When it comes to pulling oneself together after things have gotten hot, the miraculous phoenix of ancient legend and the 1973 St. Louis Cardinals are obviously birds of a feather.
The phoenix, mythologists insist, would set itself up in a nest and, in what certainly seemed a bird-brained gesture, set fire to the place, thereby incinerating itself. Then, simmered down, it would rise anew from its own ashes without so much as a blister showing and, not even pausing to claim the insurance, flap off to immortality.
That is pretty much what the Cardinals have done this year. They spent the first six weeks of the season making ashes of themselves, then, when apparently dead and gone, they sprang to life again and flew all the way to first place in the National League East, where they now perch happily, if not immortally.
Considered at least outside contenders for the division championship at the start of the season, the Cardinals hardly got off the ground in those dreadful first weeks. They lost 12 of their first 13 games and by the second week in May had a record of five wins and 20 losses. By May 14 they were 11 games out of first place and apparently moribund.
The Cardinals had no one but themselves to blame for their disreputable state; they were not hitting, and their defense beggared description. Ray Busse, an angular shortstop who in spring training had reminded some observers of the Cardinals' "Mr. Shortstop" of the 1940s, Marty Marion, soon proved that the resemblance was superficial. In his first 24 games Busse committed 11 errors. Burdened with the responsibility of stepping into Marion's legendary shoes, he was, in the view of sympathetic teammates, "tight as a drum." But more than errors of commission were ruffling the Cardinals.
"In one game we were not charged with a single error," recalls Jim Toomey, assistant to General Manager Bing Devine, "but I counted 10 mental blunders—guys throwing to the wrong base, getting caught off base, that sort of thing."
"We were just getting burned," says the brawny catcher, Ted Simmons. "We were blowing the key plays. After a while we started asking ourselves, 'When is this gonna stop?' "
The answer came on or about May 16 when the Cardinals took the first of two games with the Cubs. Then, after a mostly rained-out swing through the East, they returned home on May 25 with a four-and-one record for the trip. They won 11 of 13 in that home stand and, playing once again like professionals, were off and winging.
It was not a steady climb, however. It took them three tries to clear .500, which in the dark days of April and May had been their immediate, if not ultimate, goal. "We were searching for some kind of respectability," says Simmons. They finally passed .500 on July 3 and have not descended to it since.
With the then-leading Cubs losing about as often as they were winning, the Cardinals raised their sights beyond mere respectability. Their goal now was first place before the All-Star Game break. Here again they were nearly frustrated, for the Giants tripped them once and the Dodgers in two games before they finally defeated the Dodgers twice in succession to move past the Cubs by half a game on the final day before the break. They increased that lead to 1½ games by taking two of three from the Mets and spiking a four-game weekend series with the Cubs in Chicago.
It has been, by any criteria, a remarkable comeback and yet one for which there is no ready explanation. To the mystification of even their own front-office executives, the Cardinals were as outwardly buoyant and cheerful in defeat as they now are in victory. Even when the flames were rising all around them, there was never a suggestion of panic.
"The atmosphere here," said star slugger Joe Torre, sweeping the clubhouse with an appreciative glance, "was the same when we were five and 20 as it is now when we are in first place."
This insouciance may be attributed to the firm belief, as articulated by Second Baseman Ted Sizemore, that "we knew at the time we were a better ball club than we were showing," or possibly to a certain infectious maturity that allows them to regard both fortune and misfortune realistically.
The Cardinals are blessed with a corps of intelligent veterans—Torre, 33, Leftfielder Lou Brock, 34, Catcher-First Baseman Tim McCarver, 31, and Pitcher Bob Gibson, 37—and their influence on the younger players is profound.
"A team needs people like us," says Gibson. "Not so much to teach the young guys about baseball as to teach them about life."
The grace under pressure shown by the players had its effect on the front office as well, although the executives cannot be faulted for suggesting that perhaps peace of mind originated there. No dramatic trades were contemplated, no exhortations on behalf of God and franchise were made during those long weeks.
"Bing was impressed by the fact that although the team's record was lousy, nobody on the field seemed to know it," says Toomey, himself an unflappable.
"I think the players were trying to convey to me that there was nothing to get excited about," says Devine, "so I figured if they could live in a fool's paradise, more power to them."
Although the Cardinals are more inclined to think they simply played their way out of the slump, they do willingly credit Manager Red Schoendienst with at least one particularly astute move, a move prompted, nevertheless, as much by accident as design.
