I woke up Saturday morning from a fitful sleep.
I should have slept soundly, but my body and mind hadn't yet absorbed a new reality: My beloved St. Louis Cardinals, an imperfect but tenacious bunch who embodied the spirit of team play, overcame a Mt. Everest of adversity in the 2011 season and won it all.
By winning Game 7 of the World Series, they engraved another notch in their record as the National League's most successful franchise and the sport's second most successful one behind the New York Yankees since World Series play began in 1903.
Yet overnight, as Oct. 28 turned into Oct. 29, two questions kept gnawing away in my slumbering consciousness: Did they win or lose? And who would they have to play next?
Over the course of two months, those questions had developed from habit into a psychological reflex. For about eight weeks, in a state of yo-yo-like neurosis, I had been swinging from agony to ecstasy to agony and back to ecstasy.
I'm not even from St. Louis, but I have been pulling for the Red Birds since 1981, when I switched my allegiance away from the Bronx Bombers. The Yankees, in my view, were the only respectable team in the two-team city where I grew up. But they had become fat and complacent millionaires back in the days when free agency still hadn't reached today's grotesque proportions. The Yanks also embodied New York's swagger, an arrogance that I never cared for very much.
The Cardinals, on the other hand, were a storied but less flashy franchise from a tough, crime-ridden city in the nation's heartland. In 1981, they were a lean and hungry team who played an exciting brand of baseball. They were beginning then to return to glory after a dismal decade in the 1970s.
I also was an easily impressionable teen. I couldn't resist the mystical "StL" logo on the caps and the uniforms with the birds on the bat — the coolest in the game.
In the Cardinals I discovered Midwestern values of hard work, thrift, pragmatism, modesty and hardiness, which I've tried to adapt to my own life. I have stuck with the Cards through both good and bad times, and like most of the other faithful in Cardinal Nation, I have known my fair share of heartache in the playoffs and World Series.
Such losses have helped me to become a more resilient person. Seriously.
I even find myself applying to my own life the hawk-eyed wisdom of Tony La Russa, the Cards' now-retired and famously intense manager, who once said: "Expect the worst. Hope for the best."
A grand game
People often ask how did someone like me — who was born in England, has lived and traveled in many countries, was educated at K-12 international schools and who is a composite of European, Asian and American cultures — go nuts for America's National Pastime.
Apart from having the good fortune of being a world traveler, my travels exposed me to all of the world's sports. My tastes in sports run from watching soccer to cricket. I am a fan, too, of American football.
Among my happiest moments as a spectator of sports, I count France's 1998 soccer World Cup victory against Brazil and Sri Lanka's 1996 cricket World Cup victory against Australia as completing me because those represented my two halves. My French mother and Sri Lankan father, who did not live to see those championships, would have been proud.
That said, for me, baseball tops all the other sports. International sports fans often criticize the game as boring, but it is a grand sport and rich source of lessons that can be used in real life. It's true that the 162-game season can drag on, but I would have it no other way. Unlike other sports, there is no clock to inject baseball with artificial tension.
Baseball is all about finishing a seven-month campaign that begins in spring training and builds into a crescendo that ends, hopefully, with a World Series victory. The road is strewn with perils, twists and turns, and the climb becomes steeper once a team makes the playoffs. The best team on paper often doesn't win it all.
What I love most about baseball is that one can never predict the outcome of a game, and a team has to work as one and be mentally tough to win. Unlike sports like soccer that reflect a European outlook, baseball is quintessentially American. The sport is full of optimism. It breeds the belief that coming back from the brink of defeat is possible.