Typically, at this time of year, reporters like to scratch their heads and make lists of what they consider to be the most important or biggest stories of the last 12 months.
Usually it's done in the form of a countdown with some forgettable moments sprinkled in for numbers six through 10, some things people vaguely remember fill spots two through five and number one is an event so obvious that the list reader wonders why he invested 30 seconds in this endeavor.
But... if you're making such a list about the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals, the usual doesn't apply. This has been by far the most topsy turvy year of Redbirds baseball I can remember. Having only 10 items doesn't seem enough to cover the whole story. But here is my stab at it:
10) Albert Pujols breaks his wrist... And misses two weeks: Now, I know that the break was very minor and that it couldn't have happened at a better place for a speedy recovery. But c'mon, the guy broke his wrist and was back before we knew what hit us. And he was productive when he came back, too. Sometimes when major league players break a wrist it takes several months to get their strength back. And, sometimes, they never get it back at all.
9) Chris Carpenter out-duels Roy Halladay in deciding game of the NLDS: In front of a hostile crowd in a band box of a ballpark Chris Carpenter may have pitched the best game by a Cardinals hurler since Bob Gibson angrily toed the rubber. And he did it against perhaps the best pitcher in all of baseball. Carp held the imposing Philadelphia line-up to three hits and no runs, making a single tally in the top of the first stand up for nine of the most tense innings I have ever seen. Some say game six of the World Series is the greatest baseball game ever played. Maybe they didn't see game five of the NLDS.
8) Cardinals sign old, broken down Lance Berkman... and he turns into vintage, productive Lance Berkman: The news that the Birds had inked Berkman to a contract was met with snickers. When it was announced that Berkman was going to play regularly in the outfield for the first time in five years it was met with belly laughs. But Berkman held his own in right field -- and he carried the Cardinals on his back for the first half of 2011. Simply put, the Birds had NO CHANCE to make the playoffs without Berkman. In fact, they probably would have finished in fourth place had he signed elsewhere.
7) Contract talks with Albert Pujols break off before spring training: I was really dreading the 2011 season after this point because I was sure it was going to be a horribly distracting nightmare. Although things didn't work out as I hoped, the impact on the club was much less than I thought it was going to be. The Birds managed to stay in contention and keep the talk of Pujols being traded -- despite the fact that he had no-trade rights -- to a minimum. And, if he had to go, at least we got the most out of his last year.
6) Adam Wainwright misses the whole 2011 season: I still remember the day I heard the news that Wainwright tore a ligament in his pitching elbow during spring training. I thought I was going to be ill. And that feeling didn't subside as I heard all the experts predict that it was all over for the Cardinals without their co-ace. And it probably would have been if not for the recovery of Kyle Lohse from an injury-riddled free agent bust into the best St. Louis pitcher over the course of the 2011 campaign.
5) The Redbirds trade Colby Rasmus: It made huge waves at the time because all the Cardinals got in return for the alleged future franchise cornerstone was an intriguing lefty bullpenner and a bunch of guys who were in the last year of their contracts. But, as it turned out, those veterans were all the difference between not making the playoffs at all and in winning the whole ball of wax. Even if Rasmus goes on to be a great player -- which he won't -- it's hard to say it wasn't worth it to sacrifice part of the future to get the brass ring. But Rasmus has proved to be as much of a pain in the rump in Toronto as he was in St. Louis. Coaches there were stunned when Rasmus refused to listen to their instruction as he slumped to worse numbers north of the border than he put up in St. Louis. This offseason rumors have circulated that Toronto is already over Rasmus and the club is supposedly trying to deal him elsewhere.
4) Manager Tony La Russa retires: It's funny that after 16 years of managing in St. Louis that Cardinals fans and the local media still didn't seem to know him at all. At the end of the 2007, '08, '09 and '10 seasons it seemed like everyone thought that was the year that La Russa would hang it up. In 2011 everyone seemed to think he would stay. So, of course he left.
3) The Cardinals overcome two-run deficits in the ninth AND tenth innings to tie the Rangers when they're down to their last strike before World Series defeat. Then David Freese cranks a homer to centerfield in the bottom of the eleventh. World Series game winning homers are rare. But no team has ever come back from two run deficits in the ninth and 10th and then won a game on a homer in the eleventh in the history of major league baseball. I could fill a whole list one to 10 of only World Series moments -- and half of it with the exploits of game six alone.
2) The Cardinals overcome a 10 1/2 game deficit at the end of August to win the World Series: It would have been an even better accomplishment had the Rays not done something nearly as spectacular in running down the Red Sox. Of course the thing that really set the Cardinals apart was that they went on to make something of their chance, defeating the Phillies, Brewers and Rangers in the post season to win their 11th World Series championship.
1) Albert Pujols leaves the Cardinals to sign with the Angels: I don't think we really comprehend the weight of this issue yet. I'm pretty sure that how much it hurts to lose Pujols depends greatly on how much gas he has in the tank. If he goes on to play 10 strong years in Anaheim, brings the Angels three World Series titles, wins two or three most valuable player awards and breaks Barry Bonds' dubious all-time home run record, we may never get over it. Still it's tough to lose our Pujols legacy when the former St. Louis icon inked a pact in which he promised to disassociate himself from the Redbirds for 20 years. Don't say I am a pessimist because I picked this story over the World Series win. If Albert stayed, the World Series would have been number one by a long shot. But, the fact of the matter is, the Cardinals have won 11 World Series in their history -- and this is the second one in the last six years. The Birds have only lost Albert Pujols once.