As the St. Louis Cardinals are twenty games over .500 with a magic number of 26 to clinch the division (and a real chance at the World Series), I thought I'd let everyone in on the secret to our success.
Some might think it's starting pitching, and that's part of it; Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, and Joel Piniero are statistically as good as any threesome in baseball. Some might think it's the end of July trades for Matt Holliday, Mark DeRosa, and Julio Lugo, and that's part of it; the team has been on something like a 23-9 tear since acquiring these guys. Some might even think it's the recent acquisition of John Smoltz, and that's part of it; after setting a club record for consecutive strikeouts in his first game in San Diego and his second quality start last night, indeed the Cardinals may have a true fifth starter.
But the key to everything is Albert. Pujols. El Hombre. The Mang.
The beauty of Cardinal baseball – certainly this year as well as historically – is that the Redbirds and their fans usually don't have to put up with the egos and shenanigans of players whose personal lives and contracts ridiculously distract from their contributions. From old-time Cardinal greats like Stan Musial to future Hall of Famers like Pujols, by and large, the Cardinals as an organization have usually attracted and employed baseball players rather than baseball celebrities.
There's a big difference between the two. Can anyone imagine Alex Rodriquez in a Cardinals uniform? Manny Ramirez? Milton Bradley (whose name I still giggle at when I think of the board games of my youth)? No way.
But here's the thing: even if the Cardinals organization temporarily lost their minds, came up with the money, and went after one or more of these guys (or guys like them), Albert is the great perspective bringer. Statistically as well as personally, Albert is the best player in the game – he is the ceiling, the bar, the standard – both, on and off the field. And yet, because of his spirit and humility (which are so much a result of his Christianity), he is a leader – the leader – for the ball club, and the one from whom his teammates naturally take their cues (and remember their places). As a result, the Cardinals are a team, not a show.
Growing up 100 miles north of St. Louis, I was a Cardinals fan from the beginning. Now, living in this city and attending more than one game a summer, I'm daily amazed at how much St. Louisians love their baseball…and how much of what they love has everything to do with who Albert is. There is no one – no one! – in this city who does not speak well of Albert on or off the field, and it feels like a very "once in a lifetime" chance to get to see him do his thing day in, day out.
Die-hard St. Louis fans don't need or want east coast glitz; we won't tolerate west coast attitudes. St. Louis is and has always been about baseball – the game – and Cardinal players like Musial and Pujols who have and continue to represent all that is right and good about it. This is not idol worship – neither Musial or Pujols have ever demanded that; rather, it is about enjoying the goodness of God to others, and rejoicing in the fact that we, by God's grace as well, happen to be here to experience it firsthand.
"The one constant through
all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of
steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased
again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a
part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and what
could be again." – James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams