"The Cardinals are down to their final strike."
The world heard it countless times on Thursday night. The members of the St. Louis squad knew it as well. It did not mean, however, that they had struck out.
David Freese ensured that with a two-out, two-strike, two-run triple in the bottom of the ninth in Game 6 that knotted things up. Lance Berkman did the same with a single that forced in two to tie it up the very next inning. After Freese hammered a walk-off shot to center in the 11th to force a Game 7, it became possible to relate the events to one term—destiny.
It is a word that has been associated with sports all too often, in cliche ways and not. The 2001 Yankees flirted with destiny after reeling off of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The 2004 Red Sox rebounded from a 3-0 hole and caught fire, finishing off one of the most remarkable comebacks fans have ever seen. While these are just two examples, it proves that the word is not uncommon to baseball fans.
What the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals did, however, takes a familiar term and turns it into a foreign language. And that stretches far beyond the occurrences of this postseason.
Turn the clocks back to February, just 10 days after pitchers and catchers reported, when it's announced that ace Adam Wainwright needed to go under the knife for Tommy John surgery. Not long after, Chris Carpenter, who was assumed to fill the void Wainwright left, goes down for a period of time himself. The Cardinals were handicapped, alongside having a manager who had barely decided to return as it was.
Fast-forward to Aug. 23, when even after acquiring the likes of Edwin Jackson, St. Louis still found themselves 10.5 games back in the NL Wild Card. Not even a bandwagon fan would be calling for a run at "destiny," as a sense of realism began to kick in for those around baseball; the Braves would be heading to October as the Wild Card winner.
What happened next was unfathomable. Never before had a team overcome such a hole, and the St. Louis Cardinals did it. They completed the comeback as the Atlanta Braves finished off arguably the biggest collapse in Major League Baseball history. From there, the Cardinals steamrolled past the heavily-favored Phillies, knocked off the division champion Milwaukee, and the rest writes itself.
Yet this is not a recap article. It is about how this team captured the mystique and awe of the game that had been away for so long and brought it back. It is about how even with a superstar who was in the final year of his contract, the team found other contributors such as Lance Berkman and David Freese to punish the opposition. It is about how a single team made baseball fun again.
It is a commonality these days to believe that if a team like the New York Yankees or Philadelphia Phillies aren't in the World Series, it's bad for baseball. That would be further evidenced by the fact that Game 6 of this year's series, which 13.8 rating was the highest for a World Series game since 2009, involved two teams from Texas and Missouri. Yet St. Louis Cardinals baseball is some of the richest in all of the sport. Their fans are top-notch with a facility that is state-of-the-art. They are part of the tradition that made baseball so popular, and are part of what could ultimately help restore it.
The Cardinals winning their 11th world title was in the books all along. 2011 had been filled with jaw-dropping feats, including the now-famous last day of the season, which featured some of the purest baseball of all-time. It was their destiny to fill this out as they had been part of the history with their run to even get into the postseason. And it all came full circle with the final two days of the season.
In 1986, the Boston Red Sox were one strike from their first championship since 1918. After a small-scale rally to tie up the contest in the final inning, the Mets sent Mookie Wilson to the plate. After fouling off what seemed to be thousands of pitches, Wilson dribbled one through the legs and past the glove of Bill Buckner. The Mets would go on to win the game.
Nonetheless, New York still needed to finish the series. Even as Boston jumped off to a 3-0 lead in the second inning, the Mets would resurface and knock off Beantown for their second World Series ring.
Twenty-five years later, the Cardinals pulled off nearly the same feat, as Freere's and Berkman's dramatics forced a Game 7. Many say baseball works in parallels, yet manager Tony La Russa would not buy into that.
La Russa had won two titles before. He knew it was far from over, and warned his team Friday not to get ahead of themselves and, "take Game 6, put it in a box, and forget it today,"according to the team's Web Site at mlb.com
Even as La Russa came under criticism for a freak occurrence with a ballpark phone in Game 5, and for perhaps over-managing in some instances, many would say this was possibly his best job ever in his 33 years as a manager. Whether it was the massive array of injuries, slow production from Albert Pujols or difficult competition in the standings, the skipper never lost a beat. It was always about getting the job done with what they had. Never a complaint.
And the Cardinals did win. Like the Mets, they too had to come back from a deficit early in Game 7. But as Jason Motte closed out the series by getting David Murphy to fly out to left, the culmination of emotions resembled that of Jesse Orosco's explosion back at Shea back in '86.
That, and that alone, could act as enough depth to prove destiny exists. Yet when one adds in all of the factors mentioned prior, it makes the story of the St. Louis Cardinals one of pure amazement.
It makes fans around the world, regardless of who they root for, happy to see one of baseball's truest franchise capture a title. The look of Rafael Furcal pointing to the sky in pure amazement could make anybody smile. The scene as the team celebrated was simply too perfect, almost made for Hollywood.
The run of the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals was one of the most remarkable in the history of baseball, and even all of sports. Their series with the Texas Rangers was one of the more memorable ones of the past few seasons and restored interest back into a game that needed it so badly. The pieces fell into place for St. Louis, and they ran with momentum and captured a title in the heartland of America. It was a stretch so dramatic and perfect, perhaps we may never see it again.
Or maybe we will. After all, it is baseball. It's destiny.