This summer has made me think a lot about what it means to be a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals.
For most of 2021, the performance of the team – read that “team” holistically: the players, coaching staff, and front office… everybody – brought out the worst in us fans. Everywhere fans gathered – in person, on social media, in the comments sections of blogs and articles, even in my own head – when talk turned to the Cardinals, things got ugly.
Constant complaining about the lineup.
Constant picking on, first, Carpenter for his poor play. Then Paul DeJong for his extended slump.
The offense and its coaching staff were a traveshamockery. (For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s when a travesty, a sham, and a mockery get together for a wild weekend.)
The pitching staff was an embarrassment of record-setting ineptitude.
The front office twiddled its thumbs while noting market costs.
They finally made their move to grab J.A. Happ and Jon Lester and the heckle hounds only bayed louder.
I’m sure I’ve contributed to some of that. Here and on Twitter.
I think we all have at some point.
It was a rough, rough summer.
It felt like the worst summer of baseball in St. Louis in decades. And it probably was.
We would have to go all the way back to 2007 to find a team that was as painful to watch as this 2021 team was through August. That year the Cardinals started bad, and it only got worse. Their offseason acquisitions of Adam Kennedy and Kip Wells fell completely flat. The club made the head-scratching decision to move Braden Looper to the rotation. The already disappointing Anthony Reyes took an even more disappointing step back.
It was too much for Albert Pujols, a powerless Scott Rolen, and a decline-phase Jim Edmonds to overcome.
This 2021 season reminded me a lot of that team, with a pitching staff that was falling apart, age catching up with some roster stalwarts, and some legitimate superstars not able to shore up the ever-widening holes.
Then again, as frustrating as that 2007 team was, we were all still high on a World Series win and, if we were honest with ourselves, we kind of knew that club was a team in transition. It was messy, but there were enough good graces built up through years of overwhelming success and a new banner waving in the summer breeze at Busch to buy some patience.
Not so this season. This abysmal 2021 summer followed a 2020 year that essentially didn’t exist. That season fed fans with just 58 games, a team-wide COVID outbreak, and a meek showing in the expanded playoff field. The pot of goodwill the club had built over decades of success was nearly empty.
So, from May through August, when the team started to fall apart, the fan base followed. For the first time, ownership began to see the impact of their pursuit of just-better-than-mediocre in the turnstiles and seats. Busch frequently looked empty and depressing.
Still, the club kept going. Manager Mike Shildt’s continued positive assurances – which became a point of mockery for many fans this season – rang hollow but proved true. The club battled. They gave it their all. They didn’t “do too much”. They texted Jim Edmonds during the games. They called long-forgotten Cardinals to help them with their batting approach.
They hovered around .500.
Then Mozeliak made his long-called-for move, not only in acquiring the hated former Cub Jon Lester and the forgettable J.A. Happ but also digging into the waiver-wire for immortals like Luis Garcia and T.J. MacFarland.
Despite the continual jabs from fans and writers – again, myself included – these moves helped right the ship. Paul Goldschmidt started to heat up. Some pitchers started to return from injury. Roles were shifted. The defense started to play as advertised. The team started to win a few games.
Even before this current streak, the Cardinals were moving in the right direction. Their playoff odds, which had hovered below 5% for much of the season, ticked upward. The Padres fell apart. The Reds slipped. The Phillies became irrelevant.
The club was doing what DeWitt wanted. They were playing meaningful baseball in September. It looked like solid performance down the stretch against the division-leading Brewers and the cliff-diving Cubs would lead them to the Selig Game.
Then the club went and won, as of today (Tuesday afternoon), 16 games in a row.
(Update: 17 now. And a postseason berth clinched! Article updates are in italics.)
I’m not sure that the mechanics of such a streak are worth breaking down. Sure, there are fascinating stats to get into. Like Bader’s hot play. Goldschmidt’s near-MVP candidacy. O’Neill’s dominance. The pitching staff as a whole.
In some ways, I feel like digging into what is happening would be pointless because the inevitable conclusion would be “none of this is sustainable” and “they probably shouldn’t have won as many games as they did.”
Well, of course, that’s true! Of course 16 (17!) consecutive wins is not sustainable! Of course they should not have won as many games as they did!
They did, though.
They won those games.
And we got to watch them do it.
There’s no explaining it. There’s just enjoying it.
The 2021 Cardinals – not the 2004 Cardinals or the 2006 Cardinals or the 2011 Cardinals or even the 2015 Cardinals – have set the club record for consecutive wins. And as I write this on Tuesday morning, the streak is still alive. (Still going on Wednesday morning, too!) They are on the verge of securing a Wild Card spot with games to spare. (They’re in!)
