'06: An unlikely champ, pink bats and 1st WBC

May 2nd, 2020

Throughout our hopefully short time without real live games, we’ll be taking a weekly look back at a specific year in baseball history. What happened, why it mattered and what we’ll remember most. Send us the years you’d most like us to talk about at [email protected].

Year: 2006
NLDS: Cardinals over Padres in 4; Mets over Dodgers in 3
ALDS: A’s over Twins in 3; Tigers over Yankees in 4
LCS: Cardinals over Mets in 7; Tigers over A’s in 4
World Series: Cardinals over Tigers in 5
MVPs: AL: Justin Morneau, Twins; NL: Ryan Howard, Phillies
Cy Youngs: AL: Johan Santana; NL: Brandon Webb, D-backs
Rookies of the Year: AL: Justin Verlander, Tigers; NL: Hanley Ramirez, Marlins

All-MLB Team (chosen by me, in 2020):
1B: Albert Pujols, Cardinals
2B: Chase Utley, Phillies
SS: Derek Jeter, Yankees
3B: Miguel Cabrera, Marlins
OF: Jermaine Dye, White Sox
OF: Carlos Beltrán, Mets
OF: Manny Ramirez, Red Sox
C: Joe Mauer, Twins
DH: David Ortiz, Red Sox
SP: Johan Santana, Twins
SP: Brandon Webb, D-backs
SP: Aaron Harang, Reds
SP: Chris Carpenter, Cardinals
RP: Trevor Hoffman, Padres
RP: Francisco Rodríguez, Angels

When did the illusion that a Major League Baseball regular season was enough of a marathon to whittle out any non-contenders from the postseason party begin? Was it in 1973, when the Mets went 82-79 and still reached the World Series? Was it in '81, when the Royals were under .500 in the first "half" of the season, but got to play in the postseason because of their strong second "half"? Was it in 2005, when the Padres barely sneaked over .500 at 82-80 and still made the postseason? Or was it simply when Billy Beane said in “Moneyball” that his “[stuff] doesn’t work in the playoffs?”

I might argue that 2006 was the year that did it. The postseason never felt less like a crapshoot than it did in '06.

You could argue there were five legitimately excellent MLB teams in 2006. The Yankees (who won 97 games with a fun mix of young and old, including an MVP-caliber season from Jeter), the A’s (93 wins from the peak “Moneyball” era), the Twins (who had both the American League MVP Award and the AL Cy Young Award winners), the Tigers (an all-time chemistry team, with an AL Rookie of the Year Award winner in Verlander, and all sorts of appealing veterans) and perhaps the best team of them all, the Mets (with a ridiculous lineup that featured David Wright and José Reyes right as they were exploding, the best year of Beltrán’s career and a still terrifying Carlos Delgado). Any one of those teams would have felt like a worthy World Series winner, and a title would have ended two decades of pain for the Tigers, Mets and the Twins, it would have vindicated everything Beane was doing in Oakland and it could have been the Yankees grabbing the crown right back after the Red Sox had so cruelly stolen it from them two years earlier.

But none of those teams won the World Series that year. None of the 12 teams that won more than 83 games won it. Nope: The St. Louis Cardinals won it.

The Cardinals had put together some terrific teams in the years before 2006. The '05 squad had won 100 games. The '04 team won 105 -- and remains the best Cardinals team of the last 30 years. They’d reached the playoffs six out of the past seven years. If you were only looking at the uniforms, you might have thought this was the same team.

It was not. Pujols was still Pujols, but everything else around him had fallen away. Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds, previously his MV3 buddies, were racked with injuries, and Rolen had been openly feuding with manager Tony La Russa all season. The pitching staff had a terrific Chris Carpenter and a bunch of castoffs, from Jason Marquis to Jeff Suppan to a falling-apart Mark Mulder to Sidney freaking Ponson. The team’s second-best hitter was Chris Duncan, the pitching coach’s unheralded son. Because the rest of the division was so weak, they still had a seven-game lead with 12 games to go … and then nearly blew that by losing nine of those last 12. They ended the season with 83 wins and looked even more wobbly than that. The general presumption was that the Cardinals would get wiped out in the National League Division Series by the Padres. But, thanks largely to Carpenter being brilliant and the Padres hitting .225 for the series, they sneaked out a four-game victory. But clearly they would get stomped on by the powerful Mets, a team that seemed to be having the year their fans had been waiting much of their lives for.

But the Cardinals kept finding weird ways to win. And then, in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, when Suppan was brilliant, light-hitting young catcher Yadier Molina hit a two-run homer in the 9th and then rookie closer Adam Wainwright loaded the bases and then got the monster that was Beltrán to freeze on a curveball from the gods. Somehow, that "bad" Cardinals team had made it to the World Series.

