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Why I’m not a complete mess this morning

October 23, 2012

On the night of 1996 NLCS Game 7, after the Braves beat the Cardinals 15-0 to overcome a 3-1 series deficit in Tony La Russa’s first year as the Redbirds’ manager, I went to my local Trader Joe’s to buy something that I can no longer recall and that, in retrospect, didn’t have nearly the alcohol content that the occasion called for. When the cheery cashier took my basket and said “And how are you doing tonight?”, I….well, I burst into tears and explained that my beloved team had just crushed my soul beyond repair.

This year, there’s no crying in baseball, at least not in my house or my Trader Joe’s. Sure, I’m irritable and sad about the Cards’ multi-system organ failure in the final three games of their season. I’ve got a list of players and coaches in whose ribs I fully intend to bury a fastball the next time I have a chance. I’m grouchy about having to face the dilemma of whether to watch the World Series or pretend it doesn’t exist.

But I’m not devastated. Here’s why.

* I never thought they’d get this far—and admit it, neither did you. The Cards played maddeningly inconsistent baseball all year, lost a handful of key players to injuries, and barely managed to grab a postseason ticket that wouldn’t even have been available to them last year. They probably shouldn’t have been able to beat Kris Medlen and the Braves. They surely shouldn’t have been able to beat Davey Johnson and the Nationals. The only reason we fans were in a position to be so deeply disappointed this week is that the Cardinals, borrowing a few scoops of last October’s magic fairy dust, made us forget for a while that this team actually wasn’t all that great this year.

* They let us down easy. Your results here may vary, but I, for one, am grateful that the Cardinals didn’t take Game 7 (or 6…or 5…) down to the wire. We’ll never know why it suddenly seemed that the whole team took a vote to go home rather than to the World Series, but once they quit, boy, did they quit. The breakup was decisive and unambiguous, with no late-night regrets or last-minute flirting. They were done; they told us they were done (I’m talking about their play on the field, not their quotes in the newspaper); and they meant it.

* Most of the faces we’ve grown to love will be back next season. Kyle Lohse (well, the pre-NLCS-Game-7 version of Kyle Lohse, at least) will be missed, and it seems unlikely that we’ll get to keep the completely delightful Lance Berkman around much longer, but the assortment of veterans and young talent that we can expect to see on the field in 2013 has every opportunity to do well, especially if John Mozeliak uses his offseason and his considerable payroll flexibility to fill a few notable gaps. The Cards played it safe at the trading deadline this year, declining to take the sorts of “win now or else” gambles that helped them to a ring last year, and they still came within a game of the World Series. This is a team in a deep and badly-timed funk, not a franchise in disarray.

* Now that the Cardinals don’t need my help anymore, I can finally get a haircut and stop eating these damned sprinkle doughnuts.

* 2011 wasn’t meant to be repeated so soon. Bear with me here as I plunge into what may sound like a tangled mess of sour-grapevines. It would have been tons of fun to return to the World Series, and maybe even to win it. But in a strange and sappy way, I’m content to allow 2011 to remain, for a little while longer, its own island of awesomeness, the kind of dazzling and distinctive experience that you spend years waiting for and years remembering, the kind that means more because you never saw it coming and you can’t be sure it’ll ever return. Rings or no rings, 2012 was going to be an anticlimax, a sequel without the passion and poetry of the original. I wanted to win. But more than that, I wanted to feel again the way I felt in October 2011, and that wasn’t going to—wasn’t supposed to—happen.

That’s bittersweet, but the bittersweet is the part of baseball I love best. And I’ll be back for another helping of it, with sprinkles, when spring training starts on February 18.

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