Connected To The Game

added 4/13/2001 by John Lauck

The Astros play their first series of the year in St. Louis starting Friday night. Trips into the Gateway City always evoke strong emotions in me. In the mid-1980s, I lived in Champaign, Illinois, which was then, and still is, a hotbed of Cardinals' baseball. I followed the Astros, of course, as best I could in those years, tweaking my radio constantly to pick up the station in San Antonio that carried Houston's games. But when that failed, most of the opposition's stations were within fairly easy range, too. Whether it was from WDWS in Champaign or from the Cardinals' flagship station itself, KMOX in St. Louis, the Cards-Astros battles were always close at hand. (So were the often-testy encounters between the Astros and the Reds, brought to us then as they still are today on WLW by the smooth-voiced Marty Brennaman and his not-so-smooth-voiced compadre, Joe Nuxhall, a man who is, for good and ill, Cincinnati's answer to Milo Hamilton in more ways than I can count.) But it is the legacy of Cardinals' baseball that I remember most clearly from those years. St. Louis had outstanding World Series clubs in 1985 and 1987, teams built in the old style--around pitching, speed, and defense. Astros fan or not, it was fun to watch them play, whether it was Willie McGee legging out a double, Tommy Herr and Ozzie Smith turning out a double play, Jack Clark whacking one out of Busch Stadium when that was well-nigh impossible to do, or Danny Cox, John Tudor, and Joaquin Andujar shutting down the opposition. Those men knew how to play the game and, like him or not, Whitey Herzog knew how to get the most of a team that succeeded in those years despite not having the best physical talent in the NL.

There is also the Cardinals' legacy from an even earlier time, 1967 and 1968, the value of which it is hard for me to put into words. Suffice it for me to say that I'm as thankful as I can be that I and my classmates in elementary school were blessed with a teacher named Elizabeth Powell who happened to be a great baseball fan. She therefore thought it was the most correct thing in the world to let her young boys quit playing softball and tune in their transistor radios to the real thing, Harry Caray's radio call of the 1967 Series between the Cardinals and her beloved Boston Red Sox, or the next year to bring a television set into the classroom to catch every moment of the Cardinals' clash with the Detroit Tigers. My classmates laughed at me when the Tigers got down in that latter Series 3 games to 1 and I said the Tigers would come back and win it, but I called it, friends; I called it.

Even more important than practicing the predictive skills that would later make me a legend in Las Vegas, I remember the games. Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton outdueling Jim Lonborg's and Jose Santiago's club in '67, a Series that nevertheless cemented the greatness of Mrs. Powell's favorite player, Carl Yaztremski; and in '68, pot-bellied Mickey Lollich stealing thunder from the Tigers' Denny McLain (who had won 31 games that year) by winning three games of his own in the Series. But looking back on the experience, I also know now that I received in those years from Mrs. Powell and my classmates some of my earliest and most profound lessons in generosity, a trait that sometimes seems to be in mighty short supply, but is actually in more of us than you might suspect. She was a sly one, that Mrs. Powell was. Most good teachers are.

Mrs. Powell was also opening our eyes, I think, to a concept that is not thought of today as much as it used to be, but one that remains valuable. That concept is tradition, the passing down of culture from one generation to the next. Anybody can see the effects of tradition, of course, simply by looking at the faded business signs embedded in the facades of the buildings that line our downtown streets, but our strongest, though perhaps unconscious, impressions of tradition come from the games we play as children and support as adults. No American sport, as far as I am concerned, has as rich a tradition as baseball does. When we think of baseball tradition, we inevitably think of the Yankees or of the Dodgers, and justly so. But beyond those two teams, no other franchise has as deep and as satisfying a baseball tradition as the Cardinals do. Before the Dodgers and the Giants moved to California in 1958, St. Louis was the only team in Major League Baseball west of the Mississippi River, and they bore that distinction with a great deal of pride, particularly in the years during and just after the second world war. If you were a boy or girl growing up in the 1930s and 40s, and you didn't live in Boston or New York, chances were your introduction to big-league baseball came from listening to a Cardinals' game. Houston baseball fans were especially connected to the Cardinals through the longtime association of St. Louis with the Houston Buffaloes, a Cardinals' farm club.

Friday's Astros-Cardinals series opener marks the beginning of the fortieth year of competition between these two franchises. Because of the organizational history between the two clubs, it's always a particular pleasure to see Houston whip St. Louis as many times as possible. Each victory seems to me to deepen the tradition of Astros' baseball--a tradition we often think we don't have yet, but we do. Looking just at the immediate moment, it's important, of course, that Kent Bottenfield and Scott Elarton rebound from less-than-impressive performances in their last starts, and that Jose Lima keep his good work going. But whenever I listen to or watch a game between Houston and St. Louis, there's always a feeling of happiness stirring within me that outlasts the present three hours of activity on the field. That feeling doesn't come when I watch the Braves or the Cubs, only St. Louis and Houston. When I watch these two teams play, I am connected once again not only to a game I love, but also to the people who first helped me love it.

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