Cards ride comeback to Series title

The image of a golden trophy beamed around the world: This was Game 7 of the World Series, a 6-2 victory for the St. Louis Cardinals, the 11th championship for the most successful National League franchise.

It was, in that sense, a global news event. And yet Busch Stadium brimmed with the person-to-person emotion of Senior Night in a high school gymnasium. Such is the love affair with this game, and this team, in this town. Here, they adore you for wearing the uniform. And if you win, they feel the pride of a parent whose boy was named all-county.

One man understood that better than most. Guy Freese, a civil engineer from Wildwood, Mo., looked like any other Cardinals fan at the ballpark Friday night: red Cardinals hat, red Cardinals jacket, blue jeans, white New Balances. He took the light rail to the game. He remembers being excited when his son’s Little League heroics were mentioned in the Post-Dispatch. This morning’s newspaper will look a little different: David Freese was named World Series MVP, trumping any local-boy-does-good story you’ve ever heard.

Guy Freese is a lifelong Cardinals fan. He grew up here. He rooted for the team long before David was born. Now that his son is the starting third baseman, Guy is bound to his team by blood, loyalty and geography. Ask what he thinks of it all — the title, the MVP trophy, the Champagne celebration to which he had an invitation — and Guy acknowledges it may take a couple of days (and a few more hours of sleep) to come up with an appropriate answer.

But pose the other obvious question, and Guy Freese’s reply is much more certain.

“I’d come back, if I was Albert,” he says with a smile.

The offseason started at 10:22 p.m. local time Friday, as Allen Craig squeezed the final out, and more intrigue is coming soon: The most famous men who wear the birds on the hat — manager Tony La Russa and first baseman Albert Pujols — don’t have contracts for next season.

But if La Russa and Pujols have any perspective on what occurred over the past two months, the question they should ask themselves is not whether they should return. It’s how they could possibly decide to leave.

This isn’t about an improbable comeback from 10-1/2 games back in the NL wild card standings, to squeeze past the Braves on the season’s final day.

This isn’t even about a memorable World Series, with the heart-stopping Game 6 that twice saw the Cardinals come within a single strike of elimination.

This is about the future, which is as luminescent in St. Louis as any other major-league city.

The chance to win shouldn’t be confused with the inevitability of it happening. Fans of the Red Sox and Phillies — the offseason champions — can remind you of that. Every October, stories are written that assert these teams are certain to be back in the World Series the following year. That rarely happens, even if the ’10-’11 Rangers were a worthy exception.

La Russa talks about his insatiable desire to compete. Pujols has it, too. And with co-ace Adam Wainwright due to return from elbow surgery, Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday under contract, and young hitters Freese and Craig on the come, the Cardinals can just about guarantee the opportunity to compete in St. Louis for several years to come. That will be an essential part of the team’s sales pitch to both men.

“I would agree with that: It would be a hard team to leave,” grinned Cardinals club president William O. DeWitt III, while observing the buoyant clubhouse celebration. “Pieces always change in the offseason, but the core here is really good. The guys who are up-and-coming have had unbelievable playoff experiences. That bodes well for the future.”

Holliday believes the overall strength of the roster will entice Pujols to stay. “I know he wants to win,” said Holliday, who wore a splint on his sprained right wrist as the Cardinals smiled for photos with family and friends. “Winning’s very important to him. We’ve got a great young nucleus of players. Waino’s coming back. We have as good of a chance as anybody. … I’m pretty confident (Albert will be back). I don’t know anything (more than) anybody else. But I hope so.”

Of the two, La Russa seems to be the stronger bet to return. He is 36 wins from passing John McGraw on the all-time list — the most significant managerial achievement baseball will witness for decades to come. (The only man ahead of McGraw is Connie Mack, and Mack was his own boss.) La Russa will want to reach the milestone with the Cardinals, in front of the same admirers who chanted, “TO-NY! TO-NY!” as he spoke on the podium.

“I don’t want to prognosticate at all, but in the next week or so we’ll hear from him,” DeWitt said. “I do think Tony will be pretty quick. Albert may take a little while, I guess.

“Who knows? Maybe we’ll get something done in the quiet period (during which teams are only permitted to negotiate with their own free agents). But if you’ve waited this long, you’re probably going to see what’s out there.”

Dewitt hopes that winning the World Series will improve the Cardinals’ chances of retaining Pujols, saying, “We certainly want him back. When you have Albert Pujols, you don’t want to lose him. This, I think, really helps. You see all these guys who have this experience now. You figure, ‘Why can’t we do it again?’ They know they can do it.”

La Russa said afterward that he couldn’t imagine the Cardinals without Pujols — sounding, by the way, very much like the manager who will have a vested interest in the superstar’s decision. “The organization is going to try to keep him here, and Albert wants to stay here, and we’ll see if it comes off or not,” La Russa said.

Pujols, meanwhile, wasn’t willing to discuss free agency directly, but he uttered two sentences that may be remembered for their prescience or hypocrisy in a few months’ time: “It doesn’t matter the money that you make. What matters is to raise that trophy and bring that smile to the city of St. Louis.”

On Friday, everyone in red beamed together. Fans lingered in the aisles behind both dugouts — the better to catch a glimpse of their happy heroes — until ushers shooed them away two hours after the final out. Maybe they didn’t want the night to end. Maybe they were drunk. Maybe both. I could say that it will never be better for the Cardinals, but that would be a lie. Next October can end this way, too. La Russa and Pujols should be sure they don’t miss it.