In case you haven't noticed, the St. Louis Cardinals rarely are less than good during a given season, and here's why: the fans, the legends, the ballpark, the city and the Clydesdales. Everything involved with this franchise is so into baseball that you wonder if those featuring a redbird on their uniform bow before every home game at the statue of Stan Musial.
This much is certain: St. Louis players cherish all of those Cards-generated things, and I didn't even mention that nobody in National League history has more World Series championships than the Redbirds' 11.
Inspiring stuff, right?
"Well, the first day I showed up to Spring Training after I joined the Cardinals this year, you've got Ozzie Smith out there," said second baseman Mark Ellis, recalling how he felt like a wide-eyed youngster instead of a veteran heading into his 12th season in the Major Leagues. "Being a middle infielder and watching Ozzie Smith play shortstop when I was growing up, that was real special for me. That's because he always was one of my guys."
Not only did Ellis meet Smith, he saw Smith evolve into the 59-year-old version of The Wizard without the flip.
"He actually was taking ground balls out there, teaching us and just being one of the guys, really," said Ellis, still glowing from the memory. "It was fun being out there with Ozzie Smith, and the Cardinals also bring a whole bunch of other players back."
Ever hear of Bob Gibson? With Ellis and others watching in awe, Gibson continued his habit of visiting the Cardinals' spring camp with guys named Lou Brock, Bruce Sutter and Willie McGee. There also was Jim Edmonds, known as "Jimmy Baseball" among Cards fans long before Johnny Manziel became "Johnny Football." Even legendary St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog was around, along with Red Schoendienst, the franchise's most beloved living icon.
Schoendienst was a perennial All-Star player for the Cardinals, and he later managed the team to a World Series championship. More impressive, he hasn't stopped putting on his St. Louis uniform, cap and cleats for pregame workouts at home games, and he is 91 years young.
"Lou Brock. Ozzie Smith. Red Schoendienst. It's just so tough to say which one of those guys is more inspiring than the other, because they're all so great," said right fielder Allen Craig, who started his Major League career with the Cards at the start of the 2010 season. "The list is so long, and it's such a treat to know that they are all there and that they all are so willing to talk to us about their different experiences."
Musial once was the legend among former St. Louis greats, because long after his Hall of Fame career ended during the early 1960s, he was a fixture at Busch Stadium on game days. Musial died before last season, but his spirit lives on.
I'm sure those in the Cub Nation say the same of the late Ron Santo, the Hall of Fame third baseman who later became bigger than life for their team as a radio announcer. The Cubs built a statue of Santo in Wrigleyville to join those of his former teammates, Ernie Banks and Billy Williams, and incomparable Cubs broadcasters Harry Caray and Jack Brickhouse.
It's tough to beat Cubs fans. Despite their team not capturing a pennant since World War II or a championship since before World War I, they remain visible and vibrant. The same goes for followers of the Yankees, Red Sox, Giants and Dodgers, but for different reasons, of course.
Elsewhere, Wisconsin folks hug the Brewers like crazy, and nobody ever would question the loyalty of Tigers fans. Then there is Cincinnati, where its citizens are born with "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in their blood. They have a Fourth of July-style parade each Opening Day in celebration of the Reds' status as baseball's first professional team.
With apologies to Cincinnati, Detroit and all of the rest, there is no baseball town like St. Louis, and it isn't even close these days. To re-emphasize something I just typed, we're talking about the Cardinals playing in a "town" as opposed to a "metropolis" such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York or Boston, where you would expect teams in those places to rank among this season's top six Major Leagues franchises in overall attendance. Those metropolises do bring huge numbers of fans to the ballpark, but so does that town. Big time.
Only the Dodgers' home average of 46,563 fans per game is more than the Cardinals' 42,991. And while the Giants are the only Major League team to have played before capacity home crowds all season, the Cards are second by operating at 98 percent capacity.
If that isn't impressive enough for the small-market Cardinals, they've drawn more than three million people for 15 out of the last 16 seasons, including the last 10 in a row. Those who come to Busch Stadium don't have "boo" in their vocabulary. They cheer nearly as wildly for a St. Louis batter moving a runner from second to third on a groundout to the right side of the infield as they do for a batter blasting a homer over the fence. They acknowledge splendid defensive plays with applause, and I'm talking about for Cards players as well as for opposing players. OK, they do pound their hands together significantly more for St. Louis players.
There also is KMOX, the Cardinals' flagship station forever. Courtesy of its powerful broadcasting signal, KMOX allows the Cardinal Nation to comprise much of the United States. So when you play for St. Louis, you don't want to disappoint much of the nation, do you?
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less