DREAM OVER

ST. LOUIS – In the end, they only could watch: watch balls go flying past their gloves, watch pitches go zipping past their bats, watch another team do the infield dance they had dreamed of doing once upon a time, when they were a hot team.

You remember. A week ago?

Come in from the rain. A full work week in St. Louis turned out to be as soggy and depressing as the clouds that never left the Missouri skies. Three games, three losses. A dream deferred. A World Series gone. The Tigers are runners-up, the Cardinals are the world champions after a 4-2 finale Friday night at the hands of a pitcher the Tigers once cast away.

Enough. Sometimes you seize the moment and sometimes the moment seizes you. The Tigers never seemed to get comfortable on this stage, their footing was unsure, their breathing was erratic, the air seemed different somehow. They didn’t hit enough balls safely, and they threw far too many away. If they built a statue to the Tigers’ performance in this Fall Classic, they’d have to build two – one of a fielder diving, arm outstretched, and another, a few feet away, of the ball.

Justin Verlander in Game 1. Todd Jones in Game 2. Joel Zumaya in Game 3. Fernando Rodney in Game 4. Verlander again in Game 5.

It was never funny. But when it starts becoming routine, it’s time to go home.

Carded.

“You know how they say there ain’t no bad wins?” an excited Tony La Russa told the roaring crowd after his team won the Series, four games to one. “There ain’t no such thing as a bad World Series.”

Unless you are the Tigers.

Theirs ended with a Brandon Inge strikeout just shy of 10:30 p.m. Central Daylight Time. The boys of summer had lost to the men of autumn. The 95 games the Tigers won in the regular season outshone the 83 of the Cardinals, but that is like comparing high school transcripts to annual reports. Forget those foolish predictions, or the Tigers being heavy favorites. When it counted, the Cardinals were the big boys with the larger bottom line.

They won because they delivered good, steady play. Detroit lost because it delivered only steady drama – of its own making. Five errors by pitchers, all of them costly, is not how you want to be remembered. Going empty at the plate when runners are in scoring position – Magglio Ordonez, Placido Polanco – is not how you want to be remembered. Making your first baseman play Gumby is not how you want to be remembered.

Enough. It was time to end this. These were two terrific teams, but only the Cardinals played terrifically. The Tigers played as if the magic rubbed off during the joyous celebration of their four-game sweep over the Athletics two weeks ago.

After that, they sat. They practiced. They sat. They did interviews. It was too long. Their angels seemed to get bored. By the time the Series started, those angels had taken flight, and their synchronicity was gone. They played most of the World Series like a drummer who never found the beat.

Eight unearned runs? Eight errors in five games?

“We don’t really single out any area,” a glum Jim Leyland told the TV cameras. “It starts with the manager. I didn’t have my club prepared to play good enough. … We have no excuses.”

He’s right. No excuses.

They didn’t lose to a better team. They lost to a team that played better.

Verlander struggles again

Maybe it was youth. Maybe it was the spotlight. But let’s be honest. The Tigers, with the exception of Game 2, seemed to be playing against the moment while the Cardinals were reveling in it. Nearly every game felt weighty for Detroit. There was so little joy, so little of the impulsive, aggressive baseball that characterized their performance all year. It was tight, as if playing not to make a mistake. Which of course is when you make them.

You could sense it coming Friday night from the start, when Justin Verlander needed 35 pitches to get out of the first inning, walking three batters and throwing two wild pitches.

You could sense in the second inning, when the normally reliable Brandon Inge threw wild to first base (great, now Inge is doing it, too?), allowing the Cardinals’ first run to score.

You could sense it in the third inning, when Inge got caught on the base paths and was tagged out between second and third, snuffing what might have been a tying run.

And you could sense it in the fourth, when Verlander made what will be remembered, sadly, as the signature Detroit play of this World Series. He threw wildly to a baseman – in this case Inge again, at third, allowing a run to score, an inning to continue and a lead to evaporate.

Enough. It’s embarrassing. The Cardinals are red in victory. The Tigers are red in the face.

Still, as bad as the fielding was, it might have been overcome had the Tigers been able to hit. But their bats seemed as furrowed as their brows. Of the Tigers regulars, only Sean Casey really rose to the moment (nine hits, five RBIs, two home runs). On Friday night, the Tigers got just two hits after the fourth inning, both by Casey. Can’t win that way. Polanco’s complete reversal from the American League Championship Series, where he was MVP, was crushing. He went hitless in five World Series games.

