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Cards represent La Russa's best work yet

ST. LOUIS -- I see it -- the giddy St. Louis Cardinals celebrating near second base like they're kids at Williamsport ... manager Tony La Russa looking on like a proud parent -- but I still don't believe it. The Cardinals didn't really just win the World Series, did they? And if so, does this mean I never have to watch another Fox promo for "The Rich List"?

My gawd, what just happened here Friday night? One minute we had a perfectly wonderful, heart-tugger Series featuring the former losingest team in baseball, the Tigers. They had starting pitching. They had relievers whose fastballs are timed on the Bonneville Salt Flats. They had the calming, experienced presence of Jim Leyland, one of the most successful managers in the history of the game.

And they lost. Not only lost, but they nearly got swept by La Russa's team, 4-1.

I don't get it. Then again, I don't get why La Russa wears highway patrolman shades in the dugout during night games. But that's the Cardinals for you in 2006, always defying explanation.

La Russa won't admit it, but this Cardinals team might become his all-time favorite. It won't be because it was his best team, but because it wouldn't take "no" for an answer. Just look at Friday evening's Series-clinching, 4-2 win in the bone-chilling cold of Busch Stadium: up by a run ... down by a run ... up by a run ... then two ... then time for confetti, fireworks and the sweet sting of champagne spray in their eyes.

"Win or lose," said La Russa, as he stripped away layer after layer of clothes in his clubhouse office, "it's the damndest experience you can have."

You could easily argue that this was La Russa's most artful and clever job of managing since he wrote out his first lineup card in 1978 for Knoxville of the Southern League. And for once, La Russa might not argue back.

There were injuries. Lots of them. There were personnel moves. I counted 62 of them from April to October, including the acquisition of Game 5 winner, Jeff Weaver, who had his reputation and confidence repaired by La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan. So it was only fitting that La Russa and a champagne-soaked Weaver exchanged a heartfelt postgame hug in the hallway leading to the St. Louis clubhouse.

La Russa is going to have bruise marks from all the hugs. Pitchers Chris Carpenter and Jason Isringhausen got him in the corner of the dugout moments after Brandon Inge struck out to end the game. Then the Cardinals' coaches collected for a group embrace. Then Albert Pujols lifted La Russa off the infield grass and held him high for a few happy seconds. La Russa, only the second manager to win a championship in both leagues, beamed.

But don't bother asking La Russa about La Russa. It's his least favorite subject. The third-winningest manager in the history of the game kick saves everything away from him.

"The accomplishment is not personal," he said. "It's a player's game."

That's what he always says -- "It's a player's game." He says it enough that you actually believe him.

But it was La Russa, the players' manager, who pressed enough buttons to turn his team into a World Series factoid: No world champion has won fewer regular-season games than the '06 Cardinals. He is -- how did center fielder Jim Edmonds put it?--"consistent." Always consistent.

No way should the Cardinals have been the team reeking of bubbly. I'm not saying they didn't deserve to hoist the World Series trophy -- they did -- but not even Spock can come up with a logical reason why this series failed to return to Detroit for at least a Game 6.

The Cardinals had the fewest regular-season victories (83) of the eight playoff teams. Five teams that didn't make the playoffs had more wins than St. Louis. Ten other franchises had higher player payrolls.

And it wasn't like the Cardinals stormed into the postseason. They played sub-.500 ball in the second half, lost seven of their final 10 games and barely won the NL Central Division. Even now, the Houston Astros, who just missed overtaking the Cards, are slapping their foreheads like Homer Simpson.

Once again baseball makes fools of anybody (hello) who thinks they have the game figured out. I picked the Tigers. If the Series started over tomorrow, I'd still pick the Tigers. Even St. Louis fans who wear authentic custom Cards jerseys with general manager Walt Jocketty's name on the back (and I saw at least one in the right-field stands) would pick the Tigers.

And the Cardinals would astound us again -- except for La Russa, who was convinced the Cardinals could go long and far if they reached the postseason.

"We just refused to get a complex about it. ... We thought we had a chance to play really well," he said.

He thought they had a chance because the starting pitching was better than it looked, because his team could play defense, because La Russa loved the idea of being perceived as an underdog. As usual, he was right.

"If you get into a short series and you have a few assets, look out," he said.

The Cardinals won the 102nd World Series with assets: Edmonds, shortstop David Eckstein, third baseman Scott Rolen and Pujols in varying (and always silent) degrees of pain. And they won it without having available their second-best starter, Mark Mulder, and their all-time saves leader, Isringhausen.

But your 2006 World Series MVP was none other than Eckstein (MLB commissioner Bud Selig botched his name in the postgame presentation ceremony -- it's "Eck-stine," not, "Eck-steen," Bud). And Rolen, who took the collar in the 2004 World Series disaster, is the guy who drove in the seventh-inning insurance run that clinched the first Cardinals championship since 1982.

The Tigers will be back in a World Series before the Cardinals, but that doesn't lessen the hurt right now. They could have won this thing. But they squandered nearly every advantage they had: home field, starting pitching, most of the baseball nation rooting for a team that three years earlier lost a record 119 games.

Maybe they were overwhelmed by the moment. They hit .199 for the Series, committed eight gruesome errors, didn't walk hitters when they should have (Pujols, Game 1), and, in my opinion, didn't start pitchers when they should have (Rogers, Game 5).

But in the end, the Cardinals won this championship more than the Tigers lost it, but just barely. Maybe that's why La Russa had to dab at his teary eyes as he walked toward the 25-player pileup near second base. He knew, better than anyone, how foul line-thin the difference is between celebration and depression.

"This group of guys will never forget this accomplishment. We'll be friends forever because we share something very, very special, very rare."
-- Tony La Russa

This wasn't the most memorable World Series I've ever seen. Other than the awful weather and a game where nobody could get their stories straight (Rogers' Dirtgate win in Game 2), the Series was as compelling as a "Judge Judy" re-run. America yawned almost as many times as Tigers second baseman Placido Polanco went without a hit (all 17 World Series at-bats).

But I'll give the Series this much: It featured the ultimate grinder team and the ultimate grinder manager. The Cardinals earned every diamond that will be in their championship rings.

"This group of guys will never forget this accomplishment," La Russa said. "We'll be friends forever because we share something very, very special, very rare."

Just like La Russa himself.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.