Louis Meyer, Contributing Writer

“SWING AND A HIGH FLY BALL TO RIGHT, HEYWARD BACK AT THE WALL, IT’S…A…GONER!!!”

The words every cardinals fan loves to hear. St. Louis sportscaster John Rooney on the radio announcing a Cardinals homerun seems almost like a timeless classic, especially when it’s a homerun against our bitter rivals, the Chicago Cubs. This specific homerun call however, was the beginning of a historic run for the Cardinals. With it, came an object that was used as a rallying cry, “Magic Salsa.” To outsiders it seems odd, weird or even dumbfounding that a city and its baseball team could rally around something as common as salsa. However, for the Cardinals and the city of St. Louis, rallying around something has just about become a yearly tradition.

The year is 2011, it’s the end of August and the Cardinals playoffs hopes are just that, hopes. According to the Riverfront Times, the Cardinals chances of making the playoffs sat at an abysmal 1.1 percent. Then came an historical September, which saw the Cardinals complete the largest comeback in Major League Baseball history after 130 games played. They went 18-8 in the month of September, clinching the wild card on the last day of the regular season.

Fast forward to the National League Division Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. It’s Game 3 and it is tied 0-0 in the sixth inning. Suddenly the game stopped, cheers and screams alike erupted. The reason? A squirrel had appeared in the outfield and was racing around madly like it was being chased out of a flower bed. The excitement was fleeting, especially for Cardinals fans, as the Cardinals would go on to lose Game 3 by a score of 3-2. The squirrel however, was far from done.

The very next day, during a do-or-die Game 4, the squirrel appeared again, this time to the avail of Cardinals fans. It was the bottom of the fifth inning and the Cardinals led the Phillies 3-2. Cardinals second baseman, Skip Schumaker was batting. As Phillies pitcher Roy Oswalt delivered the pitch, a squirrel darted out from the Phillies dugout, ran across home plate and into the stands. The pitch was called a ball, which enraged Oswalt and Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel, who argued that the pitch should not have counted. While Schumaker would end up flying out to left, the Cardinals would hold on to win the do-or-die game by a score of 5-3.

The squirrel was quickly dubbed the “Rally Squirrel” by Cardinals fans. A “Rally Squirrel” Twitter account was set up, which at its peak, had over 28,000 followers. Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital adopted the rally squirrel as its official mascot for its annual charity drive and according to Cardinal Glennon Children’s Foundation Communication Director Rose Fogarty, the result was about half a million dollars raised. Local businesses in the St. Louis area flocked to the idea of using the rally squirrel to make money. According to an article by Kavita Kumar in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the lack of copyright allowed businesses to cash in. Famous St. Louis Dessert Shop, Crown Candy, had never sold more than 40 chocolate squirrels in a year. After the rally squirrel, they sold 40-50 a day. Ed Brock of Johnny Brock’s costume stores reported that he couldn’t keep his shelves stocked with squirrel costumes. Multiple T-shirt companies sold different rally squirrel styled t-shirts, many of which took weeks to receive because the companies simply could not keep up with the demand.

Cardinal’s relief pitcher Octavio Dotel carried a stuffed squirrel with him in the bullpen after a Phillies fan threw it at him during Game 5 of the NLDS. The Cardinals added the rally squirrel to their mascot lineup for the rest of the postseason and passed out over 40,000 rally squirrel towels for their team rally Oct. 12. The result of all this hysteria? The Cardinals would go on to defeat the Texas Rangers in the World Series and capture their 11th championship. The rally squirrel was immortalized on a Topps baseball card as well as on the Cardinals World Series rings. Cardinals Nation was all about the rally squirrel. Little did they know they’d be rallying around another animal in six years.

Aug. 9, 2017, the Cardinals had been struggling all year, spending a good part of the season under the .500 mark. However, thanks to a 4-game winning streak, the team sat barely above .500 at 58-56. The Kansas City Royals were in town and threatened to snuff out the Cardinals hot streak. The Royals led by a score of 5-4 going into the bottom of the sixth inning. However, the Cardinals loaded the bases for their All-Star catcher, Yadier Molina, who is widely known as “Yadi.” Yadi was not much of a home run hitter, as he had hit less than 125 career homeruns in his 13 years in the league. However, the Cardinals ageless backstop had been on a hot streak of his own. Over the last two weeks, Yadi had hit to the tune of a .341 batting average and a .638 slugging percentage.

Yadi locked into his at bat against Royals relief pitcher Peter Moylan. As Moylan delivered the first pitch of the at bat; a ball, a cat appeared, running around the outfield like it was being chased by a pit-bull. The cat was being chased, not by a pit-bull, but by Cardinals grounds crew member Lucas Hackmann. After Hackmann caught the cat, got bit and clawed by said cat, and ran off the field with the cat to the smiles, laughs and cheers of Cardinals players and fans alike, the game resumed. The next pitch from Moylan turned a stray cat into a “rally cat.” Yadi saw the pitch from Moylan, a sinker over the middle of the plate, and drove it into the left field seats for his fifth career grand slam. The Cardinals went on to win the game by a score of 8-5, which moved them to just a 1 ½ games behind the N.L. Central leading Chicago Cubs.

“Rally Cat” fever soon swept through the city of St. Louis. Just like in 2011, the city rallied around an animal. Rally cat t-shirts popped up all over the internet as well as in the stores of local businesses. The Cardinals held a “Rally Cat Appreciation Day” where a portion of the ticket money went to former Cardinal Manager Tony LaRussa’s Animal Rescue Foundation.

