In the United States, three things alone are certain. Republicans will rant and rave over Obamacare. Congress will lead the country to the brink of disaster. And, resilient and serenely unflappable, the St Louis Cardinals will make a deep run into baseball’s post-season.
And so it has proved this October. National default has been narrowly averted, and the President’s health care reform is still besieged by enemy fire. Meanwhile, on Wednesday night in Boston, the Cardinals open their quest for a 12th World Series championship. The oddsmakers of Las Vegas have installed the Red Sox as marginal favourites. But you do not bet against St Louis lightly.
The match-up could not be more fitting. Often the post-season is a lottery, where a three-week hot streak can see an underdog go all the way. This time though, baseball’s showcase event features the two teams with the best regular season records, and from arguably the two most baseball-mad cities in the nation – each though obsessed in a different way.
After finishing bottom of the American League East in 2012, no one expected much from the Red Sox this year. Instead, faithful to the zany, slightly manic traditions of the franchise, the team has grown beards and prospered mightily. The glitz is back as well, from Neil Diamond belting out the Sox anthem of “Sweet Caroline” to David “Big Papi” Ortiz (below), Boston’s most beloved player, smiting a story-book grand slam in Game Two against Detroit that turned the AL Championship series on its head.
Ortiz is the only survivor from the 2004 Red Sox who swept St Louis to break the celebrated World Series curse that haunted Boston since 1918 (when a certain slugger named Babe Ruth was sold to the arch enemy Yankees). This time, though, no one is expecting a Boston sweep, against a Cardinals organisation that nothing seems to faze.
If baseball is a passion in Boston, it is a religion in St Louis. The city has an eminent place in American history, and professional football and hockey teams to boot. But no institution there remotely compares to the Cardinals. Back last January, Stan Musial, arguably the greatest player in the club’s history, died at the age of 92. A pope’s mourning period is nine days. That of “Stan the Man” has not truly ended yet, in St Louis and the surrounding swathe of the American heartland that is the Cardinals’ earthly kingdom – and spiritual domain, too.
Even among the Catholic holy orders, loyalties can be shared. A neighbour in Washington DC had a sister who was a nun at a convent about 50 miles south-west of St Louis. Never, in her declining years, was there a more devoted fan. On the walls of her room were a crucifix, a Raphael reproduction and a plethora of Cardinals gear. When she died this summer, they placed a red Cardinals cap in the coffin.
But if Boston is flashy, St Louis is the opposite, going about their business as imperturbably as a great ocean liner. A couple of years ago Tony La Russa, one of the most successful and esteemed managers in baseball history and who had guided the Cardinals to World Series titles Nos 10 and 11 in 2006 and then in 2011, retired. But La Russa’s going changed nothing. His replacement was the unheralded former catcher Mike Matheny. The Cardinals, meanwhile, just kept on winning.
Then they lost superstar slugger Albert Pujols on a free move, lured to the Los Angeles Angels by a 10-year $250m deal that St Louis could not match and turning himself in an instant from hero to traitorous ingrate. Indeed, for just one item among the nun’s memorabilia there were no takers. It was a signed Pujols jersey.
But once again, the franchise knew exactly what it was doing. In Los Angeles, Pujols has never been quite the same player. Meanwhile, in recompense, the Cardinals obtained an extra draft pick from the Angels. They chose a gangling 6ft 6in college pitcher named Michael Wacha. Needless to say, Wacha has been the sensation of this post-season. When St Louis were on the brink of elimination against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Game Four of the National League Division Series, Wacha produced a no-hitter for seven-plus innings.
In the NL pennant series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, he went even better, surrendering not a single run in two starts, as he twice defeated the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, generally regarded as the most dominant pitcher in the game, earning the NLCS most valuable player award in the process.
If Boston are to prevail, they have to solve the Wacha conundrum first. But what if Boston do not, and St Louis repeat their earlier World Series victories against the Red Sox of 1946 and 1967? Then for the departed Stan Musial and a certain Catholic nun, it will be the perfect heavenly reward.