Tuesday March 3rd, 2009

JUPITER, Fla. -- The Hall of Famer comes every day, casually walking through the Cardinals' spring training clubhouse with a smile or a wave or a kind word. Though they earnestly refer to him as a legend, most, if not all, of St. Louis' players never saw the man steal so much as a single base. Heck, these guys are so young that they don't even remember the Tribe Called Quest song Check the Rhime, which immortalizes him in verse. "I'm old," he says with a chuckle. "No more speed in these legs."

Indeed, Louis Clark Brock -- arguably the greatest thief in major league history -- turns (gasp!) 70 this year. Even more shocking, it has been 30 years since he retired with 3,023 hits and a then-record 938 stolen bases. Yet unlike the millions of us who grapple with aging, Brock floats through the spring with the looping casualness of a Rafael Santana throw to first base. Though his hair has specks of gray and his belly is a wee-bit -- what's the nice way to write this? -- stuffed, Brock looks like a man in his early 50s. He is here, truth be told, not to make Khalil Greene a better base-runner or to show Skip Schumaker the finer points of outfield defense or even to lend Tony La Russa an occasional opinion.

No, Lou Brock is here because he's Lou Brock.

This is a wonderful thing.

Bill Mazeroski, an annual spring "instructor" at Pirate City, is there to be Bill Mazeroski. Yogi Berra, in camp as an "instructor" at George M. Steinbrenner Field, is there to be Yogi Berra. You bask in the sun, pat peers on the rear ends, smile and shake hands.

On a day most reporters were assigned the grimy task of stalking Alex Rodriguez, who was in Jupiter training with the Dominican Republic for the World Baseball Classic, Brock strolled aimlessly around camp, signing autographs, posing for pictures, sticking around for seven innings of the Rays-Cards spring -- yaaawwwwwnnnn! -- classic. Even in his Wilford Brimley years, Brock in his white No. 20 St. Louis uniform is a sight to behold. It's not so much the nostalgia, but the pure, magical happiness. Sure, A-Rod, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Bud Selig, Don Fehr and the whole gang might be leading the sport into a lava-coated pit of doom. But there's always Brock, the ultimate reminder of why we keep coming back.

"I love this more than anything," he says, smiling. "First, it's cold back home in St. Louis, and I can do without that. But mostly, I love what this all means to me. The sound of a ball hitting a glove -- pop! pop! pop! -- is music to my ears. So is the crack of a bat. Those are sounds I'll never grow tired of. It's a symphony."

If one needed a reminder of Brock's continued value to the St. Louis organization, he didn't have to look far. Throughout much of the exhibition game, Brock stood alongside Bob Gibson, fellow Cardinals legend and spring instructor, in the home dugout at Roger Dean Stadium. Though both men go down as St. Louis immortals who lifted the town to unparalleled baseball heights, well, the similarities end there. When Gibson exited the field following the fifth inning, he did so without acknowledging a single fan. Men and women, boys and girls called out to the notoriously grumpy Hall of Famer, and he refused to look up, smile, sign a ball -- nothing. "That's Bob," a team employee said. "You never know."

With Brock, you know. He'll talk about anything -- absolutely anything -- as long as it pertains to baseball.

Why aren't teams running like they used to?

"Ballparks are way too small," he says. "Built for power."

Who's the best base-stealer of all time?

"Oh, Maury Wills," he says. "No question."

Can you believe it's been 30 years?

"When you live a full life," he says, "time doesn't matter."

Indeed, when spring ends come April 2, he will return to St. Louis to focus on his two businesses, an online fundraising operation and a ministry he runs with his wife, Jacqueline (both are ordained). He will be happy because, as Brock says, "I'm a truly blessed man."

And yet ...

"I'm always happy," he says, "but I'm really happy during spring."

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