I'm not sure how many of you out there really remember that year, the first of Tony La Russa's tenure as manager, but it was an interesting season. The Redbirds had spent the first half of the 1990's sucking quite badly, struggling under the weight of indifferent ownership by Anheuser-Busch, making Joe Torre look like a really mediocre -- maybe even a bad -- manager. (Kind of funny how that worked out.)
Anyway, after Walt Jocketty took over the general manager position of the team in 1995, he brought La Russa over from Oakland the next year. Together, the two of them assembled a team that brought playoff baseball back to St. Louis for the first time since Whiteyball. Unfortunately, their postseason run ended in rather ignominious fashion, as the Atlanta Braves overcame a 3-1 series deficit to come back and eliminate the Cards. Worse yet, the final games weren't even close; El Birdos got blown the eff out.
It's been sixteen years since that rather ugly exit from the playoffs, and here we are again, trying to make sense of how the Cardinals managed to let the NLCS get away from them after seemingly having their collective foot placed so firmly on the throat of the San Francisco Giants.
So, to review, first year manager, check. Up 3-1 in the NLCS, check. Lose three in a row, getting blown out along the way, check. I'm sure it's just a coincidence, but, you know...kind of weird.
Oh, and the record of the 1996 Cardinals in the regular season was 88-74, which is the same as...yeah, you know. So, again, totally just a coincidence.
At least the final three games this year weren't quite as ugly as those in '96; that year the Redbirds were outscored 32-1 (there's no typo anywhere in that score), while this year it was only 20-1. No, I don't feel any better either. But hey, I have to write something, right? Quit crying.
So what happened to the Cardinals this year? Well, pretty simple: they got their asses kicked. I wrote yesterday afternoon I thought they would take care of business last night and beat Matt Cain, but I failed to appreciate just how much of a roll the Giants were really on. I'm honestly not sure there's any way to properly analyze a team's offense just completely disappearing the way this one did over the past three games; perhaps it's best just to offer up credit to the opposing pitching staff. I had a bad feeling about things when the Cards failed to wrap the series up here in St. Louis, not wanting to face Ryan Vogelsong again, not wanting to have to play two more games in the Giants' home park, but I wasn't expecting what we saw.
Perhaps there's something about a first year manager. Maybe the crazed, paranoid intensity Tony La Russa sank deeper and deeper into as his career wore on served a purpose; maybe the fact both he and Mike Matheny suffered such heartbreaking letdowns their first season in a new place means something. Something about naivete and letting your guard down, just that fractional bit to let the other team back in.
Or, maybe not. Maybe I'm trying to construct a bullshit narrative to explain why a team that looked so, so good in eliminating Washington and taking such a commanding lead against the Giants suddenly ruined their sheets so messily and completely. But, hey, "Shit happens," isn't very satisfying as an answer.
In the end, though, maybe that's all the answer we really need. Only this team, this frustrating, flawed, maddening team, could possibly have turned a run to game seven of the National League Championship Series into such a disappointment. One game away from the World Series should feel good. Somehow, though, this team still managed to make it feel like a huge letdown. So, maybe all we need to know about this team is what we learned along the way: namely, that sometimes no matter how good a team seems to be, it's just going to be rough going.
I'm going to miss this team, just like I miss every Cardinal team when their season comes to an end, whenever that may be. The future is bright for this club; the minor league system is producing talent that should help keep them in contention for years to come. That's probably the biggest difference between 1996 and now; back then we were watching a one-year wonder squad poorly constructed for the long run. This team should actually get better over the next few years. (Well, with a little luck, anyway.) So there's that to cling to.
But you know what? Right now, it sucks. Losing always sucks, but to lose like that? Tough to take. I was only 16 when the Cards lost those three straight games to the Braves. In the intervening years, I've turned into a completely different person. A person, in fact, I'm almost certain 16 year old Aaron would have hated, which is more than a little depressing. My perspective on things today is so far removed from that 16 year old version of myself that it's almost like looking at a different person trying to remember who I was back then.
Today, though, 16 year old Aaron and 32 year old Aaron are in total agreement: what we just saw really, really sucked.