BOSTON -- This is not about something as trivial "bragging rights." This is for the championship of the new millennium.
It may not be a permanent designation, but it's a wonderful way to set your team apart from the other 29 franchises. The team that wins this World Series will become the first team to win three World Series championships in this century.
This is what is at stake in the 2013 Fall Classic between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox. The Game 1 telecast is scheduled for Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. CT on FOX with the first pitch at 7:07 p.m.
The Cardinals and the Red Sox have met three times in the World Series, with the Redbirds holding a 2-1 edge. But it is the one loss, in 2004, that sticks in the memory and, for that matter, stings in the memory, of the Cardinals and their legion of loyal followers.
That 2004 St. Louis team still has the best regular-season record of any National League team in this century, with 105 victories. It was loaded with talent. There were Gold Glove-winning defenders all over the field, including current Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, the regular catcher on that club.
There was a potent lineup with plenty of power. Among them, Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds had hit 122 home runs and driven in 358 runs. There were four 15-game winners in the starting rotation. And there were veteran, proven relief pitchers in the bullpen. The manager was one of the best of any era, Tony La Russa. This was a club that won its division by 13 games, over the NL Wild Card team, the Houston Astros. The Red Sox, meanwhile, were the American League Wild Card representative.
Clearly, the Cardinals could be considered the favorites. Then came the Series. Boston won four straight, and it was over.
"Some of us have some pretty bad memories of being here in 2004, and we're looking to kind of right that ship," Matheny said Tuesday after his team had worked out at Fenway Park.
"But the team in '04 we played was as hot as any team in baseball. And they came in and played the kind of baseball that we needed to, and we didn't. It's about execution, and that's what we're going to get focused on now."
There were some possible explanations, some mitigating circumstances. There was never one completely comprehensive, totally satisfying explanation. But there were attempts in that direction.
One was that the 2004 Red Sox had turned into nothing less than a force of nature. They had done this by making history in their AL Championship Series matchup against their one true nemesis, the New York Yankees. Down 0-3, the Sox won four straight to win the pennant. No one had ever climbed out of a hole that deep to win in the baseball postseason. After that, the theory went, the Sox were simply unbeatable.
Plus, you know, it was their turn. They had not won a World Series in 86 years. By beating the Yankees, they had broken whatever historical bonds and/or curses that had kept them from the championship for all those decades.
On the less metaphysical level, the Cardinals' most effective starter, Chris Carpenter, was out with an injury. That couldn't help the St. Louis cause. La Russa's decision to start Matt Morris on short rest in Game 2 backfired.
"We had a very tough series against Houston, and went to Game 7 with a very good club," Matheny said. "And it was a knock-down, drag-out fight. It was pretty much a whirlwind by the time we ended there and got here to Boston. And next thing you know, we're down two games and didn't even know what happened.
"And that was a team that didn't happen to very often. It was a very good team that walked on the field expecting to win. And next thing you know, we ran into a buzz saw. You look at what that '04 Boston team did just to get there. It was an incredible run to get through the Yankees at the end, and we just couldn't stop them.
"It was a lesson learned, not that our team at that point was half-stepping or we weren't prepared, but we just hadn't been hit like that all season long. So it was a little bit of a shocker."
The Cardinals were also unhappy with their accommodations in 2004. They stayed in a hotel outside Boston, in Quincy, which they believed was an unsuitable distance from the ballpark. Late-night room service was not available at this hotel, which was also considered a hardship. This time, the Cardinals are housed in the city, with all the necessary creature comforts apparently available.
"I think we were staying in Connecticut last time," Matheny said with a smile. "Boston is a beautiful city, especially this time of year. And I think we're all very happy to stay nice and close this time. It was about an $80 cab ride in '04."
What does all this mean for the 2013 Fall Classic? There are only two active players left from the 2004 World Series; David Ortiz who was just emerging as a force for the Red Sox, and Yadier Molina, who was Matheny's backup for the 2004 season.
So this is not quite a grudge match in the classic sense. But the St. Louis manager, and many of the team's fans, still carry with them the notion that the 2004 Cardinals were not supposed to lose, against anybody, ever.
"What that translates into now, a lot like how we talked about last year standing in San Francisco, Game 7 and watching those guys celebrate, realizing how quickly it can get away from you," Matheny said. "I think that's the message we have again this year, is just the urgency, first pitch. This is a team that's going to fight us the whole way, too, so I expect a good heavyweight bout."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.