Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Rites of Autumn: The Boston Red Sox, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the 2013 World Series

The proverbial dust has settled. Baseball was never meant to be a sprint, but an agonizing marathon of struggle and resiliency. As the daylight wanes, so goes the relevancy of baseball teams. What remains is two. Boston and St. Louis, the champions of the American and National Leagues, will now play deep into the frigid cavern of late October. Alone in the gradually impatient nightfall of Autumn, only the best remain in a way that is almost unprecedented in recent years. For the first time since 1999, the top regular-season teams in each league have made the game's greatest stage. While it may be seen as the prevailing of the status quo, the 2013 World Series can also be viewed as a throwback to a time long before this writer was alive. In a game so hellbent on respecting the history of generations past, the current versions of the Red Sox and Cardinals represent their respective histories in a remarkably serendipitous fashion.

The legacy of the Boston Red Sox is no proud legend. Prior to the last decade, what consumed the soul of a franchise was the idea of 'often a bridesmaid, never a bride.' While my beloved Chicago Cubs were once a parallel in misfortune, they never met the fate of many Boston teams. Always trounced by what seemed to be otherworldly hands at play, the Red Sox always came up short when placed atop the mountain. I would argue then, if it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. The Cubs, post-1945, existed in a state of 'ignorance is bliss' considering the pain that the Red Sox and their rowdy band of followers endured for the better part of a century. There was perhaps no better representation of the Red Sox, pre-2004, than the 1986 World Series. But considering I wasn't born for another month and a half, my foray into the plight of Boston was the 2003 American League Championship Series. While the Cubs were off squandering their best chance at a title in a half century, the Red Sox were about to lose their hopes at thwarting the Yankees in a most-diabolical way. Bottom of the eleventh inning. Aaron Boone. Or as he is known in and around colonial Massachusetts- Aaron F*cking Boone. With one swing of the bat, Boone walked off as a hero in the Bronx, and sent the Red Sox home.

Cut to the following year. The tides had turned for the Red Sox. Though for a moment, it seemed like business as usual. Down three games to none to the arch-nemesis Yankees, fate was as inevitable as the coming winter. Yet the self-proclaimed "idiots" rewrote the script that had felt penned and printed. Following an embarrassing game three loss, the Red Sox swept the next four games, completing an unprecedented comeback to make their first world series since the locally repulsive memory of 1986. Years later they would win another title over the streaky Colorado Rockies, but its the "Curse of the Bambino" breaking Red Sox that really matter. Not just for winning the franchise's first title in eighty-six years, but for who they beat- the St. Louis Cardinals. In a clean-sweep of four games, Boston exorcised the demons of a near century of  failure. While the Cardinals met the same fate as the Rockies did in 2007, the difference between the two was what happened after they fell to the Red Sox.

The St. Louis Cardinals have long been a staple of success in Major League Baseball. Often viewed as the league's model franchise, the "Cardinal Way" is a pathological method of combining fundamental baseball values with a seemingly bottomless source of role players and young talent. Along the way, there have been hiccups. Yet even as the almighty New York Yankees have proven mortal from time to time, both franchises only seem to grow stronger having lasted the low times. Eighteen times the St. Louis Cardinals reached the pinnacle of baseball, winning eleven World Championships. Now in their National League record-tying nineteenth appearance in the fall classic, they face the team they faced in 2004. Since that lightning-quick series nine years ago, the Cardinals have not been shy to the grand stage. Two years later, they took down the surprise Detroit Tigers in five games. Perhaps it was all in the move to Busch Stadium III in the spring of 2006. Five years later, the Cardinals were again in World Series. The Texas Rangers proved a much more valiant of a foe. In game six, the Cardinals were down two runs going into the ninth inning. Down to their last out, David Freese hit a triple, scoring Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman. Following another dramatic inning in which Texas scored another two runs, only to be answered by another miraculous rally, the stage was set for David Freese again. In a moment I will likely never forget as long as I live, the hometown hero Freese launched Mark Lowe's full-count pitch beyond the center field wall. The Cardinals won game seven and with it their eleventh World Series title.

On January 19th of this year, the Cardinal family lost its favorite son. Stan "the Man" Musial, unanimously the greatest player in St. Louis's history, had just turned ninety-two years of age two months prior to his death. For the 2013 season, the Cardinals honored Musial by wearing a memorial patch on all uniforms. In a fit of happenstance, Musial's record for doubles by a left-handed batter was broken this season by Matt Carpenter, the Cardinals' second baseman. By clinching a spot in this year's Series, St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina ties Musial with four World Series appearances, the most in the team's history. Molina, the premier defensive catcher in the game, was a rookie in 2004 when the Cardinals fell to the Red Sox. Primarily a backup that year, manager Tony LaRussa gave him the start in game four. The catcher he backed up all season and replaced in that game- the current manager of the Cardinals, Mike Matheny. Matheny would not return to St. Louis as a player following that game, signing with San Francisco that winter. The Yadier Molina era had begun in St. Louis, and with it, a period of success that even the lavish history of a perennially contending franchise can gaze upon in awe.

The Boston Red Sox finished last season in last place. It appeared as if their reign was over and they would once again relinquish the throne to New York and wander the plane of iniquity for another eight decades. Now, in a way that symbolizes the franchise up to, then including 2004, the Red Sox have found the promised land in brilliant comeback mirroring their rise from the collapse of the Aaron Boone game.

The St. Louis Cardinals made their third-consecutive National League Championship Series, and now their second World Series appearance in that span. The league's model franchise is, as they always seem to be in the last decade, atop Mount Olympus waiting, hoping for another ring in a well-earned confidence that is without equal in the sport.

Tomorrow night opens the grandest stage in baseball, and fittingly enough, the game's two best teams will surely give us a theater worthy of the attention.

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