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And a little dog shall lead them

December 23, 2011

Nearly a year ago, during the first tense round of negotiations between the Cardinals and the Pujols/Lozano lobby, I began work on a post addressing the question of whether Albert Pujols or Stan Musial would be known to history as the greatest Cardinal ever. The answer, I decided, had to be Musial— regardless of whether Albert re-upped or not, and not because of their respective numbers on the field, but because (and it was my sadness over this realization that finally led me to abandon the post in progress) the realities of today’s game of baseball simply wouldn’t allow any other verdict.

Musial and Pujols played the same game with the same tools, but in entirely different businesses. I like to think that Musial wouldn’t have left St. Louis to play for more money in a glossy faraway city, but in the reserve-clause, pre-Curt-Flood era, when team coffers weren’t swelled by enormous television contracts and agents’ jockeying wasn’t a sport unto itself, he never had to wrestle with the temptation. I love reminding people that Musial gave back a portion of his salary after a season in which he felt he’d underperformed, but we all know the Players’ Association would never permit such a move today. Baseball has never lacked for egotists, sleazeballs, and robber barons, but in today’s hyper-capitalistic game, humility and loyalty—at least, the kinds that have dollar figures attached to them—have grown as rare and quaint as back-to-back doubleheaders. I hope we’ll see a few more franchise players, a few more men who represent the “two decades of sustained excellence and complete decency as a human being” with which Bob Costas so beautifully credited Musial, during my lifetime as a baseball fan, but I worry (don’t we all?) that the era of enduring heroes has passed.

Pujols himself, in 2010, asked the media and the St. Louis fans to ease up on calling him “El Hombre,” out of respect for Musial. There was only one “man” in Cardinal Nation, he said.

He tried to warn us.

In the weeks since Pujols left my real hometown for my adopted hometown, I’ve mostly calloused myself to the weirdness of seeing him in the wrong place and the wrong shade of red, but the sting of grief (yes, grief; it isn’t reserved for deaths and disasters, and there’s plenty to go around) resurfaces at expected and unforeseen moments. The other night, during a recap of the 2011 postseason on MLB Network, I realized that while watching Albert launch missiles out of Rangers Ballpark made me wistful, it was watching him laugh, grin, cheer, and celebrate with his teammates that broke my heart, in a way that’s familiar to anyone who’s ever self-flagellated over a fractured relationship with the help of home movies: Look—we really were happy. See—you weren’t faking. It was good, and it was genuine, and it still didn’t last.

This is the challenge, then: To stay loyal to a game whose shining stars may or may not be loyal to us; to learn to love the memories and the miracles not despite, but because of, their evanescence; to understand that the hometown heroes we attach ourselves to are—as a former pastor used to say of the babies he baptized—ours to love, but not to keep.

And as we coat ourselves in the emotional Teflon of stats and sabermetrics, budgets and bean-counting, it’s all the more important for us to hold close, however we can, the champions whose likes we may not see again.

Which leads me to introduce you to the newest member of my Cardinal-loving family: a small-of-stature, long-on-charisma golden retriever/Welsh corgi/David Eckstein(?) mix who arrived to Julie’s veterinary hospital several weeks ago, homeless, bruised from a run-in with a car, and with no earthly attachments except for the chewed-off rope around his neck. After a lot of phone calls and e-mails, a week to heal, and a whirlwind of paperwork and Petco trips, he donned his new Cardinals collar and made the “happy flight” from Orange County to St. Louis to live with my parents. The little guy has adapted to his new environment with Berkmanesque grace and good humor; he’s athletic, kindhearted, and ebullient, and he’ll spend the rest of his life in a place where he’ll be loved unreservedly, unselfishly, and unswervingly in exchange for his loyalty.

My mother gave him his new name.

Stanley.

 

Happy holidays to all, and to all a good night.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. paperlions permalink
    January 14, 2012 12:52 pm

    Beautiful post, I had happened on your blog once before, but followed it over today form your link on HBT. Looks like I’ll have to book mark it and stop by more often….especially if you regularly weave stories of dogs into the posts. Hope Stanley is doing well.

    • January 14, 2012 1:06 pm

      What a great comment, paperlions—thanks so much. I’ve given you dozens of thumbs-ups on HBT and now I’m especially glad to have done so! (Oh, and Stanley is the happiest, luckiest, shiniest, waggiest, tummy-scratchedest dog that ever set paw in the Midwest. When not taking walks or being clicker-trained, he spends a great deal of his time lying upside-down, head lolling and legs in the air, dreaming of spring training.)

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