Ten years ago, Mount Rushmore was real.
When you listed the legends of the St. Louis Cardinals, the same names kept coming up. Stan Musial. Lou Brock. Bob Gibson. Ozzie Smith. (There was obviously a case for Rogers Hornsby, but being that he played in the time before TV, many folks didn’t bring him to mind when listing legends.) A tier below might have included Red Schoendienst and Bob Forsch, but the giants of the organization were also the giants of the game. Stan was one of the best hitters ever in MLB, Lou was the standard for basestealing before Rickey Henderson came along, Gibby was the icon of incredible (and angry) pitching, Ozzie was The Wizard at fielding.
These larger-than-life people weren’t just those that we read about, either. They walked among us, or at least among the Cardinals of the day. Spring training would see Lou showing a minor leaguer the correct way to slide or Gibson giving pointers to a young pitching prospect. You’d see those guys around the ballpark at times, especially on Opening Day. They weren’t just part of the past, they were part of the present. They were the Jedi Masters lending a little of their knowledge to those that could use it.
Now, in the first year of a new decade, Mount Rushmore is covered in clouds. The legends, at least most of them, have moved on.
Stan was first, of course. The exceptional batsman was decades older than his exalted peers, after all. Musial was with us for so long but then passed early in 2013 at the age of 92. A few weeks ago, Brock stole into heaven at the age of 81 after dealing with many health issues, including cancer. Then, last night, Gibson joined them both, passing at 84 after also battling cancer.
While death has a 1.000 batting average, if anyone was going to stare it down and make it work, it was going to be Bob Gibson. Nobody came any tougher, nobody had more of an aura of “don’t mess with me” around him. After baseball, the stories of him being a warm guy with a wonderful sense of humor came out, but while he was playing he didn’t suffer anyone gladly, not the opposition or, at times, his teammates. The Cardinal organization is poorer for not having Bob Gibson with them anymore.
While COVID-19 and this abomination of a year we call 2020 have taken much from us, one thing that is terrible now in retrospect is that we were denied one more Opening Day with Gibby and Lou. Nobody knew in 2019 that that would be the last time we’d see those two in their red jackets, circling the roaring crowd and lining up with the rest of their Cardinal Hall of Fame members. When we see this sight again, hopefully in 2021, there will be a gaping hole where those two should be.
When Lou died, I talked with Allen and Tara on the podcasts about who replaces the legends. As I said above, these guys weren’t just great Cardinals, they were in the pantheon of greatest guys that ever played and had a mystique around them from what they did and who they were. Adam Wainwright is going to be meaningful to Cardinal fans forever and he’ll be a person that Cardinal players in the future will learn from, but he’s not going to be on the same level as a Gibson on the national stage. I guess it’s the difference between having your passing mentioned on MLB Network and having an entire section of a show devoted to it.
Along that vein, this popped up in my Twitter feed this morning.
Seriously, who is going to mentor these young players now?
Who can demand respect just by walking into that clubhouse at Spring Training?
— Augie Nash (@AugieNash) October 3, 2020
Now, I do think players like Wainwright and Chris Carpenter will give you that. If you can get Mark McGwire out of California to spend some time in Jupiter, he’d count. Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, those guys can be a real boost and knowledge for players coming up. All of these guys are great and they are people that the Cardinal Hall of Fame was designed for, but they don’t necessarily reach that legend stage we were talking about.
Which brings us to two names.
Albert Pujols is obviously one of them. Pujols’s career rivals Musial’s for what he has done and the consistency that he has brought to the game. If you looked at just Pujols’s time in St. Louis, he’d be the obvious choice to join Ozzie on that new version of Mount Rushmore. However, Pujols is one of the very rare players in this data set.
He’s a Hall of Fame level talent that started in St. Louis and left.
Musial and Gibson were Cardinals for life. Brock obviously started with the Cubs, but spent an overwhelming portion of his career, including the end, wearing the birds on the bat. Same with Ozzie and San Diego.
