The death of Stan “The Man” Musial hit every Cardinal fan hard yesterday. But for some it might be hard to understand why many younger fans, including myself, would be so saddened by the passing of a ballplayer they never saw play in person. It is hard to put into words, but I will try.
In many ways Musial represented an ideal, a dream that younger fans were happy to simply get a glimpse of on every Opening Day, as Musial made his annual trip around Busch Stadium. For fans whose baseball dreams ended in high school or, if they were lucky, a bit later, Musial was the player they wanted to be. Even better, Musial’s life was one that was easily admired by fans. Musial represented a nostalgic vision of what baseball was supposed to be. His death, therefore, was the sad passing of that vision.
Younger Cardinal fans have had their highlights of course.
The 1980’s Cardinals featured Ozzie Smith’s flips, dazzling defense, and “Go crazy folks!” homerun. But Smith was never the offensive player that Musial was, and the statistics show he never had the same impact. And then Smith’s career ended in a somewhat sour fashion over tensions with Tony La Russa.
The 1990’s were highlighted by Mark McGwire’s 70 homerun season in 1998. But then the entire 90’s baseball era, including McGwire’s magical season, was tainted by allegations of steroid use. There was also the sense that McGwire loved California more, and that he was never really a St. Louis man. This inclination was fully realized when McGwire left to become the Los Angeles Dodgers hitting coach this offseason.
The 2000’s were all about Albert Pujols, who does deserve credit for his accomplishments. Statistically, Pujols was nearly as good as Musial at his peak (Pujols produced a 9.4 WAR in 2009 compared to Musial’s 10.8 in 1948). However, Pujols could not sustain that greatness over the same time period. Over the last two years, Pujols’ batting average dropped below .300 at the age of 31. Musial’s batting average did not drop below .300 until he was age 38.
Most importantly, Musial never left. Of course, Musial did not play in the free agent era, but Cardinals fans would like the think that Musial would have accepted the team’s final offer to Pujols for over $20 million per year. Musial wife would not have called in to a radio station complaining that they were “insulted” by an original contract offer with a total worth over $100 million.
Pujols likely will end up in the Hall of Fame with Musial, but, on and off, the field Pujols was never “The Man” that Musial was. To his credit, Pujols rejected the “El Hombre” nickname that many tried to give him during his Cardinal days. Pujols knew he was no Musial.
Musial was great in a way that none of these players were. Musial was pure. To the very end he did not disappoint, delivering an RBI single in his last at bat. After Musial retired there were no scandals involving performance enhancing drugs or another woman outside of marriage. He stayed in St. Louis, he ran a business, he did what he could to improve the community through various charitable organizations.
Younger fans have grown to appreciate this even though they never saw that special Musial swing in a real game. Younger fans now fear that they may never see someone like “The Man” in their lifetime.