It would have to end there, though, right? “Tigers in 3,” went the predictions, particularly with unproven (and much lambasted by the manager) rookie starter Anthony Reyes starting in Game 1. Yet somehow, someway, the 83-79 Cardinals, a team their fans weren’t even all that fond of, had won the World Series. It was surreal and absurd.

But weird business happens in the playoffs. The general consensus in baseball today is that while it’s nice to win 100-plus games, the real goal of any season is just to get in the tournament. Get in the tournament and then see what happens. After all, you never know? Sometimes a lousy team sneaks in and has everything inexplicably fall their way at the exact right time. The 2006 St. Louis Cardinals absolutely did not deserve to win the World Series. And yet the flag still flies above Busch Stadium, nevertheless.

Here are 10 other fun facts from the 2006 baseball season.

  1. It remains insane that Jeter didn’t win the MVP this year. For all the talk about media coddling Jeter throughout his career, they sure had a tendency not to show up for him come awards time. Jeter was the best player on a Yankees team that wasn’t among the best during his era, but still won 97 games, in large part because Jeter was having one of his absolute greatest seasons. And yet the award went to Morneau of the Twins, who had 130 RBIs. Jeter never did end up getting an MVP. This is the year he should have, as we recently found.
  1. This was the year the Braves’ stranglehold on the NL East finally loosened. They had won their division an insane 14 consecutive times (the first three were in the NL West), but those Mets finally swiped the crown from them in 2006. The Braves wouldn’t win another one until '13, though they’ve now won the NL East in two straight years.
  1. Barry Bonds passed Babe Ruth on May 28 with his 715th homer, this one off Byung-Hyun Kim, to reach second on the all-time homers list. You would have thought this would be a feat widely celebrated. But it wasn’t. And that’s largely because:
  1. On March 30, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig appointed former US Senator George Mitchell to produce a report on what he considered a steroid epidemic in baseball. The report was not focused solely on Bonds, of course, but while it was ongoing, and Bonds was going for that record, it sure felt that way.
  1. On April 6, Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins went 0-for-4 against the Cardinals, ending his (continued-from-2005) hit streak at 38 games. The streak never made it far enough to get anyone terribly excited, which partly had to do with its interrupted nature. But maybe we should have been more excited. That’s the longest hitting streak this century. The closest is teammate Utley, that year, at 35, and Luis Castillo, also 35, in '02. In the last decade, only Dan Uggla (in 2011), has made it over 30.
  1. Two new traditions began this year. The first, on Mother’s Day, players and uniformed personnel wore pink wristbands, and some players used pink bats, to show support and raise money for Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure charity. The Brewers' Bill Hall set the tone for the new tradition with his walk-off home run vs. the Mets using a pink bat. The tradition goes strong still today.
  1. Also a first in 2006: The World Baseball Classic. The United States went down in the second round, failing to advance as South Korea and Japan advanced from their bracket. (Fun names from that '06 WBC roster: Michael Barrett, Randy Winn, Brian Schneider, Chad Cordero, Gary Majewski and Dan Wheeler. Oh, also, Jeter, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr.) Japan ended up winning the first WBC title, over Cuba, thanks to an MVP performance from a pitcher few Americans had ever heard of named Daisuke Matsuzaka.
  1. The great Buck O’Neil died in Oct. 2006, but he had one last moment for us before he went. At the age of 94, O’Neil appeared in the Northern League All-Star Game, making a plate appearance for the Kansas City T-Bones. He was intentionally walked, and then replaced in the field. He’s in the box score; he was pinch-run for by current Cardinals first-base coach Stubby Clapp. He would posthumously be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush that December.
  1. One of the odd, sad factoids of Greg Maddux’s incredible career was that he never threw a no-hitter. (He always said he wouldn’t because he was in the strike zone too much.) But he sure did come close in 2006. The Dodgers traded for Maddux (from the Cubs) at the Trade Deadline, and in his first start, at Cincinnati, Maddux was incredible, throwing six no-hit innings. But then it began to rain, and the 46-minute delay led Maddux to stay in the dugout when the delay was over. Manager Grady Little said, “He was saying during the rain delay that he had a no-hitter in Little League and that was going to be good enough for the rest of his life.” It would have to be.
  1. Speaking of the Dodgers, they did something that would prove helpful for their long-term future in 2006: They’d draft a future Hall of Famer. Just a few months before they traded for Maddux, they drafted Clayton Kershaw with the seventh pick in the '06 MLB Draft. He was the sixth pitcher selected. The first six: Luke Hochevar, Greg Reynolds, Brad Lincoln, Brandon Morrow and Andrew Miller. It sure would be quite the Draft for pitchers: Selected just a few picks after Kershaw were Tim Lincecum (10th, Giants) and Max Scherzer (11th, D-backs).

Send me the year you’d love to have me write about at [email protected].