The St. Louis Cardinals have won the World Series with Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith. They've won it with speed. They've won with power. They've won it with pitching, defense and mastermind managers.
Until now, the Cardinals had never won a World Series with a team like this. A team that was lost, left behind and stranded in the standings. A team too stubborn and proud to accept the hopelessness of the situation. A team that fought back like no other has in franchise history.
A team that on Friday night completed one of the truly spectacular comebacks in major-league baseball history. With the autumn chill providing a holiday feeling, 47,399 fans saw their storied and beloved franchise win its 11th World Series championship.
Compared to the miracle rallies of Game 6, the seventh and deciding game was calm and almost clinical. In a 6-2 victory over the Texas Rangers, the Cardinals received a tough-minded start from their ace, Chris Carpenter. Mr. St. Louis, David Freese, lined another clutch hit, a two-run double. Allen Craig swatted a solo homer and made a catch to deny the home-run bid of Rangers slugger Nelson Cruz. The STL offense tacked on a few more runs, and the Cardinals bullpen locked the gate.
The Cardinals, for once, took it easy on our hearts. There was no crisis or emergency. Sure, there was a final comeback, just for old times' sake. It was almost as if the Cardinals had planned it as a way to honor this glorious and most unusual 2011 season.
The Rangers punched at Carpenter for two first-inning runs, taking advantage of the big man before he could find his curveball and rhythm. But the irrepressible Freese got those two runs back in the bottom of the first.
The piercing double was a dagger to the Rangers, who had to be feeling good after seemingly recovering from the crushing loss in Game 6. But Freese made the Rangers feel bad again. He finished the postseason with a record 21 RBIs and was named World Series MVP.
Carpenter moved in for the kill, setting a franchise record for most wins (four) in a single postseason. Carpenter, 9-2 overall in his Cardinals postseason career, ran his home postseason mark to 7-0 with a 2.15 ERA. Bob Gibson would be proud of Carp.
Tony La Russa became only the ninth manager in major-league history to win at least three World Series. He joined illustrious company: Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel, Connie Mack, Walter Alston, Joe Torre, Sparky Anderson, Miller Huggins and John McGraw.
Moreover, La Russa gave the St. Louis fans their second World Series title in six seasons, joining Billy Southworth (1942, 1946) as the only managers in club history to lead the Cardinals to multiple world championships.
As always, the Cardinals did it the TLR way. This team competed in a way that reflected La Russa's forceful, unyielding personality. The Cardinals' players won this for themselves and for each other, but they also won this World Series for their manager, who was criticized from coast to coast after a shaky performance in Game 5. These loyal players had Don Tony's back.
When asked what La Russa brought to this championship effort, Freese said: "Everything."
A soft manager and team would have never survived the challenges that confronted the 2011 Cardinals. The Cardinals lost ace pitcher Adam Wainwright to season-ending elbow surgery in spring training. It was a devastating blow, even before they could break a sweat in Florida. Albert Pujols started slowly, then broke a bone in his wrist.
Along the way the Cardinals were blitzed by a cruel run of injuries and had to use the disabled list 17 times. The DL residents included Pujols, Matt Holliday, Freese and Craig.
There was first-half chaos in the bullpen. La Russa left the team for a week to receive treatment for a harsh, painful case of the shingles. Pitching coach Dave Duncan took a leave of absence to be with his ailing wife, Jeanine. (By the way, Jeanine was at the ballpark on Friday night, and her presence must have meant the world to Dave.)
The adversity never ended. One body blow after another, and much of it unfair. But this tenacious team wouldn't quit. And general manager John Mozeliak never quit on the season, making trades to repair the bullpen and patch the hole at shortstop.
Mozeliak saved 2011.
Somehow, it all came together. Once the Cardinals established balance and traction, nothing could stop them. The comeback wasn't just amazing; it was historically profound.
"Unbelievable, amazing, incredible," La Russa said. "It's hard to believe it actually happened."
The Cardinals trailed the Braves in the NL wild card race by 101/2 games with 32 games remaining on the schedule. They trailed the Braves by three games with five to play. They trailed the Philadelphia Phillies 1-0 and 2-1 in the NL division series.
The Cardinals trailed the Milwaukee Brewers 1-0 in the NLCS. They trailed the Rangers 3-2 in the World Series. The trailed the Rangers five times in Game 6 and won 10-9; no team in World Series history had ever come back as many times in a single game to win it. And on Friday night, the Cardinals did it again, overcoming the Rangers' early 2-0 lead.
That's why, of the Cardinals' 11 World Series champions, this may be the most unusual. A case can be made that these Cardinals pulled off the greatest comeback in MLB history. There are other legitimate candidates, such as the 1914 Boston Braves, who were in last place in the AL on July 4. Or the 1978 New York Yankees, who were 14½ games out in July. And certainly the 1964 Cardinals deserve special acclaim. But no team had ever won it all after being 10½ games out of a playoff spot as late as Aug. 24.
No team, that is, until the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals.
"It's a dream come true," Freese said. "Every step of the way has been incredible. We really had to work hard for this. We believed. We wanted it. But we stayed humble. We had to fight our way into the playoffs, but once you get in it gives you a special feeling. We just kept our heads down and worked hard."
Nothing was given to the 2011 Cardinals. They fought for this. They earned this. They deserved this. They would not be denied. Every time they were knocked down, these hardy souls picked themselves back up. And it went this way all the way into the World Series. At times you wondered how the Cardinals managed to pull it off, to rise to battle for another day.
Facing elimination by the Rangers in Game 6, how can a group of players possibly continue to believe after being down to their last strike - the last breath - in the ninth inning, and again in the 10th? How can you win a World Series game after trailing five times in 10 innings?
"We've got great character, that's why," Carpenter said. "The personalities in our clubhouse are unbelievable. I'll never forget them. I'll never forget this."
A grateful and happily stunned Cardinal Nation seconds that emotion.