If you’d take a poll of baseball fans who don’t cite the Cardinals as their favorite team, I’m certain the results would show that America is rooting for the Pittsburgh Pirates to win the NL division series.
Unless you’re a Cardinals loyalist, what’s not to like about the Pirates? The Bucs have energy, enthusiasm and freshness and personify everything lovable about the underdog spirit that built this great country ... or something like that.
In the summer of 2013 the Pirates found their way out of the darkness of losing. They escaped their miserable existence by breaking free and shouting out loud with unbridled joy ... think of Jesse Pinkman at the end of “Breaking Bad.”
Between 1993 and 2012 the Pittsburgh franchise lost more games (1,796) than any team in MLB. To Pirates fans the count must have seemed like 17,000 losses.
A few years back after writing a column in advance of the Cardinals' home opener, I described Busch Stadium as the happiest place on earth. I received a grumpy email from a Pittsburgh sportscaster who was depressed by the hopelessness and despair of Pirates baseball.
After reading it, I didn't want the guy to go anywhere near a bridge that leads to PNC Park. He concluded the note by adding that maybe one day the Pirates would have an opening day like St. Louis _ with the home ballpark filled with smiling, happy, proud people ... but he didn't think it would happen in his lifetime.
Well, it's happened, pal.
St. Louis is fortunate here. The Cardinals have a rich and illustrious history, and current chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. continues to add championship trophies to the team’s baseball fine-art collection.
Since DeWitt became owner in 1996, the Cardinals have won two World Series and three league pennants and have the most postseason victories (57) by an NL franchise. That's 19 more wins than the next NL team on the list, Atlanta (with 38.)
The Cardinals have played in more postseason games (105), and won more of them than any MLB team but the New York Yankees since '96. And the Cardinals enter the 2013 postseason in search of a 12th World Series championship.
As Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said, “They are a team that many look to when you try to model success.”
Tuesday night at PNC the Pirates won their first postseason game since 2002. And the scenes from their ballpark were sensational. It was truly an experience that made you feel good by watching it. And the mother of Pirates' center fielder Andrew McCutchen sang the national anthem? How cool is that? How can anyone (non-Cardinal fan) dislike the Pirates?
You do realize what this means, right?
The Pirates warm and fuzzy story makes the Cardinals the NL’s version of the Yankees — well, minus the daily psychodrama, bizarro world A-Rod obsession and preposterously wasteful payroll.
The Cardinals haven't done anything wrong here _ except win all the time, which leads to a fatigued feeling of "I'm tired of seeing these guys every October."
The Cardinals have usually won with class, but that doesn't matter. Because if you're playing the Pirates in the autumn of 2013, that makes you the heavy, the villain.
Unfair? Yes. The Cardinals have attained special status, and they know it. They've earned it by building an elite organization _ and not by trying to buy up free agents. In fact, the Cardinals are the opposite; they actually got better after letting Albert Pujols sulk off to Anaheim. And the combative Tony La Russa retired, which probably made the Cardinals more embraceable outside of St. Louis.
Only to a point, though. Eventually, resentment forms. Winners wear people down. The Cardinals routinely appear on the nation’s TV screens in the fall, irritating rival teams and fans with their cool confidence, omnivorous appetite for more postseason success and an inherent sense of October entitlement.
When Game 1 starter Adam Wainwright was asked if he’d have to calm his nerves before Thursday’s game at Busch Stadium, the ace threw a knockdown pitch for an answer.
“No,” Wainwright said. “I mean, we have a long history of playoff games here.”
Later Wainwright offered a testimonial to the “Cardinal Way.” That one is right up there with the incessant “Best Fans in Baseball” proclamations on the list of things that really, really annoy envious outsiders. (Especially in Cincinnati, tee-hee.) And if you think I'm ripping Cardinals fans, you are incorrect. They are the best. But just mention the Cardinals as "The Best Fans in Baseball" in Milwaukee or Cincinnati, and you'll find out what I'm talking about.
