Posted: Monday October 11, 2004 2:07AM; Updated: Monday October 11, 2004 2:25AM
Albert Pujols (center) and his Cardinals teammates celebrate surving the first round of the playoffs.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
LOS ANGELES -- Champagne spritzed hither and yon, into eyes and over heads, ice-cold beer was poured down drawers, cigars were lit, women were hugged, perfectly good clothes were pretty much ruined ...
The St. Louis Cardinals, those straight-laced Midwestern boys, sure as heck know how to party. Who would've figured that?
The Cardinals finished off the Dodgers in their National League Division Series on Sunday, winning Game 4 in a 6-2 laugher in front of the largest crowd to ever grace beautiful Chavez Ravine, and the Cards promptly took to uncorking a season full of pent-up something or other.
This was more than your run-of-the-gin-mill first-round celebration. This was a whoop-it-up of an exhale, a top-of-the-lungs release. This was a party fit for Hollywood.
Coming soon to video: Ballers Gone Wild.
The Cardinals were the best team in the game this regular season, with the best lineup in the league. They were playing the Dodgers, too, who flitted into October on a couple of broken wings and a run of good fortune so outrageous that it would have landed Martha Stewart in jail.
The Cardinals were not expected to simply win this best-of-five series. They were expected to dominate. They were expected to breeze into the NL Championship Series. Any less would have been absolutely scandalous.
Which is exactly why the booze was flowing like it was. That wasn't necessarily bubbly pouring out of the Cardinals' clubhouse on Sunday.
It was a few hundred liters of relief.
"After the year we had, we didn't want to lose in the first round," said the Cardinals' ever-dapper general manager, Walt Jocketty, who was dressed in a sopping and smelly gray T-shirt and workout shorts in the middle of the drippy Cardinals clubhouse. "It was very important to win this first round."
The Cardinals won 105 games this season, running away with the NL Central, but all it would have taken to erase that season full of hard work was a few bad games in the NLDS. Nobody understood that more than the Cards. Nobody felt the pressure as much.
Anything can happen in this best-of-five format in the first round. A good outing by their pitcher one night, a bad one by yours the next and, suddenly, a good team is staring down the barrel of elimination. It happens all the time. It happened last year to the Braves. It happened the year before to the Yankees.
The Cardinals, to their credit, wanted to make sure it didn't happen to them. So they went about this series like they went about the regular season, throwing the best pitchers they had and leaning on the sluggers that make this team so good.
Jeff Suppan, a 16-game winner in the regular season, survived a rocky start and threw a gem in the Game 4 clincher, giving up just two hits and two runs in seven innings of work. Slugger Albert Pujols, playing with a sore back and a sore foot, blasted a three-run homer and drove in another run.
The Cardinals didn't let up, and so the Dodgers went meekly. Afterward the two grateful teams -- one happy to be there, the other happy to be moving on -- met on the field in a rare show of baseball sportsmanship, shaking hands and hugging and wishing each other well.
And then the Cardinals partied like it was 2002, the last time they made it to the NLCS.
Steve Kline got a cold beer down the shorts. Ray King got several eyefuls of the bubbly. Julian Tavarez emptied some ice water on somebody else. Scott Rolen looked like a sponge.
"There's no need to hold back," said Larry Walker, the hockey fan and native of Canada who proposed the post-series get-together. "I think you have to appreciate the moment.
"Any time you have the opportunity ... look, we all realize that we can get our butts handed to us in a heartbeat."
The pressure that comes with being the league's best team is not gone now. The Cardinals will be favored in the NLCS, too, over either the Braves or the Astros. A failure there will mean a failed season in many people's eyes.
But, for a day or so, the Cardinals can relax and revel in what they've accomplished. And then they can start to plan their next shindig, the one that they hope will mark their entry into the World Series.