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Cardinals put end to AL superiority

Cardinals put end to AL superiority

ST. LOUIS -- The party inside and outside Busch Stadium looked like it was going to go on forever. Fans wearing bright red colors congregated in the lower seats long after the final pitch had been thrown. Their favorite players would gradually break from their clubhouse champagne and go out to acknowledge them. Everyone was happy and fulfilled, and it didn't matter if tomorrow never came.

That was the scene on the night of Oct. 27, stretching into the wee hours of Oct. 28. They were Boston Red Sox fans. They were Boston Red Sox players. They were the visitors at old Busch Stadium. They had just swept the Cardinals in the 2004 World Series.

Now, it was exactly two years later, to the moment. This time, it was new Busch Stadium, and these were St. Louis Cardinals fans and St. Louis Cardinals players. Once again, no one wanted to leave. It was their turn. There was no American League team celebrating on a National League field, no need to play the polite host and try to feel good for the other guy. No talk of that alleged AL superiority this time.

"The main thing is, you have to understand that in this game, no matter what the records are, when you put two teams on the field, anything is possible," said World Series Most Valuable Player David Eckstein, who has now won a championship in both leagues after having done so with the Angels in 2002. "When you step on the field, no one really cares about all that talk of the AL being better. I hope it gives a little respect back to the National League -- that we can play this game, too."

It was that sweep by the Red Sox that started what became an AL-is-better movement. The White Sox proceeded to sweep the Astros in 2005 and celebrate on an NL field. Then there was the extension of an AL winning streak at the All-Star Game -- an unbeaten streak that reached 10 games last July. There was the AL's 154-98 record in 2006 Interleague Play. All the 20-win candidates on pitching staffs seemed to be in the AL this summer. AL superiority was a common theme.

The Cardinals not only won the NL's first title since the Marlins in 2003, but they did it convincingly, recording the most lopsided World Series victory by an NL team since the Reds swept Tony La Russa's Oakland A's in 1990. This St. Louis team is not going to be compared to the '27 Yankees, having won the fewest games (83) of any past Fall Classic champ. It will not change the topic of conversation in those days before next summer's All-Star Game in San Francisco, but none of those vaunted powerhouses in the junior circuit was good enough in 2006.

"What it says is that the Tigers swept the Cardinals back in June, but that doesn't tell the full story," said Cardinals co-owner Fred Hanser. "Albert Pujols was hurt then, and by the time the season closed, you look at players who came off the DL, having big players like Jimmy Edmonds back.

"The team jelled, the pitchers did a fantastic job down the stretch, and that's what won it for us. Who can say enough about Adam Wainwright? He gave the starting pitchers confidence that they could get the game to him in the last inning. Look, we almost didn't even [make the playoffs]. We almost lost it at the end. We went through those bad stretches, we still limped to the finish line, and when [Curtis Granderson] slipped on the turf yesterday, you could almost tell that this seemed meant to be. These players could say they darn well did it."

Mark Mulder could say it as well, but only as one who had contributed in the early part of the marathon. He enjoyed the clubhouse celebration, much the same way Frank Thomas had a year before with the White Sox. Mulder started the season strong, but then struggled with a shoulder injury and finally underwent Sept. 12 surgery on his left rotator cuff. He had spent most of his career with the A's, and said he understood the widespread perception about the AL's dominance.

"They probably were better overall in the AL this year, in terms of there being more good American League teams than good National League teams," Mulder said. "But that's just the way it goes. No one picked us to get past the first round. One of 15 writers on another Web site picked us to get past the first round. Don't think that wasn't on our clubhouse wall. Tony always told us, 'Pick something to get a chip on your shoulders,' and we did."

At the All-Star Game this summer, Scott Rolen sat on the bench and watched as the American League won yet again. As usual, everyone seemed to be asking afterward about why the AL is so much better than the NL these days. Rolen had a monster series this past week, and he said there is no point trying to analyze how these things happen, how an 83-win team can win it all two years to the night after a team from Boston came here to bust an 86-year World Series drought.


"That's why I've never believed anything anybody says or got caught up in 'this-league-is-better' or home-field advantages. They said we won 83 games, so we can't win. If that was the case, why play the games?"
-- Scott Spiezio

"Whatever you do in your life, you've gotta do it the best you can," Rolen said. "This is about a clubhouse. Everybody said we weren't going to make the playoffs. We did the best in the playoffs. That's all. It's the same group of guys we had in the regular season. We did exactly the same thing in September, and we were the worst team in baseball. Then in October, we were the best team in baseball. I'm not going to try to figure it out."

Other people can try to figure out what home-field advantage means in a World Series these days. The new rule was instituted following the tie at the 2002 All-Star Game, and it has had no significant implication, although it seems to have added luster and meaning to the Midsummer Classic.

The Yankees had home-field advantage in 2003, and the Marlins celebrated a title in the Bronx the night of Game 6. The Red Sox and White Sox each won their first two games at home, no doubt a beneficial thing, but still featuring a final result of a four-game sweep clinched on the road. And now the Tigers have lost a World Series in five games, unable to take advantage of the All-Star Game victory and winning only Game 2 in Detroit.

"It doesn't matter -- we won the world championship," said the Cardinals' Scott Spiezio, who now can shave his Cardinal red soul patch after Sunday's victory parade. "It's great. That's why I've never believed anything anybody says or got caught up in 'this-league-is-better' or home-field advantages. They said we won 83 games, so we can't win. If that was the case, why play the games?"

They just played the last game of the season at Busch Stadium, and it ended the way it did exactly two years before. Lots of happy people wearing red, sharing the moment with the boys of summer. Only this time, it was the Cardinals' turn, the dream ending in a brand-new stadium.

The billboard outside said, "You built the stadium. We make it heaven."

And deep into the next morning, it was very much that.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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