The 10 Cardinals I Am Most Thankful For

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. It’s a time to get together with friends and family, share a feast and then talk about everything that happened in the last year in which we are thankful. This year I thought it might be fun to look back at the last half century and give thanks to some of players that have amazed us, entertained us and sometimes, just made us yell at the television. Organized as a top 10, one player per position, here is my list of 10 Cardinals for which I am most thankful.

First Base – Albert Pujols

2001 – 2010 (and counting, all as a Cardinal so far)

1,900 hits, 408 home runs, 1,230 RBIs. Career batting average .331. Career OPS 1.050

Rookie of the Year (2001)

9 time All Star (2001, 2003-2010)

3 time NL Most Valuable Player (2005, 2008, 2009)

2 time Gold Glove winner (2006, 2010)

Unless you have been stranded on a desert island or were hiding in a bomb shelter, you know who Albert Pujols is, and what he has accomplished. There are players in the Hall of Fame with lesser career stats than “El Hombre”, and Albert’s career is far from over. The scary thing – we may not have seen the best of Pujols yet.

More than Pujols the player, the reason that he is on the list is Pujols the man. The Pujols Family Foundation’s assistance for children with Down Syndrome as well as the work they do helping people in the Dominican Republic is something special. Derrick Goold wrote an article documenting some of this for American Way Magazine in the summer of 2010. If you missed it, you can read it here. When you do, you will understand why Albert Pujols is listed first in my Thanksgiving list. Albert Pujols is a very special person, and we are privileged to get to see him play 81 games a year in our ballpark.

Second Base – Julian Javier

1960 – 1973 (1960 – 1972 as a Cardinal)

1,469 hits, 78 home runs, 506 RBIs, lifetime batting average .257

2 time All Star (1963, 1968)

Many of the younger members of Cardinals Nation will credit Yadier Molina for their interest in the Redbirds. Whether it was helping the Cardinals win the 2006 National League Championship Series or just an arbitrary Tuesday night game, there is something genuinely infectious about the way Molina plays the game, always smiling like he is having the best time of his life. In my generation, that player was Julian Javier. With every at bat, every ground ball he fielded, and every interview he ever gave a sportscaster, Julian Javier always had a smile that went from one ear to the other. He was just a bigger and better version of the kids we played baseball with in the neighborhood.

Defensively, Javier was a marvel. He had soft hands and scooped up everything hit in his direction. He had a strong arm, especially for a second baseman. And nobody in baseball turned a sweeter double play than Javier. Bill Mazeroski of the Pirates may have turned more, but Javier’s were magical. Tim McCarver gave him the nickname “The Phantom” after watching so many baserunners try to take him out on the double play, but failing miserably. One instant he was there on the base with ball in glove, but in a blink he was gone. That was the key to his success, for if he were to get tangled up with a baserunner, he would surely be on the losing end.

Like Curt Flood, Javier was acquired as part of the master plan to build a dynasty in St. Louis in the 1960s. If not for free agency (and a couple of clunker deals), it might have netted more than just three pennants and two World Series titles. With Flood behind him, and either Dick Groat or Dal Maxvill beside him, the Cardinals were one of the most fundamentally sound teams up the middle. At times there were question marks on the corners, but never up the middle.

Unfortunately for Javier, he played in the shadow of Bill Mazeroski for most of his career. Fortunate for the Cardinals through as both of them came up through the Pirates organization at the same time, and there was no room for two second baseman, so the Cardinals ended up with Hoolie. For my money, we got the better of the two second baseman. And before anybody brings up Mazeroski’s walk off home run in the 1960 World Series, it was Javier’s 3 run homer in Game Seven of the 1967 World Series that put the game out of reach, allowing Bob Gibson to cruise to an easy victory.

Shortstop – Ozzie Smith

1978 – 1996 (1982 – 1996 as a Cardinal)

2,460 hits, 28 home runs (but one of the biggest in Cardinals history), 793 RBIs, 580 stolen bases

15 time All Star (1983 – 1992, 1994-1996)

13 consecutive Gold Gloves (1980 – 1992)

1985 NLCS Most Valuable Player

Inducted into the Hall of Fame (2002)

Poor Barry Larkin. Julian Javier feels your pain – he played in the shadow of Bill Mazeroski throughout all of his career.

