The Man Crush

September 14, 2005 at 2:55 pm (Uncategorized)

This afternoon, the St. Louis Cardinals will play host to the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. A Cardinal win will allow them to mathematically clinch a tie for the division title; should the Astros lose tonight, the Cardinals will clinch the division outright.

That isn’t the reason today’s game could be special. This is the last season for Busch Stadium. Next year, the team will move into the third ballpark in St. Louis to bear that name, but in order to finish it the current digs will have to come down. To mark the passing of the old park, all season long the Cardinals have displayed the number of games remaining at the Stadium on the outfield wall, and a local celebrity–ideally with some connection to the number displayed–goes out during the seventh-inning stretch and pulls it down to reveal the next number below it.

As of right now, the number on the wall is six. According to the MLB official site, the person who’ll take down that number will be the last person to have ever worn it as a Cardinal–Stanley Frank Musial. The Man. The Donora Flash. My favorite ballplayer ever, and the object of my baseball affection since childhood. Today I want to try to explain my affection for him.

Any St. Louisan can tell you about the Musial Statue outside Busch Stadium. It’s the place where you go to meet before you go into the game. You have a picture taken there, maybe. You distribute tickets to your buddies there. If you need an extra, this is the place you start looking. Walking past the statue, you’re likely to see the inscription there, a quote from then-commissioner Ford Frick taken from a statement on the announcement of Musial’s retirement 40 years ago. I think it very easy to see those words every day without quite absorbing their meaning, which to me seems somewhat profound:

“Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior. Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.”

See, Stan wasn’t controversial like so many sports heroes today. He lacked the easy hook of his contemporaries, too. He wasn’t flashy like Willie Mays. He lacked the cult of personality that followed Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Ted Williams could sit and talk about hitting with a depth and specificity that suggested his preternatural understanding of that most difficult skill in all of sports, while Stan couldn’t tell you how the hell he could possibly hit the ball out of his odd, peek-a-boo stance. (One of my favorite Musial stories was told by Curt Flood. Flood was a youngster, at one of his first Cardinal spring trainings; Musial was at one of his last. Eager to plumb a living legend for knowledge, Flood approached The Man for advice on hitting the curveball. Stan helpfully told the younger ballplayer to “Wait until you see it break, then knock the shit out of it.” As Flood said in his autobiography “I could have just as well have asked the nightingale how to trill.”)

Quantifying “The Man” has never been easy. As Bob Costas wrote,”He didn’t hit a homer in his last at-bat; he hit a single. He didn’t hit in 56 straight games. He married his high school sweetheart and stayed married to her, never married a Marilyn Monroe. He didn’t play with the sheer joy and style that goes alongside Willie Mays’ name. None of those easy things are there to associate with Stan Musial. All Musial represents is more than two decades of sustained excellence and complete decency as a human being.” Bill James, uber-statistician goes even further, speaking to how the eye-popping statistics do little to explain what it was about Musial that set him apart in his time and place. “You look at his totals of doubles and triples,” (The Donora Flash was, frankly, very slow afoot; he still managed to hit an astonishing number of extra-base hits) “and you realize something now that was taken for granted then. Stan Musial always left the batter’s box on a dead run.”

One of the great thrills of my life was getting the chance to wait on Mr. and Mrs. Musial nearly a half-dozen times back when I was starting my career off waiting tables in St. Louis. At the end of each meal, I’d usually have a couple of requests from fellow employees for an autograph that I’d take to The Man. He would produce a custom-made baseball card from an inside jacket-pocket, and cheerfully sign away. In the bloated and sickening sports memorabilia market, stuff from The Man usually carries far less value than similar items from lesser players. Stan doesn’t charge for his autograph and signs anything for fans. There’s no scarcity of his signature to artificially inflate prices.

So today, if the Cardinals’ web site can be believed, Stan takes down his own Number Six. I had sort of figured he’d be the one to take down the One but this is just as fitting. I hope he’s up to it; Musial is 85 now, and he’s had a myriad of health concerns in recent years. The lucky folks at Busch today should give The Man an ovation that shakes the Stadium to its foundation. Musial is the man who embodies what Cardinal baseball is, who defines why us hardcore Redbird loyalists wouldn’t dream of supporting any other team…and today may be one of the last opportunities for the fans to show their true appreciation for all he’s done and meant to the franchise for the past sixty years.

Here’s hoping that Stan gets to see a couple more pennants hoisted in St. Louis before he goes to his own Field of Dreams.

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