As the iconic Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich once bellowed to non-believers of his team at a championship celebration — “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion!” The St. Louis Cardinals have followed Tomjanovich’s decree to form, as a way of continuing to defy logic. It’s not every day that a team loses two hall-of-famers in a single offseason and become better. Lose three-time National League Most Valuable Player Albert Pujols? No problem. Lose legendary four-time manger of the year skipper Tony La Russa? Keep trucking along. That has been the showing of this savvy juggernaut under the arches of Busch Stadium.
Giving the Cardinals the eye test, it becomes second nature to forget that they are the defending World Series champions. Taking a 2-1 series lead over the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS, the Cardinals continue to alert the baseball world this postseason that the red birds are a force to reckon with. Whether its unheralded Matt Carpenter homering off of Giants ace Matt Cain, unsung reigning World Series MVP David Freese delivering clutch hits time after time, or just simply rallying back from six-run deficits in the decisive game 5 of series, the Cardinals are an unrestrained team in big moments.
When you look back to the offseason, the manner in which the Cardinals recovered from Pujols declining to stay with the Cards’ on a hometown discount, is incredulous. Without Cardinal life LaRussa, it’s awe-inspiring how they’re contending. Pujols is a once in a generation baseball player who’s likeness became synonymous with the Cardinals franchise. In his time as a Cardinal, Pujols earned the nicknames: “King Albert,” “The Machine,” “The Man,” or the Spanish version “El Hombre,” in which he is often compared to Cardinals great Stan Musial.
His defection after 11 years with the Cardinals indicates how in the culture of sports fandom, Pujols– like Lebron– became a poster boy for the phenomenon of beloved superstar athletes tarnishing their golden boy images by exercising free agent rights and leaving the only franchise they’ve ever known for brighter lights and more money. The image of Pujols became a sort of pariah in the eyes of the media. Unlike LeBron, Pujols received a reprieve for his decision by agreeing on a long-term personal services contract with the Angels upon the conclusion of his playing career.
As Dwight Howard did, it was evident that Pujols felt a strain in the way he departed St. Louis. Using the public relations and information management-apologia “self-defense” method needed to combat external personal attacks on one’s character, he took out a full page ad with his wife Deidre in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch immediately after he announced his choice to leave. Ending the saga through such a gesture, was not to make fans forget what he did. Easing the notion that his motives for leaving were driven by greed, as he fondly reminisced on his time in St. Louis, was viewed as a sincere and classy act.
Retiring under much less fanfare, LaRussa chose to do as a champion. The 2011 World Series was the third title that the 67 year-old manager won. He previously led both the Cardinals in 2006 and Oakland A’s in 1989 to championship seasons. Being third on the all-time wins list with 2,728 victories, LaRussa’s legacy speaks volumes.
LaRussa’s decision affected the foundation of the Cardinals franchise and its future. His retirement had a domino-like effect which led to Pujols leaving. In this present day, the team stands as the ‘Cardiac Cards.’ Comeback after comeback, unconventional wins one after another, the Cardinals aren’t aesthetically pleasing but their intestinal fortitude reverberates throughout the team. With a non-defeatist mentality, the Cardinals are the mummy that’s dead and buried alive, yet comes back to haunt you somehow, someway.
Rookie manager and former player Mike Matheny has righted the ship directly from where it veered to upon LaRussa’s retirement. Despite this, many pundits doubted the team and their staying power. After winning 83 games as the 2006 champions and the 2011 championship, you would have thought experts would cease to irrationally bet against the red birds. Yet another mundane 88-74 season was the best thing to happen to this ‘starless’ version of the Cardinals, as it allowed them to strike at opportune moments unexpectedly.
Still want to count the ‘Cardiac Cards’ out? Do so at your own risk. The Pete Kozma’s, Jason Motte’s, and Daniel Descalso’s of the Lou are becoming household names. Stalwarts Matt Holiday, Carlos Beltran, and Yadier Molina are guiding the fort through methods of attrition just fine without Pujols and LaRussa.
On the verge, just two victories away from a return trip to the World Series after a 3-1 win, the Cardinals have hit their stride. Ironically, prior to their improbable second chance at a back-to-back World Series title, their postseason run was dubbed #12in12. Symbolic for what would be the franchise’s twelfth title in 2012, the Cardinals are the second most winning franchise in MLB history (trailing only the New York Yankees’ 27 titles). With that being said, the prophetic 12 in 12 vision comes to fruition. It’s only a matter of six more wins for a second straight parade of champions in the city of the gateway to the west.