Barack Obama honors champion Cards

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama on Tuesday dubbed the St. Louis Cardinals the "greatest comeback team in the history of baseball" thanks to their thrilling late-season charge into the playoffs and death-defying, seven-game triumph in last November's World Series.

The Cardinals were 10½ games back at the end of August, but rallied to win a National League wild card spot on the last day of the regular season. They trailed in each playoff round and were twice within a strike of elimination in Game 6 of the series with the Texas Rangers before David Freese's walk-off home run in the 11th saved them.

"That has to be one of the best baseball games of all time," Obama said to applause and cheers as he welcomed team members in the East Room.

Leading off at the event was first lady Michelle Obama, celebrating her 48th birthday. And with a swing of the bat, she nearly stole the show.

Mrs. Obama was present at the series opener, and she thanked the Cardinals for all they do for military families. Then, team owner Bill DeWitt gave both Obamas team jerseys and souvenir bats.

"I'm a little bit worried about giving my wife a bat," the president joked. "If I mess up ... "

His wife deadpanned, "I'll take my bat," then hefted and glancing meaningfully in Obama's direction, as Cardinals players, team officials and Missouri lawmakers chuckled.

Two key figures of the championship season were absent. Manager Tony La Russa retired after the series. And star Albert Pujols signed a $240 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels in the offseason.

Meantime, baseball purists still debate which team is really the comeback king of the national pastime. Among the candidates: Some cite the 1951 N.Y. Giants, others the 2004 Boston Red Sox. But there was no doubting Obama's enthusiasm for the Cardinals' heroics.

He noted in late August, Las Vegas odds makers had the Cards as 500-to-1 underdogs.

"But through skills, 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 survive.

"This team essentially played two months of elimination games," Obama said.