CINCINNATI -- They did their time in Jupiter, spent a night in Springfield, spoiled the party in Miami and made the National League Central swing through Milwaukee and Cincinnati. At long last this weekend, the Cardinals will come home. And what a happy homecoming it's going to be.
While the pomp and circumstance of Opening Day in St. Louis is always special, it's doubly so when the celebration of World Series championship No. 11 is on tap. "Oh, man," World Series hero David Freese said with a smile and a shake of the head. "It's going to be great. I've been thinking about it every day since we won. To get that ring and celebrate it with teammates, coaches, fans of the organization. It's a very special day." For Friday's 2:15 p.m. CT home opener against the Cubs and Saturday's ring ceremony and game, the Cards will don their home whites trimmed with gold. They'll rehash and relive the many memorable moments of their spectacular late-season run to a World Series title. But they'll also be mindful of the fact that there is a current task at hand. And if early results in a somewhat daunting opening stretch of the schedule are any indication, they seem up to the task. "The team," manager Mike Matheny said, "is playing well." Indeed, they are. Entering Tuesday's game against the Reds, the Cards were averaging 6.2 runs per game with a Major League-leading nine home runs. The first turn through the rotation saw the starters go 4-1 with a 1.93 ERA. If there were any concerns about a World Series hangover enveloping them in early April -- especially with co-ace Chris Carpenter on the shelf -- those concerns were quickly quashed. And the Cards have played well despite a challenging arrangement on the calendar. They played the one-game opening "series" at the Marlins' new ballpark in Miami and have gone head-to-head with the Brewers and Reds -- the other two parts of the three-headed monster expected to vie for NL Central championship honors this season. All this has served to prevent the Cards from dwelling too long on last year's glory and this weekend's festivities. "It's one of those events that you think about, you dream about and you can't wait to be a part of it," general manager John Mozeliak said. "But then starting this season, where you play eight games before you actually get to that event, you want to make sure you have success." They've had success, and now they're definitely due for a little home cooking. "I was just looking at the calendar," Matheny said. "It's been two months since I've been home. I'm very much looking forward to getting back home, and I know the guys are, too. We've seen two Opening Days, and we've been on the short end as far as the reception goes. Fortunately we were on the better end of the score in both. But those of us who've been around Opening Day in St. Louis, it's special. It's different." It'll definitely be different this year. "To go back as world champions is exciting," right-hander Jake Westbrook said. "You always dream of winning one. It's going to be a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to the whole weekend." Obviously, the highlight of the weekend -- the moment these Cardinals players will remember long after they forget the final scores of the games against the Cubs -- will be Saturday's pregame ring ceremony. Crafted by Jostens, the rings will feature a ruby bird atop a gold bat. But the Cards will also relish the opportunity to share that moment with a packed house. "I think it's going to be crazy," closer Jason Motte said. "I know that the fans are excited, I know we're excited to get back and actually see them, see the rings for the first time." And for the first time this season, the Cards will have the fans on their side. "When you're a visitor and you go out and get a couple people booing you, and a few people giving you the golf clap, it's not the same," Matheny said. "It's always better when you're on the home side. Even the visitors understand that in St. Louis, it's a big deal."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.