Big League Stew - MLB

Sharpen those No. 2 pencils and start brewing your cram coffee, because it's exam time here on Big League Stew. Between now and the start of the postseason, we'll be giving essay-style tests to a blogger from each of the eight teams lucky enough to earn a playoff ticket. First to take a seat in the classroom is Aaron Hooks of Cards Diaspora. His Redbirds clinched the NL Central title on Saturday night.

Team name: St. Louis Cardinals

GPA/school rank: 90-66 (as of Sept. 27) NL Central champions

Accomplishments: 10-time World Series champion,  17-time National League champion. 42 former Cardinals in Hall of Fame. Twelve former managers in Hall of Fame. Constant reminder to Chicago that losing sucks.

Special skills: Front line rotation (2.89 ERA for starters since July 1). Albert Pujols(notes) (reigning and pending NL MVP). Scott Boras' Glare (pushing Matt Holliday's(notes) production, in a free-agent year, to ridiculous levels).

References: Shaquille O'Neal (felt the wrath of Pujols during Shaq Vs.), Milton Bradley(notes) (without the Cards, he'd still be getting a check! PS: Nice signing, Cubbies), Mike Shannon (buy him a Busch and he's in), Walt Jocketty (ahhh, to only have a payroll...) and Fredbird

Financial aid: $95.6 million payroll

Personal statement Have you ever been to St. Louis? Chances are unless you grew up in within a 100-mile radius of the city or are a curved stainless steel fetishist, you've never had even the remotest inclination to visit our fair town. And trust us, we understand. Just this last week, our "international" airport cut 30 percent of its flights from the schedule interrupting a press conference from the mayor trying to spin our record unemployment figures that were coming out the same morning. (Perhaps the two men who were shot execution style downtown in broad daylight would lower the percentage?) If you didn't have to come to St. Louis, you wouldn't. No hard feelings.

But while Sports Illustrated is busy trying to rally America around the Tigers and Detroit's economic plight, I urge you to consider this: St. Louis has two things and two things only we have any pride in. The first is Anheuser-Busch, which was bought earlier this year by Belgian brewer InBev. The second, of course, is the Cardinals.

The Dutch are in the process of stripping half the pride we have anything in St. Louis while simultaneously making un-American beer and we, as Americans, can't do a damn thing about it.  All of that is to say, are you American? Do you like beer? Do you want to defend all our freedoms that we hold near and dear?

Then there is only one team to root for this October — the St. Louis Cardinals.

Perhaps your allegiance won't heal the Glock wound that the 10-year-old gang banger in East St. Louis just got while you read that last paragraph. And perhaps your temporary fandom won't make it any easier to swallow Bud Light Lime and know that the embarrassment of drinking that awful, awful concoction is the only thing that will stay in America. But it will give all of us St. Louisans the hope that if one day we work extra hard, and manage our life like Tony La Russa, maybe, just maybe, we can buy an $800 dollar plane ticket to a beach and quit using the Mississippi River sandbars as the gold standard for a getaway vacation.

What are your biggest strengths? ‘The Big 4'. Chris Carpenter(notes) and Adam Wainwright(notes) will both be in the top three for NL Cy Young voting. Albert Pujols will win the NL MVP and Matt Holliday would win the second-half MVP if such an award existed. Take these four players and match them up against any other teams' Big 4 and tell me who you've got money on. Go ahead. We'll wait....

That's what I thought. Periphery players like Ryan Ludwick(notes) (20 HRs in less than 500 ABs), Yadier Molina(notes) (another Gold Glove coming) and Joel Pineiro(notes) (sick second half) will help the Cardinals at some point in the 2009 playoffs, but your studs make the money for a reason — they win you championships.

What's your biggest weakness? Ryan Franklin(notes) (a.k.a. Brad Lidge(notes) West) His All-Star caliber first half has morphed into a mess. The only thing preventing Franklin's media demise like Mr. Lidge is the Cardinals' ability to come back and win in extra innings, as well as Ryan's facial hair.  (Seriously. You've got to love that chin bush.)

The Cardinals don't have much of a choice but to go with Franklin, so the 2009 NLCS could be the first to judge a closer's worth on who can blow a bigger save. TUMS advertising people should have been on the phone with the networks yesterday.

How have you changed over the year? No team in MLB has morphed from its original incarnation more than the Cardinals in 2009. When the season started Brian Barden(notes) was the third baseman and Chris Duncan(notes) was the left fielder. Those two gentlemen are now gone and have been replaced by Mark DeRosa(notes) and Matt Holliday (uhhh, upgrade!)

This team went from being the St. Louis We Have Albert Pujols Now Give Us Your Monies to a stacked offense with equally good pitching in the matter of two months. You expected the Phillies and the Dodgers to be good when April baseball began, but if you were on the Cardinal bandwagon at that point, God bless, because St. Louis sure as hell wasn't. Now October is looming and Busch Stadium has transformed from the world's largest funeral home to the Latin Quarter.

When did you first start believing in yourself? The easy answer? When the rumors about Holliday started after the team had already traded for DeRosa. We knew in this poor economy Scrooge DeWitt wasn't exactly clamoring to spend money (The team's big offseason signing was Trever Miller(notes)).  Eventually the Holliday deal got done and the city was all "Ok. Oooookay now."

But real Cardinal fans knew the moment that Chris Duncan, who happens to be pitching coach Dave Duncan's son, was traded for Julio Lugo(notes), that GM John Mozeliak wasn't going to take 2009 lying down. The elder Duncan blew his stack at the move, but Cardinal fans who had longed for more production than a love child of Heidi Pratt and a Geico caveman from their left fielder were emboldened by this glimpse of a sack by Johnny Mo. (And unlike with Lady Gaga, we liked it when we saw it.)

Can you tell us about a time you faced adversity and overcame it? You mean besides every Todd Wellemeyer(notes) start? Hi-Yo! June was a brutal month for the Cardinals. Finishing the month 12-17 and barely above .500 for the season, the prognosis for the rest of this campaign looked bleak. Free-agent acquisition Khalil Greene(notes) was put on the DL for anxiety issues, 2008's surprise Kyle Lohse(notes) joined him days later and the addition of Blake Hawksworth(notes) to the roster made for a league-high 13 rookies to play on an MLB team in 2009. The Cardinals looked like the Royals and Pirates if those teams mated and had an offspring that Tony La Russa taught how to play baseball.

But on June 27, everything changed when DeRosa came over with his bat from the Indians. The beginning of July brought a tear of pitching that has still yet to cool. And the Cubs provided little to no resistance. Game over.

In one month, where do you see yourself? Riding a big old fat Clydesdale down Market Street with a bottle of Bud in one hand and a middle finger to the rest of Major League Baseball. Suck an egg New York. Get lost Boston. Munch on this cheesesteak, Philly. Albert Pujols is the greatest hitter in the history of the game and his destiny is not one World Series ring, it's five. (At least. Matt Holliday even agrees.)

So chances are that 2009 isn't your year ... it's our year.

Aaron Hooks is managing editor for Cards Diaspora, contributor to InsideSTL and a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. You can also find him on Twitter.

Tuesday: The Yankees with Walkoff Walk's Rob Iracane

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