The Cardinals are in the post-season for the first time since 2015. It’s the sixth time they’ve been in the playoffs this decade, thirteenth time this century, and fourteenth time since the Whitey Herzog era ended. Along the way, they’ve played in four World Series, advanced to six League Championship Series, and even won it all twice, including one featuring arguably the best World Series game of all-time. There have been ample opportunities to celebrate good times and so forth and enough memories to last a lifetime. It’s that era specifically we’ll discuss today, beginning with the 1988 season and ending with this year’s playoff berth. It’s significant to me on a personal level because it represents a personal streak, one that I’ve kept alive for over three decades. This year, a pale rider has come for the streak and he’s riding a Clydesdale.
Specifically, I’ve attended at least one playoff game in St. Louis every time the Cardinals have made the playoffs since 1988. Unless the Cardinals play in or north of the mid-Atlantic this October, that streak will end this year. That might not sound like a big deal if you’re a St. Louis resident or if you’re a season ticket holder. However, I’ve never had season tickets, and I didn’t reside in St. Louis for the entire streak. For context, this streak includes years where I’ve traveled from my residence in Fulton, Missouri; Duluth, Minnesota; Sioux City, Iowa; and Chevy Chase, Maryland.
You’re probably remarking that it’s cheating to go back to 1988 since my first playoff game in attendance was 1996. That’s fair, but I’d counter with the fact that I was 11 years old during the 1987 playoffs and lived in Wisconsin at the time. I didn’t live anywhere near St. Louis in 1982 or 1985, either, the two other years they made the playoffs when I was a child. Attending playoff games wasn’t on the table in the 1980s. Instead, I had to settle for rushing home from school to watch my mom leaping around the living room, going crazy in the parlance of the time, during the special moments. With that in mind, the Cardinals haven’t made the playoffs since 1988 without me going to at least one game.
Fulton isn’t a big deal at just 90 minutes away from St. Louis, and it was the original locale when I attended my first playoff game. The other locations, on the other hand, were not as easy.
The first game featured a Ken Caminiti homerun off of Andy Benes that landed a few rows away from our seats. It was so much fun that I decided to spend what little money I had as a college student to go back for an NLCS game. That game is where I saw this:
I’d never been in a ballpark that was that loud or exciting, or witnessed a moment as thrilling. That Brian Jordan homerun, coupled with Dmitri Young’s triple an inning earlier, was the genesis of the streak because I knew I had to maximize my chances to experience it again at some point.
My next opportunity arrived in 2000. I was living on Dylan’s highway 61 in Minnesota at the time and had to travel to mid-Missouri to pick up a friend on the way. That meant a 10 hour drive, followed by another 90 minutes, to attend game 2 of the NLDS. Fortunately, game 1 of that series on the radio made the drive much easier. Rather, most of that game made the drive easier, although there was ample anxiety as this happened:
All of that was forgotten in game two when Will Clark blasted a first inning homerun, Mark McGwire hit a pinch-hit homerun late, and the Redbirds rolled to a 10-4 victory in game 2.
The following year, 2001, involved a trip from Iowa in a Volkswagen van, which doubled as the temporary home for my friend who was taking some time away from his regular job. By 2002, I was a St. Louis resident and I saw the first series clinching victory in my streak with game 3 against Arizona. In fact, it’s the only Cardinals series clincher I’ve seen in person. I also attended game 2 of the NLCS that year, the day after the Giants’ Kenny Lofton nearly incited a brawl.
I missed the NLCS in 2004, the best part of the run to the National League pennant, but I did manage to see Jeff Weaver make his first big contribution to a Cardinals playoff victory in game 2 of the NLDS. Granted, he was a member of the Dodgers at the time and his contribution was getting lit up like a Christmas tree by the Cardinals for 6 runs in 4.2 innings, but it wasn’t the last time he’d play a major role in a Cardinal victory in October.
