Justice wears a label: 'Made in St. Louis'

September 05, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

ST. LOUIS -- It has to happen here, has to happen at Busch Stadium, has to happen -- with all due respect to Baltimore -- in perhaps the greatest baseball city in America.

The emotion of Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record wouldn't have been the same if his big night had taken place in Oakland or Kansas City.

And the impact of Mark McGwire breaking Roger Maris' single-season home run record won't be the same if he hits No. 62 on the road, even as an entire nation cheers his every move.

The Cardinals visit Cincinnati and Houston after they complete a five-game homestand against the Reds and Chicago Cubs. McGwire went 0-for-3 with a walk last night, so he needs three homers in four games to set the record at home.

"The reasons he's here is because of the fan reception he got here last year," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "His other significant homers this year have all been on the road. If there's any justice, he'd hit the biggest one of all here. He's so amazing, he might pull it off, too."

McGwire played 10 1/2 seasons in Oakland before the A's traded him to the Cardinals on July 31, 1997. It took him only six weeks to decide that he wanted to stay in St. Louis, and forsake free agency for a three-year, $28.5 million contract.

St. Louis has that effect on people. Hall of Famers Bob Gibson and Lou Brock remain special instructors with the Cardinals. Former manager Red Schoendienst is a special assistant to the general manager. Radio announcer Jack Buck has been with the club since 1954.

"We feel this is the No. 1 baseball city in America," Brock said. "It is a city that has always demanded stars, somebody the fans could identify with, somebody they could rally around, somebody when they walk into a grocery store, they think they can see at the checkout line. And guess what? Sometimes, they do."

The city couldn't support two teams, which, of course, is how the Orioles came into existence, with the St. Louis Browns moving to Baltimore in 1954.

The Cardinals, though, drew 1 million for the first time in 1946, 2 million for the first time in '67, 3 million for the first time in '89. For more than half a century, they were as far west as any major-league team, and as far south, too.

The baseball world changed significantly after the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers moved to California in '58. But by then, the Cardinals were an almost national phenomenon.

"The biggest reason is that we had so many minor-league clubs in the '40s and '50s," Schoendienst said, referring to the late Branch Rickey's revolutionary farm system.

"When I broke in in 1942, I think they had 28 or 30 minor-league clubs. They were all over the country. Kansas City. Oklahoma. Tennessee. Houston. Fans followed their favorite players all the way to the big leagues."

Fans could follow them, too, with the Cardinals broadcasting games over a radio network that still consists of more than 100 stations and covers 11 states. The exploits of Stan Musial could be heard from Kentucky to Nebraska, Mississippi to Minnesota. And the team often has been a powerhouse, winning nine World Series titles.

The Cardinals always had compelling stars -- Dizzy Dean and the Gas House Gang in the 1930s, Musial in the '40s and '50s, Brock and Gibson in the '60s, Ozzie Smith in the '80s. But McGwire is something else entirely, a pure slugger attempting to become the Cardinals' first National League home run champion in nearly 60 years.

Indeed, a Cardinal setting the home run record would be as freakish a development as a Yankee setting the stolen-base record. This team always won by playing little ball -- bunting, stealing bases, moving runners over. The fans went nuts when Maris bunted for a base hit in his first game as a Cardinal in 1967. Home run record? Who cared? It was Cardinals baseball.

Brock, Vince Coleman, Willie McGee -- the Cardinals mixed in a power hitter now and then, but their most dynamic offensive players were usually speedsters. McGwire changed everything, showing the fans what they had been missing in recent decades. It was as if the city finally discovered color television after years of black-and-white.

"The biggest hero in the world is the heavyweight champion. The biggest hero in baseball is the home run hitter," said Buck, the Hall of Fame broadcaster. "Musial hit 475 home runs. But people don't remember him at all for home runs. They remember him as a line-drive hitter, an all-around player.

"McGwire is a home run swinger. He never looks for a single. He never tries to go up the middle. That's the way they teach you to hit, isn't it? But every swing he takes is designed to hit a home run. If other people tried to hit like that, they'd be abject failures."

Of course, no one hits like McGwire, which is why his pursuit of Maris is so riveting. Cardinals fans come by the thousands to watch him take batting practice. Hundreds of flash bulbs go off at Busch every time he swings. One fan last night held a sign that said, "Walk your dog, not McGwire." Young boys closed their eyes and crossed their fingers, praying for No. 60.

It has to happen here. It was meant to happen here.

No. 62 is calling:

Meet me in St. Louis, Mark.

Pub Date: 9/05/98

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