ST. LOUIS -- Maybe now, about five years late, the St. Louis Cardinals will start to get their due. Maybe three pennants in six years will do the trick, not to mention the 1981 season when they were robbed of a playoff berth in the split-season fiasco. This is one of American sport's special and distinctive teams. They're worth scads of conventional champs, because they're willing to go against the grain of their whole game.

Before Game 7 of the National League playoffs, one of the Cardinals veterans looked out at the field and took inventory. "Everybody says we don't have Jack Clark," he said. "But look what we still have left."

Ozzie Smith is likely to end up in the Hall of Fame. Willie McGee, a past MVP, drove in 105 runs. Tommy Herr and Terry Pendleton have been as good defensively as any second and third basemen in the league, although Pendleton's Game 7 injury apparently means he will be limited to, at best, batting duty in the Series. Both switch-hit, hit and run, steal and drive home as many base runners as almost anybody in the league -- Herr 81, Pendleton 84. (Andre Dawson drove in 85 runners.)

Vince Coleman may steal more bases than any man in history. He and McGee give the Cardinals the best outfield range in baseball. Nobody contests that St. Louis has the best infield leather -- maybe ever. Tony Pena may have the best arm of any catcher. Reliever Todd Worrell has more saves plus wins in the last two years than anybody; he's a Goose Gossage quality closer. Behind him, Ken Dayley (2.66) and Ricky Horton are as good as any second-line relief.

John Tudor is 43-10 since early 1985 -- that's a better percentage than Dwight Gooden, Roger Clemens or anybody else. Big Danny Cox is a horse who's at his best under pressure. Joe Magrane, an overpowering 6-foot-6 southpaw, is as good a future 20-game prospect as exists. Greg Mathews (young and left-handed) and Bob Forsch (old and right-handed) are as dependable as any fourth and fifth starters -- your basic dozen-game winners. The Cardinals come from so many angles with so many different styles that they make foes feel like they're caught in a revolving door. Smoke, hooks, changeups -- this staff has everything from both sides.

Just because you don't know fleet little Curt Ford and big Jim Lindeman does not mean they aren't prime prospects. Jose Oquendo, a .290 hitter, is the best utility man in baseball -- playing every position except catcher. When the Wizard of Oz retires, he'll step in and the Cardinals will only miss half a beat at shortstop. These three all made key playoff contributions -- to the Giants' amazement and the Cardinals' amusement, since they expected it.

How could the Cardinals outlast the Mets with only 20 RBI from Clark after the all-star break? How could they double whitewash Montreal, 1-0, 3-0, in a crushing final week doubleheader? How could they win the playoffs without Clark and with only one steal by Coleman and Smith (who had 157 this season)? How could they not only hold the Giants scoreless the last 22 innings, but let only one Giant reach third base?

They're lucky. They're gutty. Whitey Herzog is a genius. The Giants choked. The Cardinals always bring out the worst in their foes. Yes, we hear all these things. And Herzog goes along with it all, feathers in his catlike grin, saying, "I don't know what we're doing here" and "I don't even know who I'm starting in Game 1 of the World Series." The poor pathetic, plucky Cardinals, the only team in baseball that, with a rabbit ball, couldn't even hit 100 homers. And now, Clark, who hit 35 of their 94, is semi-useless.

There's only one possibility that the Cardinals and Herzog never mention, never allow on the table. No, they never tell the truth. The St. Louis Cardinals won the National League pennant for the same reason they won in 1982 and 1985. Because they are a great team. The best team of the 1980s so far, by a clear margin. Not great in the ways that fans, foes and critics are accustomed to appreciating. But just as formidable as a club with 200 homers and a pair of 20-game winners.

Even Herzog calls his team "a bunch of dinkers and dunkers." How can you love a lineup full of men trying to hit ground balls? It's almost un-American. How can you love a pitching staff that hates strikeouts and low-hit games and prefers that you pound the ball all over the lot -- so Ozzie can turn singles into double plays and triples can go home to die in McGee's glove.

The perfect Cardinals inning won this playoff. We take you back to the seventh inning of Game 3. Oquendo nudges a pool-cue liner over short. Ford breaks his bat chunking a flare over second. Dan Driessen and Vince Coleman hit five-hoppers through the pitcher's legs into center. Ozzie beats out a bunt. Herr lays down a deadfish sacrifice. A pinch runner steals a base. A Lindeman can of corn becomes a sacrifice fly. Only the last lazy fly travels 200 feet in the air. Result: Four runs. A 6-4 lead. And a comeback win that nearly leaves the Giants crazy.

The point is that the Cardinals did exactly what they were trying to do. Those bunts, quails and sacrifices were as deliberate, as skillful and as lethal as a Will Clark grand-slam homer.

After Game 2, Jeffrey Leonard of the Giants said, "We don't mind mouthing off, talking trash, because we can back it up." After the last game, Leonard said the Giants were still the better team, even though they'd lost, and that he would "get" Smith some day. In the end, the Giants, who haven't been in a World Series in a quarter century, didn't back up anything.

Even Leonard did his hitting with nobody on base. When the baseball got tight and strategic, the Giants couldn't score a run, catch a fly ball in the lights, make a decent throw to the plate, block a curve in the dirt, pitch around a No. 8 hitter with first base open or build a rally without a home run.

What about the Cardinals? McGee was turning two-run 'tweeners in the alleys into outs. Pendleton was forcing a lead runner at third by two inches on an almost perfect bunt. Smith was flying over runners, turning three incredible seventh-game double plays. And Tudor and Cox were teasing hitters into submission.

Come Saturday, America will wonder how the halt and lame Cardinals, without Clark and with McGee, Pendleton and Mathews still at half-speed, can dream of stealing a world title.

Those better-to-be-lucky-than-good Cardinals won't be giving away any secrets. Really great teams never do.