ST. LOUIS -- Behind the sheet of plastic that covered Nelson Cruz's locker, the ball was still wedged into his glove -- the same ball that he caught to end Game 6 of the World Series and to turn the Texas Rangers into champions for the first time. Cruz had held the ball aloft in his bare hand as ran in from right field, intending to join his teammates in their celebration, but instead, they had taken the celebration out to him -- Josh Hamilton crashing into him from the side, to form the bottom of the dog pile, and Michael Young and Ian Kinsler and Mike Napoli and Adrian Beltre jumping onto the top.
Cruz clutched the baseball -- the World Series-winning baseball -- the whole time, underneath the pile, then stuffed it into his back pocket and pulled on the T-shirts and caps that had been dispensed to the Texas players while the victory stage was set up. Usually, the closer gets the ball on the final out, but Neftali Feliz is 23 years old and Cruz is 31 years old, so normal protocol is out the door.
Because really, it doesn't matter whether Cruz or Feliz keeps the ball stored safely; it belongs to all of them. It belongs to Ron Washington, their relentlessly optimistic manager, who had found himself praying for the final out. To Jon Daniels, the general manager who learned from his first mistakes to build an organization that is viewed as a developing dynasty by other teams. To Young, who buried his angry feelings toward Daniels in spring training and went about the business of trying to win. To Beltre, who had wanted to sign with the Boston Red Sox and then the Los Angeles Angels, but instead found a group of teammates as devoted to winning as he is. To C.J. Wilson, in what probably was his last year with the Rangers. To Alexi Ogando, who is now celebrated in a country that wouldn't give him a visa just a few years ago.
Washington, his eyes red from the spray of ginger ale and the salt of tears, walked to Cruz's locker and asked to see the baseball, and the right fielder reached behind the plastic and pulled it out. Washington held it for a second, considering how different it seemed from any other baseball he had seen. He shook his head and laughed. "The way you were going back on that," he said to Cruz, "I thought it might get over your head. You about gave me a heart attack."
With that, the two grown men embraced in a bear hug.
In a parallel universe, anyway.
In this universe, there are Texas dreams that can never happen now.
After Game 7 ended Friday, Washington told his players they were champions. Then the players talked about outlining goals for 2012, which includes get the last out -- the last strike of the World Series. In the moment, the words felt right to all of them.
But soon, the talk probably felt hollow to the players -- useless, almost -- because asserting that they need to turn the page can't dent the impact of their staggering near miss. They are assured a place in history that only the '86 Red Sox, the Scott Norwood Buffalo Bills and a handful of teams can understand, and for at least some of them, they will live the rest of their lives having come within one strike of the championship -- but no closer. For at least some of them, this was probably their best and last shot, because there is no guarantee that they will again make it through the long journey that starts on the first day of spring training.
"I waited 14 years for this, and I was just one strike away twice," Beltre said. "And it didn't happen. To let it get away, after being so close ..."
He shook his head, struggling to put his feelings into words.
Texas has great players, a deep lineup and a collection of young pitchers who could drive the back into the World Series for a third straight year. But it may never happen. Cal Ripken caught the last out of the Orioles' championship in 1983 at age 23 and didn't know that this would be his last World Series moment. Don Mattingly played on great teams and never played in the World Series; neither did Andre Dawson nor Ernie Banks. Injuries, trades or anxious owners can change everything. Nothing is assured.
Young was asked about possible changes, and he responded forcefully. "This is a championship-caliber team," Young said. "What are you going to do, make Nellie two feet taller so he catches that ball?"
David Murphy seemed to be fighting back tears as he talked about his teammates and how far they had come. After they had lost the World Series in 2010, he explained, they had arrived in spring training this year particularly focused, with the right approach and the right attitude to take the next step.
And they did take those steps, as it turned out -- all but the last stride Cruz needed to catch the baseball that would have made them champions.
The mountain in front of them must appear enormous after two failed ascents. Derek Holland mentioned how few teams lose back-to-back World Series, then win on their third try. The 1923 Yankees accomplished this feat, but no other team has. Also, no other team has come within one strike of winning the World Series twice but lost.
