CHARLOTTE, N.C., April 2, 2016 – In the world of organized professional baseball it doesn’t matter what level you reach, you are a member of a unique club and every player acknowledges it.
The reason is simple. Almost every baseball player does a stint in the minor leagues, and most understand that frequently success in the major leagues is often nothing more than being in the right place at the right time. Because of that, there is an unwritten code of respect among players at all levels because they represent a tiny percentage of people who are ever able to get paid to play a kid’s game called “baseball.”
The St. Louis Cardinals have long been one of the elite organizations in major league baseball. Like its counterpart in the American League, Boston, St. Louis is a baseball town. In an era when football is the dominant sport, baseball cities are diminishing.
Not in St. Louis.
I went to my first and only spring training camp as a player in the Cardinals organization in 1966 in St. Petersburg, Florida. The big club worked out downtown at Al Lang Field, while the rest of us trained several miles down the road at the minor league facility.
It was a great set-up because there was a constant parade of big league players coming and going through the camp to concentrate on specific skills or work through nagging injuries.
At the same time, minor leaguers who were on the “watch list” as potential replacements during the season or future stars could pop downtown for additional scrutiny by the parent club.
In the four years of my professional baseball career, I spent two with the Cardinals, and I quickly learned about the pride of wearing that uniform. One of the Cardinals’ trademarks is playing sound fundamental baseball the way it was intended to be played.
Combine that with a list of Hall of Fame stars spanning the glory days of the game to the present, and it is a recipe for tradition that every player internalizes. Tommy Lasorda did the same thing for “Dodger Blue” and, of course, there is the undeniable magic of the New York Yankees’ “Pinstripes.”
There is no better place in the world to play baseball than Florida in the spring. The sun is warm, and there is always something special about hearing the soft crunch of earth beneath your cleats the first time you step on the field.
In spring training you eat, drink and sleep baseball. From the time you get up in the morning until you lay your head on the pillow at night, it is baseball and little else.
Lunch breaks are short, usually following a practice game where coaches and managers constantly mix and match rosters to measure the talents of the recruits. There is always a morning game and an afternoon game. Players who are not in one of the line-ups go to batting cages or side fields for individual training.
Early in 1966, during a break for lunch, George Kissell, then the director of player personnel for the Cardinals, walked into the clubhouse and said, “Gather ‘round guys, there’s someone who wants to talk to you.”
Kissell loved the Cardinals. He spent 69 years with the organization and knew more about the game than anyone I ever met. Nicknamed “the Professor,” Kissell was known for teaching baseball the “Cardinal Way.”
Former Cardinal manager Whitey Herzog once said of Kissell, “He is the only man I know who can talk for 15 minutes about a ground ball.”
Though George Kissell is not a household name to most fans, he was the managerial mentor to the likes of Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre and Sparky Anderson.
When George spoke, everybody listened, and so we gathered around on the concrete floor in the clubhouse to see what “management” wanted to tell us.
“This man needs no introduction,” said Kissell, “he IS the St. Louis Cardinals.”
With those few words, in walked Stan Musial, perhaps the greatest all-round hitter in St. Louis Cardinals history. Musial was tan and soft-spoken, and his words resounded like an echo in Grand Canyon. He was wearing a white short-sleeved shirt, dark trousers and expensive alligator shoes, which in the 1960s were a fashion statement rather than being politically incorrect.
In just three years he would be elected to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown on the first ballot. That’s how close the end of Stan Musial’s career was to the beginning of my own.
Stan played first base and outfield in 22 years with the Cardinals. “The Man,” as he was called, compiled a lifetime batting average of .331. He had 3,630 hits, of which 465 left the park. He also drove in 1,951 runs.
Musial didn’t speak long. He held a bat in his hand, and he talked about the honor of being part of the St. Louis Cardinals organization and what it meant to the game of baseball.
There was a deafening hush in the room as he spoke. When the session broke up, every player walked up to “The Man” and shook his hand before going back to work in the Florida sunshine.
Musial died in 2014 at the age of 92, but his legend lives on, and everyone who ever met him knew exactly what “The Man” meant to the St. Louis Cardinals and the game of baseball.
Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award-winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of the Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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