By Ryan Hilligoss, March 2012
“It’s part of my responsibility(being the face of a franchise) to play the game the right way and be an example to the community and to kids who look up to me, just like when I was a little boy and looked up to big league players. I know how many kids out there want to be like Albert Pujols.” Pujols, Sports Illustrated March 2012
Picture this: 1955. St.Louis, Missouri. A hot, suffocating, August afternoon. A steaming, asphalt parking lot outside Sportsman’s Park. A family of 4 from Springfield, Il on their annual vacation trip to St. Louis for a river cruise on the once mighty Admiral and taking in a Cardinals game. A mother and father, hard-working people from central Illinois, and their 2 daughters aged 12 and 15. There are a lot of fans waiting to talk to the players after the game and seeking autographs. At long last, Stan Musial, the man most have been waiting for emerges from the clubhouse and starts to talk to the fans who have come from far and wide to see their hero play. After playing hard in the hot afternoon sun, the easy thing would have been for Stan to beg off, plead exhaustion from the heat and head home to his family. But, he didn’t take the easy way out, he never did. He makes his way around the crowd shaking hands, saying hello and taking time to talk with each and every one of the faithful who waited.
The family from Springfield patiently waits their turn and are elated when he finally makes his way to them. After signing autographs on the day’s scorecard and exchanging pleasantries about their vacation, Musial asks them what hotel they are staying in, and knowing it is several blocks away and it is a usual oppressive St. Louis day, the star offers them a ride in his car to the hotel to spare the girls a long, hot walk. The father, a proud and humble man, thanks the star but declines the offer stating the family will enjoy the fresh air. Stan waves goodbye and climbs into his shiny red car and exits the parking lot. That family was my mother Donna, aunt Glenda, and grandparents Hubert and Ivy Barr. My mother and aunt talk about that memory often, and the kindness and decency of Musial is what they remember after all these years and that is where they leave him in their mind’s eye.
And in my mind’s eye, I begin thinking of a new baseball season, a new team and the idea of heroes. My hopes begin to rise with spring training in full swing and a new season starting for the Cardinals April 4th against the re-designed Marlins in their newly christened stadium in Miami. The 2012 Cardinals will look a lot like last year’s team. The old workhorse Chris Carpenter will be back at it again, pitching and playing a hard game every time it’s his turn. Adam Wainwright will be a sight for sore eyes having missed last season due to Tommy John surgery. Last year’s WS MVP David Freese will be back at the hot corner. But for the first time in years, 1st base will be handled by someone other than Albert, as Lance Berkman takes over for the departed Pujols. The “King” has truly left the building.
At the time of this writing, it has been 150 days since the St. Louis Cardinals played and won one of the greatest single games of baseball ever played, Game 6 of the 2011 MLB World Series. It has been 149 days since the Cardinals won Game 7 and took home the World Series crown, the 11th in their long, storied history. But after the victory parade was over, the ticker tape was swept up and the joy faded away. It has been 108 days since Albert Pujols left his perch here in the town of the Birds on the Bat, and flew to sunny LA to join the Angels.
Hope springs eternal with the dawning of a new day that comes with spring training. And just like Lazarus of old, the dead and forgotten Cardinals of August 2011 rose from the dead and fought back to take the crown, fighting past the mighty Phillies, Brewers and Rangers. This typifies the kind of organization they have always been and will continue to be. St. Louis isn’t a sparkling jewel of the nation. It’s a hard town filled with hard-working, hard hit people. But we fight it out, and we’ll be here tomorrow and the next day and the next, just like the Cardinals, and we will stand together as a testament of the faith we hold in each other. While Albert is soaking up the warm rays of sunny Anaheim, we’ll be here where the warmth comes from within.
The easy out would be to say that I knew he was going to leave. But the declaration would just be that: an easy out. And I would be trying to fool myself and others .Within days of the World Series victory, I spoke to Sam Madonia on Springfield radio and I declared, in childish foolishness and naïveté that I thought both Albert and Tony Larussa would both be back. How wrong could I be? I really thought Albert would stay and finish his career here as a player. And then once retired, he would be handed the keys to the organization by ownership and asked what he wanted to do whether it be manager, GM, scouting, etc. With his innate and brilliant knowledge of the sport and his incredible abilities, I imagined him being a player-manager at the end of his career just like Frank Robinson and then transitioning to full-time manager. Albert Pujols as a manager would have upheld the level of excellence of the organization and of his own career.