"We're going against history now," Holland said.
• On a February morning right after Adam Wainwright blew out his elbow, St. Louis Cardinals GM John Mozeliak returned a phone call and indicated that he was doing OK considering the circumstances. He had not been there the morning that Wainwright threw his last bullpen session, but he had heard how good Wainwright looked -- and then he got a call from the Cardinals' trainer hours later.
After the St. Louis players were told, Mozeliak said, he had gone into La Russa's office, and the two had talked at length. By the time it was over, the GM actually felt better. "It was like, 'It's a bummer; it stinks; nobody said life was fair,'" he said at the time. "But we also think that we have a good team -- and we're not just saying that. We genuinely believe there's a lot of talent."
The Cardinals stayed in contention in the first months of the season, but as the July 31 trade deadline approached, La Russa felt as though his pitching staff was about to break. The Cardinals were getting little production out of the No. 5 spot in their lineup, they had no established lefties in the bullpen and there was too much stress on some of the young relievers. With one major trade of Colby Rasmus and one seemingly minor signing of Arthur Rhodes, Mozeliak reinforced the St. Louis pitching staff. La Russa is convinced that if Mozeliak hadn't made the Rasmus trade -- which was widely panned within the industry -- the Cardinals would have finished under .500.
So Wainwright shared in the celebration with teammates who had managed to win a championship without their ace throwing even one pitch, and with Mozeliak, who deserves enormous credit for adapting and improvising.
• Sixty die-hard fans greeted the Rangers back in Texas. The folks in the Texas front office returned to work, writes Jeff Wilson. This time around, the Rangers don't want a celebration of their defeat.
Mozeliak seemingly made all the right moves, writes Rick Hummel.
The Cardinals showed great guts like their manager did, writes Bernie Miklasz.
For the Cardinals, it was a classic finish, writes George Vecsey. Chris Carpenter rewarded the Cardinals for their faith in him, writes Joel Sherman. He finished with a flourish, writes Rick Hummel. The Cardinals did it all, writes Hal McCoy.
• Major League Baseball is putting on a full-court press in an effort to complete its labor agreement before the real work of the offseason begins in earnest, and as of 48 hours ago, the proposed draft alterations included no major changes, such as a slotting system. But there is talk of a draft tax through which teams that spend more than set amounts in their respective draft caps would have to pay a penalty. There also has been discussion about extra picks being given to low-revenue teams.
One interesting idea that apparently has not been advanced in the talks is that the draft order would be determined by revenue rather than by win-loss record. This way, baseball's poorest teams have at least some access to the top talent -- at least early in their careers. As it stands now, if it a team like the Oakland Athletics or Tampa Bay Rays has extended success, it falls down in the draft pecking order and has no shot at the top talent whether through the draft or, eventually, through trades or free agency.
The union could have some problems with that kind of structure, with teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates and Rays picking among the top five every single year. On the other hand, that change probably would foster some movement among veteran free agents in this way -- if the high-revenue teams picked in the second half of the first round, they would be more inclined to give up a first-round pick to pursue a Type A free agent. As it stands now, when teams like the Athletics or Rays pick in the second half of the first round, there is no chance they would consider giving up their first-round pick to sign a free agent, because the draft is their lifeblood.
• Jerry Dipoto has complete power as general manager, Angels owner Arte Moreno says, pushing back against the perception that Mike Scioscia is the most powerful man in his organization. Executives with other teams think that the Angels -- a wealthy team -- need a bold move, such as a play for an Albert Pujols or a Prince Fielder, but it doesn't sound like Dipoto will be working from that menu during this offseason. From Mike DiGiovanna's story:
- Among Dipoto's first tasks will be to hire a new assistant general manager, player personnel director and farm director and to upgrade a roster that has grown inflexible in spots because of age and immovable contracts.
- The Angels have $99 million committed to nine players under contract for 2012, and a handful of arbitration-eligible and near-minimum-wage players will add another $25 million or so.