The Cardinals staged their final, precious rally of 2011 on Sunday, this one in the form of a victory lap in downtown St. Louis.
It truly was a parade for the people, as the best team in baseball merrily celebrated with the best fans in baseball.
Less than 48 hours after clinching the 11th World Series championship in franchise history, Cardinals players bundled up and sat in the back of flatbed trucks, waving to adoring crowds that lined Market Street.
Manager Tony La Russa hitched a ride with the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales. And then everyone convened inside Busch Stadium, this Midwestern cathedral of baseball, to relive the highlights, savor the memories and appreciate the gift of togetherness.
It was a beautiful scene, with more than 40,000 fans packing the ballpark to give their baseball heroes a proper thank you and sendoff. And the love was returned in full by La Russa, his players, general manager John Mozeliak and team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr.
Three thoughts kept bouncing in my head:
1 • At this moment, Busch Stadium really was the happiest place on Earth.
2 • I know it is true, it is validated and confirmed. I saw it. I wrote about it. But I still can't believe that the Cardinals really did this. I can't believe they really won the World Series.
3 • And I can't believe it's over.
After being completely consumed by the dramatic exploits of this baseball team over the last two-plus months, what the heck are we going to do now?
We're exhilarated but exhausted. The adrenaline rush has slowed. And now it's time to return to the normal days of our lives. What can possibly fill the void?
You can never take winning the World Series for granted. Some baseball franchises (ahem) have gone more than 100 years without winning one. Maybe the Cardinals will do it again soon; after all, they've won two in the last six seasons. Maybe there will be a longer gap or an extended drought in between championships. Who knows? But I don't believe we'll ever see the likes of this team again.
That isn't just because Albert Pujols could leave through free agency.
"I think it's the perfect team," La Russa said.
What does La Russa mean by that?
The Cardinals lost 72 games in the regular season and barely made it into the playoffs as the wild-card entry. How is that perfect?
You have to look past the numbers. You have to look at the Cardinals' attitude and indefatigable spirit. This team's mental strength and inner toughness is impossible to quantify. When we start talking about "heart," our sabermetric friends tend to foam at the mouth. I don't blame 'em, really. Still, whatever this intangible quality is, the Cardinals have it in abundance. They had it in a way that few teams ever have. Mathematically, no team in Major League Baseball history made a comeback as challenging or problematic as this one.
And then there's the composition of the 2011 Cardinals. Young guys. Older guys. There are mainstays such as Pujols, Chris Carpenter and Yadier Molina. They were part of the 2006 World Series championship here. There are players such as Lance Berkman, Arthur Rhodes, Octavio Dotel and Rafael Furcal. They'll be getting a World Series ring after coming up empty-handed during lengthy and mostly distinguished careers elsewhere. There are the young veterans such as David Freese and Jason Motte (among others). Now that they know what it takes to win it all, they'll develop into leaders.
This was just a fantastic mix of personalities assembled by general manager John Mozeliak. The GM was roundly criticized for dumping two players (Brendan Ryan, Colby Rasmus) who were a lot more popular with fans than teammates. Mozeliak knew what he was doing.
"We have the best group of guys that I've ever been around," Carpenter said. "I will do anything for them."
That's why La Russa threw "perfect" out there.
"The veterans on this team have great integrity about playing the game, they want to mentor the young guys," La Russa said. "They'll never cheat you when they come to play. And what's just as impressive is our young guys don't have all the answers. And they come in and they want to learn and benefit from the leadership of our older guys. It's really a perfect blend of team."
Speaking on stage at the Busch Stadium ceremony, Berkman called the 2011 Cardinals "special" for the way so many players put a piece into a winning effort.
"This team received contributions from everybody," Berkman said. "There was a moment in the playoffs that just about everybody on the 25-man roster can say, 'If I hadn't done fill-in-the-blank, we wouldn't be standing on this stage." Just a total team effort."
I would expand on The Puma's point by adding the late regular-season run to the equation. From Aug. 25 through the end of the World Series, the Cardinals played on the edge, narrowly escaping disaster and elimination.
The Cardinals went 34-16 during this baseball-adventure action movie. And over those final 50 games, 20 players scored runs, 23 had hits, 20 knocked in runs, 24 reached base. On the pitching side, 16 appeared in games and threw at least one inning and 11 were credited with a win.
What a lovable team the 2011 Cardinals were. What a thrill it was to watch them play baseball with such an appealing combination of desperation and elation.
On Aug. 24, the Cardinals were 10 1/2 games out of the final postseason spot. They were given less than a 1 percent chance of making it by multiple website services that calculate a team's playoff odds on a daily basis.
Well, these Cardinals gave their fans one crazy surprise party. They gave us a postseason that included Carpenter's masterpiece at Philadelphia; the silencing of Nyjer Morgan and the Milwaukee Brewers; Pujols' epic performance in World Series Game 3; and a Game 6 that might have been the most exciting World Series game ever.
The surprise party lasted for a month. And I have to say it again: I still can't believe it happened. I still can't believe it's over. But on Sunday afternoon, we had no choice but to gather to stand and wave goodbye to an extraordinary group of players that turned Market Street into the street of dreams.