They're simply mad about Birds-on-Bat

St. Louis

World Series

October 23, 2004|By Rob Rains | Rob Rains,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ST. LOUIS - When Jim Edmonds was acquired by the St. Louis Cardinals from the Anaheim Angels late in spring training of 2000, Mark McGwire greeted him with this message: "Welcome to baseball heaven."

As the crowd roared Wednesday night when Edmonds forced a seventh game in the National League Championship Series with his 12th-inning, walk-off homer, he was reminded again of McGwire's greeting.

When he received the same kind of ovation for his diving catch in the second inning Thursday night that saved at least one and maybe two runs, he heard the voice again coming in unison from the mouths of 52,000 fans dressed in red.

Is this heaven? No, it's St. Louis, simply the best baseball city in America.

This is the home of Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Ozzie Smith. It is a city in which the power of Jack Buck's voice telling people to "go crazy" produced exactly that result. This is a city that not only loves, appreciates and understands baseball, but respects and loves whoever happens to be wearing the Birds-on-the-Bat uniform.

The love of the Cardinals is handed down from generation to generation like the family bible. Grandparents talk about going to Sportsman's Park and the Gas House Gang and what it was like to watch Dizzy Dean and Stan Musial.

You can drive down Elizabeth Street on the Hill and look at the homes where childhood pals Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola grew up. Parents talk about the glory years of the 1980s, when Whitey Herzog's teams won three pennants in six years. People remember exactly where they were when Smith homered off Tom Niedenfuer in the 1985 playoffs.

Now, for the first time in a generation, a new era of fans will have their own memories after the Cardinals ended a 17-year World Series drought with the 5-2 victory over the Astros Thursday that clinched their 16th National League pennant.

"It wasn't until I got to St. Louis that I really got to know and understand the passion fans have here for baseball," McGwire said. "When the baseball season starts in St. Louis, they bleed [Cardinal] red. Everybody told me I'd love St. Louis, and no wonder."

When the Cardinals faced the Red Sox in the 1967 World Series, Gibson and Brock were the stars for the team known as the "El Birdos," so-named by first baseman Orlando Cepeda. The link to tradition continues with Mike Shannon, the third baseman then, now in his 32nd year working on the team's radio broadcasts.

It was in the 1946 Series against the Red Sox that Enos Slaughter made his famed dash from first base, a play that haunted a generation of Boston fans for years.

If there is one reason above all why St. Louis has earned its reputation as the best baseball town in America, it can be summed up in a word - tradition.

A journeyman pitcher named Bob Shirley joined the Cardinals in a trade from San Diego after the 1980 season, and he quickly sized up the difference between the two franchises.

"Here, tradition is Stan Musial and Bob Gibson and Lou Brock walking into the clubhouse," Shirley said. "In San Diego, it was [former Padre] Nate Colbert trying to sell you a used car."

Just as fans can tell you where they were the night McGwire hit his 62nd homer of 1998, and can point to the exact location where the ball disappeared over the left-field wall, they can tell you all about third-string catcher Glenn Brummer's steal of home on a Sunday afternoon in 1982.

Fans anywhere would cheer for players like McGwire and all of the other Hall of Famers who have come through St. Louis. When Ken Griffey Jr. hit his 500th homer earlier this year at Busch Stadium, he received a standing ovation that prompted a curtain call.

Outfielder Larry Walker said he had never received a curtain call in his career before he got to St. Louis in August. In his first at-bat as a Cardinal, he struck out - and received a standing ovation. He was stunned, even though he, too, had been told what to expect in pre-trade phone calls from Edmonds and Scott Rolen.

On Monday night, with the St. Louis Rams playing at the same time as the Cardinals, the Cardinals recorded a higher television rating. Unofficial results of Wednesday night's Game 6 put the local television rating at an incredible 70. Thursday night's rating will no doubt turn out to be even higher.

In St. Louis, people cheer players such as Rex Hudler, Joe McEwing, Jose Oquendo and Bob Tewksbury, who all became fan favorites. Were they All-Stars? No. Were they future Hall of Famers? Certainly not. But they had earned a more important status than either of those labels in the minds of Cardinals fans - they were their players.

No one experienced more cheers from those faithful fans during his career than Smith, the Hall of Fame shortstop who still is one of the city's most revered citizens. When he comes out to throw out a ceremonial first pitch before a playoff game, it's almost as if he is doing a backflip on his way out to shortstop all over again.

"This town has such a rich baseball history, you can't help but be caught up in it," Smith said. "They're all here, all the great ones. Musial. [Marty] Marion, Red [Schoendienst]. Gibson. They're people you see all the time, people you can reach out and touch. And the memories of others, like the Deans, are still here, too.

"Everything here seems to come full circle back to the ballpark. I feel I'm part of, well, a common cause."

That cause is St. Louis Cardinals baseball.

Rob Rains has been writing about baseball in St. Louis for the past 25 years. He is a former beat writer for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and USA Today Baseball Weekly and is the author of 11 books about the Cardinals.

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