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When baseball is magical

This run is reminiscent of few other things in the past 20 years

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

The Cardinals recent 15-game winning streak is why we’re all sports fans. We watch whatever team in whatever sport in the hopes of capturing the pure fun that this 15-game winning streak is bringing. This type of joy watching sports is rare. Or it should be. It isn’t as rare if you’re a Cardinal fan apparently, but these moments don’t come easy and they don’t come often. Normally.

It isn’t just that the Cardinals have won 15 games in a row. It’s when they’ve won 15 games in a row. If they did this in May, it would for sure be a blast to watch, but it would absolutely not be the same. We will remember the 2021 team for this win streak. Possibly more, but definitely for this win streak, however long it lasts. It catapulted the Cardinals from a team that looked like a longshot for the playoffs to one that has 99.9% playoff odds. You do not see a change that drastic in 15 games ever.

This got me thinking. As a Cardinal fan, how many moments could compare to this winning streak? The type that makes you a fan for life, and can sustain you through the bad times. Most of the time, baseball and sports in general ranges from mildly pleasant entertainment to downright frustrating. Which is why these periods where your team end up delivering everything you could hope for ends up being so damn exciting. If sports always delivered this type of entertainment, it would become mildly entertaining because it would be more expected.

I have been a diehard Cardinal fan since birth, but with the passage of time, I only really remember the past 20 years of baseball, and even then, I think the 2004 playoffs are the earliest group of games I truly can remember fairly well. I remember Mark McGwire’s 62nd homer, not understanding the significance of Fernando Tatis hitting two grand slams, I remember the excitement of seeing newly acquired Jim Edmonds in the lineup on Opening Day, and I remember Albert Pujols hitting three homers at Wrigley in a massive comeback capped by a So Taguchi homer.

These are individual moments, but the seasons completely blend together. I cannot really recall much about the 2004 or 2005 season to be honest - I remember being on a family float trip when the Cardinals acquired Larry Walker and I remember being on a school trip when Mark Grudzielanek hit for the cycle. How weird that in the two greatest regular seasons, I remember being told things and not actually the play all that much. One benefit is that I truly do not remember the 2003 team all that much and thus do not have the scars of that bullpen to haunt me in my dreams.

My whole point is that regular seasons tend to be remembered more for the performances of players, some individual moments, and the rest kind of forms as some sort of vague feeling of how you felt watching them. I wonder if my memory of the 2004 and 2005 team, aside from the fact that I was 11 and 12 watching them, is overshadowed by my clearer memory of the playoffs.

Oh I also remember Albert Pujols hitting three homers in a comeback at Wrigley capped off by a So Taguchi homer. But without consulting another source, that’s it. If someone in the comments were to say “You don’t remember this?” well it will probably jog my memory, but I can’t conjure it from thin air at the moment. Know what I mean?

So I’m trying to think of insanely fun moments of baseball in my baseball lifetime that most fans would kill for. A stretch of time where the team seems untouchable. They don’t even have to be untouchable, they just need to consistently deliver on your expectations, or surpass them. Surely, this won’t continue, and what do you know, it continues. So if you could all help me out on this, because as you can tell, my memory is probably not the greatest for this sort of thing.

So by my memory, extremely fun, long stretches of baseball in the past 20 or so years would be:

2004 Regular Season

Like I said, I don’t actually remember anything too specific about this season, but I’ll say this: I know it qualifies because the numbers are absurd. Through May, the Cardinals were 27-23. For the rest of the season, they were 78-34. They were an absolutely ridiculous 60-18 from June to the end of August. They won 77% of their games for a three-month stretch. They began their streak with a six-game winning streak, then had another six-game winning streak, and then a five game winning streak. This was all in June.

In July, they began the month with a seven game winning streak and even with the All-Star break in the way, had two five-game winning streaks before the month ended. They started August with an 8-game winning streak, and ended it beginning a 9-game winning streak that ended in the first week of September. Truly a ridiculous run of baseball.

2004 NLCS

It’s amazing what a series going your way can do. Most of watching it is spent nervously watching, unsure if you can take the pressure of the moment - like you’re actually playing the game yourself - and how instantly winning colors your perception of everything that happens before. If this series went the Astros’ way we’d remember it like the 2012 NLCS: we just pretend it never happened.

