Last week, Danny Knobler of CBSsports.com wrote a great article about the St. Louis Cardinals and their decision process for letting Albert Pujols sign elsewhere while eventually re-signing Yadier Molina and how that was the right move for the future of the franchise. I have no dispute with any part of the article, so there’s no need to go through it here—but I highly recommend reading it if you’re a fan of the Cardinals, interested in how to build and maintain a culture of winning, or just love the business of baseball in general.
But on a personal note, the piece struck a chord with me and somewhat related decision I had to make a few years back.
In 2009, Busch Stadium hosted the All Star Game. It was the first time the Midsummer Classic was held in St. Louis in 40+ years, and anticipation was high. The once-in-a-lifetime aspect of the festivities was the catalyst for us to get partial season tickets, knowing that was our best shot at securing tickets for the All Star festivities as well. We were correct; as soon as they were available, we purchased tickets to the game, the Home Run Derby, the Fan Fest, all of it. As All Star Weekend drew near, I was surprised with one more All Star-centric proposition: as an early birthday present, I could select an All Star batting practice jersey for my gift. The jerseys were red, of course, with the great All Star logo featuring the Gateway Arch, and just a hint of the powder blue beloved by so many Cards fans—including myself. Though they weren’t the only players selected from that ‘09 team to represent the Cardinals on the National League squad, for me there were really only two choices: Pujols or Molina.
I have written about this kind of decision before; in fact, it was earlier in 2009. But that was just off-the-cuff thinking out loud, before I was faced with actually making the decision. And it was one I had a LOT of trouble making. At that time, Pujols was still peaking as the best hitter in the game. His importance to the Cardinals’ lineup was never higher, especially since former fellow “MV3” members Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen were now with other teams. Based on that and the words from his own mouth, it seemed unfathomable that Pujols would ever wear a different uniform. On the flipside, Molina was quickly coming into his own as an elite player. His defense was never in question, but his light offensive numbers and clunky base running usually relegated him to the bottom of the order. Then, in 2008, he topped a .300 batting average and 50 RBI for the first time. He was getting on base much more often and striking out very little. His importance to the franchise was high before, but if his offense kept coming around he too would be harder and harder for the Cardinals to let walk. It was a decision I put off until the very last second; even as we pulled up to the Cardinals Team Store I was still mentally flipping the coin. On the one hand, the 2009 All Star Game would be an event that could never be taken away from either player regardless of whether they left for free agency someday. On the other, I couldn’t imagine wearing any jersey or shirt of a former Cardinal while he was playing for a different team. You know…root for the name on the front, not the one on the back…
And then I made the decision.
To this day, the jersey I chose still hangs in my closet—which is probably where it will stay, at least until Pujols’ contract with the Angels expires. The Cardinals have much better foresight than I do.
Good morning! My Home Run Derby experience was certainly one I will never forget. We got downtown early, and the atmosphere in St. Louis was one I’ve rarely experienced in my 31+ years on this earth. We tailgated about a block south of Busch Stadium with some of our left field bleacher friends, and at the other side of the lot was one of the greatest vehicles I’ve ever seen: a hot rod with beer kegs on the back! Now THAT’S how you show up to a party!
Once in the stadium, the anticipation immediately cranked up a notch or two. I go to 40 or so ballgames at Busch Stadium every year, but I’ve never seen a crowd like this. I would say it was about 70% Cardinals fans (or, at least, Cardinals gear) and 30% other teams’ fans. Which I thought was a pretty decent ratio. I was glad to see so many Cards fans were able to attend the event; it’s been a long time coming for the city and the franchise. But seeing so many “other” fans was really a treat. When the Chicago Cubs are in town the crowd can be as much as 40% Cubs fans, and that’s a great thing for the rivalry and the game. But having groups of Blue Jays fans, Rays fans, Angels fans…it truly was the North American Nation of Baseball last night.
We walked into the stadium near third base, but when we made our way around to the outfield area the mood cranked up to a near frenzy. I’ve never seen so many people in the outfield concourse at Busch, and the crowd gathered outside the fence in left field (which is only about 30 yards away from the last row of seats) absolutely blew me away.
Our seats were in the right field bleachers, but we used our influence with the wonderful staff at Busch to go into the left field seats where our season tickets are and visit with our friends. The great part is, one friend (Thanks, Carrie!) sits in the front row along the wall in left-center. So we had a front row seat for batting practice before the Derby. It was really cool to get to see the AL All Stars hanging out with their kids and joking around with each other. And there’s something really special about seeing guys that are supposed to be enemies on the field being able to unite for an event like this. It’s a good reminder that, at the end of the day, you can take all the money and fame and controversy away and they’re all just Big Kids playing the game that they love.
The first big highlight was actually for my girlfriend Sarah, who is originally from the South Side of Chicago and is a White Sox fan. While we were in the front row in left-center, the White Sox lone All Star representative (and St. Louis-area native) Mark Buehrle was within earshot so Sarah was cheering him and yelling his name. He turned around and, seeing her Sox gear, gave her a tip of the cap. A few minutes later, a ball landed near us on the field. Buehrle was the closest player, so he walked back to retrieve the ball as it came to rest right next to the bullpen. Buehrle picked up the ball, pointed to Sarah, and tossed it to her. As you can imagine, this made her night. If we’re not able to catch him today, I told her I’d take her to SoxFest this winter so she can get him to autograph the ball.
Nelson Cruz of the Texas Rangers put on an absolute show in the Derby. Home runs at Busch have NOT been hit to the places he was hitting them last night. They just haven’t. And this guy just turned 29? Rangers fans should have something really special to watch for a few years. Prince Fielder of the Brewers hit similar bombs in the second and final rounds. He didn’t hit any to me, but a couple were long enough. The 503-footer would have fallen in my lap had it been one section closer to the foul pole. And I really feel bad for Brandon Inge. That poor guy does not have good luck in big situations at Busch Stadium. In 2006, he struck out for the final out of the Cardinals’ World Series victory. Last night, he put up a zero in the Home Run Derby. Inge is a fine player and has had a good career, but I have a feeling St. Louis won’t make his list of great memories.
And what can be said about Albert Pujols that hasn’t already been said? He didn’t win the Home Run Derby, but he provided the some of the drama and excitement that we in St. Louis have come to expect–and love–from El Hombre. He launched a bomb to force a “swing-off” with Carlos Pena and Joe Mauer, and then another in the “swing-off” clinched his spot in the second round. Both dingers elicited responses from the crowd that made it sound like he’d just hit a walk-off homer to clinch the division title. It was awesome.
Honestly, some parts of the evening were a little slow. I suppose that’s a testament to the folks that broadcast the event, because every Home Run Derby I’ve watched on TV has seemed like almost non-stop excitement. And there’s no way we could have expected another clinic like the one Josh Hamilton put on last year at Yankee Stadium. But I think something more profound took place in those slow periods, too, at least in my mind. I was reminded that the “Steroid Era” may be coming to a close. Sure, some boneheads will continue to use PED’s, and hopefully they will be caught. But think about it…only one homer went 500 feet. Not long ago, that might have been one of the shorter distances in the competition. Maybe the “long” homers we saw from Fielder, Cruz, and Pujols will help us (and maybe the players thinking of using PED’s, too) remember that it’s OK to use only your talent and hard work to become a great hitter, and even a Home Run Derby hero.