The baseball playoffs begin this week, complete with seven clubs who might paper over their weaknesses for long enough to ride through their downtown streets under rains of confetti. Whoever succeeds will have to go through the St. Louis Cardinals. Which probably won't happen.
The Cards are different because they're without weaknesses, which matters even more in the postseason than during the regular season. Ball clubs fall by the wayside during the postseason as their weaknesses are exposed. But the Cardinals are without weaknesses, so some other club will have to be better than them, and none of them is.
The Yankees and Red Sox can't pitch at all, the White Sox, Astros and Padres can't hit at all, the Angels can't hit well enough and the Braves are a cut beneath the Cardinals from the pitcher's mound. And the Cardinals are due.
Few championship clubs have come up so short so often and managed to escape barbs. The Cardinals are in the playoffs for the fifth time in six years, winning four NL Central titles, and they finally made it to the World Series last year, losing to the Red Sox. But they're somehow never mentioned in the same breaths with the Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Braves for consistently falling short in the playoffs. Cards manager Tony LaRussa has won 11 divisions with three different clubs now, but only one World Series.
The commentators have all spoken at length about St.
Louis as a baseball town. At 2.7 million people in 2000, St. Louis ranked only 18th of 26 major league markets. But the Cardinals pay their players $92 million, sixth in the major leagues, and their public supported it this year with 3.5 million tickets sold, third only to the Yankees and Dodgers. And don't forget that they're owned by a Cincinnatian, Bill DeWitt.
The Cardinals are unique for the consistency of their history, which is about to change. After 40 years at Busch Stadium, they move to a new stadium next year. After 52 years broadcasting over KMOX-AM, the Cardinals are moving to a new radio station next year. The Cardinals took over St. Louis beginning with the exploits of Rogers Hornsby in the 1920s and calmed spirits in the country's breadbasket by winning through the Depression, World War II and the 1960s, earning gratitude from generations of the Southern and Western states for whom they were the team for much of the 20th century.
Before franchises began expanding and relocating around 1960, the Cardinals anchored the major leagues' southwest corner from the only location west of the Mississippi. They seized frontier America through radio and their greatest innovation, the farm system, setting up satellite versions of themselves to give the outback a stake in their success. By 1940 the Cardinals owned 32 minor league teams and backed entire leagues.
A great history deserves a great moment. The Cardinals are poised to deliver in the next three weeks.
The Cardinals finished first in NL ERA (3.48) and third in NL runs (804). They're not the most powerful club, but they seldom strike out or waste opportunities. First baseman Albert Pujols (41 homers, 117 RBI, .330 average) is the league's most complete hitter.
Cris Carpenter finished 21-5 with a 2.83 ERA as a Cy Young front runner. Jeff Suppan and Mark Mulder each won 16 games, Matt Morris 14 and Jason Marquis 13. Jason Isringhausen finished 39 saves and, unlike any other club, the Cards don't store a single klunker in their bullpen.
What's more, the Cardinals are the best at beating the best -- 33-24 against clubs with winning records and 21-14 against playoff clubs. No other team won 100 games this season.
The Cardinals will open against NL West champion San Diego, which poses a peculiar danger. The Padres were 22-19 this year against winning clubs and 60-61 against everyone else. Maybe the Padres play to the level of their competition. But they can't play to the Cardinals' level, although, it must be said, the Padres beat them four of seven times this year.
The other NL divisional series pits East Division winner Atlanta against the wildcard Houston Astros. History makes it easy to overlook Atlanta, and the Baby Braves are excessively reliant on rookies. But they might be the second-best club still out there. They won 90 games in a division with no losing teams, so they're the most tested club remaining.
Take the Braves. Then look for them to give the Cards a fight, but that's all. No American League club is as well balanced as the Cardinals or Braves. The true AL championship series might arise in the divisional round, when the Boston Red Sox play the Chicago White Sox in a test of contrast.
The White Sox pitching staff is the best left in the AL, while the Red Sox staff is the worst. But the Red Sox are the best offensive club in baseball, while the White Sox hitters are the least productive still standing in the AL. Ordinarily, good pitching beats good hitting. But the White Sox haven't been there, and the Red Sox have gone all the way. And the Red Sox won four of seven with the White Sox this year.
In the other AL series, the Los Angeles Angels are at a decided advantage against the New York Yankees. The Angels pitch about as well as the White Sox and hit a lot better. The Yankees hit about as well as the Red Sox and pitch a little better. If the Red Sox and White Sox are even, then the Angels and Yankees aren't. Looks like the Angels and Red Sox in the ALCS, with the Angels prevailing.
But all that is preliminary. The ceremony in the end is likely to take the Cardinals through the streets of downtown St. Louis, past their old and new stadiums, finally with the championship no one has noticed they're missing.