ST. LOUIS - From the days of Dizzy Dean to Bob Gibson to Bruce Sutter, the St. Louis Cardinals have enjoyed their share of winning.
Most every Opening Day, they're in the mix of World Series contenders. But for the last quarter-century or so, something has been missing: a championship.
Since Whitey Herzog's crew took out the Milwaukee Brewers in 1982 when double-knits were cool, the Cardinals have had no success at applying the finishing touch.
"It's the one thing we haven't accomplished here yet, in my time, in 12 years here," general manager Walt Jocketty said. "It's something that Tony (La Russa) and I feel very strongly about.
"We want to try and accomplish that for fans and for our ownership. It's not that easy."
Baseball has achieved parity, at least among the top 10 or so franchises. This year will mark the seventh consecutive different World Series winner. The past four seasons, eight different teams have played for the ring.
When will it be the Cardinals' turn?
Is La Russa to blame that it hasn't yet happened on his watch? La Russa is the third-winningest manager in baseball history and has taken St. Louis to the postseason in seven of 11 seasons.
But 100-win teams in 2004 and 2005 fell short. The 2004 team was without ace pitcher Chris Carpenter for the postseason and got swept by the Boston Red Sox in the franchise's first World Series appearance in 17 years.
Last year's team also clinched early and then ran into a streaking Houston wild-card team that won in a six-game NL Championship Series.
The Cardinals led the Braves 3-1 in La Russa's first season in 1996, then got blown out 32-1 in the last three games.
This year, at new Busch Stadium, there was more booing than usual. Impatience, no doubt, brought it on.
"It's a great baseball city and we have great fans, but they're also fans that have high expectations," Jocketty said. "Sometimes it's not enough just to get in the playoffs, you've got to advance and keep going.
"We're happy and fortunate to be in the postseason the last few years, and we're just hoping that one of these years we'll be able to win it."
That's why Herzog is so revered in town, because he was able to do what the Jocketty-La Russa tandem has not. Herzog's deft maneuvering produced the last title, although, hampered by injuries to key personnel in 1985 and '87, he fell short in his other two World Series appearances with the Cardinals.
Speedster Vince Coleman got his leg caught in a mechanical tarp during the '85 playoffs. Jack Clark, the hammer on the '87 team, missed the postseason that year with an ankle injury.
It was the same in 2004, when 11-game winner Woody Williams became the de facto ace after Carpenter was shelved in mid-September.
Win or lose, this year's team had already achieved quite an accomplishment - it avoided a colossal embarrassment.
With a seven-game lead and only 12 games to go, the Cardinals seemingly were cruising to a third consecutive NL Central championship.
A 3-9 finish melted away all but a half-game of that cushion before they backed into the title on the final day of the regular season.
La Russa knew it would have haunted him the rest of his life if the Cardinals, in his colorful euphemism, "mugged it."
"It was just concern we were going to be part of history in the worst kind of way," La Russa said. "We went through a serious period where we were having trouble getting wins."
There were reasons, mainly involving injuries to key players, for the swoon.
The Cardinals fortified in midseason, adding Jeff Weaver, Ronnie Belliard and Preston Wilson.
"You don't have Jim out there, our outfield was kind of a mishmash and our outfield defense wasn't our strength, and you've got issues in your starting rotation. Yeah, you wonder 'Are we going to be good enough?' " La Russa said.
The eternal question.
"We're winners just about every year," Jocketty said. "We're happy and fortunate to be in the postseason the last few years, and we're just hoping that one of these years we'll be able to win it."
SERIES TIED 3-3 ENTERING THURSDAY NIGHT
KEY TO GAME 6: Mets 4, Cardinals 2. On Wednesday, John Maine held St. Louis to two hits over 5q innings and struck out five, and Jose Reyes had three hits, including a home run, scored twice and stole two bases.
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