John Smoltz strolled up to the plate Friday night in St. Louis — his first at-bat in Busch Stadium since he joined the Cardinals recently — and the fans gave him a long, warm standing ovation. Smoltz is a pitcher, a future Hall of Famer playing out the string at the end of his career, and this ovation was a form of welcome and respect. I watched it in a bar 30 miles away. Some of the fans there applauded, too.
It also was a reminder: St. Louis is a baseball town. The whole area is a baseball area. The Cardinals are part of the DNA in a big chunk of the Midwest, and you’d be hard-pressed to find more knowledgeable baseball fans anywhere.
In most of Missouri, you measure time based on the success and failure of the Cardinals. My first Cards teams featured Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Curt Food, Orlando Cepeda and Mike Shannon, who went from third base to the broadcast booth and has stayed there for decades. Harry Carey and Jack Buck called those 1960s games, and KMOX broadcast them all through the Midwest and South on its clear channel AM frequency.
The years rolled on, through the unfortunate 1970s (although Brock went even crazier on the basepaths and Al Hrabosky was nothing if not entertaining) and the revival (and occasional heartbreak) of the 1980s, with Juaquin Andujar, Jack Clark, Willie McGee, Bruce Sutter, Ozzie Smith, John Tudor, George Hendrick, Whitey Herzog and the like.
The 1990s weren’t much to remember but the new millennium has been good to the Cards, with two World Series appearances and a title. All discussion of the modern Cards starts with Albert Pujols — for my money the greatest Cardinal of all time, which is saying something on a team with a legacy that includes Gibson and Stan Musial.
Tony La Russa’s managing skills deserve a lot of credit for the current success as well. On Sunday, against the Nats, the Cards actually moved a runner from first to third on a nubbing little ground ball to the third baseman, and you could practically see La Russa’s thumbprints on that play.
Washington is not a baseball town. It has a baseball team and some baseball fans, but the only franchise even remotely imprinted on hearts and souls here is the Redskins. The population here is probably too transient, too work-focused, too distracted to really love baseball, which is a slow-it-down, watch-and-relax sport. You’ve got to love nuances to love a baseball team at a really deep level, and that’s how they love the team in St. Louis.
LAGNIAPPE: I just remembered this Tom Boswell column from 2006. It explains everything about the Cardinal Nation quite nicely.