The Past Decade
       

Late 90's
I graduated from high school, met my wife Christine, and began college all in the same year as the strike. So not only did I have a lot going on, but the game was at its nadir. As a result, I wasn't much into baseball during my first couple of years of college. In Tony LaRussa's first year in 1996, the Cards made the playoffs for the first time since '87, and so I did start to pay attention again. The team swept the Padres in the first round before blowing a 3-1 NLCS lead to the Braves.

After that began the McGwire era, which intrigued me and really my whole family, especially with the Mac-Sammy race. Here we were living halfway between the two cities that were enthralling the nation. Christine and I attended the last game of the regular season on September 27th, 1998 when McGwire hit homers #69 and 70. That was a great experience. We were in standing room only, eating pistachios with and giving hi-fives to total strangers.

       
However, the season was over that day because the team failed to make the playoffs. In the ensuing years, with Bonds breaking the record and the revelation of rampant steroids use, I feel a little bit like a sucker for getting caught up in that hype. That was not Cardinals baseball, with everyone sort of waiting around for the big guy to hit a homer. That was not why I became a fan. I think it is telling that the Cards and LaRussa went to the playoffs in '96 without McGwire, then with McGwire missed the playoffs in '97, '98, and '99 (when Big Mac had 65 dingers). When Big Mac got hurt in 2000, the team made the playoffs. Without him, the team has been to the playoffs 6 of the last 7 years. I'm not saying it's McGwire's fault, but his presence altered the team's approach, becoming more standstill baseball.

This Century
Christine and I got married in '99 and we moved to Chicagoland in 2000. She enrolled in the Master's in Professional Counseling program at Concordia University and I entered the Ph.D. program in Math at UIC. The reason I've followed baseball more closely this decade is not because of homers, but because of interesting playoff races and the success of the St. Louis Cardinals. As an adult, "following" a baseball team does not mean what it did as a kid. There is no way I can spend 3 hours a day every day for 6 months watching or listening to a game. And with the Cardinals' success during this span, I have been able to get a little cocky, realizing that "I can start following the team in September." So I've been a casual fan most years from April through August, attending a game or two and checking scores and standings occasionally. Then I'll pay daily attention during the pennant race and the playoffs.

2000
The millennium team swept the Braves in the first round. The NLCS was against the Mets, and I thought back to how much I had hated them when I was a kid. Realignment in '95 meant that the rivarly was not what it had been, as the teams were no longer in the same division. But I wanted to remember that era, and I was happy that the pregame show before Game 1 emphasized that heated rivalry from the 80's. I told Christine the story of going to a Mets-Cubs game at Wrigley with the family, when I made a "Metbusters" sign, complete with the red circle and slash over the orange and blue "NY." The Mets were the Wild Card, but they took care of the Cards in 5 games. I didn't have the same hatred in my heart that I would have had when I was a kid, but it was still a disappointment. The Mets went on to lose the Subway Series that few people west of Buffalo cared about.

2001
This was our first summer living in Chicagoland, so it was fun to be able to jump on the train and see the Cardinals when they came to Wrigley. I got tickets for all three games of a June Cubs-Cards series. We had three different groups of friends and family stay with us and attend the different games. Unfortunately, the Cubs swept that series.
               
Dad told one of his Cub fan co-workers about my misfortune in that series, and the co-worker left me an answering machine message (that Dad played for me next time I visited) where he laughed at me. I asked Dad for that guys' number, and sure enough, the Cubs eventually fell out of contention. (Who could have imagined?) September 11th pushed back the season a week, so it also pushed back the Cubs' elimination day. When they were mathematically eliminated in late Septemeber, I left that guy the following message. "Remember how you called me when the Cubs won that regular season series over the Cardinals—oh, sorry to be redundant, as we all know the Cubs haven't won a postseason series since the Teddy Roosevelt administration. Anyway, enjoy this week's games, because the Cubs are playin' in October! And remember: Cub fans can't be cocky." I never heard back from him.

The Cards ended the season tied with Houston [who quickly filled in for the Mets in the hated rival role], but the Astros won the division with a better head-to-head record. As a result, the Cards had to go on the road as the Wild Card against the Diamondbacks, despite the Cards having a better regular season record than Arizona. The Diamondbacks won that thrilling best-of-5 series on a two-out hit in the bottom of the 9th of game 5 by future Cardinal Tony Womack. Arizona of course went on to show the baseball world that the Yankees can be beaten, and the rest of baseball has not looked back ever since.

2002
I went to another entire series in '02, this time a home series against the Royals. The Cards swept that one, which was fun. Shortly thereafter, the team endured the deaths of Darryl Kile and Jack Buck, but still cruised to another division title. The Cards had to go on the road to Arizona again, but this time swept the snakes. Unfortunately, it was another Wild Card team, this time the Giants, eliminating the Cards in 5 games in the NLCS. The Giants then lost to another Wild Card team, the Angels, in the World Series.

