2018 was a mediocre year for my sporting interests. The St. Louis Cardinals finished on a relatively high note, including a memorable surge for August and Matt Carpenter, but ultimately, they still missed the postseason for the third consecutive season. My college basketball allegiance, the Missouri Tigers, made the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball tournament for the first time in five years, but the season was marred by months-long injury drama to the school’s most vaunted high school recruit in a generation in the game’s first season, and the team continued its eight-year run without a win in the NCAA tournament. My NFL allegiance, the eternal misery of the Los Angeles Rams, had a rough 2018 regular season, with the team positioning itself as viable Super Bowl contenders.
On December 31, 2018, the Missouri Tigers football team finished a mostly okay season with a heartbreaking upset loss to the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the Liberty Bowl, and the St. Louis Blues, who had missed the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs by one game and entered the 2018-19 season with expectations to at least return to the postseason, lost a lethargic 2-1 home game to the lowly New York Rangers to conclude the calendar year with a disappointing 15-18-4 record. At the end of the night, the Blues were tied for last place in the entire National Hockey League with the Ottawa Senators, a team who had traded their only decent player during the previous off-season.
That said, describing New Years Eve 2018 as some kind of nadir is a pretty shortsighted way of looking back at it. Sports aside, I had a pretty solid day. I managed to duck out of work a little bit early to watch the Liberty Bowl, always a fine conclusion to a year. While the Blues were uninspired in what I watched of their game, I spent most of the night hanging out with some friends at a New Years party. In a rare moment of clarity, I didn’t allow my happiness to be influenced not by the results of games over which I had no influence, but the moments that actually developed from my own life.
Entering 2019, St. Louis sports team had made three runs during the decade in which they won multiple playoff rounds–the 2011 Cardinals, the 2013 Cardinals, and the 2015-16 Blues. For each of those runs, the team’s success was a welcome diversion from sort of personal anguish or general unpleasantness in my life, and for those runs, even the two that came up short, I am thankful that I had something to enjoy. I didn’t need a playoff run in 2019, but I sure got one. And I sure had fun with it.
The only other year in my lifetime that can even compete with 2019 from a “What was the best St. Louis sports year?” perspective was 2000, the year in which the St. Louis Rams capped off their astonishing 1999 campaign with the city’s first Super Bowl victory and came back the next season with an even more high-powered offense, the Cardinals capped off a 95-win regular season with an appearance in the National League Championship Series, and the Blues concluded their regular season with the best record in the NHL. From a pure volume perspective, it’s hard to argue against a year which gave St. Louis a championship, an NLCS, and then another thing. But the overarching narrative of 2019 was less one of excellence, though excellence certainly permeated throughout the year, but rather one of redemption.
The St. Louis Cardinals spent the last several seasons being, more than anything else, nondescript. They weren’t a bad team–it’s hard to argue in a macro sense that an 83-79 team is completely unacceptable in an era in which a third or so of the league doesn’t even make a superficial attempt to appear competitive–but their seasons were thoroughly uninteresting. And while the 2019 Cardinals were not an all-time great Cardinals team, they provided moments which the previous three iterations were incapable of providing.
On June 12, a day of consequence for different reasons in St. Louis, the Cardinals fell to five games back in the NL Central and immediately began to chip away at their deficit. On August 23, at home against the Colorado Rockies, the Cardinals took first place in the NL Central, a lead which they never relinquished. In mid-September, they entered a four-game series at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs with ghosts of the previous three seasons haunting them; they emerged with four victories and the Cubs thoroughly in the trash. The Cardinals won three different styles of game in the NLDS–bizarre, nail-biting, and dominant, respectively–and while a title was not in their future, the Cardinals were a real life playoff team once again.
Much of the story of the Cardinals in 2019 was the young guys. Jack Flaherty emerged as the team’s unquestioned ace, the kind of pitcher who you’d trust on the mound against any team in the world. Paul DeJong, a fringe prospect as recently as two years earlier, had an All-Star, thirty home run season as the team’s everyday shortstop. Tommy Edman had the most surprising excellent rookie season for the Cardinals since, well, Paul DeJong. Kolten Wong, although exiting the “young guy” stage of his career, took yet another step forward, winning a deserved first career Gold Glove and producing his most consistent offensive season yet. And Mike Shildt, in his first season at the helm as manager of the Cardinals, won Manager of the Year, quite the topper for a baseball lifer who, unlike his predecessor in his role as Cardinals manager, wasn’t fast-tracked to such a lofty position.
But the most special stories for the Cardinals were those of redemption, those where players re-found their mojo. There was Adam Wainwright having his best season in half a decade and pitching spectacularly in his two postseason starts. There was Dexter Fowler, left for dead after a disastrous 2018, producing a serviceable 2019 and regaining his smile along the way. There was Michael Wacha pitching terribly early in the season but then steadying the course to become a perfectly competent starter during the team’s division run.
Down the street from Busch Stadium, the St. Louis Blues had a laundry list of redemption stories. There was Craig Berube, the nondescript goon of a player who was fired from his first chance at coaching in the NHL, only to go a startling 38-19-6 for the eventual Stanley Cup champions. There was Ryan O’Reilly, maligned as a disappointment with the Buffalo Sabres who emerged as an MVP-caliber two-way forward for the Blues in his first season in St. Louis en route to winning the Conn Smythe Award as MVP of the playoffs. There was David Perron, whose unusual NHL career has consisted of playing on five different teams but only having signed contracts with the Blues, which he did for a third time prior to the team’s Stanley Cup-winning campaign (he has followed that up with what has, to this point, been a career season for the winger). There was Patrick Maroon, the local product who signed a one-year show-me deal with the Blues so that he could also spend a year closer to his family. There were Alex Steen and Jay Bouwmeester, two longtime Blues who won a title with their team despite having to constantly hear calls of being overrated or overpaid.
2019 was a year of redemption not only for these players, but for St. Louis as a whole. The catharsis of not only winning a Stanley Cup, but of cultivating such visible passion from the region for the team (hosting a watch party for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final at Enterprise Center wasn’t unprecedented–hosting one at Busch Stadium was a totally original thing), allowed St. Louis to put itself on display, one of the few things we seem to enjoy even more than winning championships. Even moreso than gaining teams in Major League Soccer and the re-tooled XFL, the energy that came from packing hundreds of thousands of fans along Market Street was a celebration of what sports means to St. Louis. Whether putting so much energy into sports is healthy or productive for society can be debated, but we have a modest goal–merely have this energy be recognized.
Tonight, I’ll end 2019 in the exact same spot I rang it in, having grown as a person and having enjoyed the year more thoroughly than any other year that I can remember. And as a St. Louis sports fan, I’ll have been treated to an incredible ride.