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America's Team

Why you should root for the St. Louis Cardinals to win the World Series this year.

12:40 PM, Oct 9, 2002 • By LEE BOCKHORN
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IF YOU WANT to get an idea of what kind of emotionally draining season it's been for the St. Louis Cardinals, you need look no further than last week as they prepared to play the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game 2 of the National League Division Series. In Phoenix to watch the team play was Flynn Kile, the wife of Cardinals pitcher Daryl Kile, who died of a heart attack in his hotel room in June when the Cardinals were in Chicago.

Before Game 2, Beau Duran, a radio "shock jock" at Phoenix station KUPD-FM, decided it might be funny to make an on-air phone call to Mrs. Kile at her hotel room to tell her that she was "hot" and ask her if she "had a date" for the game. This was after Duran and another DJ had led an impromptu "fan rally" outside the Cardinals' hotel that morning, during which the crowd followed Cardinals pitcher Andy Benes to a nearby coffee shop while shouting "Benes sucks! Benes sucks!" (The station finally fired Duran on Monday, and apologized to the Cardinals and Mrs. Kile.)

Then, in Game 2, injury was added to insult, when the Cardinals lost--probably for the duration of the playoffs--their All-Star third baseman Scott Rolen, after he severely sprained his shoulder in a freak collision with an Arizona base-runner. Despite the devastating loss of Rolen, the Redbirds found a way. His replacement, journeyman utility player Miguel Cairo, drove in the game-winning run. Then in Game 3 in St. Louis, Cairo--who took Rolen's place mainly because of his defensive skills--went 3 for 3, scoring two runs and driving in two more, as the Cards swept the defending world champion Diamondbacks.

It's this admirable resilience in the face of adversity--both on and off the field--that should make the Cardinals everyone's sentimental favorite to win this year's World Series. Kile's shocking death was merely the worst moment of a tumultuous season: Only a few days before that, the Cardinals' longtime radio announcer, Jack Buck, had passed away. Buck was as much an institution in St. Louis as the late Cubs announcer Harry Caray was in Chicago. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa led the team through these difficult personal losses and a rash of injuries (the team used 14 different starting pitchers this year). The Cards managed to win 97 games and the National League Central Division, and if they can defeat the Giants in the National League Championship Series, which begins tonight, they'll play in their first World Series since 1987.

If the New York Yankees are the undisputed, pre-eminent team of the American League (as their insufferable fans never cease to remind us), the Cardinals are the National League equivalent. (The Dodgers might beg to differ, but they're disqualified because they no longer play in their original home, Brooklyn.) Like the Yankees, the Cardinals' uniforms have hardly changed in over a century, and with both clubs, consistency in apparel has coincided with a history of excellence. The Cardinals have won nine World Series crowns and 15 National League pennants, and the list of legendary Cardinal players is long: Rogers Hornsby, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Dizzy Dean and the "Gashouse Gang" of the 1930s, Enos Slaughter, Stan "The Man" Musial, Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, Orlando Cepeda, Lou Brock, Steve Carlton, Joe Torre, Ozzie Smith, and most recently, of course, Mark McGwire. (Before he's done, the Cardinals' brilliant 22-year-old outfielder Albert Pujols will add his name to this list: In 2002 he became the first player ever to bat over .300 and have at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs in his first two seasons.)

Cardinals fans are devoted, but, unlike Yankee fans, aren't insufferable. Before the Dodgers and New York Giants moved to California and expansion teams like the Houston Astros emerged, the Cardinals were the western-most team in the majors. Thousands of kids all over pre-1960 Middle America grew up as Cardinal fans because they were the closest team--the only one whose games they could follow on the radio. My dad was one of those kids, listening from Midland, Texas, as Jack Buck called Cards games on station KMOX. Most of these Cardinals fans have passed their loyalty on to succeeding generations: My dad passed his love for the Cards on to me, even though I've never lived a day of my life near St. Louis. We both got to see our first Cardinals game together, in 1985.