I’d guess that 97 percent of the neutral baseball fans in these 50 United States would be delighted to see the Pirates of Penance knock the Birds off the Bat, out of the division series, and into the offseason. And they'd probably get a kick out of seeing the Best Fans in Baseball cry in their beer.
“Our strategy from day one is to always worry about ourselves and play our game,” said bow-tie wearing Cardinals GM John Mozeliak — somewhat haughtily. “In terms of who people want to see win, I really don’t know. I think my neighbors want to see us win, so that’s good.”
Yes, the Pirates are America’s team going into this one.
And those heartless bullies in Cardinal red had best leave the little darlings alone, so the Pirates can continue on their merry way, inspiring all of the day-dream believers out there who love “Rocky,” the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, “Rudy,” and early-round NCAA upsets.
PNC used to be an abandoned building; an estimated crowd of 293 people used to attend Pirates games. But PNC is now PC in Pittsburgh. With the NFL Steelers suddenly all Rams-like in their hideousness, and the NHL Penguins just getting started, the Pirates’ proud vessel is now standing-room only.
The coldblooded Cardinals wouldn’t dare disappoint America by spoiling this heartwarming, uplifting, underdog tale ... would they? Well, sure they would. That's what they do. Mike Matheny is a nice-guy manager, but the team still has the "Don Tony" La Russa DNA. How could can the Cardinals possibly take “Seabiscuit” down to defeat?
1. Win the first two games of the NLDS and make it virtually impossible for the Pirates to come back. But if the Cardinals allow the Pirates to win one of the first two games at Busch Stadium, it’s danger time. Going back to the 2000 postseason, 35 teams have opened the best-of-five division series on the road by doing no worse than splitting the first two games. And 24 of the 35 proceeded to win the series. Road teams that do well in the first two games have a distinct advantage going forward.
2. Starting pitching rules: Over the past 10 postseasons, the team that finished the LDS with the better starting-pitching ERA won 32 of the 40 division series.
3. Winning the RISP showdown. The Cardinals led the majors with a .330 batting average with runners in scoring position this season. From the start of the season through July 24, the Pirates pitchers were the best in the majors at denying runs when threatened with runners in scoring position; opposing batters hit only .216 in those RISP situations.
But the Pirates’ pitchers gradually regressed to the mean; from July 25 on, their pitchers allowed a .289 average with RISP. In their nine wins over the Pirates the Cardinals hit .378; in the 10 losses to the Bucs that RISP average was .183.
4. The Cardinals will ask multiple rookies to secure as many as the nine final nine outs to preserve late-inning leads. If Carlos Martinez, Seth Maness, Kevin Siegrist and Trevor Rosenthal can hold the Pirates down, their strong grip could tilt the series in Cards’ favor. If not? Uh-oh. Get the Tums ready.
5. Hope to be kissed by the gods of October randomness. The best regular-season teams don’t always win. Most of the time an unexpected piece of drama flips the script and sets off primal screams.
A few shorthand examples from recent Cardinals’ postseasons: So Taguchi homering off NY Mets closer Billy Wagner, Shea Stadium, 2006 NLCS Game 2. ... Jeff Weaver, three postseason wins, 2006. .... Anthony Reyes outpitching Detroit’s Justin Verlander to win Game 1 of the 2006 World Series. ... All things David Freese, 2011. ... Pete Kozma, game-winning hit in the ninth inning of NLDS Game 5.
The Cardinals are the best team in the National League. The Pirates are the best story in baseball.
The Cardinals have an immense legacy. The Pirates have newfound legitimacy.
These teams compete in the same division but live in separate worlds. And when history meets hysteria, we’re in for thrilling entertainment.
Everybody loves a winner ... unless they win too much. The Pirates aren't at that stage yet. The Cardinals most definitely are. When the top dog goes after the underdog, the Cardinals won't win the popularity contest. But they should win the series.