However, a fight soon began over custody of the famous cat, one that reached national headlines. The Cardinals wanted to keep the cat and give it a home in the clubhouse, where the players and coaches could take care of it. However, St. Louis Feral Cat Outreach wasn’t having it. According to an article in SB Nation, St. Louis Feral Cat Outreach hired popular lawyer, Albert “Al” Watkins for the cat. After a court battle that shook St. Louis to its core, turned friends into enemies, and filled social media with nasty arguments, it was decided the cat would remain with the St. Louis Feral Cat Outreach.

Lots of Cardinals fans were upset about the decision, wondering why there was a fight in the first place. “If the Cardinals players and coaches wanted to take care of the cat and let it live in the clubhouse, then I don’t see why that was such a big deal,” said loyal Cardinals fan Debbie Meyer. However, even without the actual cat in possession, the rally cat remained a rallying cry for the rest of the season.

Unlike 2011 however, the end result would not be as magical. In fact, the Cardinals did not even make the playoffs. They finished 2017 with a record of 83-79. They finished third in the N.L. Central, nine games behind the Chicago Cubs. They finished four games behind the Colorado Rockies for the second wild card spot.

Cardinals fans were hurt, they thought the cat was a sign. In 2011, the squirrel proved to be the foreshadowing of a World Series Victory. However, in 2017, the rally cat proved to be the foreshadowing of a bitter end to a rough year for one of the MLB’s most successful franchises. Maybe the Cardinals needed to move away from animals, maybe it was time to unveil something that had been a secret, a secret only Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter knew.

It’s July 2018, the Cardinals just fired Mike Matheny, their manager for the last 6 ½ years. The team seems to be bonding with Interim Manager, Mike Shildt, even winning his first game as manager. The team goes into the All-Star break with a record of 48-46, barely over the .500 mark. The teams first series back is a grueling, four-day, five game series against N.L. Central leading and bitter rivals, the Chicago Cubs. Shildt and the Cardinals were in for a fight, little did they know they had a secret weapon on their side.

It seemed so innocent and obscure. I was going through people’s stories on Instagram, flipping through them really, as some weren’t very entertaining. I swiped past Cardinals infielder Carpenter’s story, only to go back because something caught my eye. His story was a picture of what looked like a breakfast burrito with a jar sitting next to it. The caption on the story was, “fresh batch of my secret salsa!!!” If you are confused, then good, because I was too. Secret Salsa? OK, sure. That weekend the Cardinals only won two of the five games. Carpenter however, had one of the most historical weeks in MLB history. July 20, Carpenter went 5-5, with three homeruns and two doubles. It was only the second time in MLB history this had happened. Dating back to the last game before the All-Star break, Carpenter had gone 11 for his last 20, in which all 11 hits were extra base, eight homeruns and three doubles. This was even moreastonishing if you looked back and saw Carpenter was hitting just .141 with three homeruns May 16. Was Carpenter just on fire or was his “secret salsa” the culprit?

Soon, Carpenter began feeding his salsa to other players. In fact, it became so popular, Carpenter began cooking large batches both at home and in the clubhouse to feed his hungry team. As the team devoured the salsa, they began to devour their competition. Players like Marcel Ozuna, Bud Norris and Jordan Hicks, who had been struggling, turned a new leaf. The Cardinals as a team went on a historic run, winning 10 straight series. With Carpenter and his salsa leading the charge, the Cardinals went from an average team, to the team to beat in the National League.

With both Carpenter and the Cardinals on historic runs, how could Cardinal Nation not buy into “Rally Salsa?” Just as in years past, all kinds of merchandise began popping up. T-shirt companies began printing shirts with the popular Twitter hashtag, “It’s Gotta Be The Salsa,” on them. Local St. Louis grocer, Schnucks, even partnered with Carpenter to sell his “secret salsa” exclusively at their stores. Carpenter was unstoppable, the Cardinals seemed invincible, nothing could go wrong right?

Unfortunately, just like the year before, the Cardinals fell short of the playoffs. Despite one of the best records in the MLB after the All-Star break, the Cardinals finished an electrifying second half of the season 7.5 games out of first place in the N.L. Central and two games back of the N.L. second wild card spot. How could this have happened? We had rally salsa and one of the best players in the entire National League. It seemed that yet again, Cardinal Nation had been let down. They invested in the shirts, bobbleheads and even the tubs of “secret salsa.” and for what? Another season of disappointment. Are we as fans being scammed out of our money time and time again?

Throughout history, there are dozens of examples of good luck charms and routines, anything to fuel the power of positive thinking and belief in yourself and your potential. Does a rabbit’s foot bring luck? How about capturing a leprechaun? Does wearing your baseball hat inside out really spur your team on to victory? Probably not, but if the improbable appearance of a squirrel or a cat and a happenstance run of good luck after a discouraging season spurs on a team and the St. Louis economy, who’s to argue? Are we so cynical that we are unable to enjoy the moment because we believe we have been scammed and taken advantage of? Not me, if it makes my home team believe in themselves and play baseball that is good enough to keep my hopes alive clear until the second to the last game of the season. I’ll wear my ‘Rally Squirrel’ shirt and eat some ‘secret salsa’ to keep me warm through the winter as I wait for spring training to begin in February. Who knows, I might even adopt a cat. Just kidding, I’m allergic to cats.