The Cardinals organization has been blessed with some spectacular shortstops. Some of them were somewhat one dimensional. Dal Maxvill was one of the best gloves of his era, but could barely hit above his body weight. Dick Groat was an offensive threat, but his defense was vastly underrated. We won’t talk about the current situation at shortstop, this is supposed to be a thankful article.

The thing that I most admire about Ozzie was how to continued to work on the weak parts of his game, until he excelled on both halves of the game. He always had the defensive skills and the base running ability. In the early part of his career, his weak offensive production meant that he would hit well down in the batting order, 7th or 8th – Tony La Russa would have most certainly hit him 9th. There aren’t a lot of hit-and-run opportunities when you continually hit in front of the pitcher. Every year in St. Louis, you saw an improvement in “The Wizard’s” hitting, most noticeably at the start of the 1987 season. He worked hard during that off-season and put a lot of muscle on his frame. The result was a more potent hitter – one that Whitey Herzog could now put behind Vince Coleman for a genuine two headed monster at the top of the batting order. That allowed Herzog to move Willie McGee down in the order, where his batting average could do far more damage. The result was a trip to the 1987 World Series for a team that had no business playing in post-season.

More than any of this, I am most thankful for the back flip at the start and end of every season, and to excite the hometown crowd during post-season. These are just as memorable as Ernie Hayes playing “Here Comes the King”, and they still give me goosebumps to this day when I think about them.

Third Base – Scott Rolen

1996 – present (2002 – 2007 as a Cardinal)

1,944 hits, 303 home runs, 1,212 RBIs. Career batting average of .284

Rookie of the Year (1997)

6 time All Star (2002 – 2006, 2010)

8 time Gold Glove winner (1998, 2000-2004, 2006, 2010)

Career slugging average of .498

My brother-in-law will tell me that if I had seen Ken Boyer play in his prime that there would be no contest. Unfortunately, I didn’t, so rather than go on second hand information, I’m choosing the best third baseman that I did see play. Scott Rolen. One-third of the Cardinals MV3 of the mid-2000’s, Rolen excelled on both offense and defense. He could hit for average as well as power. Hitting behind Albert Pujols gave him an unfair opportunity to drive in runs, and he seized it with gusto. More than his offensive production, Rolen was one of the smoothest third baseman I’ve ever seen play the hot corner. It’s not until you get close to him, you realize that he’s a big man because he plays the position so gracefully. Soft hand scoop up grounders without incident and a cannon of the arm sometimes makes it difficult for the television cameras to keep the ball centered in the shot.

A couple of unfortunate injuries shortened his time in St. Louis. We should have been able to enjoy watching him for longer than we did, but I have no regrets – I’ll take almost 5 years of MV3 over any from the previous decade.

Left Field – Lou Brock

1961 – 1979 (1964 – 1979 as a Cardinal)

3,023 hits, 149 home runs, 900 RBIs, career batting average of .293

937 stolen bases, led the league 8 times. 118 steals in 1974

6 time All Star (1967, 1971 – 1972, 1974 – 1975, 1979)

Inducted into the Hall of Fame (1985)

On June 15, 1964, the St. Louis Cardinals became a much better team. They didn’t realize it at the time, but the little left fielder they just acquired from the Chicago Cubs would own left field for the better part of the next two decades. He would strike fear in the hearts of catchers in both leagues, stealing bases with regularity and changing the game forever. Opposing teams disliked Brock’s “steal at any time” approach to the game. Truth be told, a few of him teammates didn’t like it either. But he played hard, slid into bases hard and he made defenders think twice before reaching in to make a tag.

There are two teams that aren’t thankful for Lou Brock: the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers. In the 1967 and 1968 World Series, Brock was a menace from the first at bat until the last pitch of Game Seven. If he was not stealing bases, he was robbing the other team with amazing catches (which is especially interesting as his defense the rest of the year could be rather suspect). The Tigers figured out the best way to keep him from beating you was to keep him off the bases. Brock obliged by hitting two home runs – not exactly what the Tigers were thinking.

