tequila and the tears, beneath the miles of athletic tape and the vials of
cortisone that held them together through their near death of a September, the
2006 St. Louis Cardinals left us with an indelible lesson about October
baseball. To call the Cardinals the worst world champion in history--their .516
regular-season winning percentage was lower than that of all 101 previous world
champions, not to mention that of a dozen teams this year--is the killjoy's
translation of their earned place. In the future every modestly credentialed
postseason team will regard them as something else: the most opportunistic
champion. � With their 11--5 run through the three-pronged postseason,
including a shockingly easy five-game dismissal of the heavily favored Detroit
Tigers in the World Series, the Cardinals, they of the 83 regular-season wins,
rendered moot any arguments about their worthiness. What the 2004 Boston Red
Sox, with their recovery from a three-games-to-none ALCS deficit, did for
comebacks, the '06 Cardinals did for second chances. "It's not the best
team that wins," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said as his club
celebrated its 4--2 Series-clinching win last Friday at Busch Stadium.
"It's the team that plays the best baseball."
Only two world
champions have overcome a larger victory gap in the World Series than the 12
wins that separated the Cardinals and the Tigers: the 1954 New York Giants (14
fewer wins than the Cleveland Indians) and the 1906 Chicago White Sox (23 fewer
victories than their crosstown rivals, the Cubs). Then again, in many ways the
October version of the Cardinals was virtually unrecognizable from the
There was closer
Adam Wainwright--a rookie who had only one save in his life before Sept.
27--finishing the World Series and a breakout postseason by whiffing Brandon
Inge. In 2003, after he was cut from the U.S. Olympic qualifying team, the
25-year-old righty had wondered whether he had the mental toughness to make it
in professional baseball; in October he struck out 15 batters in 9 2/3
scoreless innings. There to embrace Wainwright after the final out was catcher
Yadier Molina, whose .216 average during the regular season was higher than
only Tampa Bay's Jonny Gomes among the 200 batters who came to the plate at
least 450 times. Naturally Molina led all players in postseason hits (19).
righthander Jeff Weaver, who ranked 76th out of 80 qualifiers for the ERA title
(5.76) and had bounced among five teams with a losing record (86--101) and
hangdog indifference. On Friday, Weaver could be seen weeping in the arms of
his brother, Los Angeles Angels rookie pitcher Jered Weaver. Earlier that night
Jeff had pitched eight masterly innings, going longer in an outing than he had
And there was
shortstop David Eckstein, owner of a .487 OPS in the first two rounds of the
playoffs and dead last among all batting qualifiers in RBIs (23) this season,
being hoisted off the ground by La Russa after Eckstein drove in four runs in
Games 4 and 5, including the go-ahead scores in each game. It was the 5'7"
Eckstein, not some hunky home run hitter, who drove off with the yellow muscle
car for being named the Fall Classic's Most Valuable Player. And so, too, it
was the churchgoing, teetotaling Eckstein gleefully getting a shot of tequila
poured down his throat in the clubhouse by teammate Scott Spiezio. Eckstein
last had so imbibed in 2002, when he and Spiezio won a world championship with
the Angels. "Right now," Eckstein said in the jubilant clubhouse,
"I don't feel a thing."
For this October,
that was a first. After a near catastrophic September, when the Cardinals
nearly coughed up a seven-game lead with 12 to play, the team's sense of
purpose in October was manifest in their undersized shortstop. Indeed, Tigers
lefthander Kenny Rogers might well have been describing Eckstein in the words
he employed when he tried to explain away that suspicious smudge on his
pitching hand in Game 2: dirt, sweat, spit and rosin.
most of St. Louis's 12--17 September because of a strained left oblique muscle,
a strained left hamstring and a strained left shoulder. By Game 6 of the NLCS
against the Mets, trainer Barry Weinberg suggested to Eckstein that he was too
banged up to help the team. "You won't be able to live with yourself if you
go out there and aren't ready to play," Weinberg said.
Eckstein replied, "I won't be able to live with myself if I don't play in
this game. I'm playing."
miss a postseason inning, though every game necessitated a five-hour pregame
routine that mimicked a scarecrow getting stuffed back together. Eckstein took
20 minutes of ultrasound treatment on his shoulder, 10 minutes of heat-pack
treatments, 10 minutes of acupuncture, occasional cortisone shots and special
taping of his shoulder, rib cage and hamstring, in addition to the usual
stretching exercises, video study and batting and fielding practice.
significantly weak in his shoulder," says St. Louis assistant trainer Greg
Hauck, "and there's no way a guy could go out there and play [like that].
And he was like, 'It's the World Series.'"