It was the penultimate Wednesday in August, the same day an increasingly lost season for the St. Louis Cardinals reached its nadir, and the last thing their general manager wanted to do that evening was yuck it up with a group of 200 local business leaders and high-powered Cardinals fans at an annual dinner that was supposed to celebrate the proud franchise and its community ties.
That day, the Cardinals had lost at Busch Stadium to the Los Angeles Dodgers, completing a sweep that left the Cardinals 10 games out of playoff contention. In John Mozeliak’s mind, it was time to come clean to the supporters.
“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.
“The first thing we did as an organization [was], we basically took 24 hours to have our pity party,” Mozeliak said. But after that, he said, the only choice was to put the loss of Wainwright behind them and move forward. “Honestly, [since then] I haven’t thought much about it.”
For the Cardinals, April would see them blow six saves and lose slugger Matt Holliday to an appendectomy on the second day of the season. There would be additional injuries — disabled-list stints by Albert Pujols, David Freese and Skip Schumaker — and then the seemingly inexorable late-summer march to elimination.
The Cardinals’ near-death experience can be quantified: The computer-simulation Web site coolstandings.com calculated their chances of making the playoffs at 1.1 percent at the end of play on Aug. 27. Their comeback required 20 wins in their last 28, but also some help from the Atlanta Braves, in the form of an epic September collapse, and the Philadelphia Phillies, who played their regulars in a season-ending sweep of the Braves that handed the wild card to the Cardinals.
“We’re a team that never gave up,” Pujols said. “Give a lot of credit to number 10. Tony was always pushing us and making sure we were focused the whole time. When we were 101 / 2 out, we just said, ‘Hey, listen, let’s see what we can do with these next 35 games.’ And we were able to win the wild card, and now here we are going to the World Series.”
The links between chemistry and success in sports are intangible and debatable, but the Cardinals can look back at some of the moves Mozeliak made over the past 11 months — adding “character” veterans such as Lance Berkman, Nick Punto and Ryan Theriot — and can honestly say their back-from-the-dead act in September would not have been possible without that element.
“The way we got there — blown saves, tough losses — I think a lot of teams might have caved,” Mozelik said. “There would have been many reasons to say, ‘This is just a tough year.’ ”
Caving? Conceding? That’s for the coat-and-tie-wearing general manager, whose job is to keep one eye on the present and the other on the future, who has to think practically in the face of overwhelming odds. For Mozeliak’s sake, it is a good thing his viewpoint wasn’t shared by the men in uniform, whose job it is to believe and to fight for life, even when they were 98.9 percent dead.