2006 Playoff Run

I remember exactly where I was when the Cardinals won the World Series this year. Adam Wainwright’s finishing outs in the NLCS and World Series are also etched into my brain forever. Remember when Tigers pitchers just forgot how to throw the ball? The back-and-forth series with the Mets? The Cardinals may not have had a truly great team in 2006, but the MV3 deserved a World Series win and if it had to be the worst of the 2004-2006 teams, so be it.

August 2009

I’m calling this August of 2009 for simplifying purposes because the run started slightly before and ended in September. On July 24th, the Cardinals acquired future Cardinal Hall of Famer Matt Holliday and Holliday was very excited to get out of Oakland. (I believe he had a no trade clause with specifically Oakland in his Yankees deal, which is hilarious). The Cardinals lost their first two games with Holliday, through no fault of Holliday: he went 3-6 with three doubles and two walks in those games, but the pitching allowed a combined 25 runs in those two games.

But on July 27th, the Cardinals won to put their record at 54-48. At the arguable end of their run, they were 84-57. They did not have a real great end of the year, finishing with 91 wins and 71 losses and then you know the NLDS didn’t really go the Cardinals way. But when they acquired Holliday, they were a half game up in the NL Central. By the end of this run, they were 11.5 games up in the division.

2011 - September to playoffs

I didn’t really get to experience the September run much if I’m being honest. The Cardinals were not the first thing on my mind until basically the Carlos Marmol game. I’m actually not positive that’s the game that put me back on the Cards, I just wanted an excuse to reference that game again. I do know for a fact I did not watch that game though, unfortunately.

Whenever it started, I experience the run watching the games with my friends in a dorm room. Mine, theirs, whereever. I don’t remember Game 7 of the World Series that well and not just because it’s overshadowed by Game 6. I watched Game 6 sober. I am grateful that I did. I did not watch Game 7 sober.

As a side note, remember when the Cards just always got a hit with runners in scoring position? In 2013, they batted .330 AS A TEAM with runners in scoring position. That shattered the then record of .311. Just unfathomable. While you would probably think, based on that stat, that the 2013 team was unsustainably good, their pythag record was actually four wins better than their 97-65 record oddly enough. I mean their pythag was only that good because of the hitting .330 with RISP, but still: they were not far off from their actual record, in any case. This doesn’t really count in “fun run” thing, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

2018 - Mike Shildt becomes manager

Now, this is where I may need readers’ help, because I’m relatively sure something happened in the intervening years between the World Series win and 2019, but I can’t think of anything in the regular season that rivals the periods I’m mentioning. Since losing in the playoffs sort of takes the sting out of remembering that year’s playoffs, it’s hard for me to count any of the 2012-2015 playoff runs. No playoff series immediately comes to mind like the 2004 NLCS does for me.

This team for sure ran out of steam in the end, but it was a fun run while it lasted. Mike Matheny got fired right before the All-Star break when the team was 47-46. And kind of to my surprise, the Cardinals sort of hovered around .500 for longer than I remember with Shildt. Going into August, they were 54-53. At the end of August, they were 76-59.

Now, here’s the thing. These regular season runs are defined by change. Matt Holliday comes to the Cards, electrifies them. Shildt becomes manager, electrifies them. Any old 22-5 run in a month is obviously fun at the time, but the change is why we remember these moments instead of a similar month happening in a random month in 2013. At least, that’s the case for me.

So help me out here. Any moments before rival the type of pure fun I’m talking about that I haven’t mentioned, that maybe occurred before my time period or even during?

Later today, the Cardinals will try to effectively clinch the Wild Card, with a Phillies loss, a Braves loss, and a Reds loss. This is made possible because the Phillies and Braves are playing each other, and if both lose today, winning the rest of their games for either would mean winning the NL East, and would necessarily involve the other not winning all of their games and falling short of the 2nd Wild Card. Fun wrinkle though: if both the Braves and Phillies WIN today, it is not possible for the Cards to clinch on Tuesday even. Weird quirk there.