2006 Cardinals: Best 83-Win Team in History?
Oct. 28, 2006 — -- Teams that win 83 games are supposed to spend the last week of October tackling those nasty doglegs left -- not winning the World Series.
Teams that have worse records after the All-Star break than the Pirates aren't supposed to spend the last week of October winning the World Series.
Teams that let 8½-game September leads turn into half-game September leads aren't supposed to win the World Series.
Teams that have the 13th-best record in baseball aren't supposed to win the World Series.
Teams that don't figure out who the closer is until Sept. 27 aren't supposed to win the World Series.
But now try and tell that to the St. Louis Cardinals, the best 83-win team in the history of baseball.
Yeah, tell it to the Cardinals, the improbable champions of America's most improbable sport.
They won that World Series they were never supposed to play in Friday night, on an October evening that felt more suitable for the Iditarod than for baseball.
They won a World Series with flash bulbs popping and fireworks sparkling and grown men and women sobbing.
They won a World Series with a starting pitcher (Jeff Weaver) who got dumped by his previous team to make room in the rotation for his own brother.
They won a World Series with a Series MVP (David Eckstein) who got non-tendered less than two years ago, with a closer (Adam Wainwright) who was shocked to even find himself in the big leagues on Opening Day, with a catcher (Yadier Molina) who had the lowest regular-season batting average (.216) of any World Series starter in more than 20 years.
An 83-win baseball team beat a 95-win baseball team from Detroit. And if you listen closely, you can probably already hear the wailing from New York (and parts beyond) that if a team like the Cardinals can win the World Series, civilization as we know it is clearly in grave danger.
Well, Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty could hear that moaning and groaning off in the distance Friday night, mere moments after his team's Series-clinching 4-2 win over the Tigers. And you could sum up his pained reaction in three words:
"Isn't it great?"
We'll explain later in this column why having an 83-win World Series champion is not a sign that baseball's playoff system is hopelessly screwed up. But first, we need to figure out exactly how this 83-win champion pulled this miracle out of its equipment bag.
A mere four weeks ago, this was not a baseball team soaring toward this triumphant moment. Four weeks ago, this was a baseball team cliff-diving toward a historic date with self-destruction.
"That was a tough, tough time, those last two weeks of the season," Jocketty said Friday night. "I think we all felt that if we could just get through it, we'd be OK. But I'll tell you this. It was tough living through."
Once they survived it, however, once they found themselves still playing baseball after 22 other teams had gone home, something astonishing happened to this team.
It was more than health -- although "that," said manager Tony La Russa, "was a big part of it."
And it was more than luck -- although these Cardinals sure had their share of that, too.
Most important of all, teams that win the World Series always find a certain gear that carries them through three grueling tiers of October combat. And this team found that gear on the first day of its first postseason series, on a Tuesday afternoon in San Diego.
"I'll tell you exactly when it happened," said Eckstein, the 5-foot-7 mighty-mite shortstop who became the shortest World Series MVP in history. "You have to go back to Game 1 against the Padres. Bases loaded. Seventh inning. Tyler Johnson on the mound. Todd Walker at bat. And he hit a ball through the right side that looked like a sure hit.