But that was just the wishful thinking of a naive and romantic kid at heart. A romantic who was an 8-year-old second grader at Irving Elementary School in Alton, IL when the Cardinals won the World Series in 1982. A victory that ended with Bruce Sutter jumping into the waiting arms of his catcher, Darrell Porter. The next day, our school held our own “victory parade” and each class got a moment of freedom during which we paraded through the historic surrounding neighborhood high above the Great River Road.
In my jumbled memory, I remember the day as being cold and rainy outside with wet leaves under our feet in the late fall. But we didn’t care how cold it was outside; we carried the warm glow of victory in our hearts and “romantic dreams in our heads.” We did not really understand what it all meant, if anything, but we had a sense that all was right and true in the world. We held onto innocence, but we also held an idea of the promise of having all the time in the world before us. But what we didn’t understand is something the modern American poet Bruce Springsteen wrote in his song The Promise:
When the promise is broken you go on living
But it steals something from down in your soul
Like when the truth is spoken and it don’t make no difference
Something in your heart goes cold
When you consider the following quote from Albert from a 2009 interview, it is an example of promises being broken and turning your heart cold. “Do I want to be in St. Louis forever? Of course. People from other teams want to play in St. Louis, and they’re jealous that we’re in St. Louis because the fans are unbelievable. So why would you want to leave a place like St. Louis to go somewhere else and make $3 million or $4 more million a year? It’s not about the money. I already got my money. It’s about winning, and that’s it.” In the end, that is exactly what he left St. Louis for, a few more million dollars a year.
It’s about the winning? What other organization in MLB has had the success the Cardinals have had since 2000? 3 trips to the World Series including 2 victories. Postseason trips 8 of those 12 years including 4 losses in the championship series.
After signing with the Angels, Pujols was quoted as saying that it was about the commitment of the Angels and not about the money. Apparently, Albert didn’t care for the “rough” treatment he received from Cardinal management including Bill Dewitt who was somewhat hesitant to offer a 10 year deal to a 32-year-old player which would have hamstrung the organization for years. I am going to go out on a limb and say it was probably about the money.
I have heard countless fans and pundits and “experts” weigh in and say that modern sports is just a business and Pujols made a business decision. They say this is just the way it is now. But it doesn’t have to be to that way. Just ask Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn, Barry Larkin, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera or Chipper Jones. They all played for a single team their entire careers in the modern era. They all made conscious decisions to remain with the same team and the same fan base their entire careers. Sometimes, the call of home, the sound of peace and silence, is louder than the frantic din of the all mighty dollar.
In 1968, Simon and Garfunkel released their signature song, Mrs. Robinson. The song, originally titled Mrs. Roosevelt as an ode to Eleanor Roosevelt, shot to #1 on the record charts and later won them a Grammy. An earlier version was released the prior year as part of the classic movie, The Graduate. In the song, Paul Simon wrote the lyrics:
Where have you gone Joe Dimaggio
Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you
What’s that you say Mrs. Robinson
Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away, hey hey hey
Apparently, Joe Dimaggio, who never suffered from a great sense of humor or irony, did not care for the lyrics or the song. Dimaggio told many friends, “Damn it, I didn’t go anywhere, I’m right here.” Paul Simon meant the lyrics as a tribute to the baseball legend and what he represented to so many. Simon later explained to Dimaggio himself at a restaurant that “the line was meant as a sincere tribute to his unpretentious heroic stature, in a time when popular culture magnifies and distorts how we perceive our heroes.”
When Dimaggio passed away in 1999, Simon wrote the following in an obituary in the New York Times: “In the 50’s and 60’s, it was fashionable to refer to baseball as a metaphor for America, and DiMaggio represented the values of that America: excellence and fulfillment of duty (he often played in pain), combined with a grace that implied a purity of spirit, an off-the-field dignity and a jealously guarded private life. It was said that he still grieved for his former wife, Marilyn Monroe, and sent fresh flowers to her grave every week. Yet as a man who married one of America’s most famous and famously neurotic women, he never spoke of her in public or in print. He understood the power of silence. ”
As a longtime St.Louis Cardinal fan, left bereft at the leaving of slugger Albert Pujols, I would like to revise Simon’s lyrics to fit the situation by writing, Where have you gone Albert Pujols/Our Cardinal nation turns its lonely eyes to you/What’s that you say Mr. Dewitt/King Albert has left and gone to LA? Hey hey hey…..
