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They're The Best (So Deal with It)

Nov. 06, 2006
Nov. 06, 2006

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Nov. 6, 2006

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They're The Best (So Deal with It)

During the regular season, the Cardinals won plenty of acclaim for losing; then came October, when a cast of unlikely heroes helped dominate defenseless Detroit and silence, for good, the doubts about their postseason worthiness

Beneath thetequila and the tears, beneath the miles of athletic tape and the vials ofcortisone that held them together through their near death of a September, the2006 St. Louis Cardinals left us with an indelible lesson about Octoberbaseball. To call the Cardinals the worst world champion in history--their .516regular-season winning percentage was lower than that of all 101 previous worldchampions, not to mention that of a dozen teams this year--is the killjoy'stranslation of their earned place. In the future every modestly credentialedpostseason team will regard them as something else: the most opportunisticchampion. ¶ With their 11--5 run through the three-pronged postseason,including a shockingly easy five-game dismissal of the heavily favored DetroitTigers in the World Series, the Cardinals, they of the 83 regular-season wins,rendered moot any arguments about their worthiness. What the 2004 Boston RedSox, with their recovery from a three-games-to-none ALCS deficit, did forcomebacks, the '06 Cardinals did for second chances. "It's not the bestteam that wins," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said as his clubcelebrated its 4--2 Series-clinching win last Friday at Busch Stadium."It's the team that plays the best baseball."

This is an article from the Nov. 6, 2006 issue Original Layout

Only two worldchampions have overcome a larger victory gap in the World Series than the 12wins that separated the Cardinals and the Tigers: the 1954 New York Giants (14fewer wins than the Cleveland Indians) and the 1906 Chicago White Sox (23 fewervictories than their crosstown rivals, the Cubs). Then again, in many ways theOctober version of the Cardinals was virtually unrecognizable from theApril-through-September edition.

There was closerAdam Wainwright--a rookie who had only one save in his life before Sept.27--finishing the World Series and a breakout postseason by whiffing BrandonInge. In 2003, after he was cut from the U.S. Olympic qualifying team, the25-year-old righty had wondered whether he had the mental toughness to make itin professional baseball; in October he struck out 15 batters in 9 2/3scoreless innings. There to embrace Wainwright after the final out was catcherYadier Molina, whose .216 average during the regular season was higher thanonly Tampa Bay's Jonny Gomes among the 200 batters who came to the plate atleast 450 times. Naturally Molina led all players in postseason hits (19).

There wasrighthander Jeff Weaver, who ranked 76th out of 80 qualifiers for the ERA title(5.76) and had bounced among five teams with a losing record (86--101) andhangdog indifference. On Friday, Weaver could be seen weeping in the arms ofhis brother, Los Angeles Angels rookie pitcher Jered Weaver. Earlier that nightJeff had pitched eight masterly innings, going longer in an outing than he hadall year.

And there wasshortstop David Eckstein, owner of a .487 OPS in the first two rounds of theplayoffs and dead last among all batting qualifiers in RBIs (23) this season,being hoisted off the ground by La Russa after Eckstein drove in four runs inGames 4 and 5, including the go-ahead scores in each game. It was the 5'7"Eckstein, not some hunky home run hitter, who drove off with the yellow musclecar for being named the Fall Classic's Most Valuable Player. And so, too, itwas the churchgoing, teetotaling Eckstein gleefully getting a shot of tequilapoured down his throat in the clubhouse by teammate Scott Spiezio. Ecksteinlast had so imbibed in 2002, when he and Spiezio won a world championship withthe Angels. "Right now," Eckstein said in the jubilant clubhouse,"I don't feel a thing."

For this October,that was a first. After a near catastrophic September, when the Cardinalsnearly coughed up a seven-game lead with 12 to play, the team's sense ofpurpose in October was manifest in their undersized shortstop. Indeed, Tigerslefthander Kenny Rogers might well have been describing Eckstein in the wordshe employed when he tried to explain away that suspicious smudge on hispitching hand in Game 2: dirt, sweat, spit and rosin.

Eckstein missedmost of St. Louis's 12--17 September because of a strained left oblique muscle,a strained left hamstring and a strained left shoulder. By Game 6 of the NLCSagainst the Mets, trainer Barry Weinberg suggested to Eckstein that he was toobanged up to help the team. "You won't be able to live with yourself if yougo out there and aren't ready to play," Weinberg said.

