Fan Appreciation

World Series most valuable player David Eckstein, center, embraces the Cardinals' championship with So Taguchi. Not one fan tried to intervene.
World Series most valuable player David Eckstein, center, embraces the Cardinals' championship with So Taguchi. Not one fan tried to intervene. (By Elise Amendola -- Associated Press)

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By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, October 28, 2006

ST. LOUIS

To a far greater degree than they would ever admit, the ancestor-worshipping St. Louis Cardinals and their loyal, forbearing fans have been living in the past since 1967. That's why the Cardinals' second world title in the past 39 seasons has such powerful undertones. For this team, and its vast, multi-state fan base, frustrations and disillusionments have been suppressed under Midwestern stoicism for decades. Except for one world title 24 years ago, the great "Cardinal Tradition," trumpeted constantly here, has been kept on hold for a Redbird eternity.

So, when rookie reliever Adam Wainwright retired the final Detroit Tigers batter in this 4-2 victory in Game 5 to finish one of the most unlikely championship runs in history, an enormous chunk of America's heartland let out an enormous roar that also sounded, just a bit, like a colossal sigh of relief and vindication. The Cardinals, with comic assistance from a staff of slapstick Tiger pitchers who made five errors in this World Series, had lived up to the adoration in which this franchise has basked, uninterrupted, since the 1920s. After so many scarlet-clad teams, bearing so many high hopes, had come up short, this one, which carried the least postseason expectations of any, stunned the Padres, Mets and finally the Tigers of the supposedly superior American League.

"Nobody believed in us. You guys have been waiting for 25 years. You can enjoy this," said Cardinals star Albert Pujols, addressing the crowd of 46,638, not one of whom appeared to be dressed in any color other than red.

For many years, Cardinals fans have met every disappointment with dignity. Or, as St. Louis Manager Tony La Russa said this week: "This is the Midwest. If [Detroit's] Kenny Rogers is going to pitch in a visiting park and get less hostility than someplace else, it would be here. Our fans are respectful." Some might say deliberately self-deluded. Or maybe, hard as it is to fathom, just very nice.

As the Cardinals swarmed into a joy scrum near the mound, not one fan -- not o-n-e -- so much as attempted to come onto the sacred field to celebrate. Only Cardinals, their great Cards, ever set foot there. To invade that space would be bad manners. Let David Eckstein, the Series MVP who played with a half-dozen minor injuries, roll in that grass with Jeff Weaver, the winning pitcher, who was acquired as a salary-dump castoff in July. Here, baseball is not only loved, but revered and respected.

Fans in Boston have made a cult out of congratulating themselves on their patience. Red Sox fans write books about their loyalty. Cardinals followers, a "nation" in their own right, simply fill the stands, wear red and cheer, year after year. If they second-guess the manager, it's only after clearing their throats to say, "Excuse me, I may be wrong, but . . ."

After his eight strong innings, Weaver was asked whether he'd like to return to St. Louis next season. "Why wouldn't you?" he answered incredulously. As a Yankee, he was booed and miserable. With the Dodgers and the Angels in Los Angeles, he got more of the same. When he arrived here, dragging a 3-10 record and 6.29 ERA behind him, coaches told him they loved his grit, wouldn't try to change him and just wanted him to "go pitch." So, he did. Why not?

Statues of former Cardinals stars surround the new Busch Stadium. The mezzanine level has suites decorated in honor of Rogers Hornsby, Bob Gibson, Stan Musial, Pepper Martin, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith, Dizzy Dean, Bruce Sutter and all the rest. However (let's make sure we keep our voices low until we've blown town), most of St. Louis's baseball greatness transpired eons ago.

Now, however, new Cardinals are laying the groundwork for more statuary. The same core Cards who were either injured or played poorly in the past two postseasons -- staff ace Chris Carpenter, Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds -- are now part of a bizarre new kind of legendary team: The Worst Team Ever to Win the Series. Some cities might not know how to digest such a distinction. Everyone underneath the Arch will understand the honor in winning a championship despite only having enough talent to win 83 games this season, two less than the previous low by a Series winner (the '87 Twins).

"The team that wears the ring played the best. And this year, we played the best," La Russa said to the crowd. And everybody understood the reference. Just two years ago the Cards brought a team with 105 wins, the most in franchise history, to the Series and not only lost but played so tensely, under such a burden of self-inflicted demands, that they were swept by Boston. Then, last season the Cards won 100 games again -- only the third such season since '67, mind you -- and they came up one win shy of a pennant.

How much does this title mean to the Cardinal legion? Consider that, until the Tigers' atrocious defense assisted the Cards in all four of their runs in this final game, their record of only one Series title since '67 placed them one ring behind the expansion Marlins, the small-market Twins, the Canadian Blue Jays, the woebegone Pirates and the flightless Orioles.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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