ST. LOUIS -- Up on the dais, amid all the confetti and cheers and cardinal-colored chaos, Tony La Russa looked into the Busch Stadium crowd and broke into a broad smile. It was a quick and completely unarming one and -- coming as it was from the humor-challenged skipper of the Cardinals -- totally unexpected.
Not unlike, when you think about it, the Cardinals themselves.
Given up for dead several times during the regular season, nearly toes-up in the final days of it and afforded a zero chance of doing anything once they tripped into the postseason, La Russa's Cardinals captured one of the most unlikely World Series titles in history Friday night, beating the favored Tigers in five games for St. Louis' first Series win since 1982.
So throw around all the adjectives, chuck all the bricks that you must. That doesn't change a thing in St. Louis this morning. It doesn't change the facts a bit, and it won't change history.
The Cardinals are the World Series champions. Deal with it.
"This is what you call a team. Bottom line, this is a team," said outfielder Preston Wilson, released by the rival Astros during the season only to end up soaked with champagne Friday night after the Cards' 4-2 win in Game 5. "We earned every ounce of this."
Yes, there will be people all over the country who will knock the Cardinals as one of the worst World Series champs ever. They won just 83 games during the regular season. No team in the era of the 162-game schedule has ever taken a Series title with so few wins.
And, after a sloppy and often uninspiring five games against the favored but overwhelmed Tigers, this Series certainly won't go down as a classic among Fall Classics. It won't, in fact, come close.
But, seriously: You think the people in St. Louis care about any of that?
"There were years when we won 100, 105 games and we didn't get this far," said Walt Jocketty, the well-liked and well-respected general manager of the team. "It's like the years when the wild-card team won.
"The playoffs are such a crapshoot. We got hot. We got hot at the right time. And it's great."
Few would have imagined that the Cardinals would finish 2006 dripping with bubbly. After an offseason in which they said goodbye to important players like outfielders Reggie Sanders and Larry Walker, and infielder Mark Grudzielanek, not much was expected. Then, during the year, they dealt with a score of injuries, including those to first baseman Albert Pujols, shortstop David Eckstein and pitcher Mark Mulder.
From the start of the season to the end, the Cardinals were scrambling to fill holes. Jocketty traded for second baseman Ronnie Belliard and pitcher Jeff Weaver and signed Wilson after the Astros cut him loose. The Cards brought up Chris Duncan from the minors.
It was not a season for the weak of heart. Even La Russa admitted to moments of doubt.
"How about daily? And a couple of times a day during the game," La Russa said. "You kind of prepare for the worst and hope for the best."
None of the plug-ins turned out to be more important than Weaver, shunned by just about every team in baseball after the Angels cut him loose in favor of his younger brother. The shaggy-haired, laid-back one-time head case started five games this postseason, going 3-2 with a 2.43 ERA. He saved his best for last, giving up just four hits and two runs in eight innings in the clincher, while striking out nine.
"When you have all that support you can go out there and not be looking over your shoulder and figure some things out ...," Weaver said. "I was just very fortunate to get hot when it counted. It's a dream come true. It's unbelievable."
It is unbelievable, and it'll remain that way for a while to many. The Cardinals had one stretch in the last two weeks of the season in which they lost nine of 11 games. They weren't guaranteed a playoff spot until the Braves beat the Astros on the final Sunday of the season.
This did not look like a postseason powerhouse. But once they got into the playoffs, Weaver and Jeff Suppan and Chris Carpenter pitched superbly, and the Cardinals got a gem of a win from rookie Anthony Reyes in Game 1 of the Series. Adam Wainwright, shoved into the closer's role with the injury to Jason Isringhausen, was practically a sure thing throughout the postseason.
And though the bats didn't exactly sizzle all the time -- the Cards hit just .220 during the Series -- St. Louis' swingers hit when they needed to most. Yadier Molina hit just .216 during the season, but he won Game 7 of the National League Championship Series with a two-run homer and hit .358 in the postseason. Eckstein, playing with his shoulder, ribs and hamstring taped up and taking daily acupuncture treatment for all his aches and pains, was named the MVP of the Series, hitting .364.
The Tigers, as the critics are sure to point out, helped speed their own demise in this Series. They played horribly, committing eight errors and giving up eight unearned runs in the five games. They hit only .199. The team that won 95 games during the regular season, the team from the supposedly superior American League, crumbled in the spotlight, proving to be no match for the retooled, red-hot Cardinals.
"The people here don't care what you did in the past. They don't dwell on the negativity. They only care what you can do, so that makes you do everything you can for them," Wilson said. "It goes to show you, when you get good baseball people making good baseball decisions, it makes for a great baseball atmosphere. And that's what we have here."
What we have here are the World Series champs, as improbable, as unexpected as that might seem.