"Barry,"Eckstein replied, "I won't be able to live with myself if I don't play inthis game. I'm playing."

Eckstein didn'tmiss a postseason inning, though every game necessitated a five-hour pregameroutine that mimicked a scarecrow getting stuffed back together. Eckstein took20 minutes of ultrasound treatment on his shoulder, 10 minutes of heat-packtreatments, 10 minutes of acupuncture, occasional cortisone shots and specialtaping of his shoulder, rib cage and hamstring, in addition to the usualstretching exercises, video study and batting and fielding practice.

"He wassignificantly weak in his shoulder," says St. Louis assistant trainer GregHauck, "and there's no way a guy could go out there and play [like that].And he was like, 'It's the World Series.'"

Eckstein began theSeries 0 for 11 but reached base in his final three appearances in Game 3, a5--0 Cardinals win headlined by the masterpiece of ace righthander ChrisCarpenter. Eckstein began Game 4 with the kind of at bat that separated theCardinals from the undisciplined Tigers. Even though he fell behind righthanderJeremy Bonderman 0 and 2, Eckstein wound up seeing nine pitches, fouling offfour and beating out an infield hit on a half swing on the last one.

That battle withBonderman presaged the most pivotal at bat of the Series, which occurred acouple of hours later: a duel between Eckstein and Tigers righty reliever JoelZumaya with two outs and a runner on second in the eighth inning of a 4--4game. Should you ever lose your faith in baseball, roll the footage ofEckstein's at bat, which reaffirmed the beautiful democracy of the sport.Wrapped beneath his uniform as if he came straight from triage, Ecksteinstepped in against the 6'3" Zumaya, who wears a flame tattoo on his leftarm and a menacing goatee on his chin, sports a bloodshot right eye (fromchronic allergies) and throws a baseball harder than any man alive. You halfexpect him to ride a Harley out of the bullpen to the mound. It was amismatch.

Eckstein took fourstraight pitches from Zumaya to run the count to 3 and 1 before turning arounda 100-mph heater. The line drive flicked off the glove of diving leftfielderCraig Monroe as teasingly as a goodbye kiss and fell for the game-decidingdouble. "David Eckstein was a role model for me when he won the WorldSeries in 2002, and he's still a role model," says backup infielder AaronMiles, who scored on the hit. "He talks about persevering and says over andover how baseball doesn't owe you anything. If anything, you owe baseball. Imodel my game after him."

The second-chanceCardinals patiently wended their way through October, with the built-in offdays of the postseason mitigating the lack of rotation depth that plagued themin the regular season. Their top three starters, Carpenter, righthander JeffSuppan and Weaver, started all but two of St. Louis's 16 postseason games andcovered 62% of the innings, up from 35% in the regular season.

Though it beganall three series on the road, St. Louis outpitched the two top pitching staffsin baseball, those of the San Diego Padres and the Tigers, and won the NLCS bytwice beating the Mets' deep bullpen in New York (including Game 7). "Whatthis tells you," says Detroit first baseman Sean Casey, "is that you'vegot to get in the playoffs. That's all you need to do: Get in. And then you'vegot a shot like anybody else. Look at them. They're world champions."

The Cardinals'tenacity was abetted by Detroit's abysmal, near-comical play. The eightunearned runs allowed by the Tigers were the most in the World Series in half acentury. Third baseman Inge committed three errors, and centerfielder CurtisGranderson, giving new meaning to Fall Classic, flopped on the wet turf whilechasing a routine fly ball by Eckstein in Game 4.

The lingeringimage of the Tigers, though, will be that of their pitchers throwing to basesas if blindfolded. Every playoff team is armed with massive amounts of scoutinginformation on opponents, compiled in thick binders and DVDs and reviewed on adaily basis in pregame meetings with scouts and coaches. Who knew, though, thatthe Cardinals' shrewdest game plan for defeating the Tigers was scrawled on ahomemade sign held by a fan at Busch Stadium during Game 5. It read HIT IT TOTHE PITCHER.

Detroit pitchersfielded 14 chances and erred a record five times. Tigers righthander JustinVerlander provided the perfect coda to an imperfect series when, with Detroitleading 2--1 in the fourth inning of Game 5, he threw away a bunt on whatshould have been an easy out at third base. "I picked it up and said,'Don't throw it away,' instead of just throwing it," Verlander saidafterward. "I got tentative. We kind of cut our own throats."