As for the pitching? Well, the pitchers themselves weren’t bad (although only Kenny Rogers was able to last long enough to see a victory). But the fielding was so embarrassing, Leyland was forced to joke about the extra practice he would give the staff next spring.

No sign was more depressing than the one a St. Louis fan held up that read “HIT IT TO THE PITCHER.”

Carded.

Cards learned their lesson

But OK. You cannot dismiss St. Louis in all this. Speaking with La Russa after Game 4, it was clear that his team came into this game with more than surviving the Mets on its mind. The last time the Cardinals were in the Series, in 2004, La Russa said, they partied after winning the pennant, got to Boston in a hurry, and found themselves at the plate for Game 1 like a soldier who exits the recruiting office and finds himself in full combat gear. Before they knew where the enemy was, they were swept.

La Russa and his squad seemed determined not to repeat such mistakes, and from their early arrival in Detroit, to their steady, nearly flawless play in the five games, they never took their eye out of the scope. They knew what they had come for. And it wasn’t the joy of saying they’d gotten here.

The Cardinals pitchers – not the Tigers – were the ones who kept the lids on. The Cardinals’ manager, not the Tigers’, was the one who had a road map for victory. The Cardinals’ fielders – with the exception of rightfielder Chris Duncan – were more than fundamentally sound. At one point Friday night, Albert Pujols snagged a sharp grounder by Polanco, fell, rolled, lifted and threw the runner out, thanks to Jeff Weaver’s excellent coverage at the bag. It stood as a textbook example of good team fielding – and exactly what the Tigers lacked.

The Cards got big performances from their pitchers, from Chris Carpenter’s shutout in Game 3 to Weaver (the former Tiger, of all the insults!) coming through big Friday night (eight innings, one earned run allowed). The Cards got big moments from their big guys (Pujols, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds) and big moments from their little guys (David Eckstein, as pesky as a gnat, had four hits in Game 4 and was in the middle of all the trouble Friday). You lost track of how many times St. Louis came through with two outs.

“It was unreal out there,” said Eckstein, the smallest player on either team and who was voted the MVP of the Series. “No one believed in us. But we believed in ourselves.”

The Cards were better. Give them their due. Tip your hat.

And come home.

One magical season

Now, this will be said a million times in the next few days, but let’s say it here first: It was a great ride. Nothing detracts from that. Baseball has risen from the dead in Detroit, and the Tigers have carried our sports hopes from spring to summer and summer to fall, giving us a nightly story and a daily conversation.

“I just hope that people don’t forget where this team came from last year with 71 wins,” Leyland told the TV cameras. “I hope these players get the credit for the job they’ve done.”

How could they not?

They gave us kids to talk about – Verlander and Zumaya and Granderson – they gave us veterans rewriting their history – Todd Jones, Rogers – they gave us a walkoff home run to win the pennant and 23 shutout innings to make the old men feel like kids again. They gave us the quick, pesky guys like Polanco and Carlos Guillen, and the beefy humor of Casey and the fielding acrobatics of Inge and Pudge. For the first time in nearly 20 years, they made us remember their names.

What was best was the rekindling of an old feeling we thought we’d lost, like the sensation of riding a bike without holding the handles, like sledding down a big hill, like giggling with friends in the wee hours down in the basement. Kids stuff. The stuff of our youth – a feeling we had in 1984 or 1968 but figured we would never feel again. Let’s face it. The last time any of us enjoyed a World Series, the old were middle aged, the middle aged were just out of school, and the just out of school were just out of the womb.

Now we have a baseball team again. They may not be the world champs, but they are the American League pennant winners, and they are young and full of promise and they are coming back for more next April.

And should they find themselves next October back on the biggest stage, the championship of their sport, the same situation, they will not be the same. The hunger, experience and lessons that they learned will take the field with them then, and just as it boosted the Cardinals to the throne, so, too, might it boost the Tigers.

Until that time, as the announcers declare, we say goodnight from soggy St. Louis, where if you looked hard enough this morning, you might see a rainbow, and a tired but proud 2006 Tigers team sitting at the end of it, just shy of the pot of gold.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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