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The Inevitable Cardinals

You knew the Cardinals would beat the Pirates, didn’t you? The Cardinals are the new inevitables of the National League. They may not win the World Series. They may not win the pennant. But they always stick around because they never really go away. They trump most of the good stories that orbit in their atmosphere. If you don’t see them winning everything or most things in a given year, just wait another year and they will. They’re not going anywhere.

This is admirable on its face. If it was some other franchise pulling it off, it would be downright inspirational. Surely it is aspirational. But it’s the Cardinals. It transcends the brand of simple “they win all the time” aggravation we used to associate with the Yankees or Phillies or Braves. By now it’s more than what they did to us in 2006 or what we couldn’t do to them a couple of times in the 1980s.

The Cardinals can be impeded, yet they cannot be brought to a full stop. Old Man River has nothing on the team whose city he keeps on rollin’ by. They don’t retain the services of probably the greatest hitter of this century. They say goodbye to a manager and pitching coach who were deemed essential to their success. They turn over their roster so completely from their first world championship of the current era to the present that the only core left from it consists of two of the three players we most closely associate with our bitter, bitter loss to them. And the biggest name they’ve added in the past couple of years? That would be the third player we most closely (if not always fairly) associate with that bitter, bitter loss [1].

The Cardinals aren’t flawless but they are the kings of resilience. Did you know that in 2012 the Cardinals gave up a 3-1 lead in the seven-game National League Championship Series and in fact lost that series to the Giants? Think of the teams for whom that would constitute a crisis of epic proportions. “They were one game from the World Series but were so shaken by how they blew their chance that they never recovered.” The Cardinals? Do they appear shaken? Stirred? Did they suffer at all?

Not really. The Cardinals lost Albert Pujols to free agency. Anybody heard from Pujols lately? The Cardinals get hit by injuries same as everybody else, but no, not the same as everybody else (Matt Harvey should forget about Tommy John and request the Adam Wainwright surgery). They just plug in somebody else they have handy, they finish first and they finish off the Pirates.

Pittsburgh reawakened as a baseball town in 2013. Andrew McCutcheon emerged as a full-fledged MVP candidate. The twenty-season losing streak was shattered and PNC Park at last earned its moments in the postseason spotlight. But when they had to fly back to St. Louis to determine how much more life their October contained, you knew there wouldn’t be much [2]. Wainwright could’ve had a bad game…but you knew he wouldn’t. Molina could’ve called for the wrong pitch at the wrong time…but that wouldn’t be “Yadi” now, would it? There was one close moment when the Bucs briefly rallied on a Cardinal miscue, but that wasn’t going to stick. And whatever the Cardinals gave away in the top of that inning, they took back in multiples in its bottom.

It was inevitable.

Wainwright. Molina. Beltran instead of Pujols. Matheny instead of LaRussa. Michael Wacha instead of Chris Carpenter. Matt Carpenter in addition to Matt Adams. Trevor Rosenthal and a cast of closers. It’s not that they’re a classic juggernaut — their 97 wins this year are the most they’ve accumulated since 2005 and they won their recent world championships on the strength of 83 and 90 wins, respectively. It’s not that they’re a budgetary behemoth — their total payroll ranks only eleventh in the major leagues. They’re just…they’re just the Cardinals. And they fail to cease being the Cardinals.

They’re not “the Yankees of the National League,” a phrase I’ve heard now and then that I think misses a couple of points. First off, the Yankees, at their height, weren’t the Yankees of the American League. They were the Yankees, period. They paid and played in their own league. That they were associated with one or the other halves of MLB is a technicality in their business plan. These are the haughty bastards who sell memberships to something called Yankees Universe [3], for crissake.

Second, the Cardinals are the Cardinals of the National League. They are the signature outfit of the Senior Circuit, not quite dominant or overbearing enough to eclipse everybody in sight but the one team that almost always clicks on every cylinder. They win with pitching. They win with offense. They win with “fundies”. They win with dramatics. They win with strategically signed veterans. They win with an assembly line of youngsters. They draw loads of customers and engender incredible if showy loyalty. They are a model for 14 other teams to copy yet singular enough that whatever it is they’re doing isn’t easily duplicated. (They also seem to be the archrival of everybody in their division, at least according to their N.L. Central neighbors.)

The Cardinals fill a role in the National League that for a long time was taken care of by their next opponent, the Dodgers (talk about a matchup that only the blond villain [4] from The Karate Kid could love). Even when they weren’t necessarily winning divisions or pennants, the O’Malley Dodgers pretty much ran the National League in the ’60s and ’70s. The Dodger Way was spoken of with the kind of reverence currently assigned the Cardinal Way [5]. It was appropriate. L.A. always competed, usually contended and a couple of times conquered. The Dodger Way deteriorated over time as its ownership situation spiraled into chaos (ahem) and the bloom came off the blue, though they were rarely godawful on the field.

Godawful practically never enters the Cardinal vocabulary. They haven’t endured consecutive losing seasons since 1994 and 1995. Before that, it was 1958 and 1959. Three losing in a row? Try Woodrow Wilson’s second term, which was more than nine decades ago. And once the playoffs expanded to include four and then five teams from each league? Forget about the Redbirds flying away. They’re on their eleventh postseason berth in the past eighteen years, their eighth NLCS in fourteen Octobers.

They outlasted us in 2006. They brushed aside the Brewers in 2011 right after dispatching the Phillie rotation for the ages. They rendered Natitutde irrelevant in 2012. They made the potentially feelgreat story of the Pirates sink before it could fully gather steam. They and their “best fans in baseball” will be praised to the nausea-inducing hilt in the days ahead. Through gritted fingers, I am impelled by honesty to type that on some level the whole Cardinal enterprise deserves the thumbs that are about to be raised high in their direction.

The Dodgers took on a ton of contractual obligations and promoted Yasiel Puig from the minors yet were no sure thing to make it this far. The Cardinals just kept being the Cardinals. Their presence here was inevitable.