Hall of Famers that spent time in St. Louis don’t necessarily have the same reaction as those that significantly played and finished under the Arch. I imagine that, when he retires (and I still think that personal services contract gets bought out or otherwise modified), he’ll be a presence in St. Louis and the organization now that the hurts (from both sides) relating to his leaving for Anaheim have been patched up. There’s no doubt that Cardinal fans love him and he’ll be right in that legendary group when he retires, but those Angels years are going to be a bit of a drag on him.
That leaves Yadier Molina.
Now, it’s possible that Molina finishes his career somewhere else. As we know, last night ended his contract with the Cardinals and he is a free agent. He could wind up spending the last two years of his career in a different uniform (perhaps out with his old friend Pujols in Anaheim) and that’d be disappointing. However, Molina has spent so long in St. Louis that even a couple of years in Angels red (or Pirates gold or Tigers orange) wouldn’t tarnish his St. Louis legacy. Molina is one of the best catchers that has ever played the game, giving him that same cache that others have had. The legacy that Molina has might be his best selling point in trying to get a new contract from the Cardinals, though obviously that is a point that we can deal with later on in the winter.
The lack of legendary folks is not just tied to the Cardinals, I don’t think. Between more constant coverage, the fact that not enough time has passed to romanticize some players (I imagine there were Cardinal fans that complained about them when Brock and Gibson were playing), more teams (meaning talent is spread out more and dynasties don’t form), and free agency, there aren’t too many people in baseball now or recently that would seem to inspire such iconic status. A guy like Derek Jeter could, of course, but now that he is part of the Marlins’ ownership, he’s not going to be spending early spring in the Yankees’ complex. Mike Trout, perhaps, when he’s done playing? Could be, but that’s a long way from now. Iconic players don’t come around too often. The Cardinals are fortunate that they’ve had so many in their history, to be honest.
The passing of Gibson being announced within minutes of the Cardinals losing the third and final game in San Diego helped quickly put this Wild Card series in the rear view mirror. Even without that, though, I don’t know that the loss would sting too much. Yes, it’s frustrating that they won the first game and led by four in the second. Yes, it’s frustrating that, against a tired Padres bullpen, the offense sputtered like it had so much of the season. The Cardinals could have easily still been playing, possibly should still be playing.
That said, what did we expect from this team? We might have hoped that they’d get on a run and win the World Series, but we’ve seen enough of them to know that probably wasn’t happening. It wasn’t a good team, or at least didn’t have good results, all year long. There are reasons for that, of course, and this club should be proud of the way that it overcame the obstacles that were put in its way. The COVID-19 layoff and the doubleheaders that came out of that were the most obvious problems, but there was also the loss of Miles Mikolas for the entire season, the loss of Dakota Hudson down the stretch, and the struggles of Carlos Martinez after being sick.
Give a lot of credit to Jack Flaherty, who stepped up at the biggest moment of the season and quieted some of the rumblings and critiques around him as he’s dealt with this awkward season. Give credit also to Paul Goldschmidt, who had a bounce-back season and had a strong playoff series, even if the finale was a bust for him as well. This team is not going to be a team that is remembered much, most likely, save for the circumstances it found itself in. It’s a testament to this organization that a team that makes the playoffs (even expanded ones like this) can be forgettable. That’s what happens when you have such a richness to your history. You think an organization that rarely made the playoffs wouldn’t always remember their 2020 team if it got in, even if it went out in three?
We’ve got a lot to talk about this winter. The fates of Wainwright and Molina. The strange case of Tyler O’Neill, whose usage in the playoff series to me means he was either hurt or has fallen way out of favor. How to improve this offense. A hot stove that will likely be ice cold with the financial losses incurred this year by the teams. So much to talk about, but that can come later.
Right now we light a candle for Bob Gibson and remember his greatness. Thanks for everything, Gibby.