Cardinals are improbable champions

Originally Published: October 27, 2006
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- Teams that win 83 games are supposed to spend the last week of October tackling those nasty doglegs left -- not winning the World Series.

Teams that have worse records after the All-Star break than the Pirates aren't supposed to spend the last week of October winning the World Series.

How improbable is the Cardinals' World Series title? Jayson Stark counts the ways.

Teams that let 8½-game September leads turn into half-game September leads aren't supposed to win the World Series.

Teams that have the 13th-best record in baseball aren't supposed to win the World Series.

Teams that don't figure out who the closer is until Sept. 27 aren't supposed to win the World Series.

But now try and tell that to the St. Louis Cardinals, the best 83-win team in the history of baseball.

Yeah, tell it to the Cardinals, the improbable champions of America's most improbable sport.

They won that World Series they were never supposed to play in Friday night, on an October evening that felt more suitable for the Iditarod than for baseball.

They won a World Series with flash bulbs popping and fireworks sparkling and grown men and women sobbing.

They won a World Series with a starting pitcher (Jeff Weaver) who got dumped by his previous team to make room in the rotation for his own brother.

Baseball Today
Alan Schwarz and Jim Caple recap the Cardinals' improbable 4-1 World Series triumph over the Detroit Tigers.
To listen, Click here.
They won a World Series with a Series MVP (David Eckstein) who got non-tendered less than two years ago, with a closer (Adam Wainwright) who was shocked to even find himself in the big leagues on Opening Day, with a catcher (Yadier Molina) who had the lowest regular-season batting average (.216) of any World Series starter in more than 20 years.

An 83-win baseball team beat a 95-win baseball team from Detroit. And if you listen closely, you can probably already hear the wailing from New York (and parts beyond) that if a team like the Cardinals can win the World Series, civilization as we know it is clearly in grave danger.

Well, Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty could hear that moaning and groaning off in the distance Friday night, mere moments after his team's Series-clinching 4-2 win over the Tigers. And you could sum up his pained reaction in three words:

"Isn't it great?"

We'll explain later in this column why having an 83-win World Series champion is not a sign that baseball's playoff system is hopelessly screwed up. But first, we need to figure out exactly how this 83-win champion pulled this miracle out of its equipment bag.

Walk Jocketty
Elise Amendola-Pool/Getty ImagesGM Walt Jocketty has been with the Cardinals since 1995 and is finally on top of the world.
A mere four weeks ago, this was not a baseball team soaring toward this triumphant moment. Four weeks ago, this was a baseball team cliff-diving toward a historic date with self-destruction.

"That was a tough, tough time, those last two weeks of the season," Jocketty said Friday night. "I think we all felt that if we could just get through it, we'd be OK. But I'll tell you this. It was tough living through."

Once they survived it, however, once they found themselves still playing baseball after 22 other teams had gone home, something astonishing happened to this team.

It was more than health -- although "that," said manager Tony La Russa, "was a big part of it."

And it was more than luck -- although these Cardinals sure had their share of that, too.

Most important of all, teams that win the World Series always find a certain gear that carries them through three grueling tiers of October combat. And this team found that gear on the first day of its first postseason series, on a Tuesday afternoon in San Diego.

"I'll tell you exactly when it happened," said Eckstein, the 5-foot-7 mighty-mite shortstop who became the shortest World Series MVP in history. "You have to go back to Game 1 against the Padres. Bases loaded. Seventh inning. Tyler Johnson on the mound. Todd Walker at bat. And he hit a ball through the right side that looked like a sure hit.

"But Ronnie Belliard was playing about 20 feet out on the outfield grass. He made a diving stop and got us out of that inning with an unbelievable play. And when people ask, 'What was the moment it all came together?' -- that was it."

It wasn't so much that that play won that game, because the Cardinals were already ahead, 5-1. But there's a feeling that sometimes comes over teams after plays like that which are bigger than those plays themselves. And the man in center field, Jim Edmonds, thought he recognized that feeling when he saw it.

So Edmonds gathered his teammates around him in the clubhouse after that game -- and awarded a game ball to Ron Belliard. And that, said Eckstein, "was the moment."

