A fitting end to an unlikely season

A fitting end to an unlikely season
October 29, 2011, 2:51 pm

There have been improbable World Series champions over the years. The 1960 Pirates, who were outscored by the Yankees 55-27 yet somehow won the whole thing on Bill Mazeroski's Game 7 blast. The 1969 Miracle Mets, who took down a supposedly superior Orioles squad. The 1988 Dodgers, who weren't supposed to be able to compete with the A's until a gimpy Kirk Gibson made history.

The 2011 Cardinals, though, may have topped them all on the improbability scale. It's not only the fact they made up 10 12 games in the NL wild-card standings over the season's five weeks. Go back to spring training when they learned co-ace Adam Wainwright needed Tommy John surgery and would miss the season. Everyone wrote them off right then and there.

Then flash-forward to the bottom of the ninth inning Thursday night, with St. Louis one strike away from being eliminated by the Rangers in a World Series that might have wound up being known best for Tony La Russa's Game 5 bullpen phone screw-up than anything else.

Who's going to remember the bullpen phone saga now, or for the rest of eternity, after the Cardinals stormed back to win Game 6 in epic fashion and then finished off Texas last night in Game 7? St. Louis wrote an entirely new storyline over the span of 24 hours, one that will long be remembered as one of the most dramatic and unlikely championship runs in baseball history.

Greatest World Series ever? No. This one comes up just a bit short, but only because Game 7 proved a pedestrian contest (actually, it was the least-interesting game of the entire series, considering all the others were nip-and-tuck or included Albert Pujols' history-making performance). In my mind, the 1960, 1991 and 2001 Fall Classics remain at the top of the list, helped in large part by the manner in which each ended: With the home team walking off in victorious fashion in Game 7.

Speaking of home teams, this marked the ninth consecutive World Series Game 7 won by the club playing in front of its own fans. And why was last night's game played in St. Louis? Because on July 12, C.J. Wilson served up a home run to Prince Fielder, ensuring the National League would win the All-Star Game. A fair system for determining home-field advantage? The Rangers probably don't think so this morning.

But they're most likely the only ones complaining right now. Baseball just enjoyed a fantastic month of high drama, beginning with that once-in-a-lifetime final day of the regular season and continuing straight through a classic World Series. In between, 38 of a possible 41 postseason games were played, tying a record.

And now the offseason officially begins as 29 other clubs try to put themselves in position to do what the Cardinals did last night. The owners and players association are expected to announce a new collective bargaining agreement over the weekend -- speaking of remarkable, who would have ever guessed baseball would become the new model for labor peace? -- and that will set the stage for the Hot Stove League to kick into high gear.

Players will declare for free agency beginning Sunday. At the stroke of midnight Thursday, those free agents (including Chien-Ming Wang, Ivan Rodriguez, Livan Hernandez, Rick Ankiel and others) will be free to negotiate with any club they choose.

Sometime in the next few days (perhaps Monday) the Nationals will formally announce what we've all known for weeks: Davey Johnson will return as manager.

Before we know it, everyone will be gathering in Dallas for the winter meetings (Dec. 5-8). And the next thing you know, pitchers and catchers will report to Viera.

There will be plenty to report, analyze and discuss between now and then. But for now, let's sit back and appreciate the phenomenal month of baseball we just watched, admire what the Cardinals managed to pull off and wonder when we'll get to experience something like that here in Washington.

There's actually snow in the forecast today. Seems a fitting way for the 2011 baseball season to come to an end.