Late in April, Second Baseman Sizemore, who unlike so many of his teammates was off to a good start, pulled a hamstring muscle. He was placed on the disabled list, where he remained until May 17. On May 2 Mike Tyson, a stocky, red-haired rookie from North Carolina, was installed as Sizemore's replacement.
Tyson astonished even his fellow Cardinals with his brilliant fielding and though he had never hit higher than .245 in the minor leagues he held his own at the plate, thanks in no small measure to the coaching of special batting instructor Harry Walker.
"Harry has had me hitting to right field more," says Tyson. "It's enabled me to watch the ball better and stay with it longer."
When Sizemore was finally able to play again, Schoendienst felt compelled to keep Tyson in the lineup, so he benched the taut Marion manqué and sent Tyson to shortstop, where he has continued to play well and hit in the .240 range.
The Cardinals are fond of saying that Tyson has "solidified" their infield, which he probably has. But so has Ken Reitz, another rookie, at third base. Reitz, who ropes calves in the off-season, is an outstanding fielder who in the early weeks had trouble at bat. But recently he has been hitting with authority and his average has climbed to .240. For further solidification, Sizemore continued to play and hit as expertly as he had before he was so rudely interrupted. And Torre, who can play first or third and hit .300, is always a solidifier.
Schoendienst also took steps to firm up the outfield. He switched Rightfielder Luis Melendez to center and Centerfielder Jose Cruz to right. Then when Cruz slumped at the plate, Schoendienst hurried a revitalized Bernie Carbo into the breach. And Carbo, allowed to hit against left-handed pitching for the first time in three seasons, has raised his average 90 points in the last month to .280. He also gives the Cardinals a powerful and accurate arm in right field.
With Gibson, Rick Wise, Reggie Cleveland and Scipio Spinks, the Cardinals seemed to have a reliable starting-pitcher rotation. But Spinks, who missed half of 1972 with an injured knee, will be out virtually all of this year with a bad shoulder, and Gibson, a notoriously slow starter, lost five of his first seven decisions. In what first appeared to be relatively minor transactions, Devine obtained Alan Foster from the California Angels and Tom Murphy from a Kansas City farm team to plug the gap, and both proved surprisingly useful as starters and relievers. Then, as hoped, Gibson regained his customary 20-win form, losing but five of his next 14 starts.
And the Cardinal starters this year are benefiting from a much stronger bullpen, the star of which is Diego Segui. With 14 saves he has surpassed the team total of a year ago.
Still, with all this bolstering, the Cardinals are not exactly awesome. Although the fences at Busch Stadium have been moved in 10 feet in the power alleys and center field, the team is last in the major leagues in home runs, and only Torre is a legitimate threat to hit .300 for the season.
"The only things we really have going for us," says base-stealing champion Brock, "are outstanding pitching, pretty good defense and tremendous clutch hitting. Then, too, we've got the intangibles. We're heavy on intangibles."
"This team reminds me of the old Boston Celtics," says Torre. "Nobody scores over 20 points, but everybody scores 16. We also have a lot of young players who play like veterans and a lot of regulars who are not playing regularly. That's depth."
What they mostly have, though, is an inner security, a healthy sense of time and place. Gibson, an intense, occasionally sullen man, might be considered a loner, but he can say of his relations with his teammates, "You gotta clean your own backyard first, but you still have to be concerned with your neighbor."
Torre has a poster from The Godfather hanging above his locker. It does not seem out of place, for with his swarthy complexion, heavy brows and deep-set eyes, he has the look of a glowering capo. But the menacing countenance is only a mask; he is among the pleasantest of athletes, so "congenial," says Gibson, "that it ticks me off."
Wise, who at 27 is in his ninth major league season, has a professorial manner befitting his surname. His calm was sorely tested last season when he became "the other guy" in the Steve Carlton trade. Carlton won 27 games and the league's Cy Young Award for Wise's old team, the Phillies, while Wise won 16 and lost as many for Carlton's old team, the Cardinals. Carlton's extraordinary success might have proved an embarrassment to a lesser man, particularly when Wise's poor luck is taken into account. In 35 starts he had not a single game saved for him by a relief pitcher and he lost 12 of 16 one-run decisions. With better luck he might have won nearly as many games as Carlton. But he endured it all without complaint.
This year he has an 11-6 record to Carlton's 9-11 and was the winning pitcher in the All-Star Game, to which Carlton was not even invited. But Wise does not feel vindicated, nor does he admit to being annoyed by the invidious comparisons of a year ago.
