Baseball Heaven

pujolsST. LOUIS – Remember back when those quotes attributed to Scott Rolen surfaced? You remember, it was shortly after the third baseman was traded to the Cardinals from Philadelphia. It was something about his new team being located in “Baseball Heaven.”

You know, “I feel like I’ve died and gone to baseball heaven.”

Of course you remember. It just added a little more to that annoying self-image problem they have in Philadelphia.

Well, guess what? Maybe you want to come in a little closer so I can whisper this to you. Certainly I don’t want to get anyone worked up into a lather or hurt anyone’s delicate little psyche. But here it goes:

Rolen was right.

There, I said it.

St. Louis is baseball heaven. Take the way they feel about football in Texas, hockey in Canada and sprinkle in some surfing in Hawaii and then, maybe, you will understand how they feel about baseball and their Cardinals in St. Louis.

They’re nuts.

Oh, and it’s not just the kids, the 18-to-35 age demographic, or the grandfathers who saw Dizzy Dean and the Gas House Gang whip the Yankees at Sportsmen’s Park in the ’26 World Series, either. Nope. It’s everyone. They all dress in Cardinals red, they all cheer loudly for their hometown players and clap politely in appreciation for good play by an opponent.

Do they boo? Um, does the Pope date?

Actually, that’s not completely true. When Ted Lilly of the Cubs was introduced before Tuesday night’s All-Star Game, the fans sounded like Philadelphians when Rolen and J.D. Drew showed up on D-Battery night at The Vet. But before it was assumed an unruly St. Louis fan was going to reach for their flare gun and fire off a shot across the diamond, the booing stopped. Sure, it was loud, but it was good natured.

Darnit, it was friendly.

But c’mon… there is nothing more odious and ridiculous that comparing the fans of St. Louis to the fans of Philadelphia. It’s just a dumb exercise. Different folks, different strokes.

stan-musialHowever, the friendliest people on earth just might live in St. Louis. Make that obscene friendly. It’s like cartoonish friendliness, the kind that makes Will Rogers look like surly ol’ Dick Cheney. So mix that with the Budweiser Beer that flows deeper than the mighty Mississippi just spitting distance away from the ballpark and the surprisingly majestic Gateway Arch, and it’s no wonder everyone is so tickled and happy.

And it’s no wonder they love those Cardinals.

I saw the strangest thing yesterday while walking from the hotel (which just so happened to be located on the spot where President Harry S Truman was photographed in one of history’s greatest moments of taunting when he held up the Chicago newspaper that read, “Dewey Defeats Truman) to the ballpark for an evening of All-Star baseball, rooftop sniper sightings and Pedro-mania! What I saw was an old lady, with an uncanny resemblance to Estelle Getty, strolling around town with a Willie McGee t-shirt.

Seriously, Willie McGee! I mean, who didn’t love Willie McGee – he was a terrific ballplayer. But who would ever put Willie McGee’s visage on a t-shirt and then sell it to people. It was the weirdest thing ever.

Maybe not as weird as the veritable throng of people that lined the downtown streets like it was V-E Day and tossed back some Budweiser and some Mardi Gras beads as the All-Stars paraded from their digs at the Hyatt to Busch Stadium. The players weren’t doing anything other than riding in a car. Some waved. Others scowled. Yadier Molina, the Cardinals’ catcher, tossed baseball cards to the throng. Reports are his throws repeatedly fell short.

Oh, and get this: during the All-Star Game I crossed paths with the great Stan Musial. They called Stan, “The Man,” and for good reason. One look at his career statistics and it’s tough not to wonder why he was given the nickname of a mere mortal. Man? No, that guy could hit like 20 Men, but “Stan The Men,” doesn’t have the same ring.

Nevertheless, approaching his 90th birthday, Stan gets around in a wheelchair these days. He also doesn’t carry around a harmonica and inexplicably break into song the way he used to on those corny baseball reels. He also is depicted in his classic batting stance in 15-feet of bronze statue in front of the entrance of the new Busch Stadium located on a stretch of road named, Stan Musial Drive.

So yes, Stan Musial is kind of a big deal in these parts. People lose their minds when they see him up close even though he retired as a player at age 42 in 1963.

But get this, Stan gave me his autograph last night. It was a pre-emptive autographing. He just rolled over and handed me a postcard with his picture and signature on it. I didn’t ask – hadn’t even occurred to me that one should ask Stan Musial for his autograph – and I’m not sure it’s even something I need. However, Stan just assumed that people want his autograph so he travels with a pile of signed cards and hands them out like gum drops.

Unsolicited autographing? Really? Cool.

Maybe that just goes to show how crazy they are for baseball in St. Louis. After all, Stan Musial rolls with piles of autographs to drop onto the populace like confetti. In fact, he’s how goofy St. Louis is for baseball – old ladies who look like Estelle Getty wear Willie McGee shirts and young kids with iPhones in front of a PlayStation game at the massive baseball mall the constructed on the downtown streets, wear replica shirts with Musial’s No. 6 on the back.

St. Louis, thy name is Baseballtopia.

estelleBut for every Willie McGee and Stan Musial shirt worn, there are 9,173 people wearing something celebrating Albert Pujols. Stan is The Man, Albert is The King or, El Hombre. The truth is Albert Pujols is so popular and beloved in St. Louis that he could strangle a man to death in cold blood in front of thousands of people beneath the Gateway Arch and the town would be cool with it.

They would probably say the guy had it coming and hope that by strangling a guy Pujols didn’t mess up his swing in any way.

Yep, they love baseball in St. Louis. When describing Philadelphia fans as “frontrunners” last year on the now-defunct “Best Damn Sports Show,” Jimmy Rollins cited St. Louis and the love the citizens have for the Cardinals as an example of how ballplayers like the fans to behave.

Guess what? Rollins isn’t the only one with that sentiment. It is Baseball Heaven, after all.