Reggie Sanders stepped up as an unlikely hero at one of the three games I attended in 2005 with six RBI and a grand slam off of Jake Peavy in what my friend and I will forever know as The Reggie Sanders Game™:
Mark Mulder tossed a gem for a victory in the second game I saw in 2005, one day after The Reggie Sanders Game™. My third and final playoff game that year was game 2 of the NLDS, wherein Roy Oswalt shoved to best Mulder. The highlight of the game was the 5 or 6 year old kid sitting next to me in the upper deck who knew more about baseball than 80% of the people you meet in a stadium, up to and including rattling off Oswalt’s pitch mix to me.
A year later in 2006, I attended the only game in which the Padres have beaten the Cardinals in 10 playoff games against each other through the years. I went to the only home playoff game in 2009, the lifeless completion of a sweep at the hands of the Dodgers following the ignominious “Matt Holliday misplays a flyball off his huevos” game.
The magical Freese year is the only year in which I’ve seen one game in each round of the playoffs. Game 3 of the NLDS against the Phillies saw a tight 3-2 defeat. It was game 3 again in the NLCS, this time with the Cardinals emerging victorious when they made a four-run first inning hold up against the Brewers. The most notable and special part of these games was the fact that they were the first playoff games I attended with my best friend, his wife, and their infant son.
That same year was my first World Series game. I splurged, dropping $250 for a standing room only ticket on the assumption that it was a once in a lifetime event. I attended that one alone. In the 5th inning, a gentleman with a stroller and a baby showed up in my standing room section and asked if anyone wanted to trade their standing spot for his seat, as he needed the stroller room available in SRO. That’s how I ended up watching half of a World Series game from a 100-level seat. Wherever you are, father who took his infant to a World Series game, I thank you. The Cardinals ended up losing 2-1 despite a brilliant effort from Jaime Garcia (seven scoreless innings), but more than made up for it with the remaining five games that season.
Seven years after the Reggie Sanders Game™, I got to attend the Carlos Beltran Game™ in game 2 of the 2012 NLDS. It was a 12-4 laugher over the Nationals highlighted by two homeruns from Beltran.
A year later, I saw the Cardinals blast the Pirates 9-1 in game one of the NLDS. Most notable about that game was the cloud that got a standing ovation from the rightfield bleachers for blocking the sun on an unseasonably steamy 90 degree day. Two weeks after that, I was offered free tickets to the World Series. That’s a game I attended with my 22-year-old niece. It was:
- the day after the obstuction call game. If you’re keeping score, I’ve seen the home game either immediately before or after the obstruction call game, the Freese homerun, and the Ankiel meltdown. I also saw the last home game before Pujols Lidge’d the Astros.
- just two days after I experienced the worst rolled ankle of my life, which had sent me to the doctor and bearcrawling up the stairs to my apartment
- the same week in which I’d sat on a jury in a... not very fun case. Fun side note, though: the judge purposely wrapped up business a half hour early on Thursday so everyone could get home in time to see game 2 of the World Series.
In 2014, I was able to attend a game with my older brother for the first time. That’s the game where we got to see this, and it it landed not too far from where we were sitting:
Five days later, I saw the offense fizzle in a 3-0 loss to the Giants in game 1 of the NLCS, but returned the next day for more Wong heroics:
It was a glorious victory even if it was the last the Cardinals would get that season, viewed from literally the top row of the stadium. It also spawned what my best friend and I refer to as “The Curse of the Nacho Witch.” I’m not going to go into any details, but the Cardinals are 1-6 in playoff games since we encountered the Nacho Witch.