Only two daysbefore, Tigers manager Jim Leyland, enduring a stretch of rain and inactivitythat would have his team play just three times in 11 days, burned his waythrough a carton of cigarettes. "Worst day for my lungs," he saidbefore adding, in what had to be a rare admission at a World Series: "We'rebored, to be honest with you."

If Detroit lostits edge, the Cardinals, and especially La Russa, gained perspective. TheCardinals' manager had taken three 100-win powerhouses to the World Series andlost 12 of 13 games to inferior teams. (The 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers and 1990Cincinnati Reds beat his Oakland A's teams; the 2004 Red Sox swept hisCardinals.) This was the meekest of the 12 teams he piloted into October, andyet it joined his stacked '89 A's as the only ones to win a title.

"How do youexplain us being here?" he asked before Game 4 was postponed. "If yougo back and examine the last five, 10, 15 years of the playoffs, there's a lotof weird stuff that happens. A lot of it comes down to which way the game goeswhen you get to a couple of pivotal moments. That's one of October's charms.The more you go through it, the more you realize how fragile thingsare."

The World Serieshas crowned seven different champions in seven years, a run of parity unmatchedeven by the Super Bowl--era NFL, supposedly sports' gold standard of balance.Selig said before the World Series that he will give some thought to placingobstacles in front of wild-card teams in the postseason, such as taking away afirst-round home game, but the commissioner has come to enjoy the playoffs'signature unpredictability. Who's to say that teams such as the Mariners,Phillies, Reds or Blue Jays--all of whom finished within five wins of theCardinals and have never reached any of the 12 World Series in the wild-cardera--can't have their turn at the table next year?

"It's atribute to the guts of this team," La Russa, in his office after Game 5,said of his club's unexpected run. Behind him sat an open suitcase, one he hadpacked in case St. Louis had to return to Detroit for Game 6. Among histraveling items was a book, Act of Treason, a title that might have describedhow an 83-win world champion might have been received in another era.

The lesson of theCardinals actually is not so new. As Thoreau wrote in the pre-wild-card era of1854, "I learned ... that if one advances confidently in the direction ofhis dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meetwith a success unexpected in common hours."

Is there a successsweeter than the unexpected kind? Not if you saw how the most famous 83-winteam in history celebrated or how their faithful filled the streets of a grandold baseball town into the early-morning hours of last Saturday. There was apoint at which centerfielder Jim Edmonds, the longest-tenured Cardinal, clearedthe clubhouse of reporters, cameras and even family members. "Now we'regoing to have our fun!" he said.

The Cardinals,soaked through their clothes, hats askew, leaning upon one another, half drunkand half silly, gathered around the world championship trophy for the sloppiestand greatest team picture any of them will ever know. Suddenly one of themrealized that somebody was missing and dispatched a clubhouse attendant tofetch him from the field. Eckstein had been shaking hands with fans. Alerted,he ran through the dugout, up the runway steps, past the indoor batting tunnel,past the video room and through the double doors of the clubhouse to join thescrum.

Upon seeing himburst into the room his teammates cheered, "MVP! MVP!"

And with hisarrival the Cards were complete. The photographer snapped the shutter,preserving this moment, this team.

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The Cards' tenacity was abetted by Detroit's comicalplay.
"How do you explain us being here?" asked LaRussa.
PHOTOPhotograph by David E. KluthoOUT AND OVER Molina, the surprise postseason hits leader, was the first to celebrate when Inge whiffed to end the Series.PHOTOAMY SANCETTA/APLONG STORY SHORT Eckstein opened the Series 0 for 11 but closed it 8 for his last 11, including the decisive Game 4 hit off Zumaya. THREE PHOTOSDAVID E. KLUTHO; AL TIELEMANS; JOHN BIEVER ForStarters, as Easy as 1-2-3
Key stat: The front of the Cards' rotation devoured a startling 62% of theteam's postseason innings
• 1 CHRIS CARPENTER Reversed momentum of Series with dominant victory in Game3
• 2 JEFF SUPPAN Held opponents to three runs or fewer in all four playoffstarts
• 3 JEFF WEAVER Didn't go eight innings in a game in '06--until theclincher
PHOTOJED JACOBSOHN/GETTY IMAGESPHOTOAL TIELEMANSPHOTOSCOTT ROVAK/ST. LOUIS CARDINALSSAY "CHAMPS!" After clearing the clubhouse of outsiders, the Cardinals soaked in the moment with a team photo.