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St. Louis' baseball legacy unmatched

St. Louis' baseball legacy unmatched

ST. LOUIS -- Ozzie Smith has not played baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals since 1996, but when he walked onto the lush green grass at Busch Stadium on Sunday, it was almost as if he'd never left.

There were no backflips, no glove antics at shortstop this time. He was managing the U.S. Team in the XM All-Star Futures Game, but he remains as much a part of Cardinals baseball as anyone.

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"This is the first time I've been in uniform on the field in this new stadium," Smith said, pushing back his red Cardinals cap and revealing hints of gray. "It's a wonderful feeling."

The face of the Cardinals has been turned over to multitalented first baseman Albert Pujols now, just as the Wizard owned that role for his 15 years in the best baseball town in America.

Best baseball town?

Pardon my prejudice, but it's St. Louis -- hands down. Oh, there are other cities that might claim to be the best sports town, but when it comes to pure baseball, none can top St. Louis.

It's Middle America, Major League Baseball at its best.

Millions of viewers, in case they don't know already, will get a glimpse of what I'm talking about when they tune into the 80th All-Star Game on Tuesday night. I'm certain that Joe Buck, who grew up here, and Tim McCarver, whose best years as a player were with the Cardinals, will make sure to bring home my opinion during FOX's telecast.

"There's always debate," Ozzie said. "But I've traveled all around. When you have loyal fans like the Cubs have and loyal fans like Boston and New York -- there are great fans everywhere. There may be better sports cities, but when it comes to baseball, that's what this town is all about."

Why is baseball so special in St. Louis?

"Because it's passed down from generation to generation -- tickets are passed down from generation to generation," Smith said. "The people here are from the land. They understand the work ethic. As long as guys are giving them the effort every day -- they know we're not going to win every year -- they're happy and satisfied."

Smith, inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame in 2002, was traded to the Cardinals after the 1981 season by the San Diego Padres, with whom he spent his first four seasons. Smith arrived just in time to help St. Louis win the National League pennant and down Milwaukee in the 1982 World Series.

Smith had heard about the passion that Cardinals fans have for their sport, but he said it was almost an awakening when he finally put on the St. Louis uniform.

"I had a pretty good idea because there's so much history here," Smith said. "I knew I was coming to an organization that had a history of great players. Living up to that mantra is something I thought about a lot."

Cardinals history, the proud tradition and warmth generated by St. Louis fans -- that sea of red -- is seldom seen in other cities. I've been reporting Major League Baseball for more than 50 years, and nothing is more exciting -- more challenging -- than coming here, whether it's a World Series -- the Cardinals have won 10 -- a regular-season battle or an All-Star Game.

My introduction to the Cardinals came when I was a youngster and would sit in my dad's car, listening on the radio to games on KMOX.

On the radio at the time, the Cardinals were what the Atlanta Braves became on cable TV.

Some players have come to St. Louis for less money, and others have remained after turning down better offers elsewhere.

"You have to understand why," said Smith. "If you spend any time at all in this place, you'll know that you don't have to play under the same pressure, the same spotlight you do on either coast -- New York or Los Angeles. It's a comfort zone.

"This allows a guy to go out and do what he is able to do without all the pressure. There's always pressure to perform, but it's not to the extent it is in New York or Los Angeles. I think the expectation level in those places is a lot greater."

Smith, who played in 15 All-Star Games, batted .231 in his four seasons with the Padres. He hit .272 in 15 seasons with the Cardinals.

"I came here because of my defensive prowess," Smith said. "I was fortunate enough to come to an organization where I was able to remain at the big league level and learn the art of hitting. Most times, guys are sent down to the Minor Leagues, and unfortunately, if they go down there and don't do well, they're forgotten."

Cardinals legends, most of whom are in the Hall of Fame, span generations -- Rogers Hornsby, Joe Medwick, Dizzy Dean, Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Red Schoendienst, Lou Brock, et al.

It is this rich heritage that, as Smith said, has passed the passion for Cardinals baseball down from generation to generation and cemented a legacy for baseball that is so unique.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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