Tuesday October 18th, 2011

ST. LOUIS -- On the day that the Cardinals' season hit rock bottom, Nick Lamb was in the first row at Busch Stadium, in the seats that are visible on television anytime a camera zooms in for a close-up of a right-handed batter.

His law firm owns those seats, and it was Lamb's turn to use them on a 97-degree Wednesday afternoon when the Dodgers completed a three-game sweep of the Cardinals by scoring six runs in the third inning and cruising to a 9-4 win. With that Aug. 24 loss, St. Louis -- the unexpected entrant opposing the Texas Rangers in the World Series that starts on Wednesday night -- fell 10 games behind the Brewers in the NL Central and 10 ½ games behind the Braves for the wild card.

Lamb's seats were deserted by the seventh inning.

But unlike most fans, Lamb had a chance to address more than half the Cardinals players that night in a group that also included manager Tony La Russa and general manager John Mozeliak, all thanks to a quirky St. Louis tradition.

About 300 people gathered that night at the downtown Missouri Athletic Club for an annual dinner sponsored by the Knights of the Cauliflower Ear -- a could-only-happen-in-St.-Louis group of prominent businessmen and civic leaders devoted to sports and fellowship -- and Lamb, a partner at Thompson Coburn and the president of the Knights, welcomed everyone to the gathering before holding up his incomplete scoresheet.

"Well, I lasted six innings," he joked.

Lamb recalled that someone in the audience then blurted out, "You lasted longer than the Cardinals did."

It's a group that doesn't take itself too seriously, and the comments were made light-heartedly. It is named, after all, for the grotesque wrestling ailment (the group was founded in 1935 initially to promote boxing and wrestling, before shifting primarily to baseball a decade later), its meetings are called "irregular conclaves," and Lamb is fond of joking, "I missed a meeting so they made me president."

But the proceedings of that night -- which followed Cardinals losses in seven of nine games and an afternoon team meeting in which players expressed embarrassment over their sinking fortunes -- are a snapshot into the psyche of a team on the verge of a historic comeback.

Mozeliak soon stood up to give a few remarks and didn't outright refute the sentiment in the room that this probably wasn't the Cardinals' year.

"I would say, as a whole, we were about as down as you could be," Mozeliak recalled before NLCS Game 6. "I get up and speak, and it was sort of like a conciliatory speech about, 'Sorry, guys, about the season.'"

The Cardinals had made their daring win-now trade a month before, shipping centerfielder of the future Colby Rasmus out in return for starter Edwin Jackson and relievers Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski, but they still began the month of August just 10-12.

It's the general manager's job to take a realistic accounting of the situation, and Mozeliak acknowledged that he spoke almost apologetically about how the moves hadn't worked out as planned, but tried to inject at least a "hint of optimism," even if it was more geared toward 2012.

Starter Adam Wainwright, who has been on the disabled list all season after having Tommy John surgery, followed Mozeliak's talk and spoke with more emotion, reminding everyone that the Cardinals still had games remaining against the teams ahead of them in the standings, allowing for a quick ascent.

Wainwright specifically noted a pair of three-game series against the Brewers in the next two weeks, saying that sweeps in both would make up six games. The Cardinals didn't quite accomplish that, but they did win five of six against Milwaukee and went 23-9 to finish the regular season, improbably edging out the Braves for the wild card on the final day.

"The players, Mo and Tony and the whole staff -- we never lost hope, we never lost faith," Wainwright said. "Mo has to say those things in front of a crowd, but when he gets in a room [with us], he's going to tell us we still have a chance."

Noted Patrick Kozeny, one of the Knights and president of the St. Louis-based construction company Kozeny-Wagner, "Wainwright was very upbeat. They seemed to turn around right after that."

Lamb said the same, that La Russa and the players were all "upbeat" and spoke with "an undertone of optimism." Mozeliak was similarly impressed with the tenor of the speeches, saying later, "Tony was great. He talked about, 'We're not quitting, [even though] this is tough.'"

The terms "team chemistry" and "clubhouse culture" can at times be overrated in sports vernacular for their impact on games, but not every group of players can rally when their backs are against the wall with little margin for error over five weeks.

Mozeliak said that this year's team could not have made its comeback without such a strong clubhouse built on genuine friendships and harmony. He said that the acquisitions of right fielder Lance Berkman and infielders Nick Punto and Ryan Theriot were made in part because of their character. With such a group playing for them, Mozeliak and La Russa pledged to the Knights of the Cauliflower Ear that they would finish the season with vigor.

"The one thing they both promised the community and those in attendance was that the balance of the season would be played with pride and that they would make St. Louis happy, even though they would probably not make it into the playoffs," recalled Kenneth Mallin, a members of the Knights and a partner at the law firm Bryan Cave.

Mallin said he's been retelling his memories of that dinner with friends frequently in the two weeks since St. Louis did indeed make the playoffs and particularly noted the reactions of the new and young players to the challenge set forth by their bosses.

Of the players in attendance that evening, the bullpen was particularly well represented, which, Lamb noted, seemed especially appropriate in hindsight, given its strong contributions down the stretch and in the NLCS, when the relievers got more outs than the starters.

And the speeches made by the Cardinals that referred to the 1964 Phillies -- who lost a 6 ½-game lead with 12 to play -- in hopes that either the Brewers or Braves might similarly collapse, now seem prophetic.

Just after the Cardinals clinched their playoff berth, Punto approached Mozeliak, gave him a playful jab and said, "Remember that dinner? Ever since that night, things have been pretty good."

Three weeks later, they still are.

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