It was a night no one would ever forget.
October 27, 2006. 10:27pm. Busch Stadium.
World Series, Game 5: St. Louis leading Detroit 3-1 in the series.
Bottom of the ninth, two out.
Two strikes on Brandon Inge.
Wainwright to Molina...
After 24 years of Cardinal Nation going through joy, pain, jubilation, shock, and sorrow...after 24 years of cheering for the runner moved over, singing the Budweiser song in the eighth and making sure to wear red at Busch...after 24 years of waiting to cry our hearts out for the Redbirds—the longest stretch the Cardinals ever went without a World Series Title—it was all finally over.
On October 27, 2006 at 10:27 p.m., the gap was closed; the hiatus ended.
...Strike three to Inge.
Cardinals 4, Tigers 2.
Suddenly, those 24 years exploded.
In Busch Stadium, the fireworks shot off Cardinal Red with majesty into the October sky. Confetti blanketed the once-foggy air. Sirens went off, screens flashed, and music blared.
But on this night, the best of New Busch didn't matter. It wasn't the 'Birds' nest that exploded, it was the people—both inside and everywhere else a Cardinal fan stood.
Within the house of champions, it was a mob of 50,000 insane Cardinals fans letting out those 24 years in one thunderous scene of elation. Beer spilled, strangers hugged, people danced, laughed, and cried. A whirlwind of emotions surged; all released by one single strikeout.
It was a night for those thousands who gathered outside the stadium gates, waiting in the cold to, hopefully, catch a glimpse of history inside. They stood over each other for three-plus hours, but it didn't matter—they’d waited long enough.
It was a night for those at bars, restaurants and any other public gathering in which members of Cardinal Nation clustered around whatever TV they could find, telling everyone else to shut up around them, just to hear themselves make the most noise in the end.
It was for those who stayed at home with their family and friends to either watch Redbird legends Joe Buck and Tim McCarver or listen to legends Mike Shannon and John Rooney call the game of their lives.
It didn't matter who you were, where you were, or how it happened.
What matters is this: you were a member of Cardinal Nation when Wainwright threw that slider into Redbird history. You may forget who you were with, possibly even where you stood when it took place (though that's not likely), but one fact will forever ring true...
Tonight, every Cardinal fan in every part of the world caused that explosion. No one will ever forget that.
The spark started on April 3, 2006, when the Redbirds pounded the Philadelphia Phillies 13-5. It continued when the first game ever at New Busch was won a week later 6-4. Mark Mulder started that game (remember him?)
And for the next two months, the team rolled. Up to 15 games over .500 in June, it was looking like another solid Redbird season, straight into the playoffs.
And how wrong we were.
First went the pitching, then the injuries, then the inconsistent bats...and then, finally, the games. Then, on that frightful trip into the American League, the Cardinals fell for the first time.
Eight brutal losses later, three of which coming from the Tigers, that spark was rekindled by the sparkplug and World Series-MVP, David "D-Eck" Eckstein.
Chugging his way for an infield hit against Cleveland, Busch Stadium erupted (more like a collective sigh) in relief to see their team pick up a "W." If you recall, that was the night those fake home plates were thrown onto the field.
However, the Redbirds' worries seemed to continue. Mulder and Ponson (remember him?) gone, some guys named Weaver and Reyes in. The bullpen was being held up by a bunch of rookies and the 3-10 Jorge Sosa, while our outfield was a complete platoon and the lineup consisted of Albert Pujols and, well, Albert Pujols.
By August, the Cards fell for the second time—another eight-game losing streak. Regardless, they never lost that lead in the Central; not once surrendered first place.
Little did we know how meaningful that resiliency would become later.
September proved to be the month of hell. Still flying towards the playoffs, the Redbirds were finding those damn Astros now clipping their wings. The story of pitching woes continued. The promising team from April was now patched together by washed-up players released from teams on waivers, a shakier-than-ever rotation and that freaking-out, rookie-infested bullpen.
The final week looming, the Redbirds just needed to get in, somehow.
But then, the Cardinals fell for the third time.
Seven games deep into another losing streak, the Cardinals were about to complete the greatest stretch-run collapse in the history of baseball. But with Houston ready to steal the glory again, Albert Pujols saved the season with one swing.
Down 2-1 against the Padres in the bottom of the eighth and first place on the line, El Hombre slammed a towering three-run, 425-footer next to Big-Mac land, all but ending the Cardinals' spiral downward.
