By Eric Neel
Page 2

After last night's waxing at the hands of the Milwaukee Brewers, the St. Louis Cardinals have dropped eight games to the Astros in 10 days, and all I can say is … it's not enough.

They must continue to fall, free and hard, the way Dudley Moore once fell for Bo Derek, the way Wile E. Coyote so often fell for the hard-rock bottom of the canyon.

I've got nothing against the Cardinals, and I'm not speaking on behalf of Astros fans. I'm speaking on behalf of baseball. I'm saying that outside of the Show Me State, and maybe even inside the Show Me State, it's in everyone's best interest that they completely blow this thing.

Why?

Eight reasons, in honor of the long-lost 8½ game lead they held over Houston entering play on Sept. 20…

First of all, it's just remarkably good television. Not since Farrah was on Letterman, maybe not since Richard Nixon held press conferences in the spring and summer of 1974, have we seen such high-quality train-wreck TV. You can't look away. You wince. You giggle nervously. You shake your head. But you can't look away. How far will it go? How bad can it get?

Like an ancient Greek audience steeped in catharsis, like a theater full of howling wolves at a showing of "Jackass Number Two," you're wondering at the limits of human experience, marveling at the outer reaches of human emotion. They are taking you somewhere you've never been, sacrificing themselves for your edification and entertainment. A-1 television, my friend. And better each and every losing night.

Tony La Russa
Tom Gannam/AP Photo
Tony La Russa's clearly not getting much sleep these days.

Second of all, a spectacular St. Louis collapse is maybe all that saves us from the threat of yet another book on Tony La Russa. If this is just a slide, and they make the postseason, he's the levelheaded genius who kept them cool when the chips were down; he's the never-give-up foxhole commander who led a depleted offensive unit and a ragtag pitching staff through to the promised land ("ragtag," by the way, is the preferred term when in the company of Braden Looper's family members, who cringe at the use of the more conventional "sorry-ass"). And if he's that guy, it's only a matter of time before we're treated to some ponderous Doris Kearns Goodwin-penned hooey that shoots up the New York Times' best-seller list.

But if this is a good and proper nosedive, from the catbird seat to a seat on the couch, then Tony is the stumblebum at the helm, not legendary but pitiable. And instead of reading up on him, we can dance on the grave of the genius myth, while listening to Van Morrison's "No Guru, No Method, No Teacher," no less.

Third, we lose the Cards and we lose the nervous postseason injury watch. If there were federally sanctioned threat conditions for able-bodiedness, the red Cards would be orange for a high risk of attacks. This is a rattletrap car of a club, with Jason Isringhausen and Mark Mulder on the scrap heap and David Eckstein, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen always just a lunge or a swing away. (I've got $5 down on Edmonds and a ruptured spleen in the office pool, but I'm seriously considering hedging with a bet on Rolen and a dislocated shoulder.) These guys are gamers, no doubt, but there's just too great a chance that the kids at home would be exposed to sustained periods of Preston Wilson and Scott Spiezio if they go down, and that's just not fair to the kids.

Fourth, the Brad Lidge face. I'm talking about that flat, flabbergasted look of horror he flashed when Scott Podsednik took him deep in last year's Series. Before that we had the cool, dominating, filth-throwing Brad Lidge face. Waiting to see which face appears in his first big postseason save opportunity this year, wondering whether the faces might do some sort of Sybil shuffle, alternating between pitches, at-bats and games, is the sort of thing that'll make the playoffs great.

Craig Biggio
Bob Levey/WireImage
There's something magical about that helmet muck.

Fifth, one last postseason shot for Craig Biggio, who is still wildly underappreciated by Ma and Pa Public. He belongs in the conversation with Bonds and Griffey as among the best non-pitchers of the 1990s, and he has continued to be a productive player into his 40s, posting 19 win shares in 2005 and 20 home runs and 61 RBI this year. Plus, he's been true to his school (twice turning down big free-agent offers to leave Houston), and he has, for 18 years now, consistently crafted the best helmet muck in baseball -- the rejuvenating, therapeutic values of which are only now being fully discovered by scientists at Estee Lauder, but the distillate hallucinogenic qualities of which have long been understood by senior class study groups at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo., who bid for old Biggio helmets on eBay the way Trekkies stay up late sniping for scraps of Spock's ears.

Sixth, the prospect of Clemens vs. Piazza in another playoff stare-down.

Seventh, they're just not a great team. We've granted them the NL Central crown since May because we're awestruck by Albert, and because the Astros got out of the blocks the way Jabba the Hut gets up out of a papasan chair. But take another look. This team is not going to win the World Series. This team is going to rely on Jason Marquis and So Taguchi. Aaron Miles is going to get serious time for this team. And unless they wise up and ask Adam Wainwright to close, this team will struggle mightily to hold even the most comfortable of late-inning leads.

Contrast that to Houston, where Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt start twice in every seven-game series. And where young Luke Scott is looking like old Roy Hobbs. And where Lance Berkman continues to do a very, very credible Albert Pujols impression again this year. As a nonpartisan fan, which club looks more compelling? Which club looks more like one you'd actually want to see play in a postseason series? Careful, the questions get harder after this. Next, I ask you your name and the color of the sky.

And eighth, and most importantly, they have the chance to be legendary. As a team that makes the playoffs and gets pounded (either in the LCS by the Mets, maybe, or in the Series by the Yankees) they're utterly forgettable; this time next year I will spot you the C, the A, the R, and the D, and ask you who won the NL Central division in 2006 and you will stare at me the way McMurtry stares at Chief just before the big fella brings the pillow down on him. But if they continue to sputter, and flail, and take the elevator all the way down to the parking garage, they're legendary.

Albert Pujols
Tom Gannam/AP Photo
Even Albert the Great hasn't been able to lift the Cards out of this funk.

If the Cards blow this, they'll challenge the all-time great bunglers (the '51 Dodgers, the '78 Red Sox, the '95 Angels and even the '64 Phillies). In fact, dropping seven games in the standings in the last week and a half would give them a legit claim as the most chokiest of all chokers. They could be the ones to set the souls and spirits of Mike Torrez, Ralph Branca and Gene Mauch free. They could rewrite not only the record book but the baseball dictionary, too. Years from now, when some other team swoons, even in April, we will say they "went St. Louis," and when a sleepy ship's captain runs his tanker aground we will say he was feeling "La Russa-ish."

And forget the future -- what about the here and now? The story of 2006, from start to finish, has been about the American League. They won the All-Star Game. They have the only genuine World Series contenders. The National League is weak. The ALCS is going to be the real championship bout. That's all we've heard. But if the Cards do this thing, and do it right, and finish it out strong -- popping up bunts, walking in runs and clenching shoulders all the way to the finish line -- they could blow the AL off the front page and into oblivion. If they do this thing right, they could trump the World Series winner and make them the utterly forgettable ones. 2006 wouldn't be the year the Yanks won yet another. It would, forever and always, be the Cards' year. The year the Cards lost.

There are winners every season. There are heroes every year. But only once in a blue moon does a team and a city have a chance to do something truly special. St. Louis and the Cardinals have that chance right now. They've put themselves in a position to lose, gloriously, spectacularly.

They must tank.

Only a bunch of losers would win now.

Eric Neel is a columnist for ESPN.com and Page 2. Sound off to Page 2 here.




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