For me, it began in 1987. In ways I can't remember my Cardinals fandom started before then but that was the fall when my parents first allowed me to stay up past my bedtime for October baseball. Immediately after the NLCS taught me that the good guys vanquish the villains the World Series taught me the heroes don't always win in the end. Like Crash Davis and Rick Blaine in fiction the '87 Redbirds will always be my favorite.
I didn't know that team as well as I have any team of the last decade. There was no cable, let alone Fox Sports Midwest. We didn't have SportsCenter or Baseball Tonight broadcasting daily highlights, either. The games took place for me in the following day's box score. It was a rare treat when the Des Moines Register ran an AP photograph of a Cardinal. I was aware of the Cardinals but the familiarity of the twenty-first century baseball fan was an impossibility.
In 2011, that familiarity bred a guardedness (if not contempt) for many fans in regard to our Redbirds. The offensive explosion of the early season that propelled the Cardinals to baseball's best record was quickly masked by a June swoon that carried over into July. Living and breathing summer months of sub-.500 baseball made us all too familiar with the club's inadequacies on defense, at shortstop, in the bullpen, and in the rotation. After management made the trades to address these weaknesses, the Brewers took off like a rocket and left our Hometown Nine in their wake, beyond even shouting distance in the standings. The Cardinals were nearly mathematically eliminated from postseason contention before the calendar turned to September. Understandably, the grumbling had begun with some even conducting a post mortem.
The corpse that had been pronounced dead at the scene of the National League Central race proved a zombie. It burst through the morgue's double doors, tore up its death certificate and set out on a hunt with the Braves as its quarry. Zombies are of course not real and so it was difficult for us to believe in this undead team. A .692 September winning percentage and an epic Braves collapse were not enough to tear down the guardrails protecting our hearts from being broken by a club who had vividly instilled in our memories its legion of faults. And yet, somehow, they won the Wild Card and punched their postseason ticket.
The vaunted Phillies with their embarrassment of starting pitching riches seemed certain to snuff out the season of the Wild Cards, who were only in Philly because the NL East champions had ended the Braves' season with an extra-innings victory in Game No. 162. Yet, the Cardinals went toe-to-toe with Philly and forced a Game 5, a game for the ages in which Chris Carpenter out-dueled Roy Halladay 1-0. It was at that point during this most of this wildest of rides that the swamp gas became house money which was then invested with heart and soul into a flawed ball club. That's when I was all-in. Like the five-year-old me in '87, I was yelling at the television during games, becoming nervousness for the night's game in the mid-afternoon.
The NLCS was a merciless bludgeoning of the Milwaukee Brewers, a franchise whose October history will forever be inextricably linked to the storied St. Louis Cardinals. The two greatest seasons in Milwaukee's franchise history each ended with a loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. We can now intersperse our "1982 World Series Champions" garb with "2011 World Series Champions" apparel during the fifteen-to-eighteen games we play Milwaukee each year.
The 2011 Cardinals secured a place in this fan's heart in Game 1, the first World Series game I attended in my life, with a thrilling 3-2 win at Busch Stadium. The thought of the atmosphere within the city and the stadium that day give me goosebumps even as I type this. Temperatures in the forties and winds in the thirties and I could not have cared less. My seat neighbor, a polite lady in her fifties, explained @TortyCraig to me. I let her. Chris Carpenter made the greatest defensive play I've ever seen in person. Allen Craig did Torty proud. The Cardinals won. Being in Busch Stadium and St. Louis for that win is the single greatest experience of my Cardinals fandom. The positive energy was palpable; there was no doubt in my mind the Cards would win the Series. Then there was Game 5. And the first seven innings of Game 6.
I'm still scolding myself for believing that the Gods of Baseball would allow the Cardinals to lose a Game 6 in St. Louis before which Stan Musial took the field during the pre-game ceremonies. The errors and overall uninspired play erased the emotional return of Musial and caused a crisis in faith. Then Allen Craig's eighth-inning homer relit hope's fuse. Even as this club-- these cardiac Cardinals--were backed to the cliff's edge of their final strike not once but twice, we believed. That belief, once abandoned in the dusk of summer, was rewarded once by Lance Berkman and twice by David Freese. The comeback marks what may be the greatest game in Cardinals World Series history.
A World Series championship makes you want to listen to music too loud, drive to fast, and drink a bit too much, sing your club's praises to the rooftops. It makes you call your friends and relatives as well as your friends and relatives call you. Shared fandom is a tie that binds, that reaches across state lines, time zones, and oceans. We are all Cardinals fans, united by our love of a baseball club that has given us yet another magical championship run. Let us bask in the glow of this improbable World Series championship. For today, tomorrow, and every single day of this offseason our St. Louis Cardinals are and will be the reigning World Series champions.