ST. LOUIS – Only here, in the land of the improbable, can two girls, cute little blondes no older than 10, double-fist bottles of beer, douse one another and win knowing glances from everyone else who is too drunk on euphoria to care. Here is where two brothers, Californians with that preternatural cool, just lose it and spill tears into each other's shoulders, and here is where the runt, the one who has never owned a new car, drives into the sunset in a yellow Corvette, and here is where a team that lost 78 games during Major League Baseball's regular season, an all-time underdog, wins a World Series.
What should have been wasn't, and were any beauty salvaged from a series that could have used a face lift, tummy tuck and case of Botox, this was it. The St. Louis Cardinals dug and ground and burrowed their way to a 10th championship Friday, stunting the Detroit Tigers one final time, 4-2, to close out the series in the fifth game at Busch Stadium. And though the series hinged on errors committed by the Tigers, its roughest edges found sandpaper in the form of the Cardinals, who needed Jeff Weaver, one of the Californians, to bamboozle the team that drafted him, and called upon David Eckstein, all 5-foot-7 of him, to drive in two more runs and win the series MVP.
There were others in the crew, too, retreads and has-beens, a motley bunch to surround Albert Pujols, who, it turned out, had little to do with St. Louis' first championship in 24 years. It was a team in the strictest sense, cobbled together by St. Louis general manager Walt Jocketty and helmed by manager Tony La Russa, who convinced the Cardinals what no one else believed: They could.
So they did, and there they were, in the third incarnation of Busch Stadium, celebrating, the men in uniforms or suits, the women in jerseys or couture, the kids wearing Budweiser.
"It just shows you this is the best game in the world because you can't predict it," Eckstein said. "You get a bunch of guys on a mission, going out there, playing as hard as they can, as smart as they can, until the game ends, and anything is possible."
Probable, on the other hand, it wasn't. Everyone knows the story. The Cardinals finished 83-78, nearly blew an 8½-game National League Central lead over Houston in the season's final 12 days and dragged their ready-to-be-buried corpse into the playoffs for a quick funeral against San Diego.
Only the Cardinals won the series opener.
"And it's more fun to believe in yourself," La Russa said. "When I saw our club respond the first game in San Diego, I thought we had a shot.
"No, I knew we had a shot."
An onyx sky settled over downtown Friday afternoon with the long shot long gone. This was an opportunity to finish off the Tigers and avoid a trip to Detroit, where Kenny Rogers, all of a sudden the postseason maestro, awaited in Game 6. And it was a chance to soften the 21-year-old memories of Don Denkinger's blown call against Kansas City, one that still peppers local conversation.
Before he went to the field, La Russa rubbed a bronze statue of his dog, Res, who died in July. He needed Weaver – released earlier this season by the Los Angeles Angels so his brother, Jered, could join the rotation – to keep stopping the Tigers, whose batting average in the series skulked around .200 before the game. He needed Yadier Molina, the breakout player of this postseason, to keep hitting like he has, deep enough to the gaps that he can lug his weight for extra bases. He needed Eckstein, the nuisance, to annoy.
By the second inning, La Russa felt rather fulfilled. Weaver struck out four of the first six hitters he faced, and Molina stood on third base when Eckstein launched a ball inside the line. Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge laid out to field the ball, only to rush his throw and skip it 3 feet to the right of first baseman Sean Casey.
Of all the errors in the series – and they were certainly its hallmark – the gravest came two innings later. Casey's two-run home run had given the Tigers a one-run lead, and Detroit starter Justin Verlander pitched to Weaver with one out and runners on first and second. Weaver hit the ball at Verlander, who pirouetted and tried to catch the lead runner. Instead, Inge never took his foot off the bag, and the ball skipped into left field for a run, and Eckstein would drive in another on a groundout.
"Picked a great time to mess up," Verlander said. "I don't ever remember throwing one of those away, to be honest, aside from spring training practice. I always thought it was a pretty routine play for me."
For all of the Tigers it should be. And yet for the fifth consecutive game, a pitcher botched a routine play, and it led to at least one run scoring.
"The sick part about it is 99 times out of 100 we all make the play, and this was five times in a row we didn't," Tigers closer Todd Jones said. "It's going to be a T-shirt, I'm sure, somewhere."
In big, bold letters: E-1.