"I am amazed that anyone even asks me about the trade," he said, puffing thoughtfully on a cigar the size of Henry Aaron's bat. "I don't want to mix any honors I've had this year with vindication. I have never worried for one minute about justifying that trade."
Through good times and bad, Wise has been warmly received by the St. Louis fans, who are among the most sophisticated in baseball. Even late-hour barroom conversations there have an analytical thrust. And there is much reminiscing, for this is a city with a baseball tradition that dates to the Civil War. The heroes of other times—Old Pete, the Rajah, the Fordham Flash, Me and Paul, the Wild Hoss of the Osage, Ducky Wucky, Harry the Cat, Country Slaughter and, preeminently, Stan the Man—haven't faded a bit.
"The way to gel on Ducky Medwick's good side," a cab driver was saying of the old Gas House Gang outfielder, "is to talk about pipes. That's what he likes to talk about—pipes. Nice fella, Medwick, when you get him on that subject. I learned from Dale Carnegie's book about winning friends that you always talk about something the other fella is interested in. With Medwick, it's pipes."
There is an old-home-week air about the Cardinals, a sort of cigar-and-Budweiser folksiness. Devine and Toomey were both raised in St. Louis, circa Gas House Gang, and few of the old Cardinals fly the coop.
"I've got a sentimental attachment to this town," says Harry Walker, who began his major league career in St. Louis 33 years ago. "Nobody has ever produced more excitement in baseball over the years than the Cardinals. It's a club people have always talked about, the way they used to talk about Brooklyn when the Dodgers were there. Remember when somebody'd say Brooklyn on a show or something, and people would stand up and cheer? A city without a major league team is a sick city."
Musial remains the ultimate Cardinal, the standard on which Cardinalism is founded. Since he retired as general manager six years ago for the less turbulent role of senior vice-president, he has been more a passive than an active influence, but he is still a formidable presence. A huge, lumpy statue of him is outside the stadium—"Here stands baseball's perfect warrior.... Here stands baseball's perfect knight.... "—and his restaurant is a gathering place for the sports intelligentsia.
Musial is trim at 52, still cracking out two-base hits in old-timer games. He is resolutely cheerful and dapper in a conservative mode—Stan the Man in pink double knits and an open-collared shirt would be unthinkable. He speaks in a high-pitched voice and he seems perpetually distracted, as if he were talking to more than one person at a time, which he generally is. To him the Cardinals are "we."
"We weren't all that bad at the start of the season," he said, puffing the inevitable cigar in the office of his restaurant. "We aren't that good now. But it's a funny thing, when we were losing all those games, the players never thought of themselves as losers. That's the way it should be. All the winning Cardinal teams had that kind of spirit. This one has it. We got great tradition in this town. Look at that stack of mail over there. Fan mail. Not bad for an old guy retired 10 years now, is it?"
Red Schoendienst is another Cardinal of the old school. It is said that in the depths of the division cellar he betrayed not a single emotion, displayed not the least disappointment. He has a pink, impassive face, and he speaks like a country philosopher.
"I've been around (his game a long time," he said, watching batting practice from the shade of the dugout. "I've learned to take the bitter with the sweet. All a manager and his coaches can do is keep the players going. If they keep playing, keep hustling, you just let the chips fall where they may. This race is far from over. Anybody in our division can win it. I don't think we've had an easy game all year."
That night the Cardinals swept a doubleheader from the Mets 13-1 and 2-1 before a home crowd of 35,557. Gibson pitched a six-hitter in the first game and, in his own cause, hit a grand-slam home run. Foster pitched eight shutout innings in the second game, which was won by Torre's eighth-inning homer. Reitz went four for six in the two games, and Carbo, who had three hits, threw out two base runners in the second game.
In Corry's Bar afterward there was a friendly debate on the relative defensive merits of young Tyson and Dal Maxvill, the shortstop on the last Cardinal pennant winner in 1968. "That little guy could sure go get 'em," said an admirer.
A portly man somewhat in his cups was explaining to the bartender how his mother enrolled him in the VFW the day old Country Slaughter scored all the way from first on Harry Walker's single to win the '46 Series.
The memory entertained him, and he grew silent, poking his cigar exploratively in the ashtray. He just sat there smiling and staring into the ashtray. It was almost as if he expected old Country to materialize in those ashes and thunder home one more time. In St. Louis, it just might happen.
AFTER THE FALL, FANCY FLIGHT