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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

At 87, Stan still is The Man as Cards fans pay homage

By Rick Hummel

The Cardinals rallied Sunday for their second last-bat victory in two days. But, even if they had lost, it would have been a good day at Busch Stadium. Every day Stan Musial is at the park is a good day.

Musial, the greatest Cardinal of them all, was honored before the game on what was proclaimed "Stan Musial Day.'' Fans in attendance received a replica of the nine-foot statue on Musial Plaza, which is on the newly renamed Stan Musial Drive. Those same fans rose in standing tribute as the 87-year-old Man was wheeled around the ballpark in a cart, and his No. 6 had been carved into the center-field greenery.

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa gets excited the few times he gets to see Musial every year.

"... Once you get to know him, he's just as great off the field" as he was on it, La Russa said. "That combination not only is to be admired and respected, it is to be loved.

"He's an unbelievable person. It's a disappointment that we don't see him more. He really lifts everybody's spirits when he comes around. And he's like (Hall of Famer) Red Schoendienst. When they see something, they say something."

Musial never stops talking about how fortunate he was to have played in St. Louis for his whole career. After making some brief remarks to that effect Sunday, Musial left the microphone, only to return to salute longtime teammate Schoendienst, who was sitting behind him, and another return to note that his bad knees were a result of his having run out too many triples (177).

Later, as Musial spoke exclusively to the Post-Dispatch, he talked about a litany of subjects. Of particular interest was the occasion of his 3,000th hit, which came 50 years ago last week in Chicago. It came on a double in a pinch-hitting appearance in the sixth inning of the last game of a trip as manager Fred Hutchinson refused to wait until the next night for Musial to get his 3,000th hit at home. The Cardinals were losing 3-1 at the time but scored four runs to go ahead.

Instead of adoring St. Louis fans saluting Musial after hit No. 3,000, fans throughout central and southern Illinois had a chance to honor him as the Cardinals' train ride home became akin to a political train whistle-stopping through the countryside. At one stop, Musial remembered coming to the platform and saying, "I see a lot of children here. Take the day off tomorrow (Friday) and don't go to school.'''

If Hutchinson had been more patient, Musial would have collected No. 3,000 almost immediately at home.

"The next night, the first time up, I hit a home run off Johnny Antonelli (of the San Francisco Giants)," Musial recalled.

Musial's memory was dead-on. He homered off the Giants' tough lefthander with two outs in the first inning for hit No. 3,001.

Often Musial is asked what he would hit if he played in these times. After some consideration Sunday, he said, "I guess I'd hit above my average, which was .331. I'd be making a lot of money."

Musial was assisted out of the cart and to the microphone and back to his seat during the ceremony. But there was one move he made that required no help. Musial offered up one more time one of the most famous swings in history, the one you might have seen and maybe the one your father might have seen. As always, he never lost his balance. Grown men smiled.

These days, Musial said he watched all the Cardinals games, because he likes baseball and, he added, "There's nothing else on TV."

The statue of Musial placed outside the previous Busch Stadium in 1968 — the fans had that replica Sunday — never was particularly a favorite of his.

"I would have had them change the face, the legs were too thick and they didn't have my stance," he said.

But, over the years, he has grown accustomed to it. And four other smaller statues of Musial have been made.

"There's one down in Springfield, Ill., and one in Springfield, Mo., and there's one here in St. Louis," he said.

Then Musial laughed that playful "tee-hee-hee" laugh and said, "I've got more statues than Lincoln."

The day could come, maybe 10 years from now, when Musial might have to share the torch with Albert Pujols, the modern-day equivalent of Musial. Asked if Pujols, an avowed fan of Musial's career, could break his records, Musial said, "He has a chance to. He loves baseball, he's a good first baseman. ... You know the first time I saw Albert Pujols? He gave me a big hug and kissed me on the forehead."

Not many players have a nine-foot statue and a plaza and street named after them. When it was suggested that Musial shouldn't drive too fast now on his own street, Cardinals vice chairman Fred Hanser smiled and said, softly, "Oh, yes, he can."

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