The atmosphere shifted following Verlander's faux pas. The crowd that earlier gasped when Stan Musial nearly fell throwing out the first pitch cheered every Weaver twirl, sure, though muffled itself with the anxiety that accompanies the first World Series victory in a generation.
Once more, in the seventh, did the Cardinals give reason to cheer. Eckstein, who hit .364 with a team-high four RBI in the series, scored on a single to right field by third baseman Scott Rolen.
"You ever have that fly in the car?" Cardinals outfielder Preston Wilson said. "You're riding in the car, and you left down the window and you think he's gone, and two minutes later he's still in there, and you're swatting, and you're like, 'I can't get it.' That's David Eckstein."
Warming up in the bullpen was Adam Wainwright, who last year was in St. Simons Island, Ga., watching with his family as the Chicago White Sox won the World Series. A rookie named Bobby Jenks closed for them. Like Wainwright, he was a late-season replacement with no playoff experience, a heart palpitation waiting to happen.
After Weaver polished off Craig Monroe looking at a third strike and Carlos Guillen swinging at one to end the eighth inning, it was Wainwright's time. He loped in from the bullpen, almost the anti-Jenks, long and sinewy.
Wainwright had finished off the New York Mets in the NL Championship Series by catching Carlos Beltran staring at a curveball, and his presence inspired enough confidence for one man in the right-field stands to light a victory cigar before Wainwright had recorded one out.
The first was Magglio Ordoñez, one of the players who had turned the Tigers from perennial losers, along with manager Jim Leyland, into a compelling group of their own. Walks to Casey and Placido Polanco (who went 0 for 17 after winning ALCS MVP), and a groundout by Pudge Rodriguez, brought up Inge, still kicking himself for the error at third.
On the first strike, swinging, the buzz returned to the stadium. On the second, looking, it crescendoed. Because on the third, swinging – at a slider, a perfect pitch like the curve to Beltran – the 46,638 at Busch did not know whether to yell or cry, whether to grab for all the confetti – the blue and yellow and green and orange and white and purple – or just go for the red.
"I'll never throw another curveball or slider," Wainwright said, "without thinking of those two pitches."
Wainwright threw those two pitches only because of a season-ending injury to Jason Isringhausen. Starter Mark Mulder missed most of the season as well, and his absence necessitated the Cardinals to find an adequate replacement. At the time he signed, Weaver looked more like a jalopy, bought at bargain-bin prices and operating with little success.
Such were some of the Cardinals pitchers, or so it seemed until the postseason. San Diego hit .225, and the Mets' mighty bats managed a .231 average against St. Louis in a seven-game NLCS loss. Worst of all were the Tigers, who hit .199 against the Cardinals, impatient bats their weakness, St. Louis' strike-throwers their downfall.
Weaver, after the 30-second embrace with Jered, bounded toward the stands and helicoptered his hat. Chris Duncan, almost the goat after two misplays in right field, laughed because he could, his contributions rendered inconsequential. The Cardinals always managed to do that: Bury the bad by answering with runs when scored upon, whether a game-winning single from Wilson, the doubles Thursday from Eckstein, a triple in New York from Scott Spiezio or a home run against the Mets from So Taguchi.
"This is probably, on paper, our worst team of the last four or five years," Rolen said. "And this is the team that wins the World Series."
The last time they were there, in 2004, Rolen went 0 for 15. That zero was the closest any Cardinal got to a ring.
"Now I got one," Pujols said. "Awesome. Great. But I want to keep getting more."
It's easy to get greedy, overwhelmed by the championship and forgetful of what it means to St. Louis. Outside the stadium, in brick squares that lined the walkway down South 7th Street, were the truest feelings, etched in permanence.
There was Lucille Waeltz, whose brick said she was the Cardinals' greatest fan, and the Emge family, five generations of Cards fans. There was the Schrage family, of Waverly, Iowa, which said that games finish and seasons end, but memories will never fade, and there was Robert Turner, who was at Game 7 of the 1982 World Series, the last year St. Louis won, and promised that he would cherish forever a champion.
Then there was Donna Botkin, whose message was simple: It's not just a game.
And it wasn't. On the night the Cardinals won the World Series, the night a police chopper settled above the city and strangers honked horns and opened car doors to high five one another until 3 a.m., it was about the improbable, and how one night in St. Louis, it actually happened.
- Tony La Russa