This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 17, 2012 - WASHINGTON -- Saluting the 2011 World Champion Cardinals as "the greatest comeback team in the history of baseball," President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama feted the players at the White House on Tuesday afternoon.
"This is a special team," said Obama, praising the players' good work on and off the baseball field and noting that they "essentially played two months of elimination games" to win the National League title and then the World Series in October.
"But through skills and guts and I think the team would agree just a little bit of luck -- just a touch -- this team made the playoffs," Obama said. "And even though they trailed in each of the series that followed, they somehow had the spirit and the determination and the resolve" to prevail against heavy odds.
Recounting the late-inning heroics of St. Louisan and World Series MVP David Freese, Obama called Game 6 of the World Series "one of the best baseball games of all time. Unbelievable game." He also singled out pitcher Chris Carpenter, who pitched with brilliance, and former Cardinal Albert Pujols -- who hit three home runs in a single World Series game -- for special praise.
Pujols, who signed a lucrative contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim last month, was among the notable team members -- as well as coach Tony La Russa -- who did not attend the White House event. But most members of the 2011 team and its owners gathered behind the Obamas -- and the gleaming World Series trophy -- in the crowded East Room to celebrate last fall's win.
Michelle Obama, celebrating her 48th birthday, said she was anxious to meet and honor the Cardinals, praising team members for spending a couple of hours earlier in the day visiting wounded service members at Walter Reed Medical Center.
"We all can find a way to give something back to our troops and families who have given us so much," said the First Lady, who introduced several vets and their families who sat in the front row. She had joined them at Game 1 of the World Series in St. Louis.
Obama gave a special shout-out to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, a stalwart Obama supporter who also joined the Cardinals players at Walter Reed earlier in the day. "That was a very moving event," Slay told the Beacon. "The veterans really appreciated it."
In fact, Freese, who lives in Wildwood, tweeted that he was delighted to meet a fellow graduate of Lafayette High School in St. Louis County. "Great to meet a fellow Lafayette Lancer, Sgt Justin Griffin US Army. Recovering from gunshot wound," Freese tweeted.
Cardinal managing partner and chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., a Republican ally of former President George W. Bush, attended the White House event with many family members and business associates. He presented both of the Obamas with bats and Number 44 Cardinals World Series jerseys, which the president held up. Obama joked that he was "worried about giving my wife a bat ... if I mess up." And the First Lady quipped, "I'll take my bat," and playfully tapped her hubby on the shoulder as the players and audience laughed.
The Redbirds seemed to enjoy the event and the reception that followed. "Awesome," said center fielder Jon Jay, who got an opportunity to shake hands with Obama and tour part of the White House.
In praising the absent La Russa, Obama -- an unapologetic Chicago White Sox fan who admitted being "a little disappointed I had to leave my White Sox jacket in the closet for another year" -- mentioned that La Russa had started out a White Sox manager, prompting the First Lady to joke: "Let it go."
Michelle Obama admitted that describing the Redbirds as World Series champs "is not easy to say as a Cubs fan" like herself. But she added that the Cards "make it a lot easier to say with all of the good work that you do in the community, especially everything that you all do for military families -- and that is why I'm here."
Obama, who was about 20 minutes late for the World Series event because he had been meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan, has been systematic in inviting nearly every professional championship team -- from women's basketball to soccer to hockey -- to the White House for recognition.
And rubbing elbows with the Redbirds also carries its advantages for Missouri politicians -- even if they are Republicans at a Democrat-controlled White House. Most members of the state's congressional delegation attended, as did Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley.
Making his first public appearance since undergoing heart-stent surgery last Thursday, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., attend with his wife and youngest son. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a big Cardinals fan who boasts that she attended World Series game six, sat next to Blunt and greeted Missouri's U.S. House members, including U.S. Reps. William Lacey Clay, D-St. Louis; Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis; Todd Akin, R-Wildwood; Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau; Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, and Billy Long, R-Springfield.
Obama ended his talk by praising Cardinal fans as well as the team. "So I want to congratulate not only the players, the owners, all the managers and team officials, but also the fans, for a historic year," he said.
"And I also want to thank them for visiting Walter Reed this morning, spending some time with our wounded warriors over there. That's what this organization is all about; it represents baseball at its best. And I wish them all the best this season."