2002 St. Louis Cardinals
Manager: Tony La Russa
Regular season record: 97-65 (.599), first in National League Central Division
Staff Comments (individual rankings in parens)
Ray Mileur (NR) The 2002 ballclub didn't make my top 15 list but certainly deserves mention in any all-time Cardinal team rankings considering that they had to overcome the deaths of Hall of Famer Jack Buck and starting pitcher Darryl Kile during the season.
After a very slow start the team fought their way back overcoming adversity and won the NL Central title with 97 wins. The Cardinals closed out the regular season with a 21-6 record in September, finishing 13 games ahead of Houston and even more sweet, 30 games ahead of the 5th place Chicago Cubs.
The Cardinals seemed destined to win it all. They swept the Arizona Diamondbacks three straight games in the National League Division but lost star third baseman Scott Rolen to an injury. Without Rolen at third the Cardinals lost to the Giants, four games to one in the National League Championship Series, to end perhaps the most emotional season in the team's history.
Granted this has no historical significance, but 2002 was the season I became a Tony La Russa fan. I don't know who got Manager of the Year, but it should have gone to La Russa in 2002. (Ed.: It did.)
Jerry Modene (6) The 2002 edition of the Cardinals entered the season coming off the disappointment of having lost in the first round of the playoffs (the only time that's ever happened) to the eventual World Series champion Arizona Diamondbacks (insert obligatory mention of Jeff Tabaka here) the previous October.
The Cards began the season with question marks at first base – as Tino Martinez had been signed to succeed the enormously popular Mark McGwire at first base – and on the mound, as Darryl Kile was recovering from surgery. The Cards struggled through much of the first half of the season, but got hot in mid-season and by June 18 had taken over first place.
Then disaster struck – first, that same night, when longtime and beloved broadcaster Jack Buck died after a long illness and then just four days later, when Darryl Kile died of a heart attack in his Chicago hotel room. The double blow nearly finished the Cards, but some clutch performances and new additions to the team – most notably pitcher Chuck Finley and third baseman Scott Rolen – sparked the team to 57 more wins and a sweep over the D'backs in the NLDS before they eventually fell to the wild-card San Francisco Giants.
The 2002 team makes our list because of the character and perseverance it showed in the wake of tragedy, and is a team that remains very highly regarded in Cardinal history.
Rob Rains (15) There was something special about this team which could not be reflected in the record book or really in the standings. This was a team which suffered through the deaths of broadcaster Jack Buck and pitcher Darryl Kile in a five-day period in June.
It would have been very understandable had the team collapsed at that point, but instead, the team increased its two-game division lead to win the title by 13 games in the first year of the post-Mark McGwire era. Remarkably, the team won 57 games after Kile's death, matching his uniform number.
It appeared the team was headed to an even more remarkable story after a sweep of Arizona in the first round of the NL playoffs, but the magic ended with a loss to the Giants in the NL Championship Series.
As he sat on the bench after the end of the game, watching the Giants celebrating, pitcher Matt Morris thought of something Kile had always said: "You're only as good as your last game." "Our last game wasn't good enough, "Morris said. "Everybody wants to win every year, but this year we had different reasons why we wanted to win – unfortunate reasons – but it wasn't meant to be."
Brian Walton (NR) This was a team that really played like one and dealt with adversity, yet was not one of my top 15 of all time. After Matt Morris won on Opening Day, things went south in a hurry. On May 9, when Bud Smith lost to Kerry Wood and the Cubs, it dropped the Cardinals into fourth place with a 14-19 record. They recaptured the top spot on June 16, six days before Darryl Kile's death, and would spend only one more day out of the division lead the rest of the season.
That second-half surge delivered the Cards their third straight NL Central crown and their third consecutive 90-win season, the latter being a feat that had eluded them for over 50 years. They avenged their loss to Arizona the season prior in the NLDS, but the Giants took them out in the NLCS.
Five Cardinals players from our top 40 of all time list were on NL Manager of the Year Tony La Russa's team: pitcher Jason Isringhausen, outfielder Jim Edmonds and infielders Albert Pujols, Edgar Renteria plus Scott Rolen, acquired from Philadelphia via trade in late July.
More than any Cardinals club in recent memory, this was truly a team effort. Oddly, there is not a single individual performance from that season, hitting or pitching, that ranks among the franchise top ten of all time in any category. Coming off his Rookie of the Year 2001 campaign, Pujols did not make the 2002 NL All-Star Team, yet debunked the sophomore jinx by ending up second in the MVP voting at season's end. Despite the 97 wins, there were only two double-digit winners on the mound, and that included former tow truck driver Jason Simontacchi with 11.
Key: NR = not ranked
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