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AS THE St. Louis Cardinals spoiled the clubhouse carpet of their new ballpark with champagne, beer and tequila, heartily celebrating one of the most unlikely world championships in history--earned with a five-game dismissal of heavily favored Detroit-- Cardinals manager Tony La Russa spotted legendary St. Louis pitcher Bob Gibson and shouted, "Hey, Bob. This team is in the club now!"
It had been 24 years since the Cardinals had won a World Series, the franchise's longest Fall Classic drought. La Russa knew this team, the 10th Cardinals team to win a world championship--which fulfilled his mission when he chose uniform number 10 when he took the job 11 years ago--had restored true glory to the franchise that his 977 wins and six other cracks at the postseason with St. Louis could not.
"Unless you get that World Series championship, you're not quite in the heritage," La Russa said. "The fact that it came here 11 years later does create something you cherish."
What made this one special was that few people saw it coming, not after only 83 regular-season wins--the fewest by a world champion in a full season--and a seven-game losing streak in September "when we were the worst team in baseball," third baseman Scott Rolen said. Calling the Cardinals the least accomplished world champions might be a backhanded compliment, but it also is a testament to their October resolve. They joined the 2003 Marlins as the only Series winners to begin all three playoff rounds on the road. Their pitchers held opponents to a .291 batting average (including a .199 mark for Detroit). They gave up only two unearned runs in 141 postseason innings.
"It's not the best team," La Russa said about what makes a world champion, "it's the team that plays the best."
La Russa, if he didn't do the finest job of his Octobers as a manager, did his most thorough. He employed seven starting outfield combinations in the postseason, used a rookie closer who'd only had the role since Sept. 27 ( Adam Wainwright) and opened the Series with a rookie pitcher with the fewest wins ever for a Game 1 starter ( Anthony Reyes).
Born from the near-catastrophic September, the Cardinals' sense of purpose in October was manifest in their undersized shortstop, David Eckstein. His beaten-up body needed reinforcement before every World Series game just to be game-worthy. He was held together by custom taping jobs on his left shoulder, rib cage and right leg. He took cortisone shots, ultrasound treatments and acupuncture therapy on his achy shoulder. And yet it was Eckstein, largely because he reached base in nine of his last 12 plate appearances and scored or drove home seven of the team's last 12 runs, who stood at the end of it all holding the World Series MVP trophy.
As the 5'7" Eckstein is an inspiration for the undersized player, the 2006 Cardinals will stand as the inspiration for the underwhelming team. Having lowered the bar of victories for a world champion to 83, they are the best reminder yet of the restorative promise of October. Or as La Russa interpreted the success of his unlikely champ, "It's a testament to the guts of this team."
GAME 1 at St. Louis
But there was Reyes in the Series opener on the road in a place he'd never been before as a big leaguer: on the mound to start the ninth inning. He threw one pitch in the ninth, which Tigers outfielder Craig Monroe blasted for a home run, prompting La Russa to remove him. The home run was incidental contact, however. By then Reyes had pitched one of the finest games a rookie had ever thrown in the Fall Classic and did so while hardly breaking a sweat.