That game occurred one month ago from this very night. The final score was 4-2 as well.
Two days later, the resurrected Scott Spiezio played the role of hero. This time trailing 2-0 in the bottom of the eighth, the red-dying goatee rocker smacked a three-run triple—the first by a pinch hitter in years.
But in such a twisted season, it was almost appropriate that after all of those late heroic victories, we got in through the Astros finally falling off in a loss to the Braves on that final day of the regular season.
But after all the pain, all the agony, all the losing (3-9 in the final 12 games—no team had ever made the playoffs with three losing streaks of seven-plus games), Cardinal Nation could only sigh in relief once again.
Happy to just make it to October, we couldn't help but anticipate an early playoff exit. Well, at least most did.
And, once again, how wrong we were.
Out of nowhere, a team of scattered talent transformed into one unstoppable force. The pitching came alive, the bats were timely and that rookie bullpen was suddenly lights out. The once-intimidating Pads were gone in four, and the once-invincible Mets were stunned after being outplayed a full seven.
Then, just like that, the Redbirds were not only like that successful team from April, but they were something better. On their way back to the Fall Classic again; a season once thought of being forgotten suddenly given the possibility of immortality.
But they were denied—at least by the experts. Out of the 20 “professional” analysts on ESPN's baseball staff, 19 picked the "Birds not to go past the first round" (and that one still picked us to lose the NLCS). No one in the nation gave us a chance against the Tigers, with the most insulting prediction coming from the reporters in USA Today that stated "Tigers in 3."
I wish that guy would've bet on that.
You couldn't blame them, though. Not only was the entire American League the most dominant it had ever been over National League team this summer, but it was the unstoppable, best-team-in-baseball Tigers versus the scrappy, resilient, little-redbird-that-could Cardinals.
They were talented, but we were durable.
They were young, but we were experienced.
They were hot, but we were hotter.
And the rest is, well, history. The rest leads to this night. This moment.
This moment, which belongs to Jeff Weaver. After never pitching into the eighth inning over the entire season, he did it tonight. It was hands down the best game of his life.
This moment belongs to David Eckstein. The rightful World Series MVP. His never-die spirit symbolized everything this team transformed into.
Along with Eck, this moment belongs to all the other underdog players that helped make this underdog team a World Championship team, including Yadier Molina, So Taguchi, Jeff Suppan, Ronnie Belliard, Scott Spiezio, Preston Wilson and the entire bullpen—especially Adam Wainwright.
Every single player was viewed as a weakness entering the playoffs, and every single player made at least one game-changing play that contributed to this World Championship. Without one of them, we would not be here celebrating tonight.
This moment belongs to the leaders, too: Bill DeWitt, Walk Jocketty, Tony La Russa, Dave Duncan, Jimmy Edmonds, Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Chris Carpenter.
This moment belongs to the team of 1968, who saw their World Series dreams stolen by those Tigers. It took awhile, but we got 'em back.
This moment belongs to the teams of 1985, 1987, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, and 2005—all who came so close to Red October, but never went the distance.
This moment belongs to Darryl Kile, Auggie Busch, and our man, Jack Buck. Tonight they watched down on us, simply smiling.
This moment belongs to every Cardinal fan who has caught themselves day-dreaming this night, who has watched other World Series and wondered "When will that be us?"
To those who were there for '82, and have waited all these years, wondering who would channel Bruce Sutter once again for that final strike.
This moment belongs to all of us.
So the road ends here, from that spark in Philly to the explosion wherever any fan bleeds Cardinal red. And though we've witnessed the final game from this magical 2006 team, it's that explosion that shall carry on for a long, long time.
And as it continues, we shall talk about this entire season, and how improbable everything was up to these playoffs, and this night.
We'll talk about team of determination.
The team of the impossible.
The team of destiny.
The team that said “Anything can happen in the playoffs,” and then did it.
The team that proved you truly can't script October.
The team of miracles—in every essence of the word.
With a tear in my eye and a forever red-beating heart, I tip my cap and salute the 2006 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. The best 83-win team you'll ever see.
Though much is said here, words cannot nearly do justice to what took place over this wonderful October: It's the memories that will; it's this night that will.
The night that, for the first time in 24 years, everyone was a Cardinal.
And everyone exploded.
Cardinal Nation, we did it. The journey is over.
The Grand Illusion is now reality.