Sensing inevitability closing in on him from every angle that final week of the 1964 season, Cardinals manager Johnny Keane grabbed a blank sheet of paper and began writing, in longhand, his letter of resignation.
A month earlier general manager Bing Devine had been fired, the Cardinals trailed Philadelphia by 6½ games with 13 to play, and Keane had heard rumblings of his replacement. He wanted to be prepared for what was obviously coming, so he slipped the letter into an envelope and carried it with him.
He didn't break the seal until the Cardinals had won the World Series and he could leave the club on his own terms.
When the Phillies arrived in St. Louis for the penultimate series of the regular season, they led by two games and Keane kept that letter close. The Cardinals, however, swept Philadelphia to take over first place for the first time on the 179th day of the season. Though the Cardinals won nine of their final 11 games, it's the Phillies, the fiddling with their rotation, and their 10-game losing streak that is remembered as one of the greatest collapses in baseball history.
Two teams are playing to avoid that bad trip this season.
Ahead of a four-game series against the Phillies this weekend, the Cardinals are again the chaser, 4½ games behind wild card-leading Atlanta and in need of another historic collapse to reach October. It is a mathematically daunting gap with only 13 games remaining. Keane's crew showed it can be done.
In the American League, the Boston Red Sox led Tampa Bay by nine games in the wild-card race Sept. 3. That lead has been cut to three games by this morning as the Rays surged and face Boston this weekend. Likewise, the Braves led the Cardinals by 8½ games Sept. 5, only to later visit St. Louis and have the Cardinals cleave three games off that lead with a series sweep. At this time of the season, such deficits are mostly teases, close enough to dream but not close enough to erase.
With two weeks to go, the Cardinals and the Rays don't need to rewind all the way back to Keane to find out how to make history. Since the advent of the wild card in 1995, here are three collapses that show how the Cardinals' and Rays' chances are improbable, but not impossible.
1995 CALIFORNIA ANGELS
Led by 6 games with 17 to play.
The website Coolstandings.com uses team performance to run simulations for the remaining games of the season and calculate how many times each team qualifies for the postseason. The highest peak percentage of a team that did not reach the playoffs was the California Angels, who on August 24, 1995, had a 99.9 percent chance of a postseason berth, according to Coolstandings.com's simulations.
At one point in August, California's lead swelled to 11 games, and as late as Sept. 12, the Angels led the division by six.
What followed was their second nine-game losing streak in a 26-game span. The Angels' starting rotation ruptured, allowing 38 earned runs in its final 44 innings of that losing streak for a 7.77 ERA. Seattle, once behind as much as 13 games, surged. California had to win its final five games just to force a one-game playoff at Seattle. Mariners ace Randy Johnson snuffed out the Angels for good with 12 strikeouts in his complete-game win.
2007 NEW YORK METS
Led by 7 games with 17 to play.
Now viewed as part of a failed era that also included a Game 7 loss to the Cardinals in the 2006 National League Championship Series and record spending on Carlos Beltran and Johan Santana, the Mets meltdown in September 2007 was nothing short of epic.
On Sept. 28, the Mets lost their eighth consecutive home game and dropped out of first place for the first time since May 15. The Mets unraveled by losing 12 of their final 17 games, and many pointed to manager Willie Randolph and his inability to keep the club and clubhouse from disaster. The Cardinals played a small part in the Mets' collapse, visiting on Sept. 27 for a one-game makeup. The Cardinals were furious that the Mets had called a rainout several months earlier and forced them back to Shea Stadium for a game that mattered only to the Mets. Joel Piñeiro pitched eight shutout innings for the win, and shortstop David Eckstein called playing a part in another team's playoff frustration "a consolation prize."
The Mets had no problems scoring during their skid. The Mets' pitching, built upon vets Tom Glavine and Pedro Martinez, faltered. In the season finale, Glavine allowed seven runs in the first inning. Philadelphia started the Mets' free fall with a three-game sweep at Shea. Current Cardinal Kyle Lohse got a key win for the Phillies as they seized their first playoff berth since 1993.
"It's something that's going to take a while for us to get over," Glavine told reporters in the aftermath.
2009 DETROIT TIGERS
Led by 7 games with 26 to play.
Although they cooperated, the Tigers' collapse two years ago was more a case of the Minnesota Twins snatching the lead than Detroit frittering it away. The Twins won 17 of their final 21 games to force a one-game playoff for the American League Central. It took a compelling 12 innings to decide that game, with the Twins eventually winning 6-5 on a walk-off single by Alexi Casilla.
The Tigers, who featured current Cardinals Gerald Laird and Edwin Jackson, invited trouble by struggling against the losing teams within their own division. The Kansas City Royals swept a series at Detroit to start the Tigers' troubles. Detroit lost five of six to KC and four of six to the White Sox down the stretch. They kept the Twins at bay by winning three of the seven head-to-head meetings. Minnesota was flawless against every other team, winning 10 of their final 11 games.
Detroit became the first team in modern baseball to lose a three-game lead with only four games remaining.
"We were ... watching the teams and hoping the other team wouldn't catch us (in 2009) as opposed to just burying the team we played," Brandon Inge told Booth Newspapers last week. "One's looking over your shoulder and the other is, 'I don't care what the guy behind me is doing.' ... Just tear up that next team you're playing."
That is one way to outrun history.