For many, summer is a time for enjoying your favorite sport or pastime at a leisurely pace. This month, William Gildea embarked on his own American Summer--a visit to three hallowed sports venues: the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and St. Louis, where baseball and Mark McGwire are kings. Today he writes about St. Louis.
It's Sept. 5, 1998: "Number 60 for Mark McGwire . . . He couldn't have hit it higher . . . equaling Babe Ruth . . . and we might have more history before the day is out . . . What a thrill . . . What a thrill."
Jack Buck's voice draws out each word in a symphony of syllables. His words echo through the afternoons and nights and roll down the Mississippi River to Memphis, or toward Little Rock or Tulsa, or up to Moline or Cedar Rapids. They fly west across the plains to Topeka or dart east to Louisville. Whatever their direction, they cover the panorama of mid-America where St. Louis Cardinals fans live and listen.
And those words, in turn, bring the Cardinals' faithful out of their living rooms and cars and off their front porches to Busch Stadium, where Bob Gibson dealt heat, Lou Brock stole bases and Ozzie Smith performed his wizardry. Where now McGwire drives balls toward the stadium arches high in the distance and the team's tradition rolls on like the river.
At a glance from outside, Busch Stadium looks like another of those dull, multipurpose facilities of lost luster from the 1960s. Instead, it has been nipped and tucked into a comfortably fitting baseball-only park with an ambience and aura that make it feel like one of baseball's hallowed shrines.
Cardinals history is celebrated here. Photographs of Cardinals legends fill walls of corridors and lobbies--and you still might encounter the likes of Stan Musial or Red Schoendienst, who remain regulars at the games. Early this season, the Cardinals fell ingloriously from contention in the National League Central Division, but the stands are filled or close to it for most games because of McGwire.
The spirit of St. Louis baseball is distinctive. Fans converge at Busch Stadium with a love for the game, a respect for Cardinals history, patience for the home team even when it is losing and an appreciation of good play evidenced by frequent ovations for visiting players. St. Louis fans are polite. "We take pride in supporting the team, no matter what," said Rich Reese, a 35-year-old artist with a lifelong passion for the Cardinals. "We want the team to know we're going to be with them whether they win or lose. And if they're losing, we want them to be assured that we're going to do all we can, through rooting, to help effect a change."
McGwire came to understand shortly after becoming a Cardinal on July 31, 1997. Traded by Oakland as a soon-to-be free agent, the big man said he planned to use the remainder of the season to get acquainted with the National League and help him decide which team he would sign with next; perhaps it would be a West Coast club so he could be closer to his son. On Sept. 16, McGwire terminated the search and happily agreed to a three-year, $28.5 million contract with the Cardinals, a sum that actually was below a bloated market value. With unrestrained emotion at a news conference after his signing, he declared: "I'm proud to be a Cardinal. I can't think of another place to play in major league baseball."
"We took it upon ourselves to help persuade him," Reese said on behalf of the fans.
"The McGwire situation really is antithetical to everything Cardinals fans have appreciated for so long and still appreciate, the little things like hitting the ball to the right side to advance a runner," said Jonathan Pitts, co-author of Whitey Herzog's book "You're Missin' a Great Game." "They're cheering home runs the same way they cheered 'Whitey Ball,' " the more strategic game employed by Herzog during his tenure through the 1980s. "Still, there's anguish when McGwire homers but the Cardinals lose."
The words that best describe Cardinals baseball, for Reese, are "all out." Enos Slaughter's sprint from first to home on a double to left-center field to win the 1946 World Series is for many Cardinals fans the moment that epitomizes the franchise. "Had Slaughter done nothing else," Pitts said, "he would be remembered as the eternal Cardinal for that one thing."
No Cardinal is more revered than Stan the Man--an image of his gifts is fixed in every longstanding Cardinals fan's mind.
Willie McGee is the latest among the beloved. Now 40, McGee received a standing ovation recently when coming off the bench to pinch-hit late in a game. McGee played for the Cardinals from 1984 through most of 1990, then returned in 1996. "He's the most humble player I know of," Reese said. And as Pitts explained: "It's cool to be humble in St. Louis."
Tradition is important, too, right down to the symmetry of the two birds on the bat across the fronts of the uniform jerseys.
And if Busch Stadium may not come first to mind when a person thinks of favorite diamond palaces, the Cardinals' home still is dressed up in new clothing to look as spiffy as a concrete bowl can: fresh green paint, a bright and informative scoreboard that does not intrude on the game, seats closer to the field than when football shared the stadium, the distinguishing arches above the top deck that allow in whatever air might be stirring on a humid St. Louis day or night, flowers, a scrubbed appearance--no rust, no peanut shells when the gates open, not even dust.
From some seats you can see a silvery sliver of the Gateway Arch, next to the Mississippi.
Recently, Buck described the stadium, rapidly filling with fans, as an "island"--a baseball summer place. Its pulse during a game radiates over 50,000 watts from KMOX, and from the affiliates as well. "We have 120 stations on the network," said Buck. "People write in months ahead for tickets, from Kansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana."
Buck has been doing play-by-play for the Cardinals since 1954. He overlapped for many seasons in the Cardinals' booth with Harry Caray to form a renowned duo. Mike Shannon has been Buck's radio partner for 28 years.
Lou Brock listened when he was a teenager. Brock threw out a ceremonial first ball to start the Aug. 13-15 series with the Chicago Cubs. Twenty years before--on Aug. 13, 1979--he singled off the Cubs' Dennis Lamp for his 3,000th hit. It was the Cubs who traded Brock to St. Louis in 1964 in an infamous misjudgment. Brock first knew of the Cardinals as a magical team in his imagination. Growing up in Collinston, La., he listened to the games on an old Philco radio.
"Jim Crow had excluded me from the mainstream of society," Brock said in a strong voice at his Hall of Fame induction in 1985. "[But] I could not allow these things to stand in the way of my inner feelings and my pursuit of excellence. Through KMOX, baseball fed my fantasies about what life offered. Baseball could arouse and comfort me because in identifying with it, I felt free and alive. When I heard baseball games . . . my spirit would soar and I believed there would come a day when my life would be different and I, too, would be out there on the field of play."
When the Cardinals play the Cubs, it's a time of good-natured--but intense--rivalry. "I've got some friends from California in here--it's the first time they've seen it," McGwire said before the teams' recent weekend series. "I'm glad I'm a part of it."
Craig Paquette, a traveled veteran recently acquired by the Cardinals, beat the Cubs in the third and decisive game of the series with a two-out, two-run single in the ninth inning. At his locker, Paquette echoed sentiments expressed often by McGwire, and other Cardinals in the past.
"It's awesome to play in front of this many people every game," he said. "The crowd gets you a little more excited, a little more anxious each at-bat. The fans--how much they know about baseball and how much they appreciate everything. It's a great feeling just to be out on the field."