A HAPPY ENDING? Two summers ago, it was hard not to feel sorry for the St. Louis Cardinals. When Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck and pitching ace Darryl Kile died within a week of each other in June 2002, you had to be the worst kind of Cubs loyalist not to carry a bit of a lump in your throat for the proud old franchise suffering such a one-two punch of tragedy in so short a period of time. Between tears, I for one found myself thinking Cardinal Nation -- and in particular the Buck and Kile families -- had something very, very good coming. For it would take a lot to deaden this kind of pain. Well, I may have been right. There’s a lot of baseball to play before a champion is crowned for 2004, but with two-thirds of the season almost complete, St. Louis is having a season for the ages, one that would make a couple of fallen heroes smile so much it hurts. Who saw this coming? Through Sunday, the Cardinals have gone an astounding 58-23 since May 14. Since early June, they have put together seven winning streaks of at least five games. They have a better road record than every other team’s HOME record, except for the Yankees and A’s. In Scott Rolen, Albert Pujols, and Jim Edmonds, they may well have three of the top four vote-getters for this season’s NL Most Valuable Player. Their starting pitching -- the team’s Achilles heel in the eyes of every expert last spring -- has been so solid that exactly two starts have been missed all season long (Memphis ace Dan Haren having filled in both times). In that sad season of 2002, 14 starting pitchers were used for a team that somehow still won its division. Sailing along with the best record in the game in early August, what do the Cardinals do? They grab a former MVP, three-time batting champ, and seven-time Gold Glove winner in a deal consummated after the rest of the baseball world had stopped paying attention to the market. Larry Walker managed to clear waivers before he was sent to St. Louis two weeks ago. He probably feels like it’s the last hurdle he’ll see for months. Time to celebrate? Be careful. Time to enjoy, to savor, to soak up? Heck yeah. The year was 1968 the last time the Cardinals enjoyed such a phenomenal record this late in a season. That club had four Hall of Famers (Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Orlando Cepeda) and three other players worthy of consideration (Curt Flood, Ken Boyer, Roger Maris). Twenty-five years from now, we may look back at the 2004 Cardinals and find merely two Hall of Famers (Pujols and Rolen), but at least three others worthy of consideration (Edmonds, Walker, and Edgar Renteria). Those ‘68 Cardinals were managed by a Hall of Famer (Red Schoendienst) and the ‘04 bunch is skippered by a shoo-in for Cooperstown (Tony LaRussa). Those Ô68 Cardinals, it should be remembered, lost the World Series to Mickey Lolich and the otherwise undermanned Detroit Tigers. So no, there’s no guarantee that a parade is in the near future for Market Street in downtown St. Louis. The quintet that makes up the Cardinals’ starting rotation (Matt Morris, Woody Williams, Chris Carpenter, Jason Marquis, and Jeff Suppan) is not going to strike fear in the hearts of any big-league lineup, much less that of an American League champion. And should the Cubs earn the NL wild card, they’ll prove a formidable matchup in the NLCS (as division rivals, the two clubs can’t meet in the first round). With appropriate perspective, though, this is a great time to be part of Cardinal Country. The Memphis Redbirds rode a second-half wave to reach the .500 mark, just as Walker was landing in St. Louis. For the first time in four years, the Redbirds won’t finish in their division’s cellar. The vibe, it would seem, has reached at least 280 miles south of the Mound City. Need further proof of just how favorable the Cardinals appear to be in the eyes of the baseball gods in 2004? Two weekends ago, this team built around three -- no, four! -- of the biggest sluggers in the game swept a three-game series from the New York Mets . . . without hitting a single home run. After a day of travel, the same club managed only two hits against the world champion Florida Marlins . . . and won the game. Both hits were home runs. Means and method don’t seem to matter so much when the fates are on your side. Thinking back to the sad summer of 2002, the emotional scales of Cardinal Nation just may be finally balancing.

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