Every time the Cardinals won an October baseball game, from that day on, they assembled afterward and awarded those game balls. To one, to two, to three men who had risen to meet that day's biggest moments.

It sounds like a scene out of "Friday Night Lights," not a scene you'd envision in a real, live major-league locker room full of real, live major-league players during a real, live baseball postseason. But this really happened, in the Cardinals' actual life. And somehow, for this team, it worked.

"It worked because we were probably trying to do the impossible," Eckstein said. "And we knew we only had each other to rely on. Every team needs somebody to speak up and take on the responsibilities of leadership. And Jim Edmonds was that player on this club. When he speaks, everyone listens. And the dynamic of this club changed the moment he stepped forward in San Diego."

Next thing you knew, this team wasn't collapsing anymore. Next thing you knew, these Cardinals had forgotten that any of that September ugliness had ever happened.

They chewed up the Padres in four games. They upset the Mets on a ninth-inning Game 7 home run by their .216-hitting catcher. Then they laughed at all the geniuses who thought they'd be nothing but bird feed for a Tigers team that had slain the Yankees and A's.

They watched Detroit take a quick 1-0 lead in the first inning of the World Series. Then they did what they'd been doing all month: They answered that run about three seconds after America came back from a few words from its World Series sponsors.

Twelve times in the Cardinals' final 12 postseason games, they scored at least one run the next half-inning after allowing the other team to score. They did that, in fact, more than 50 percent of the time after the Mets or Tigers scored in the LCS or Series.

Adam Wainwright
Morry Gash/AP PhotoCardinals closer Adam Wainwright was ready to greet his jubilant teammates after notching his fourth save of the postseason.
No wonder this team always seemed in such control of so many of those games -- because it was.

Back when things were crumbling in September, said injured closer Jason Isringhausen, it wasn't as if that bumbling, stumbling version of the Cardinals was getting obliterated every night. That incarnation of this team just never seemed to make that big play or score that big run or make that big pitch that transformed those losses into wins.

When October arrived, however, the Cardinals seemed to do all those things.

Their opponents went 7-for-62 (a .113 batting average) with two outs and runners in scoring position in the postseason. That, too, wasn't luck or coincidence, though it may have looked like it from afar.

It had just as much to do with game-planning and this team's intense preparation -- a culture established by La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan, and embraced by every occupant of their locker room.

"There's a lot more emphasis here, in terms of preparation, than any team I've been on," said catcher Gary Bennett. "In terms of the amount of guys who show up at 1 o'clock to watch video and want to take in that kind of information. ... And the way they get guys to stick to the plan, from 1 to 25, with one goal -- to win the game. I've been on teams that shared that goal but didn't have the talent. Here, they put that mix of guys together who 1) believe in that and 2) stick to it and put their egos aside."

In all three postseason series, the Cardinals zeroed in on the flaws in every one of those seemingly imposing lineups they faced. Which is how Detroit hit .199 against them, and San Diego hit .225 against them, and the Mets hit .231 against them. It was all by careful design, executed by pitchers who were practically hypnotized into believing, without any doubts, that The Plan would work.

And that carried them to Friday night in Busch Stadium, the night they would close this out.

Weaver hadn't pitched through the eighth inning in even one start in the regular season. But of course, he did on this night.

Eckstein had kicked off this World Series by going 0-for-his-first-11. But of course, he would drive in two runs on this night, score another and roar to an 8-for-11 finish in this World Series.

And then, for the grand finale, into this house of chills would trot Adam Wainwright, summoned to pitch the electrifying ninth inning in search of his fourth save of this postseason -- which, of course, is one more game than he saved during the entire regular season.

PARITY RULES
• The last seven different World Series champions:
2006 -- St. Louis Cardinals
2005 -- Chicago White Sox
2004 -- Boston Red Sox
2003 -- Florida Marlins
2002 -- Anaheim Angels
2001 -- Arizona Diamondbacks
2000 -- New York Yankees
Wainwright made it just exciting enough that Bennett said later he didn't remember breathing during the entire ninth inning. And if he did, he said, "it was only enough to just sustain life."

