Cardinal baseball – it’s like a religion

I’ve always said the greatest baseball season of my life was 1964. I’m a native St. Louisan, and that’s the year St. Louis made it into the World Series for the first time since 1946. More important, it was the first time in my life that the Cardinals were in.

They shouldered their way into the Series in dramatic fashion – and with the help of the Philadelphia Phillies, whose monumental slide let the Cardinals into the Series on the last day. (Back then, there were no divisions, and no playoffs. Each league had 10 teams, and whoever sat atop each league at the end of the season went directly to the World Series. In case of a tie, a one-game tiebreaker brought elation to one city and dejection to the other.)

Some friends and I – none of us more than 15 years old (I was 14) – stood in line all night to get standing-room-only tickets to the second game. We smoked our first cigars to try to stay warm, but this turned out to be a failed idea. We got our tickets; I was so tired, however, that I kept dozing off during the game. (It was just as well. Bob Gibson pitched in his first World Series game ever, but he and the Cardinals lost to Mel Stottlemyre and the Yankees, 8-3.)

St. Louis won the series four games to three, in part on the strength of the bat and legs of Lou Brock, who had come from the Chicago Cubs to fill the hole in the outfield left by Stan Musial’s retirement.

I’ve always believed there would never be another season to top 1964, but I was wrong. 2011 is the new best baseball season of my life.

This year, the Atlanta Braves accommodated the Cardinals by swooning late in the season. The Cardinals were 8½ games behind Atlanta in the wild card race on Sept. 5 with just 22 games remaining. The Cardinals kept winning, the Braves kept losing, and voila! On the last day of the season, the Redbirds were in the playoffs.

In each round, the pundits said the Cardinals would fold. But they got past the Phillies. They got past the Brewers. They made it to the World Series, and the oddsmakers called them the underdogs. The Cardinals won, of course. The Texas Rangers were worthy opponents, but they got caught in the buzz saw of the Cardinals and the unceasing prayers of Cardinal Nation (the name adopted by all of us nationwide who cheer for the team with the “birds on bat” logo).

Not only did the Cardinals win, but they gave us what may be the greatest World Series game ever. People will talk about Game 6, 2011 for decades to come. Twice the Cardinals were within one strike of elimination before winning 10-9 in the 11th inning. The hometown kid, David Freese, put his name in the Cardinals history book for all time with that game, keeping us alive with a game-tying triple in the ninth inning and winning it with a walk-off home run in the 11th.

Yesterday, Tony La Russa, who has managed the Cardinals since 1996, announced his retirement from managing. (He held open the possibility that he might look at another job in baseball.) Tony won three World Series during his 33 years of managing – one with the Oakland A’s and two with the Cardinals.

He wasn’t popular with many St. Louisans when he first arrived. To make room for him, the highly revered Joe Torre was sent packing as the Cardinals manager. Over the years, though, Tony won the hearts of St. Louis by delivering competitive teams almost every year. He took the Cardinals to the World Series three times, in 2004, 2006 and 2011. He took us to the playoffs nine times during the 16 years he managed the Cardinals.

To St. Louis, baseball is a religion, and Busch Stadium is a cathedral. Each game is like a joyful worship service, and attendance at the 81 services a year consistently tops 3 million.

The manager of the team is, well, both a Cardinal and a cardinal. Red Schoendienst wore the mantle well, as did Whitey Herzog and Joe Torre. None wore it better than Tony La Russa, however. He turned out to be the best keeper of the faith that Cardinal nation ever had, and he’ll be greatly missed.

2012 presents many question marks. Who’ll be the next manager? Will Albert Pujols stay (as we all know he should)? And will the Cardinals be competitive again next year?

Time will tell. One thing you can believe in, however, is that the Cardinal congregation, Cardinal Nation, will be filling the cathedral regardless of what happens. Come next spring, Pujols or no Pujols, Busch Stadium will sell out on opening day, and the Cardinals again will be on their way to attracting 3-million-plus worshipers to the ballpark.

And who knows? Maybe 2012 will be the best baseball season ever.

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