By the 2015 playoffs, I had moved to Maryland. That didn’t prevent me from introducing my future wife to Cardinals playoff baseball. We flew in to St. Louis for both games 1 and 2 of the NLDS. John Lackey had the LackeyFace going in seven shutout innings in game 1 of a 4-0 victory, and I was able to share the magic of the pre-game Clydesdale tradition with a partner I’d eventually marry. We returned for game 2, this time with a different set of friends (and mustache bottleneck rings). That afternoon before the game, I had managed to take a VIP tour of the Schlafly Tap Room with some of my very favorite people in the world. The game, however, ended in a sloppy 6-3 loss. I can’t remember how that series ended, but I do know it was the last time anyone went to a playoff game at Busch Stadium until this weekend.
This year, the streak ends. Thirty years of beautiful tradition from Mozeliak to Andy Benes is gone just like that. I’d love to go back to St. Louis to keep the streak intact but it simply doesn’t make sense this year. Long live the streak.
Notes on the Streak...
- Across the streak, I saw 23 games with at least 16 different people. That group includes two family members, seven people I went to college with, a co-worker (and friend), many lifelong friends, an infant, and my future wife.
- The Cardinals record in the playoff games I’ve attended: 13-10.
- The streak is so long that Willie McGee and Ozzie Smith were in the starting lineup at the first game I attended. It’s so vast that I saw John freakin’ Gall and Joe Thurston play in their only career playoff games. I’ve seen Jeff Fassero earn a victory in a playoff game, for crying out loud. There has to be a red jacket merit badge for that, right?
- Nick Punto, Daniel Descalso, and Placido Polanco were all intentionally walked at one time or another.
- I’ve seen Carlos Beltran take 14 playoff plate appearances, and Kolten Wong take 18, and they’ve each hit three total homeruns at games I’ve attended. The only other player with that many is Matt Carpenter.
- Only four of the 13 victories have ended with a save. Four different pitchers have earned those saves- Dennis Eckersley, Jason Isringhausen, Jason Motte, and Trevor Rosenthal.
- Jaime Garcia started four of the 23 games and Andy Benes started three, ranking first and second on the list. Going by innings pitched yields slightly different results. Lance Lynn, on the strength of two starts and four relief appearances, has 17.1 IP to overtake Benes for second place.
- OPS leaders (min. 10 PAs): Allen Craig (1.524), Beltran (1.512), Reggie Sanders (1.319), Wong (1.101), Albert Pujols (1.017). Unsurprisingly, the most plate appearances belong to Yadier Molina (61), Pujols (50), Matt Holliday (47), Jim Edmonds (37), and Jon Jay (36).
- The best starters in my 23 games, in order, have been John Lackey (2-0, 14.1 IP, 0.63 RA), Mark Mulder (1-1, 13.2 IP, 1.98 RA), and of course Chris Carpenter (2-0, 11.0 IP, 2.45 RA). Across all 23 games, the Cardinals have a 3.30 RA and 2.95 ERA.
- Win Probability Added (WPA) leaders for these 23 games: Lackey (.642), Eckersley (.384), Carlos Beltran (.291), Albert Pujols (.289), and Brian Jordan (.262). The five worst: Motte (-.263), Benes (-.271), Rosenthal (-.312), Matt Holliday (-.412), and Mike Matthews (-.500). It breaks my heart to see Holliday there, but he earned it with a dreadful .122/.234/.146 slash line in the 23 games. Making matters worse, Mark McGwire is 9th worst and Scott Rolen is 12th worst.
- I didn’t bring up “Andujar,” but now seems like as good a time as any to do so. One of my friends attended multiple playoff games with me. Our pre-game ritual included an order of nachos. But it was never the basic nachos. It was always the fancy nachos. At the old Busch Stadium, “fancy” simply meant that the nachos included meat and sour cream. We could never think of what the concession stand called them. We gave that order our own special name. We named it after the most enjoyable, crazy, cheesy, Cardinals-specific thing we could- Joaquin Andujar. It reached a point where he’d look at me or I’d look at him, utter the word “Andujar?”, and an approving nod would send us off to the concession stand for meaty, cheesy delights. Many of those playoff victories were fueled by Andujar.