The 2007 Cardinals are what happens when you let quirky winners and against-all-odds contributors sit out for too long. They look about right—you can pick out Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen, and even So Taguchi and Scott Spiezio and Anthony Reyes—but things are off in some evolutionarily significant way, and after some internal debate you just pitch the whole thing and promise to do better about wrapping it next time.
For the Cardinals of the aughts it's kind of hard to draw lines between teams; they were dominated almost all the way through by the presence of Pujols and Tony La Russa, and players bleed through the roster tables as role players and stars and starters. But I think 2007's a full stop for everybody. Jocketty's out, Rolen and Edmonds are out, Ryan Franklin has begun creeping beard-first into the picture.
I bring this up—when I normally try very hard not to—only because it seems like the 2012 Cardinals, who seemed like such a strange break with the past seven months ago, are now a win or two away from being permanently associated with last year's model. Tony La Russa's out, Albert Pujols is out, Lance Berkman is gone and David Freese has played in 144 games, but these are the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals, and they've given themselves a chance to repeat, and it's clear that means something I wasn't expecting, with 2007 as my only experience in the matter.
I don't have any expectations right now. I'm okay with the play-in game, and it's going to be fun to watch, but you can't really plan around a single baseball game between evenly matched teams except to say that both of them are going to try hard and one of them is going to win, eventually.
But whether the 2012 Cardinals' season ends today or on November 1, something's happened—last year's team has opened up on this end. Provided the 2013 Cardinals don't lose 90 games, what was actually a surprising resignation, a series of excruciating and ultimately fruitless negotiations, and a bet on veterans with bad knees being undervalued by the market is going to look like a seamless transition, with 2011 at its center. Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa go out on top, and the team is reoriented immediately toward Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday and a series of rookie pitchers who'd already begun to emerge. Voila. (John Mozeliak is going to look very smart.)
I don't remember the first time I heard it, but the bad-stand-up refrain about people rooting for laundry instead of human beings has always made me more nervous than it deserves. I don't want to root for laundry; the Cardinals are an extraordinarily successful business, not a bunch of scrappy entertainers, and they don't stand in for any particular moral virtue besides cheering conspicuously after sacrifice bunts. They don't need my emotional investment, and they wouldn't notice if it were gone. But my laundry's crawling with birds-on-bats, and I write for a laundry blog, and year after year, as the players turn over, I just so happen to root for the same set of tastefully updated jerseys.
So it's probably true. I'll even root for different laundry that they tell me is better than the old laundry. But I think it's the kind of true that happens when you stare at a thing cross-eyed enough to get some unsettling-sounding, obvious fact out of it. I root for laundry because it's the abstraction we have to stand in for all these weird transitions. It allows us to deal with these Cardinals being simultaneously a break from the last 17 years of Cardinals baseball and the team sent to defend its own World Series championship.
These Cardinals lost Albert Pujols, who was supposed to represent the same nebulous ideals they represented, and Tony La Russa, who took the idea of resurrecting a storied franchise as his jersey number, and they signed a guy who twice in three years just missed sinking them single-handedly in the postseason. They got a big season from their postseason hero, and they watched Yadier Molina play Johnny Bench for a year, and they put the ball in Chris Carpenter's hand with the playoffs on the line two months after he had a rib removed to restore feeling to his fingers.
I don't know whether that makes them the logical successors to the 2011 team or a harbinger of the 2014 squad, with the pitchers grown up and the veteran casts fully removed. Without the jerseys all that churn becomes hard to deal with, and most of the circles we draw around particular eras of Cardinals baseball get closed after the fact anyway. But if we zoom out far enough—whatever happens—they'll just be the Cardinals, who on a Friday in October took advantage of a brand-new rule and a season that went just-well-enough to give themselves the chance to defend a World Series championship for the first time since 1968.