These Cards are deserving of crown - and asterisk

October 28, 2006|By RICK MAESE

ST. LOUIS -- The forecast called for showers, so it shouldn't have been a surprise that as a couple dozen grown men created a mountain of excited ballplayers right there on the Busch Stadium infield, confetti rained on a cold Missouri night.

A few minutes later, their leader, Tony La Russa, stood at the microphone and addressed Redbird Nation, a subset of Americana drunk with a feeling they hadn't known for more than two decades.

"You know the expression there ain't no bad win?" La Russa asked. "There definitely ain't no bad World Series."

While his fans, his players and his city subscribe to that thought, dancing, howling and spraying champagne as only a champion can, the rest of baseball couldn't help but notice the footnote that will be attached to the 2006 Cardinals*.

* - Worst champions ever

You hate to classify any championship team as bad, but if anyone tells you the Cardinals were the best team of 2006, know that they're only talking about a stretch of seven days in October that matter most. The record books will show that no World Series champion ever posted a worse regular-season record. No champ stumbled, wheezed and whimpered like these Cardinals. And in the end, the struggle only made them better.

As Cardinals starter Jeff Weaver meticulously and methodically picked his way through the Tigers' lineup in last night's deciding Game 5, you couldn't help but flip back a few pages on the Cards' 2006 season. Were they really on the verge of their 10th championship?

Remember in late September when St. Louis had an eight-game lead over the Houston Astros? Remember how the Cards lost seven straight and suddenly the Astros were just a half game back? Your 2006 world champs lost on the final day of the regular season, riding a prayer into the postseason. They clinched their division by virtue of the Astros dropping their finale.

Twelve other teams finished the regular season with a better record than the eventual champions.

"Once the season's over, you start fresh," Weaver said. "And I think that struggle toward the end just refreshed us once it was all done, and we were able to take a deep breath and go out there and play for the second season."

When Yadier Molina, one of the worst hitters in the National League, launched a game-winning homer in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the NLCS, the Cardinals were suddenly carrying into the World Series the worst record of any pennant winner since the 1973 Mets.

Cardinals and Tigers - the experts laughed at the matchup. Picking Detroit to win in four didn't seem like such an absurd prediction.

But for five games, St. Louis benefited from good fortune and bad fielding. The Tigers didn't even need gloves for the kind of defense they were playing. They finished the Series with eight errors - five by their pitchers.

In Game 5, in the fourth inning, the Tigers' gloves again made your inner Brooks cry. In the fourth, with runners on first and second, a Cardinals bunt went right back to Tigers starter Justin Verlander, who scooped up the ball and threw it to third, right past a diving Brandon Inge. The tying run scored.

You had to check the dial to make sure Comedy Central wasn't suddenly broadcasting the series. Nope, still Fox, which should have included a warning before last night's broadcast requiring parental supervision for any household containing a little leaguer. "Now Jimmy, don't do it like that. Or that. Or that."

For five games, one by one these Tigers looked like the kid you pick 10th for a sandlot team. There's better defense at the World Series of Poker (but less folding).

But pretty was never in the design for this year's World Series. From the Detroit rain to the St. Louis rain to the pine-tar stain, a lot of editing will have to be done to make the highlight reel tolerable. A series that featured a Pudge and a smudge, a Leyland and a La Russa and an el Hombre. Somehow, the very best was David Eckstein, the Cardinals' 5-foot-7 shortstop who had to walk on for his college team. He was a good MVP in a bad World Series.

La Russa was asked whether it ever seemed like this championship was impossible. "How about daily?" he said. "And a couple of times a day during the game."

With two outs in the ninth inning, 46,000 camera phones were hoisted in the air as Cards reliever Adam Wainwright pitched. When Inge struck out swinging, everyone at Busch Stadium wanted to get the picture.

This final image of the 2006 Cardinals had nothing to do with mediocrity, with injuries or with fatigue. It was a picture of a champion.

Some years, you don't have to be prettiest. You don't have to be the most talented. And sometimes, you don't even have to play particularly well. It doesn't matter. There is no bad win. There is no bad championship.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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