It's Friday night and where am I?

In any other year, on this particular Friday, the last in October, I'd be on a field in some small mid-Missouri town, standing on trodden patches of grass and mud with a video camera in my hand, dodging football coaches and waterboys. Or, barring that, I'd be with my wife somewhere eating some good food while talking about something entertaining.

Not this Friday night, though. This Friday night, I'm in what for me is the most unlikely of weekend destinations: a bar in downtown Columbia.

All around me, wide/flat/LCD/whatever-kind-you-want-screen TVs flash all kinds of bright colors; the volume on each TV is up full, but thanks to the din created by the ever-growing and slowly-self-inebriating crowd, an elephant could run through the room screaming and no one would notice. The smell of buffalo wings makes my stomach wake up, and the stench from 3-foot-high beer tower dispensers puts it right back to sleep.

These are as dumb as they look.

To my left a pair of young ladies sport glittery headbands; to my right, a young gentleman has donned a karate-style bandana with a furry-tailed rodent on the front. In one corner, there's a largely unnoticed small pile of whatever someone ate previously mixed with whatever said someone decided to imbibe.

At 10:15 p.m., after literally standing on my feet for more than four hours, I give/receive high-fives from no less than three complete strangers, knowing full well we won't remember each other, all in celebration because the St. Louis Cardinals are the 2011 World Series champions.

This has to be Photoshopped....right?


The Cardinals?!?

This is some kind of sick joke, right? I mean, just a few weeks ago they were out. Gone. Finished. Done. The proverbial piper had been paid. The swan song was being sung, so to speak.

But Destiny had a different tune in mind.

With little more than a month to play in the season, St. Louis was an insurmountable 10 games behind in their division (an all-but-guaranteed division title lock for the Brewers) and faced a 10.5-game deficit in the National League Wild Card race (a nigh-impregnable lead belonging to the Atlanta Braves). Odds of making the playoffs: 1.3%.

Sure, mathematicians would say St. Louis had just over a 1% chance to make the playoffs, so technically there was a chance.Technically, the Cardinals could play in the postseason. Technically I can resist a pint of Ben and Jerry's. Numbers are great and all, but like the hillbillies' wish to be called "sons of the soil," it ain't gonna happen.

But Destiny wasn't taking "no" for an answer.

So many things had to happen for St. Louis to see any action in October: the Brewers and/or Braves would have to suffer the September swoon of the century. At the same, the Cardinals would have to not just keep their heads above water, but do the weird dolphin-like tail-walk we all love to see.

This move is why dolphins will always be our superior.

One of those situations = possible. Two = not so much. But it happened. The Brewers did what they do - win - but in a bizarre mirror-image-like month, the Cardinals went an incredible 18-8, while the Braves suffered an indelible 9-18. It came down to the last day, to the wire, to this:

  • Cardinals win + Braves loss = Cardinals in the playoffs
  • Cardinals win + Braves win = tie-breaker game
  • Cardinals loss + Braves loss = tie-breaker game
  • Cardinals loss + Braves win = Braves in the playoffs.

The date: September 28, a day which will live in "famy", the day when Destiny played her first had, showed an initial glimpse of what she had in mind for the Cardinals. St. Louis did its part, beating the Houston Astros 8-0 behind a complete game shutout courtesy of Chris Carpenter (remember that name, kids, we'll get back to him in a minute). Atlanta, meanwhile, was doing its part to force that one-game playoff - up 3-2 against the Phillies in the 9th inning, they just needed two outs to stay in the race.

But Destiny tossed out twin banana peels named Chase Utley and Hunter Pence.

One hit a sacrifice fly to tie the score, and the other hit the go-ahead-that-would-become-the-game-winning run in the 12th inning. Just like that, the Braves were out. Gone. Finished. Done. They got stuck with the piper's bill, while the Cardinals rang up a tab of celebratory champagne. So it was that as the calender flipped over to October, that month to top all months in baseball, the Cardinals were in the game. Just a few easy games and they'd be on easy street, right?

Nein, mein freund.

As the Wild Card team, the Cardinals got the Philadelphia Phillies first. That same team who knocked the Braves for a last-game loop, the same team that won 102 games in the regular season, a franchise record and the best record in the National League (the Phillies earned that honor in 2010 as well, and had clinched the NL East five straight years). Philly featured a dominating pitching rotation: two-time Cy Young Winner Roy Halladay, 2008 Cy Young winner Cliff Lee and multi-time All Stars Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. That's four out of five games right there, all but guaranteed to be a wins. The Cardinals had a pitcher who had tasted anything more than an All Star nod - 2005 Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter - and he'd pitched on that fateful last day of the regular season.

Philadelphia had 3-1 odds in their favor, and as with all Cinderella stories, midnight was to come sooner or later. Sure enough, after three games, the Phillies were up 2-1. The fat lady was doing her warm-ups and the pumpkin coach was pulling up to the castle.

But Destiny had a new card to play.

The best thing to happen to rodentia since Rocky.

St. Louis fans got a glimpse of this heaven-sent helper in Game 3, when a squirrel darted in and around the sidelines of Busch Stadium, causing a momentary delay which many chalked up to mere happenstance. But the critter would be back: in the fifth inning of Game 4, the squirrel darted across home plate right as Oswalt was delivering his pitch. Again, most felt it wasn't much more than a brief, if not amusing, stint in the spotlight for the rodent. That the Cardinals won to even the series was probably nothing more than a hiccup.

But maybe this creature had been sent by Destiny herself, a daemon to sprinkle luck and good fortune from its fluffy tail onto the mostly luckless-in-2011 Cardinals.

That fortune was never more evident in this series than in Game 5, a Titan-versus-Titan matchup of Halladay and Carpenter: both were teammates on the Blue Jays and became close friends before leaving for shores of greater success in Philadelphia and St. Louis. It was predicted to be a pitcher's duel, and what a duel it was. The Cardinals scored before an out had been recorded, but it would be the first and last run of the night. Halladay was brilliant, but Carpenter was just as brilliant, going the distance for the first man to throw a deciding-game shutout in 20 years.

Somehow, the Cardinals had kept the music going long enough to steal a seat from the best team in baseball. The Phillies were left standing while St. Louis rode the train west, Rally Squirrel in palm, to face the very team that had stymied them in so many ways in the regular season: the Milwaukee Brewers.

Stay Tuned for Tomorrow's Episode: The Brew Crew and the Turn of the Screw


Peeser said…
Boy, I wish I had your gift for editorial prose- Reading this was almost as good as reliving it. I can hardly wait for the next installment! ;)
Julina said…
I've been WAITING for this! It's about time you give us your take :) Can't wait for the next episode...

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