roger Maris’s single-season home run record. I remember watching it on television and thinking that it was one of the most disappointing ways to break such a hallowed record. I don’t care what the official measurement for #62 was — that ball couldn’t have gone farther than 300 feet. Joe Buck wasn’t even sure, and his call — “Is it enough?” — still runs through my mind whenever I see a ball make it to the warning track. Regardless, that would have been the perfect excuse to become a Cardinals fan. I was 10 and living in St. Louis. The stars should have aligned for my baseball fandom that night. Instead, I decided to wait until one of the most painful moments in Cardinals history.

The media can — and did — say what it wants, but the 2004 Cardinals were one of the greatest teams in baseball history. You can keep your ’27 Yankees — I’ll take the MV3 any day. That team still amazes me. They led the National League in scoring. Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds combined to hit 122 home runs, and each finished in the top 5 for MVP voting. The ’04 team won 105 games, one short of the franchise record, and it won the NL central by 13 games.

But that entire season is just a blur in my memory. I don’t recall individual games or defining moments. I just remember that that team could put six runs on the scoreboard at any time against any team. I remember joking in mid-June that they were 16 games into first place, but, truthfully, I didn’t know the actual standings. It just seemed like the Cardinals had been in first place since April 1, and that winning the division was a mere formality.

I don’t remember the division series at all. St. Louis beat the Dodgers, but that outcome was never in doubt. My Cardinal memory begins with the 2004 NLCS. To this day, it is the most thrilling baseball I’ve ever seen. The Cardinals coasted into the postseason, trampling the inferior teams in the NL. The Houston Astros fought and clawed their way into it, firing their manager at the All Star break and turning a .500 squad into a wild card team. The entire series was a baseball fan’s dream. Jeff Kent brought Houston to the brink of its first World Series appearance, until Jim Edmonds, in a moment that should have included the theme from “The Natural,” lived up to his “Hollywood” nickname and guaranteed a seventh game. The Cardinals won that game, thanks to a dramatic Edmonds catch in center field and a Rolen home run. It was the first Cardinals pennant in my lifetime, and I knew I was going to see history made in that World Series.

I did see history that year. I also got to see the filming of a Hollywood movie, when Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore ran onto the infield at the old Busch Stadium to dance with the Boston Red Sox and celebrate their first championship in 86 years. I couldn’t go to sleep that night. The image of Edgar Renteria bouncing an easy chopper to Keith Foulke played again and again in my mind. I still get upset about the ’04 team, but not because of the World Series loss. I get upset because no one remembers them outside of St. Louis. That NLCS, which had been full of more drama than a Shakespeare play that season, was overshadowed by the Red Sox’s unprecedented comeback. I remember Jim Edmond’s home run; everyone else remembers David Ortiz’s. But, as I lay awake in my bed that night, I knew one thing: I would be a Cardinals’s fan for life.

Since then, I’ve collected my fair share of baseball moments. I remember Mark Mulder’s 10-inning shutout, Pujols’s moon shot in 2005 and Wainwright’s supernatural curveball — and I remember them not through replays but through live broadcasts. I’ve gotten caught up in the moments when David Eckstein hits a walk-off grand slam, when Chris Carpenter makes the ball dance in the strike zone. But of all these moments, players and box scores, the 2011 Cardinals are the first that I can call “my” Cardinals. Sure, they’ve made the playoffs since 2004. They’ve even won the World Series (in 2006, and it was glorious). But I’ve never felt a stronger attachment to a team than the 2011 squad. I gave them up for dead in early August, and they proved me wrong. They toyed with me, staying alive just long enough to mount the most epic comeback in baseball history and make the playoffs. They beat the Philadelphia Phillies and their historically good starting rotation to make the NLCS. They faced the Brewers in a rematch of that 1982 World Series to win their 18th pennant. It doesn’t matter if they win the World Series. Tony La Russa is my manager. Albert Pujols is my player. Busch Stadium is my stadium. These are my Cardinals.

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