The 2016 baseball season is nearly here, and with it comes endless discussion about our favorite teams. And it’s about damn time; I can only talk about Donald Trump’s political tyranny and Kanye West’s Twitter meltdowns for so long. With the loss of Jason Heyward to free agency, the young, star-powered Baby Bears on the rise, and the less-than-stellar postseason exit in 2015, I’ve seen no shortage of those crying doom, with predictions anywhere from the trading of the Cardinals’ upcoming stars to a complete collapse, and a return to the darker times of the 90s Birds.
I’m not here to argue these irrational claims, or endorse them. No, reading these posts of panic instead brought an interesting thought to mind; in all my time as a Cardinals fan, I have only seen one truly poor season.
Before I’m called a bandwagoner, or an optimist (God forbid), it’s really important to know one thing: I’m a young fan. Seventeen, in fact; a junior in high school, likely younger than ninety percent of the people reading this, and significantly younger than the average age of a baseball fan nowadays.
I’m as big a baseball and Cardinals fan as you’ll find; whether it be recalling stats from a few years back, predictions on trades or signings, or the endless arguments with my father regarding PED users, baseball has been a huge part of my life. And honestly, a huge part of that is likely due to the success that my beloved home team has had during my time as a fan.
My first Cardinals-related memory is watching the 2004 Series versus the Red Sox with my father, the man who passed down his passion of the sport to me. I only remember snippets, mostly littered with muttered expletives directed at David Ortiz.
I find it amusingly ironic that while I speak of the continued success of the Birds on the Bat, my first memories of them were them being absolutely clobbered. But despite being only six years old at the time, the sport fascinated me, and the next season, 2005, served as my tutorial to the MLB. It certainly wasn’t a bad one - a 100 win season for the Cards, a team with some of the most likeable and memorable players in recent memory -David Eckstein, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds, Albert Pujols, Chris Carpenter, and my favorite at the time, Matt Morris (couldn’t tell you why). Names like Hector Luna and Mark Grudzielanek (believe it or not, I spelled that one right the first time typing it) became household names, at least in my home, oft discussed by me and my father.
Despite another year of regular season excellence and postseason disappointment (this would become a trend), I was still left satisfied. My dad bought me any and every piece of Cards merchandise I could get my hands on; the Gameday magazines, the Almanacs chock-full of every stat you could ever want (before the days of everyone’s favorite sabermetrics), and tons of pennants that are still hung in my bedroom to this day.
After another dreadfully long offseason (amplified at the time, as I didn’t watch hockey or football), the Birds were back in session for 2006. Don’t get me wrong, ’05 was an awesome season for the Cards, and served as a perfect introduction for a young fan, but 2006 was the year that made me a "lifetime fan". I can take a look at the ‘06 Cardinals roster and recall a particular memory, play or random fact for just about any player. Scott Spezio’s red soul patch, Juan Encarnacion’s eye injury, So Taguchi’s random clutch power, Mark Mulder’s complete inability to stay healthy… it’s one of those teams I could take a Sporcle quiz on and get a solid score. I’d hazard to say it’s one of my favorite teams of all time.
I even went to Opening Day in ‘06, the very first game of the brand new Busch Stadium, taking on the Mets. What a thrill it was seeing this new incredible new structure, jam-packed full of red and white, full of marvelous new scoreboards and a nice view of the St. Louis skyline, subpar as it may be. I even got a game ball! Admittedly, it was tossed out of pity during batting practice by one of the Mets field officials. But naturally, I told all my friends that it was a Albert Pujols home run ball. Albert Pujols did not hit a home run during that game, but they sure didn’t know that.
The funny thing is, this team wasn’t even particularly good. A first place finish, sure, but this was back before the NL Central’s utter dominance of the league. They won the division with 83 wins, barely scooting past the Astros (please come back, we miss you). Off to the playoffs as clear underdogs, they proceeded to handily beat the Padres in the NLDS (two nouns that haven’t been uttered in the same sentence in a good while). Just a week or so later, after an incredible Endy Chavez catch, a Yadier Molina home run that silenced Shea Stadium, and Adam Wainwright’s striking out of Carlos Beltran, the Cards claimed the National League pennant over the Mets.
That Game 7 was one to remember, and I’m sure we all do; up to this point, I had never seen such tense and high-stakes baseball. That was a landmark game for me for sure; when I spoke to friends for days after, none of them really understood the enthusiasm and passion I felt about this victory. Baseball was either an "old people sport" or a "boring sport". For me, not so much.
So this underdog Cardinals team, which even I, a nine year old at the time, doubted could beat a 97-win Mets, was off to the Series against the Tigers, a 95-win team led by Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez, including a young Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman (eat your heart out, Billy Beane) on their staff. After a surreal Game 1 watching Anthony Reyes, in about as much of a baseball one-hit wonder as you can get, pitched a fantastic start for the win. He then promptly lost all of his ability and never pitched a good game again. Thus is baseball.
The matchups from then on were practically one-sided; never before had I seen such a "competent" team make so many errors and slip-ups. But I didn’t much care, and few things came close to the joy I felt watching Wainwright and Yadi celebrate in the midst of the dogpile.
After this fantastic, against-all-odds victory came 2007. As I began to write this, I tried to recall all I could about ‘07. I couldn’t remember anything. Then I checked Baseball Reference and realized why. 78 wins, a 3rd place finish, and a rotation that included Braden Looper, Kip Wells, and Reyes. Kip Wells had 17 losses and almost a 6 ERA. Reyes won 2 games. He had a 6.04 ERA. Albert Pujols led the team with 8.7 WAR, and that was it.
I distinctly remember watching Cardinals games in 2007, and yet I can remember none of this. I don’t know what happened to cause the worst Cardinals season in more than a decade, but all I can say is that I’m thankful it’s the only one.
In the coming years, ‘08-’10, I didn’t watch much baseball; if I did, I definitely don’t remember much. As I look back, I remember bits and pieces, specifically Pujols’ continuing domination of the league and establishing himself as one of the greatest players of the modern era, Wainwright’s rise as an ace, and an ever-changing middle infield, as is La Russa tradition.
Cards baseball came back into my life full force at the beginning of the 2011 season. What is there to say that hasn’t been said? Chris Carpenter going out with a bang, Jake Westbrook surprising us all in both the regular and post-season, Mitchell Boggs being one of the most hateable Cardinals of the last 10 years (sorry buddy).
And Game 6. Game 6, to this day the greatest game of baseball I’ve ever seen played. Staying up until midnight on a Thursday, knowing school was tomorrow but not particularly caring. My dad and I screaming as Berkman slides into third base and ties the game. Borderline tears of happiness as we watched Freese’s shot clear the wall; "we will see you… tomorrow night."
It’s all been steady success from then on. I’ve been privileged as a fan of one of the most consistent, fun to watch teams in all of sports for my entire life. I haven’t been plagued with worries of my team relocating, I haven’t gone into a season expecting a last place finish, and I’ve never felt like there was nothing to look forward to.
I don’t say this just to tell a story, I use it as encouragement, as a reminder for this upcoming baseball season; the Cards are never out of it. You may be disheartened by last year’s ending, or a certain outfielder’s leaving. You may be looking on in nervousness at our ‘aging core’.
Even when they’re down to one last strike, the St. Louis Cardinals don’t fly away.