ST. LOUIS - It wasn't the chill in the late October air that made the hair on the back of your neck stand up one final time. It was how fitting absolutely everything about this one felt at the end.
The World Series trophy is back in one of America's last real baseball towns for the 11th time in the history of the grand old game, this time passed around a stage set up at second base by a Cardinals team given up for dead on at least two occasions only a night earlier. Then again, you could have said that same thing about these guys a handful of times beginning in late August. Even Commissioner Bud Selig did.
An hour or so before St. Louis finally shook free of the Texas Rangers with a 6-2 victory Friday night in Game 7, Selig remembered a meeting in his Milwaukee office with Cards manager Tony La Russa two months earlier. At the time, St. Louis trailed the Brewers by 10 1/2 games in the National League Central; the Cardinals' chances of catching the Braves for the wild card, meanwhile, looked to be longer than drawing to an inside straight.
Selig remembered searching for a way to soothe one of the most competitive men he's ever met.
"I congratulated him on his great year," the commissioner said. But he wasn't expecting what came next.
La Russa, dead-serious, said, "We're not done."
"And," the commissioner added, chuckling, "he wasn't kidding."
In his 16th season in charge in St. Louis, and nearing his fifth decade in the game as alternately, a slap-hitting shortstop, a know-it-all coach and finally, the closest thing to a genius the game has, La Russa won his third World Series title and second in six seasons.
The three rings tie him with Sparky Anderson, Miller Huggins and John McGraw, and just like that trio and the handful of managers ahead of them, it practically guarantees entrance to the Hall of Fame.
Yet this one was not about posterity, but vulnerability.
About how La Russa kept moving all the parts around on a team that refused to fit together - until all of a sudden, it did. Feelings were bruised in the process, starters got benched and utilitymen learned new positions. Four pitchers were thrown into the mix right around the trading deadline. As a result, La Russa probably spent more time tinkering with his bullpen than ever before. Considering his unmatched obsession with getting lefty-righty matchups and the converse, that's saying a lot.
La Russa didn't settle on Jason Motte - who got the final out in Game 7 - as his closer until mid-August, and even then, the manager refused to officially hand him the title. That bit of uncertainty, coupled with all the moves that preceeded it over the course of the season, opened La Russa up to more second-guessing than ever.
It reached a crescendo in a loss at Texas in Game 5 after a botched hit-and-run called by slugger Albert Pujols from the batter's box, followed by two still-not-quite-explained phone calls by La Russa to the bullpen that failed to get the reliever he wanted on the mound. There was speculation that the pressure forced the mistake or worse, that the 67-year-old La Russa had lost his edge.
"That kind of stuff would have bothered me, but Tony's different," Cards bench coach Joe Pettini said. "He's not afraid to make a mistake; never has been."
When the final out came, more fans dressed in shimmering Cardinals red streamed into the ballpark than left it. After watching their ballclub survive two elimination games against the mighty Phillies at the start of the playoffs, then two more against the Rangers - twice down to their last strike in Game 6 - St. Louis fans were determined to throw themselves a party.
La Russa and his ballclub can finally do the same. Game 6 might have been the most riveting contest in the postseason ever, but La Russa knew celebrating that victory, beyond a few handshakes and pats on the backs, could have cost them the final one.
"Now it's time to think about Game 6, and that's part of this historic run," he said. "I mean, it's hard to explain how we made it happen except the club has great guts.
"Really, we have more talent than people think," he said finally, "but we have great guts."