Considering everything that’s happened this summer, it seems impossible for this season to finish as a disappointment. This wild streak has righted months of wrongs and while few expect the Cards to translate that to extended postseason success, just getting there in this fashion nearly renders the end result moot.
That’s typical for the Cardinals. They rarely disappoint.
My first memories of the Cardinals come in the 1980s. I was four when they won in ’82. And while I don’t remember that season at all, by the time the ’85 season rolled around, I already had a well-entrenched opinion of the Whiteyball Cards. They were good! One of the best teams in baseball. I loved Ozzie Smith. Willie McGee. Vince Coleman. Jack Clark. That love was built more on mystique and reputation and baseball cards than on actually understanding their play and performance.
I remember sitting around the fire at a campsite on Table Rock Lake in the fall of ’85 listening to Jack Buck call an NLCS game. I think it was the “Go Crazy” game, but I was 7, so my memory is hazy at best. All the adults around me were cheering and shouting. So I cheered and shouted along with them! Did I know what had just happened? Not really. What I understood was that this was a special moment that demanded a special reaction.
Do you know what I remember about the 1987 season? I was 9 now. SO much older than I was in 85! Those two years did make a pretty big difference, though. My mom made chili on one brisk Sunday evening. We had a little color television on the kitchen counter. We sat around our glass table with the game on that little TV. I can still taste the chili. My mom still makes it the same way. It was Game 7. The Cards lost to a team that played inside what looked like a trash bag. But Kirby Puckett was pretty awesome. I was upset about it, sure. But I remember the moment and not unfondly. Even in a loss, baseball won me over.
In those years, I discovered TBS on our new cable box. The Cards games weren’t on TV yet but the Braves always were. I was still a Cards fan first but I found myself watching Atlanta a lot. (Even then I couldn’t bring myself to watch the Cubs and WGN). Gregg Maddux became my favorite player. I checked the Cards’ boxscores every morning in the Springfield News-Leader but watched the Braves every night. Thankfully, the old Prime Sports Network started up not too long after and Cards games were on more regularly. I watched as much baseball as I could.
Yes, the 1990s Cardinals weren’t very good. I didn’t know the difference, really. I played baseball in my backyard. I watched baseball. My life was baseball. Win or lose, baseball didn’t really let me down.
Plus, there was the ’96 team. I honestly missed much of that as a freshman in college; more interesting things held my attention that fall. But I still consumed as much baseball as I could. Tony LaRussa. Mark McGwire. Fantasy baseball. The Post-Dispatch went online. I watched and read. Chat boards let me start writing about it.
Since then, as an adult, the Cardinals have done nothing but win. I still look back on that 2000 team as one of my favorites. After summers of losing baseball, that club was like a breath of fresh air. 2003 was a bit rough, but Rolen came and it seemed like the Cards were heading toward greatness.
2004 was the best season of baseball I have ever had the pleasure to watch. Yes, it ended in disappointment, but that’s the kind of disappointment that we all accept with fandom. It was the same disappointment I felt in ’87. It only strengthened my love for the game. Even the best teams don’t win it all every year.
The late 2000s were rebuilds but those teams still had Pujols. Holliday came, too. Adam Wainwright became an ace. Yadi started to discover his bat.
I don’t need to go through the history since. 2011 was and will always be the greatest moment in my baseball watching experience. The Matheny era was a bit rough, but at least the club was almost always in contention. Analytics developed and I suddenly found myself learning whole new aspects of the game… and finding venues to write about them.
The last few seasons have been harder. But, even then, it’s not as if we’ve really suffered. Cardinals suffering is just not the same as it is elsewhere. The club has consistently made late-season runs to at least make things interesting since ’15, even if they only won the division once – 2019.
Yes, we complain about DeWitt’s approach to roster building – do enough to ensure “meaningful baseball in September.”
But you know what I enjoy? Meaningful baseball in September.
Now they’ve added this unprecedented and wholly unbelievable winning streak to my list of great Cardinal memories. I feel like a kid again, taking Jack Buck’s exhortation to “go crazy, folks” seriously while not fully understanding what in the heck is happening.
Sure, this streak will end. Maybe tonight, even. That will be disappointing. But, also, not.
The quantity of winning seasons, division championships and deep post-season runs the Cardinals have made in my lifetime is an embarrassment of riches. Couple that with the success the Braves had in the 90s (which I enjoyed thoroughly) and my baseball life has been privileged, to say the least.
Three World Championships in my 43 years is a lot compared to fans of pretty much any other team. The way they’ve won those championships — 2011, for example — is like extra icing on a cake full of icing.
But that’s still 40 seasons that ended with a loss.
Yes, at times the Cardinals have brought disappointment. Such is the way of sports.
But the Cardinals rarely disappoint.
This season is no different. I won’t forget it.