2003
This is the one year of the decade that the Cards didn't finish first. [Note to the Cubs: THIS WAS YOUR CHANCE.] Christine and I in fact attended the game at Wrigley when the wheels officially fell off for the Cards. Up 6-0, the Cards blew the lead on the field and in the standings, losing 8-7. This game was singled out later by the Cardsí announcers as the point of destruction of the Cardinalsí season. The Cards fell out of the division lead for good the next day. I hated the Cubs briefly, but once they were in the playoffs, I followed them and even sort of rooted for them. Let's face it, it's hard to hate the Cubs. That would be like a Harlem Globetrotters fan hating the Washington Generals. Plus I thought it would be fun to be in Chicago the year the Cubs actually made it. I went to Wrigley before game 4 of the NLDS when the Cubs had a chance to clinch against the Braves. I didn't have game tickets, I just walked around the stadium and soaked up the atmosphere as a sports fan. It was a baseball novelty, really a sports novelty. I did come across another Cardinal fan wearing a Cards hat who indicated he was in my position. He had a supportive sign that said something like, "Go get 'em Cubs, because we got next year," with the Cards logo at the bottom. I said "That's right!" and gave him a high five. At the time, I had no idea how correct he was.

The Red Sox were in it, too, and of course I wanted to see them beat the Yankees. With Paul living out in Boston, I was calling various family members every day, and those League Championship Series were fantastic. In fact, I jumped on the train from UIC and headed to Wrigley field during the bottom of the 7th inning of Game 6 of the NLCS, planning to observe (though not partake in) a huge celebration. I had my pocket radio on, and it was 3-0 Cubs starting the top of the 8th as I entered the blue line train. But I had to transfer underground, so I couldn't get a signal.

It took forever for a red line train to come, and so I thought the Cubs had already won and trains were jammed up or something. Finally after twenty minutes, a train came. But we were still underground for a long time after that. I thought for sure it was all over and that I had missed witnessing the initial euphoria. Coming up from underground, I heard Pat Hughes' voice: "bottom of the 8th." I thought "Good, it's not over, I haven't missed it." Then he said "8-3 Florida." Wow. I started to smirk. This is historic—what the heck happened?
Oh. This may be a new low for the Cubs. Silly me for believing they'd pull it off. All along the route, people were getting on the train for the same purpose I had (except they of course planned to partake, not just observe). They had left home and started walking to the train before the historic collapse. On the train, the news was spreading quietly, and there were many looks of disbelief. I'm really glad I was there to be a fly on the wall and witness the local reaction to such a monumental half-inning collapse. I got out at Addison and watched the last popup in the bottom of the 9th from the platform, while I called my dad. Amazing. The Cubs lost the next day, and the Red Sox lost a heartcrusher in extra innings of Game 7. So unfortunately, both LCSes turned out badly, and I didn't pay much attention to the World Series, though I was happy to hear the Yanks had again been felled.

2004
The Cards were so good that I started thinking that this would be the year. I thought back to my childhood, and I made a conscientious effort to start following the team more closely earlier in the season. This is a practice I continued for the next several years. Of course I could not avoid the perspective of Chicago media, who went from thinking the Cards were a fluke, to thinking the Cards were serious and "would be with the Cubs all year," to finally accepting very late that the Cardinals were going to win the division. I went to a home game in early August and kept daily track of the team from that point on. Of course, there was not much to track, as the team had completely run away and hidden from all potential competitors. I drove to Milwaukee with some friends to see the team clinch officially on September 20th.

I had bought a DVD-Recorder, and it turned out to be great for archiving baseball playoffs. I'm able to record a game just like TiVo, pausing or reviewing while it is still recording. Plus, when I'm done recording, I can go back and edit the disc. As a result, I can edit out everything but the highlights, and then record the next day's game on the disc. So I was able to produce my own highlight package of each series, which was sweet. In the first round, the Cards easily got past the Dodgers. Meanwhile, the Red Sox swept the A's. Paul called after the first round and said, "It's gonna be a Red Sox-Cardinals World Series!" I didn't believe him, but I certainly hoped so. The Cards went up 2-0 over the hated Houston Astros, but the Red Sox got in a big hole against the hated Yankees. Paul and I called multiple times each day about both series, and I told him, "We're holding up our end of the deal." Both of those League Championship series were again (like in '03) 7-game thrillers—this time both series pitting divisional arch-rivals, and this time with the right outcomes. Paul's prediction came true! The Red Sox completed the biggest comeback in history, and the Cards beat Clemens in game 7 of the NLCS.
               

