It is understood, among fans of both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox, that the rest of the baseball universe is, as they say, cheering for the meteor. Most people are sick of both of these teams: Between them, they have won four of the last nine World Series. That's about to become five of the last 10.
A strong argument could be made that this is a series to determine that vague, not-actually-real Team Of The Era title that comes up every few years. In 1999, the Series between the Yankees and the Braves was supposed to settle that; in 2009 the Yankees-Phillies tilt was supposed to do the same. Granting that we're dealing with arbitrary end points, this could legitimately be an early Team of the 21st Century Series. Since Jan. 1, 2001:
- The Red Sox have won two World Series in two appearances. They've made the playoffs seven times, with a total postseason record of 42-26.
- The Cardinals have won two World Series in three appearances. They've made the playoffs nine times, with a total postseason record of 55-45.
Only the Yankees -- who have made the World Series three times, winning one -- and the Giants -- who made the World Series three times, winning two -- can conceivably pretend to compare. So: For the first 13 years of the 21st century, this should settle it. (The champion of the first 13 years of the last century? The Philadelphia Athletics, who won three Series in four opportunities, barely edging the Chicago Cubs, who won two in four tries.)
There doesn't appear to be much animus between the two teams, or their fanbases. These are two quality organizations run by smart, generally patient people. Speaking anecdotally, most Cardinals fans have found themselves treated well at Fenway Park -- the Cardinals have visited Fenway twice since 2004 -- or at least as well as any opposing fanbase is treated there.
There's a reason for this. Around the eighth inning of Game 4 of the 2004 World Series -- which of course featured these very two teams; you might have read about it in one of the 752 books about the 2004 Red Sox -- Cardinals officials began to cede to the inevitable: They were about to lose the series. The Red Sox led 3-0, the Cardinals' bats had fallen asleep and the whole series had the air of a coronation, the overwhelming sense that everyone involved were simply pawns of history. The Cardinals hadn't held a single lead in the whole series; they were rolling over, playing the part of the Washington Generals in the national celebration. The Red Sox were going to win their first World Series since 1918, and everyone knew it.
So Cardinals officials and Busch Stadium personnel did something unusual: They opened up the gates. After the Sox took a 2-0 lead in the Series in Boston, people in St. Louis had noticed that, at times, it felt like the crowd outside Busch Stadium was larger and more rabid as the crowd inside. Red Sox fans had suffered so many years, had waited so long for this, that the mere possibility of being close when the Sox finally "ended the curse" was enough. So they came. They traveled from New England and all across the country just to be standing outside the building where it might be happening. Cardinals brass couldn't miss this, and couldn't deny the historical significance. So, late in Game 4, word was sent to the ushers: Let them in. All Red Sox fans outside Busch Stadium were allowed inside to the final at-bats, and to share in the euphoria. Every Red Sox fan I've ever met who was there that day -- and there were thousands upon thousands, if perhaps not as many as might today claim -- still appreciates the gesture of sportsmanship shown that night. This may mean they only pour one beer on the heads of Cardinals fans at Fenway rather than two, but it is the thought that counts.
One suspects this time there will be more animosity: Both teams' historical legacies are secure, so this one's just about piling on. (Yet another reason for so many meteor fans this fortnight.) In 2004, both these teams could conceivably pretend they were the underdogs. The Red Sox were of course the Red Sox, of The Curse and 1918 and the annual anguish of the Bostonian overeducated. The Cardinals hadn't been to the World Series in 17 years and hadn't won in 22. Now, these are the powerhouses. These are the overfed.
If there's any team that can work up any personal bile in this series, though, it's probably the Cardinals. Basically: The Red Sox are the only team left that the Cardinals are sore about. During this nearly unprecedented run by the Cardinals since 2000 -- the Cardinals have reached the NLCS in 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2011, 2012 and 2013 -- all of their foes, at some point, have been vanquished. The divisional foes who popped up to challenge them? The Astros and Reds never quite broke through; the Pirates and Brewers were beaten in the playoffs; the Cubs … hahahahaahahaha, sorry, I just started giggling uncontrollably typing "Cubs" and "World Series" in the same 50-word stretch. The Mets ('80s tormentor) and Tigers (1968 World Series)? Taken care of in 2006. The Phillies (challenger for best NL franchise this decade)? Taken care of in 2011. The Dodgers (sweep in 2009 NLDS)? Taken care of this year.
But the Red Sox? Many Cardinals fans believe there's still some unfinished business with the Red Sox. It is easy to forget now, in the wake of all that 2004 Red Sox jubilation, but that 2004 Cardinals team was outstanding. They won 105 games that season, behind a starting rotation that, while not spectacular, was solid and dependable enough to have the second-best ERA in the National League. The key to that Cardinals team was the offense, most notably the MV3 of Albert Pujols (46 homers, 123 RBIs, .331 BA, 1.072 OPS), Jim Edmonds (42 HRs, 111 RBIs, 1.061 OPS) and Scott Rolen (34 HRs, 124 RBIs, 1.007 OPS). This season, only two players in baseball -- Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis -- had an OPS over 1.000. The Cardinals had three in their everyday lineup. They also had Larry Walker, over from a late-season trade, and one of the best closers in the game in Jason Isringhausen. That team was fantastic.
It was also postseason-tested: The 2004 National League Championship Series was seen by a shockingly few number of people -- mainly because this was back when Fox owned all postseason rights and thus put this whole series on the difficult-to-find-back-then FX while the rest of the world was wagging its tongue at the Red Sox-Yankees series -- but it's one of the best series I've ever seen. Games 5 and 6 both ended in walkoff homers, and Gave 7 featured a seventh-inning Cardinals comeback against Roger Clemens to secure the first World Series since the Whitey Herzog days. If you ask Cardinals fans who their favorite Cardinals team of the last 40 years is, they'll say either the 1985 team or the 2004 team. I personally think it's the best Cardinals team of my lifetime.
And the Red Sox smoked them. They beat them like they weren't there. Now, the Cardinals' rotation, missing Chris Carpenter, was starting to dissolve by then, and the Cardinals did everything wrong that series, perhaps best exemplified by this brilliant piece of baserunning by Jeff Suppan in Game 3:
The Cardinals never led that series, and they were never really close to a lead. At the end, the Cardinals ceded the stage. But their fans haven't forgotten. That was a great Cardinals team, and the Red Sox embarrassed them with the whole world watching.
(Note: Red Sox fans might argue that they are still paying the Cardinals back for 1946 and 1967, seasons they haven't forgotten, depending on their age. Such matters predate me.)
The Cardinals have had so much success that you are more than forgiven for wanting to tell them and their fans to shove it with the "revenge for '04!" narrative. But every Cardinals fan will be thinking about that, every game, this whole series. This is what happens when, like these two teams, you reach the mountaintop: You find yourself inventing enemies to keep going. There will be only two players in this series who played in 2004: David Ortiz and Yadier Molina. (Cardinals manager Mike Matheny was St. Louis' starting catcher that series, and Cardinals hitting coach John Mabry went 0-for-4 off the bench. Also, apparently Boston has Pedro Martinez and Jason Varitek as "special assistants to the general manager," which sounds awfully Schrute-ish.)
There are no underdogs in this series. But every team, no matter how successful, always considers itself the underdog. Except for the meteor. The meteor is always the favorite.
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