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Here stands baseball's perfect warrior. Here stands baseball's perfect knight.
The above phrase is etched into the stone base of the statue of one Stanislaw Franciszek Musial, known here in St. Louis simply as Stan the Man. The statue stands guard outside of the newest Busch Stadium here, and serves as yet another reminder of the Cardinals' impossible good fortune over the last century. For a Cubs fan in exile like me, trapped in St. Louis, this serves as yet another reminder of 100-plus years of suffering . . .
Bear with me while I take a look at just what made this man special. Let's start - but not end - with the statistics.
The numbers truly are unbelievable, almost gaudy. Even by today's inflated standards, they are outstanding. And they stand among the greatest that this game has ever seen:
* 24 All Star Games
* 3 MVP awards
* Lifetime .331 batting average
* 7 batting titles
* 3,630 hits
* 475 home runs
* 16 consecutive seasons batting over .300
* 3 World Series championships
* First ballot Hall of Famer, 1968 (93.2% of the necessary votes)
He's considered one of the game's most overlooked players, hardly ever spoken about in the same breath as a Ruth, Gehrig, Mays, Aaron, DiMaggio or Williams. But Stan Musial was the real deal, make no mistake.
Stan Musial broke into the major leagues in 1941, collecting 20 hits in the final 12 games of that season. He went on to have one of the greatest, most statistically solid careers in baseball history, and played every one of his games wearing one uniform: that of the St. Louis Cardinals. He was praised by teammates and competitors alike, lauded by the press, and loved by fans.
Musial passed away at his home near St. Louis on January 19th of this year. There has been a lot of praise and sorrow and eulogizing going on in St. Louis ever since. A lot of people compliment his talent, his preparation, his competitive fire. Everyone seems to have a Musial story. But here's the funny thing about Musial: despite his accomplishments on the field, Stan Musial led an even more exemplary life off the field.
No scandal ever found him. He married his first true love and stayed married to her for 71 years until her passing. He attended Mass weekly. He was a loving father and a doting grandfather. There were no arrests, or children born out of wedlock, or mistresses. He served his country admirably in World War II. Local legend has it that he never turned down a fan who sought an autograph. He mentored young players in the Cardinal organization at countless spring trainings. He became as much a fixture on Cardinals Opening Day as the Budweiser Clydesdales. And he called St. Louis his home, even after retiring from the game almost 50 years ago. He was indeed a beloved civic icon, and deservedly so.
In 2011, President Obama awarded Musial the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor that can be bestowed upon a United States citizen. As an aside, it's wonderful that it occurred while Musial was still alive. In his speech, Obama said Musial was "an icon untarnished, a pillar of the community, a gentleman you'd want your kids to emulate."
In contrast to the stars rejected for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame around the same time of Musial's death, the ideals that he represented seem in desperately short supply these days.
Let's be honest: This was the year that the Baseball Writers of America had been both dreading and drooling over. This was the year that the Steroids Era* was going to be on the ballot. This was the year the writers were going to make their voices heard.
Many writers were making their case for the juicers, arguing that the "everybody-did-it" excuse was a legitimate defense. Some added the "Ty Cobb was a huge racist" argument to the debate. On the other hand were the purists, a sanctimonious lot who take their job guarding entry to the Hall very seriously. They are determined to weed out the drug cheats and scoundrels. By their standards, anyone who took a crap in a major league clubhouse during the Steroids Era* most likely absorbed steroids through contact with the toilet seat and must be excluded from HoF voting.
This is the "guilt-by-association" argument, and it seems to work as well as anything else they have on the other side. But make no mistake: This was THE YEAR.
So what happened? Some of the best players of the last 20 years were denied admittance to The Hall. Some of them are the faces of the Era*. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa all found out that their numbers don't mean a goddamn thing. Mark McGwire found this out a few years back. They all found out that you cannot stand on your numbers alone, not anymore. How you got your numbers is just as important if you want to be enshrined among the game's greats.
Now, the casual fan can sit back and say that the writers got it right, or that they got it wrong, but I think that the writers know a helluva lot more about what those players did than the casual fan. Here's another thing those writers know: The Steroids Era* will never end. It will never end as long as athletes and trainers seek shortcuts to success and shortcuts to greatness. It will never end because the serums and juices, the Creams and the Clears, will stay years ahead of the testing that seeks to eliminate them. And let's go right to the bottom line: as long as there are mountains of money to be made by the chemists and the players they supply, as well as their agents, Major League Baseball is chasing its tail.
But I digress . . .
I was talking about Musial, wasn't I?
In Musial, baseball had found a quiet, hard-working kid from a quiet, hard-working Pennsylvania town. This kid would become one of the game's all-time greats due to his natural talent, his passion for the game, and his unorthodox, corkscrew swing.
In an era like we saw the last 20 years, Musial stands out more than ever as something different. In this era of giant egos and giant contracts, player agents and personal appearance fees, Musial was a living legend, and he was in our midst the whole time.
Dan Sheahan is a Cubs fan in exile and the newest member of the Beachwood Sports team. He welcomes your comments.
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