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.

Besides having a much broader geographical fan base than the Yankees, the Cardinals are also more family-friendly. An outfielder for a visiting team playing in St. Louis's Busch Stadium won't be pelted with batteries or hear drunken fans discourse on his mother. As Yankees third baseman Robin Ventura put it a few years ago while playing for the New York Mets, "[Cardinals fans] cheer real loud when their pitcher gets down a bunt with two strikes. They even cheer you as an opposing player if you make a good play. You're like, 'Wait a minute. This is weird.' You're supposed to have a reason to hate the other team, but they don't give you any."

That's why the Redbirds, despite having only the 12th-highest payroll in the league this year and not playing in a major media market, are nevertheless able to attract so many of the league's best players--often for salaries well below what they'd command on the open market. Each Cardinals home game draws legions of red-clad fans to Busch Stadium and the team is always among the league leaders in attendance--they've drawn at least 2 million fans in each of the last 18 full seasons. New players--like Rolen and first baseman Tino Martinez this year--are embraced with the kind of unconditional fervor you'd think would be reserved for players who'd been with the team for a decade. It's no wonder Sports Illustrated recently christened St. Louis "America's best baseball city."

For all their history of success, though, the Cards have had some bad luck in recent postseason appearances. They last won the World Series in 1982 (which, unfortunately, I was too young to remember). In 1985 I got my first taste of just how unfair life could be when they lost the World Series to their cross-state rivals, the Kansas City Royals. First, St. Louis's terrific base-stealing leadoff hitter, Vince Coleman, missed the Series when his leg was crushed in a bizarre accident involving the Busch Stadium automatic tarp. And no Cardinals fan will ever forget umpire Don Denkinger's infamous blown call at first base in the ninth inning of Game 6, which cost the Cards a Series-clinching victory. (Devastated by the loss, the Cards were blown out 11-0 by the inferior Royals in Game 7.) In 2000, the Cardinals probably would have faced the Yankees in the World Series if injuries to Mark McGwire and several starting pitchers hadn't hampered them during the NLCS against the Mets.

This year, the other three remaining teams are all worthy contenders for the title, and I'm tempted to worry that Rolen's untimely injury might have cost the Cards yet another chance to win it all. Still: Every time fate has delivered the Cardinals a cruel blow this season, they've managed to pick themselves up and continue winning. But regardless of what happens on the field during the next couple of weeks, the 2002 Cardinals' gritty performance has already earned them the right to call themselves champions.

Lee Bockhorn is associate editor at The Weekly Standard.

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