In August of 1977, after the passing of Elvis Presley, noted rock critic Lester Bangs wrote a great essay for the Village Voice in which he lamented the solitude that the singer lived in as well as the solitude of all music listeners who no longer could, or would, en masse follow any one singer or group. Where once millions of fans had followed Elvis’ music, Bangs imagines a world where everyone listens to their own favorite artists with little or no connection to other fans or other music styles. In one of the greatest, most prescient lines of popular, social criticism ever written, Bangs wrote, “But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So, I won’t bother saying goodbye to Elvis. I will say goodbye to you.”
The passion, the memories and the thrills started with my grandparents and were handled down to my parents and down to me and my two bothers, and now in turn, they are being passed down to our kids. What has been handed down from generation to generation is an appreciation for excellence and a high standard of character. So, as a life long, multi generational fan of the second most successful MLB organization, I can say that we Cardinal fans have stuck through the good times and bad times over the course of the club’s long and storied past. I can say that we appreciate Albert for what he did while he played here and for being a part of 2 World Series Champion teams and several other pennant contenders. But we also appreciate the efforts of all the players that helped win those games and championships. We appreciate players like the inimitable Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith, and Willie McGee and countless others who come back time after time for opening day ceremonies, post season pre game festivities, and appearances in the broadcast booths. And they are treated as baseball royalty and as St. Louis royalty.
They are treated as such not simply because they played and won games from our youth and our adulthood, but because they represent a link to the past, the collective past of them and us. A link to where we came from, where we are today and where we are going and all the miles in between. Through good times and bad, we’ve been here. Season in and season out, we have risen and fallen with the Cardinals. Just as the players carry a burning desire to win and play the game right, our hopes and desires are carried deep within and hold a special place in our heart. And we continue to stand ready, waiting for the next Lou or Ozzie or Stan or Yadi to come to the plate and bring home another championship.
We follow the fortunes and failures of the collective team, not of a single player. And so Albert, instead of saying goodbye to our former selves, the promises we made, and all the memories and hopes and desires we each carry every day. Instead of saying goodbye to all that is right and true about this town and this incredible baseball organization, we will say thanks for the memories, wish you well and say goodbye to you.
We are alive. We will be here and waiting for the start of a new season. We may grow older with each passing season and our hearts may run a little cold from time to time as our heroes let us down and as tragedies fall upon us and those we love. But, with each passing season, we will hold onto another of Springsteen’s lyrics from a different song, No Surrender:
Now young faces grow sad and old and hearts of fire grow cold
We swore blood brothers against the wind
Now I’m ready to grow young again.
And so with the dawning of a new season, we will watch and listen to the games. We will once again go to Busch Stadium and share the experience with our family and friends. We will pass on the legacy and the memories to our kids just like those before have done. We will root on for our beloved Cardinals just as we secretly root on for the kids within ourselves that we used to be. And we will be ready to grow young again, even for a brief time.
There’s a new day coming. Tomorrow there will be sunshine and all this darkness past
– In September 1960, long time Red Sox great Ted “The Splendid Splinter” Williams retired from baseball with a .334 batting average and the last to hit the baseball immortal .400. Shortly thereafter, author and critic John Updike, a life long Red Sox fan, wrote one of the greatest baseball essays ever in Hub Fans Bid The Kid Adieu. You can read his words here by clicking on the link below.
– I will leave the last word with one of Albert’s former teammates. Within weeks of Albert signing with the Angels, Skip Schumaker, who has always gladly done what has been asked of him including making the switch from outfield to second base, resigned with the Cardinals. In what I can only imagine as somewhat of a veiled rebuff against Albert, he was quoted by the St.Louis Dispatch as saying, “There’s always interest in the back of your mind about what else may be out there, but my agent knew where I wanted to be. This is where I’m comfortable. It’s pretty much a slam dunk for me. This is all I know. It was an easy call. Here, I know what I’m getting into. If you go to a new team, you don’t know. The majority of a really good team is coming back. These are good guys to play with. They’re good people. That’s something that’s very important within a long season.”)