I went online and bought Paul a Red Sox 2006 AL Champions shirt as a belated birthday gift. It symbolized how happy I was to see the Red Sox beat the Yankees, and also the limited extent to which I hoped the Red Sox run would go.

I could not believe this matchup had come true. It was so historic. I decided to go to broker sites online and see how much tickets would be for a game in St. Louis. The best price I saw was around $1350 for 2 seats for Game 3. I called a few people to see if they would want to go with me, but couldn't get any takers. Still, I went ahead and placed an order, figuring I'd find somebody somehow. Within a minute or so, I got a phone call from the broker telling me that they didn't actually have those tickets, and that I would have to call the distributor directly. They destroyed my credit card information and gave me the distributor's number. After getting a busy signal several times, I realized this was probably a sign that spending that kind of money would not be good stewardship.

Watching the ensuing World Series was difficult. I had become infatuated with this Red Sox team during the last two postseasons, particularly in the recent ALCS. But now I had to root against them because they stood in the way of my team, the one I've followed my whole life. Seeing Johnny Damon come to bat brought back memories of jumping out of my skin when he hit the grand slam in game 7 of the ALCS, but now we had to try to get him out. That was very difficult to do, as it was difficult for Cards pitchers to get anyone out that entire series. Watching Jeff Suppan deciding not to score in Game 3 (the game for which I had tried to get tickets) and getting thrown out trying to go back to third was particularly painful. (In fact, it made me think for a brief time the NL should also have the DH.) The Cards never led the entire series, and the curse of the Bambino was lifted under a total lunar eclipse on the turf of (old) Busch stadium in St. Louis. This was the third Cardinals World Series I'd watched, and now the third World Series I'd watched the Cardinals lose.


For Christmas that year, Paul got me a hat that commemorates the 2004 World Series matchup without mentioning who won. I like it. The following February, my entire family had breaks and vacation amazingly coincide. My brother Mark was going to be in Naples, Florida, where Christine's grandma has a condo. So we all went to Florida for a week and took a day to see the Red Sox Spring Training in Fort Myers. I bought a 2004 World Series program (you know, something that doesn't mention any results). We angled for autographs, and I did get one. Amazingly, it was from Edgar Renteria who had been a Cardinal in '04 (in fact making the final out of the World Series) and signed as a free agent with Boston. How perfect was this—he signed the World Series hat! I don't know if he looked at it, but he signed on the side that he was playing for at the time!

2005
The Cards won 100 games again in 2005. Again I went to a home game in early August, and again saw the team clinch the division in person. This time it was at Wrigley field, and it was with tickets that I purchased in July.

So that's two years in a row I was there to see the team clinch on the road. Once again there were intriguing playoff matchups, as not just the Red Sox but also the local White Sox made it in on the AL side. The Cards easily dispatched of the Padres, and the White Sox went to work eliminating their own curse and took care of the Red Sox in another first round sweep. The White Sox went on to best the Angels in 5 games, while the Cards struggled in another gimmicky stadium in Houston. The Astros, to their credit, had a legitimate ace in Roy Oswalt (though I still of course hate him), so they were able to win game 2 in St. Louis. Then with their roof closed to maximize home field advantage (again, they depend on gimmicks to win), the Astros won games 3 and 4 in Houston and were all set to make it 4 in a row and head to the World Series. Closer Brad Lidge struck out the first two batters in the top of the 9th and the writers had voted him NLCS MVP. He got to two strikes on David Eckstein. The TV announcer Thom Brennaman said, "They like things big in Texas. They're ready for a biiiig party tonight." But Eckstein singled, Jim Edmonds walked, and then Albert Pujols hit one of the most clutch postseason homers of all time to send the series back to St. Louis.

What a fantastic moment. It was a good thing for the Astros that the roof was closed so that the actual distance of the homer could not be measured! It looked like perhaps the Astros might be done, but unfortunately Oswalt beat the Cards in Game 6, so in some sense Pujols homer didn't matter. But in another sense, it did: everyone in baseball saw that homer and it cemented his place as the most intimidating hitter in the game today. I believe that that homer, and the never-say-die attitude that led up to it, was a spark for the 2006 season and postseason.

The White Sox swept Houston, partly because the Astros couldn't stop crying about having to keep their roof open. (Again, they need gimmicks to have a chance.) I would have wanted to see the White Sox win anyway, because it's been such a long time for them and because of living in Chicagoland, but it was particularly sweet to see them destroy the Houston "kiss my" Astros. I went outside with Sox fan friends to watch the celebration. Then I drove around the city and took pictures of various celebrations. Two days later, I attended the victory parade that went right by UIC campus. [Little did I know I would also be at the following year's parade...]
So the stage was set for the 2006 baseball season... Next to



Little Boy's Dream

Childhood

Past Decade

Pennant Race

NLDS

NLCS

World Series

Celebration

Basking

Reflection