It only took three years to forget just how agonizing playoff baseball can be.
My beloved St. Cardinals last made the playoffs in 2015. For the next three seasons, the Birds fell short of qualifying.
Between 1996 and 2015, the Cards made the playoffs 13 times. That meant, for 13 Octobers, I sat transfixed on the do-or-die nature of the games.
I have watched baseball for as long as I can remember. I have easily seen more than 1,000 games.
There are a few regular season games I can remember vividly. Moments of greatness from players like Jim Edmonds, Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter.
The playoffs are a different beast. There are only a handful each year and seemingly every pitch is seared into my memory.
The first playoffs experience I had was in 1996. After dispatching the San Diego Padres, the Cards took on the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship series. I was 11 and all in.
My favorite player, Ozzie Smith, had announced that this would be his last year and I wanted for him to retire as a champion.
My family was just as crazed as I was. My parents went to an open practice while the kids were at school. They were busted by my sisters and I when we saw them watching practice during a TV report.
The reason they were at the ballpark was to see if they could find some tickets. They ended up with five tickets for Game 5 — one set of three and one set of two. The Cardinals were up 3 games to 1 setting up the potential for them to clinch a trip to the World Series in that Game 5. I nearly puked with excitement.
I sat in one section of the upper deck with my dad. My sisters and mom sat a few sections over. We were ready to watch the Cards win. Instead, the Braves spoiled the party. Atlanta led 7-0 after two innings. The mood turned sour. Eventually, with the Cards down, 11-0, my sister made her way over to my section with a message.
My mom was pulling the plug. It was a school night after all and we were all miserable. I had never left a game early and was upset. I thought a comeback was possible and begged to stay, but alas it wasn’t in the cards.
We went home early and listened on the radio as the Cards fell, 14-0. They ended up losing in seven games. That taste, however, made me a diehard fan of playoff baseball.
Every time the Cards would make the playoffs, I would clear my schedule to watch the games. I remember being in college in 2004 and skipping dinner to watch an epic game between the Cardinals and the Houston Astros.
Every game felt huge. Every pitch felt important. I saw the Cardinals win it all in 2006 and 2011 and it only made me love the playoffs even more.
The era from 2011 to 2015 was special and, frankly, I got a little spoiled. I was used to watching meaningful games. I was used to all the drama. Honestly, I didn’t feel that special anymore, it felt routine.
Last week that changed. After three quiet Octobers, the Cards were back in the spotlight. Thursday was special and I felt a little bit like 11-year-old Joe. I wore a red shirt and wore Cardinals socks that no one could see. I spent the morning reading pregame notes and gearing up for the first pitch.
Once it was game time, I found myself back in the groove. I watched every pitch with interest. I cursed when the Cards screwed up and cheered when the Cards did well.
Game 1, in which the Cardinals won, was a treat. My mood was lifted. I felt on top of the world. After losing Game 2, I was angry. The text exchange I had with a friend is not suitable for a family publication.
Game 3 I was, somehow, angrier and then Game 4 was just pure joy. The whole roller coaster has been fun. It felt good to care again. It felt good to watch games that matter.
Sports are a diversion. They are an escape from work, family, life, politics or whatever.
Right now things could be a lot better, but it’s nice to have a break. Win or lose (preferably win), it’s good to shut out the distractions of the world and get fully immersed into something I’ve loved my entire life.