“As a whole, we were about as down as you could be,” Mozeliak recalled Sunday, prior to Game 6 of the National League Championship Series. “I get up to speak, and it was sort of like a conciliatory speech: ‘Sorry, guys, about the season.’ It was like apologetic. It was more like, ‘A lot of things that we tried to plan for didn’t go right.’ . . . I [was] trying to have that hint of optimism, but I was thinking about 2012.”
As the Cardinals, improbably, prepare to face the Texas Rangers in Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night, the story of that dinner and Mozeliak’s concession speech seven weeks ago is a vivid illustration of just how bleak the Cardinals’ prospects were.
But it also shows how powerful the sense of belief was at the time within the Cardinals’ clubhouse.
While Mozeliak was conceding, his players and coaches — some of whom also were in attendance at the dinner, and a few of whom gave speeches — were redoubling their resolve. Mozeliak stood in awe.
“Tony was great,” Mozeliak recalled of the speech by Manager Tony La Russa. “He talked about, ‘We’re not quitting, [even though] this is tough.’ Then, [pitcher Adam] Wainwright gets up, and it’s like this sort of emotional, ‘We’re in this thing. Hey, if we can sweep the Brewers, we’re right back in this thing.’ It was great.”
In the Cardinals’ jubilant clubhouse late Sunday night, following their clinching, 12-6 win over the Brewers in Game 6, Wainwright — champagne and beer rolling off his cap and dripping down his face — smiled at a question about the August dinner.
“[Mozeliak] has to say those things in that situation,” Wainwright said. “But in this room, we never lost faith. We never lost hope. Now, saying it and doing it are two different things. I’m still not sure how we did it. But we did.”
The notion of “overcoming adversity” is one of sports’ most tired and hollow cliches. Rare is the winning coach or manager who doesn’t crow about the boundless heart his or her team showed by standing tough in the face of unimaginable obstacles. La Russa, a mastermind of athletic psychology, has been known to invent adversity where none existed, simply as a device to rally his troops.
But La Russa’s 2011 St. Louis Cardinals are one of those teams for whom the narrative is real. It began the first week of spring training, when Wainwright, their ace and the 2010 NL Cy Young runner-up, blew out his elbow, leading to reconstructive surgery that has caused him to miss the entire season. Imagine where the Yankees would have been this year without CC Sabathia, or the Tigers without Justin Verlander, and you will have an idea of the Cardinals’ plight.