Cards weather the storm in '07
From injuries to legal troubles to death, St. Louis battled
ST. LOUIS -- The more time that passes, the more the Cardinals' 2007 season will be remembered in simple black-and-white, defined by a number -- the 78 wins, or more vividly the 84 losses, tallied by a team that had won three straight division titles.
For those who were there, however, the perception will always be different. This was no ordinary season. Rarely has a team taken so many blows and gotten up so many times. The goals -- a playoff appearance and ultimately a World Series title -- never changed, but the lens through which it is all viewed most assuredly did.
"It seems like something would happen, and we'd get back on our feet, and then something else would happen and knock us back down," said closer Jason Isringhausen. "We know what we went through as a team, and I think we can still be proud of what we accomplished, with what we've been through."
Historically, success in St. Louis has not been judged on a sliding scale. It was not in 2006, and it will not be in 2008. There is no grading on a curve for a franchise with 10 world titles and 17 pennants. If you won, you were a success. If your season ended before October, you were not successful.
This time around, though, the definitions were a little different. While no one was satisfied with a losing season and a distant third-place finish, the degree of difficulty on this particular campaign stands out.
"I think this was a long one," manager Tony La Russa said. "It just never seemed like there was anything that was going easy for us. You woke up early, stayed up late. You're always trying to work through something for the team."
The loss of friend and teammate Josh Hancock in a fatal April car crash stands above everything else, but it wasn't the only punch in the stomach that this club took.
Projected eighth-inning reliever Josh Kinney underwent Tommy John elbow surgery in March, and La Russa was arrested for DUI in Spring Training as well. Ace Chris Carpenter pitched a single game in April before being shut down. In July, he underwent reconstructive elbow surgery. The end of April brought Hancock's death, and the Cardinals understandably played in a fog for weeks afterward.
Infielder/outfielder Scott Spiezio left the team in August to receive treatment for substance abuse problems. Outfielder Juan Encarnacion was struck in the face by a foul ball, ending his season, drastically damaging his vision and threatening his career. Rick Ankiel, one of the brightest spots of the season, was linked to human growth hormone purchases in a story in the New York Daily News.
And still they soldiered on. In early September, the Cardinals pulled within a game of first place in the National League Central. A win in their series opener in Arizona would have put them in first. Instead, they lost that night -- and each of the following eight games, falling out of contention.
Getting so close is a tribute to an undermanned ballclub. Falling short was another heartbreak.
"It's been a tough year because of injuries and how we've been playing," said Albert Pujols, "but I'm more disappointed that we didn't get that opportunity to get in the playoffs when we were only one game out and we hit that wall right there. That hard stretch where we lost nine games in a row. That was pretty tough."
|CARDINALS SECOND-HALF TOP PERFORMANCES|
8/9, STL 5, SD 0 -- Ankiel's three-run shot
Rick Ankiel returns to The Show with a three-run homer in the Cardinals' win.
8/16, STL 8, MIL 0 -- Rolen's diving stop
Scott Rolen makes a diving stop and throws to first from the seat of his pants.
8/29, HOU 7, STL 0 -- Edmonds' sparkling catch
Jim Edmonds' great catch provided the Cardinals with their only bright spot in a loss.
7/13, PHI 13, STL 3 -- Duncan's leaping grab
Chris Duncan robs Carlos Ruiz of a homer when he leaps up to make the catch in Philadelphia.
9/16, CHC 4, STL 2 -- Ankiel's diving catch
Rick Ankiel makes a diving catch in right field against the Cubs.
When the Cardinals slumped in September, they didn't slump because of frustration, distraction, tragedy or turmoil. They slumped because they weren't quite good enough. The offense lacked several key components, and the starting pitching was never what it needed to be after Carpenter went down.
As the season becomes a memory, the Cardinals organization begins looking ahead to 2008, and legitimate questions exist as to whether '07 was a blip or a bellwether. The club's win total has declined for three straight years, which must concern the brain trust.
So they begin looking forward and assessing what they have. Adam Wainwright, who emerged as an impact pitcher, will front a rotation that will likely see a significant makeover. Whether the offense is turned over as well remains to be seen.
But the goal always remains the same. Even coming off a losing season filled with headaches and heartaches, when the Cardinals look at 2008, they have the same expectation they had for 2007.
"The only thing that matters is whether you win the championship or not," said David Eckstein. "That's the bottom line. You can say a team had a great year or a bad year, but if they don't win a championship, it really doesn't matter."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.