ST. LOUIS -- The rings arrived Saturday. A ruby red bird atop a yellow gold bat, with the phrase "World Champions" encrusted in diamonds. Even the "Rally Squirrel" became bejeweled. As mementos go, these are more prominent than a Polaroid, more stunning than a stub. "I took a photo shoot with it earlier," said Jon Jay, who wasn't the only player to model his new keepsake during a nearly two-hour rain delay. "It's one of those things where it just represents last year and all the hard work. Ever since I was a kid I dreamed of something like this."
But the St. Louis Cardinals didn't necessarily need Saturday's pregame ceremony to remind them of the positive vibes and the life-altering experience of last October. Those reminders are very much in the present tense, in the interactions and the daily dialogue of a group of men forever bonded by a breathtaking stretch of baseball brilliance. "When you're able to do what we did last year, it's a weird thing," closer Jason Motte said. "It's hard to describe. It's definitely not a normal situation." No, there was nothing normal about what the Cards did, rising from the dead of 10 ½ back, capturing the Wild Card on the season's final day and rallying twice when down to their final strike in the World Series. It was a singular experience, and one that has created a sense of closeness in this clubhouse that, as Motte said, is difficult to articulate. Some, however, are willing to give it a shot. "When we got to Spring Training," said Chris Carpenter, "it was like a family reunion. It was like it had never stopped." Well, a few things changed. The Tony La Russa era ended that late October night when the Cards were crowned, and so, too, did the days of No. 5 -- Albert Pujols -- calling Busch Stadium his home. The loss of such Hall of Fame talent undoubtedly changes a ballclub's personality, but the deeply focused culture of confidence and camaraderie -- even under a rookie skipper in Mike Matheny -- remains intact. "People talk about the differences [between La Russa and Matheny]," said David Freese, "but the similarity with them is that it's all about winning." La Russa used to preach to his players the importance of having a sense of urgency, with each inning, with each at-bat, with each game, be it midweek in mid-April or the September stretch run. "From Day One, Mike expressed that same desire," Freese said. "You come to the ballpark ready to do something positive." Negativity could have enveloped this club, given the notable losses and then the injury that cost co-ace Carpenter a spot in the Opening Day rotation. While so many pieces remain intact from last year's glory, the changes that have taken place involve very important areas. And yet the Cards were one of the best teams in baseball in the season's first week. It's a small sample, of course, but the club showed that sense of urgency, that desire to prove that what happened down the stretch last season was not some Wild Card-induced fluke. "You set that bar of what it should be like," Matheny said, "and then you know the rest of the season that this is what it's supposed to be like." Last year's Cards won 90 games in the regular season, and veteran Lance Berkman has been telling anybody who will listen that this year's installment is capable of winning 100. He reminds people that when we talk about the surprising surge of the 2011 world champs, the surprise is only within the context of where they stood in the standings in late August. Going into the season, the Cards were a veteran-laden group clearly counted as a contender. And now, thanks in part to Carlos Beltran signed to help fill the gaping hole Pujols left behind, they remain a veteran-laden group capable of contending. The difference is that this 2012 club also has that October experience under its belt. "It gives you a little extra swagger," Berkman said. "That kind of experience gives you confidence." The swagger is understandable. The Game 6 comeback lives forever in baseball lore, and, as Berkman has noted, it makes everything that happens in the aftermath seem somewhat easy, by comparison. "You're not going to compete in a higher pressure situation than what we were in last year," Carpenter said. "It allows you to handle regular-season games from a different perspective." Before Friday's home opener and again on Saturday, the Cardinals and their fans replayed and relived some of the standout scenes that defined the franchise's 11th World Series title. And the members of this Cards club who were part of last year's squad still shake their heads and smile when reflecting on that run. "An adventure," right-hander Jake Westbrook said. "A time I'll never forget." But this team has also done a phenomenal job of looking forward, of embracing the notion that, while the specifics of last season won't be repeated, the present has potential to be every bit as successful as the past. "The team was notified of Tony's situation literally 15 minutes after we finished the parade," general manager John Mozeliak said. "You look at how this group of players had a look at their offseason and anticipating what 2012 might look like, and I think, right away, there was an awareness that a lot of it's going to fall back on our shoulders." And so this is the rare defending champion that has taken on something of an underdog mentality. "There are always people out there saying you're not good enough," Freese said. "If that drives you, so be it. You've got to play this game with a chip on your shoulder. If you can't find one, find it. Find a reason." They had plenty of reason to celebrate Saturday. All World Series runs are worthy of a ring, and theirs was worthy of a little added bling. But the Cardinals don't want a ring to serve as the reminder of just how good they can be. They want those reminders to come every day, in the way they interact and, ultimately, the way they play.
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.