But with two outs, two on and the potential winning run at home plate, Wainwright snapped an 0-2 slider past Brandon Inge for the out that completed the Cardinals' astonishing October. And landing at the bottom of the pileup that followed was "the best feeling," Wainwright gushed later, "I've ever had in my whole life."

All his life, he'd been watching other pitchers -- Mariano Rivera, Troy Percival, Keith Foulke -- rack up the final out of all those World Series the rest of the baseball earth got to play in. And now it was his life, his team, his World Series, his mob scene behind the mound.

So no wonder he was having such a tough time believing this was really happening -- to him.

"It felt almost like I was on the outside looking in, watching somebody else do that," he said. "My wife even said to me she couldn't believe we'd just won. It felt like we won the game, but somebody else was out there celebrating. I don't think I could describe the feeling any better than that."

We know there are going to be many, many people out there who think someone else should have been celebrating, too -- because they think an 83-win team somehow wasn't worthy enough of this trophy. But why? Why wasn't this a great thing for this sport?

Obviously, you don't need to look at a single stat sheet to know that, from April to September, this was not the best team in baseball. Not even close.

Eight teams in the American League alone won more games this year than the Cardinals. Five teams that didn't even make the playoffs won more games than the Cardinals. Twelve teams altogether won more games than the Cardinals. And no World Series winner in the history of the universe could ever make that claim.

But we'll ask again: Why is that a bad thing? Why did all those cities out there that weren't named Detroit and St. Louis act so appalled and disinterested by a World Series matching a wild-card team on one side and an 83-win team on another?

"Isn't this a way better story line," asked Detroit's Todd Jones, "than 'Why aren't the Yankees here?' "

So the Yankees and Mets won more regular-season games than anyone else, and neither of them made it this far. Big deal.

So only once in the 12-season wild-card era -- when the 1998 Yankees completed their swath of 125-win destruction -- has the team with the best record in baseball managed to win the World Series. Big deal.

This isn't an episode of American Baseball Idol. You can't just dial some toll-free number and vote for which teams you'd like to see in the World Series. This is how it's supposed to be -- a system where every team in the field has a chance.

It's not an indictment of baseball's playoff system. It's proof that the system works -- way better than anyone gives it credit for.

Thanks to that system, the Cardinals are baseball's seventh different champion in the last seven years. And we can't tell you how much we enjoy reporting that the NFL has never had seven champs in seven years since the invention of the Super Bowl.

Thanks to that system, you never hear people whine that October baseball is too predictable anymore. And that, friends, is the whole idea.

"In football or college basketball when this happens, people say, 'Isn't that great?' But when it happens in baseball, people criticize it. When the Yankees win every year, people hate the predictability. This is the unpredictability. Well, you cannot have it both ways. And quite frankly, I prefer the unpredictability. That's what makes this game the best sport in the world. There are just so many things you can't predict."
-- Commissioner Bud Selig

"When I watch the tournament in college basketball," said Detroit's Curtis Granderson, "when I see the No. 1 seed up against the No. 8 or 9 seed, no matter which team I happen to like or dislike, there's a slight bit of me that wants to see that 8-9 seed upset that 1-seed, at least for that day. Maybe the next day, everyone gets a little disappointed that No. 1 team isn't there. But what makes that tournament great is that everyone wants to see that 1-seed go down."

So why does that dynamic make the NCAA tournament the most beloved event in sports -- but the same kind of upsets in baseball are regarded as some sort of disaster? That's what we're wondering. And we're not the only ones.

"In football or college basketball when this happens, people say, 'Isn't that great?' " said commissioner Bud Selig. "But when it happens in baseball, people criticize it. When the Yankees win every year, people hate the predictability. This is the unpredictability. Well, you cannot have it both ways. And quite frankly, I prefer the unpredictability. That's what makes this game the best sport in the world. There are just so many things you can't predict."

We're the first to admit we didn't predict the scene we witnessed last night. But who cares? That scene is why they bother playing the games. The predictions are just our way of reminding you -- and us -- that baseball's foremost allure is its ability to rise above any attempts to apply logic to just about anything.

"This just goes to show you why this is the best game in the world," said David Eckstein. "This just proves again that anything's possible."

Yep, anything. Even an 83-win baseball team taking a late-night October shower in a waterfall of championship confetti.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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