In just a few hours, Josh Johnson will throw the first pitch of the St. Louis Cardinals 2012 season. Regardless of how the season plays out, Cardinals fans will get to hear “defending World Champions” until a new champion is crowned. As exciting as as opening day in Miami will be, it will be dwarfed by the extravaganza that the Cardinals will put on as they raise the World Championship banner and pass out World Series rings during their home opener later in April.
While giving their team a well deserved ovation, Cardinals fans should also spend a moment or two and thank the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies for the way they finished their season. Over the course of 162 games, they proved that they were indeed the best team in baseball. Their 102 wins led both the National and American Leagues, as well topping their previous franchise record (101). Their starting rotation and bullpen featured some of the best arms in the game, resulting in genuinely mind numbing ERAs in an era where ERAs approaching four are considered acceptable.
Heading into the final series of the season, the Phillies could have laid down and picked their opponent in the National League Divisional Series. Maybe they did. Either way, they played that final series against the Atlanta Braves like champions, storming into the post-season, unafraid of who they would face next, confident in their ability to beat any team in a short series. As a result, they had the misfortune of playing the Cardinals, who were just the hotter team at the moment. Not over the season, to be sure. But over the course of one week of post-season baseball, and it was by a itsy bitsy teeny tiny razor thin margin. Or, as Curt Flood would tell us if he could, by the wrong turn of a normally dependable outfielder.
Fans of baseball need to thank the Phillies for a most memorable NLDS, one of the best ever. Back and forth the series went, going pretty much along the script of the Phillies big bats versus the Cardinals suddenly dependable relief pitching. Each had produced a pair of wins, setting up one of the greatest games in Cardinals history – Game Five. If the Phillies give away that final series to the Braves, all of baseball is deprived of this special game. That would be a shame.
If things worked out differently, and the Phillies meet the Brewers in the NLCS, it goes down as just another seven game series. The Phillies could win it in six, as the Cardinals did, but there wouldn’t be anything beyond the marks on the scorecard. There would have been no controversy about the stadium’s ribbon lighting, or whether the roof should be open or closed. There is no history of players opening their mouths when they shouldn’t have, and no pitchers throwing at batters when they did. The games might have been good, probably some great individual performances, but it would have been just another seven game championship series between two teams that play each other a few times each year. Phillies fans probably wouldn’t have even noticed Brian Anderson was calling the game as he would on Fox Sports Wisconsin instead of a national broadcast.
Instead, Cardinals and Brewers fans got a delightful series between two teams that knew each other like siblings. And genuinely disliked each other, in a siblings sort of way. This was not just an NLCS, it was NL Central bragging rights for the next twelve months. It was vindication for Chris Carpenter or Nyjer Morgan. It would also be the last time that fans of either team would see Prince Fielder in a Brewers uniform, and the last time Brewers fans would get a look at Albert Pujols wearing the Birds on the Bat.
Fans of baseball might have also been deprived of a most memorable World Series. The series will be remembered not for who won each game, but how they went back and forth – each team coming from behind for some thrilling wins. The unique moment in Game Six, when Joe Buck was able to make the same call as his father two decades earlier, will go down in broadcasting history as one of those perfect moments. The sound of “We Will See You Tomorrow Night” still gives Cardinals and Twins fans goosebumps. That just doesn’t happen with any other team.
I know that Phillies fans were disappointed with how their season ended, but they shouldn’t be. Their team was the best in both leagues, played like champions, battled for five brilliant post-season games, and that’s how they should be remembered. Just as Cardinals fans need to realize that 2011 was not the reincarnation of 1964, Phillies fans should do the same. There was no late season meltdown in Philadelphia, there was no let down, nothing but good baseball. And that’s all that we can ask of any team.
So as you give Adam Wainwright, David Freese, Lance Berkman and the rest of the Cardinals your applause over the next few days, save a little for Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard and the rest of the 2011 Phillies. They deserve it nearly as much as the Cardinals do.