I have two favorite memories of Brock. September 10, 1974 and the Cardinals were still in the middle of a playoff run. It was a home game, and my sister got us tickets to see it. In the first inning, Brock singles off Phillies starter, Dick Ruthven. He immediately steals second base, tying Maury Wills for the single season stolen base record at 104. Poor Bob Boone, the Phillies catcher never had a chance. The next two times up, Brock failed to reach base. In the seventh inning, Brock singles again. The crowd is on their feet cheering so loudly they could probably hear us in Chicago. Brock is off again and steals second base, the throw coming in too late. Brock now holds the single season stolen base record. He would try to extend it later in the game and fail, but he saw history.

The other memory was of him waving goodbye to the St. Louis crowd for the last time in 1979, rather triumphantly as he had defied the odds by hitting .304 at age 40.

Center Field – Curt Flood

1956 – 1971 (1958 – 1969 as a Cardinal)

1,861 hits, 85 home runs, 636 RBIs, career batting average of .293

3 time All Star (1964, 1966, 1968)

7 consecutive Gold Gloves (1963-1969)

Only Cardinals player to hit over .300 in 1968

Before Jim Edmonds and before Willie McGee there was Curt Flood. The record books can tell you a lot about the star from the 1960’s, but if you ever had the chance to see him patrol centerfield, you don’t need them to tell you he was the best defensive outfielder of his generation. He had Lou Brock’s speed but combined that with Jim Edmonds instincts. An injury in 1967 affected his shoulder, but before that he had one of the best arms in the game. Runners tested him often as a 20 year old rookie, but soon figured out that they should be happy with one a base advance, instead of two. Even after the injury, Flood could cut down his share of runners.

His defense often overshadowed his offensive production. While teammate Lou Brock got the attention with his power and ability to steal bases, it was Flood that was steady as a rock at the plate. When the entire 1968 team’s offense took a nose dive, Flood was the only regular producer at the plate. He was a singles hitter, but sandwiched between Lou Brock and sluggers like Roger Maris, Orlando Cepeda, Bill White and Ken Boyer, that was exactly what the Cardinals needed.

Flood’s career has extra significance in two areas: one that would forever change baseball, the other the Cardinals franchise. Prior to the start of the 1970 season, Flood would be traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in a mammoth deal. Not wanting to play there, Flood challenged the reserve clause in the Major League collective bargaining agreement. Ultimately he lost, but his efforts led to the free agency model that we have in place today. Much of what Flood went through is documented in the book, A Well Paid Slave.

With respect to the Cardinals, when August Busch took ownership of the franchise in the 1950’s, he challenged General Manager, Bing Devine, to build a championship team. Flood was the first player that Devine acquired to begin building the core that would lead to World Championships in 1964 and 1967 and the National League Pennant in 1968.

With all due respect to Willie McGee and Jim Edmonds, if there is any talk about retiring another number in the Cardinals franchise, it should be #21 for Curt Flood.

Right Field – Roger Maris

1957 – 1968 (1967 – 1968 as a Cardinal)

1,325 hits, 275 home runs, 850 RBIs, career batting average of .260

4 time All Star (1959 – 1962)

2 time American League MVP (1960, 1961)

Gold Glove winner (1960)

Set the single season home run record in 1961 (61)

What can you say about Roger Maris, that hasn’t already been said before, and better. Not a lot, so instead of trying to do so, let me recommend a great book that does just that. Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero. This is one of the books that should be in every fan’s possession.

What I will say about Roger Maris is that in his short time in St. Louis, he was everything that we had hoped he would be. He was professional, he played hard – and smart. And he was the perfect counterbalance for Orlando Cepeda’s enthusiasm and Bob Gibson’s fierce competitiveness.

He was a legend. He was part of that Yankees dynasty. He played next to Mickey Mantle. And he held one of the most prestigious records in baseball – single season home runs. But what we saw those two summers was a baseball player that genuinely wanted to play the game the right way and seemed to appreciate being in St. Louis. I still remember going to games at Busch Stadium and watching him sign autographs for all the kids who were lined up. I don’t know which of them had the bigger smiles. That’s my memory of Roger Maris, and it still makes me smile some 43 years later. Shame on all of you Yankees fans and sports writers for not appreciating one of the game’s best players. You should have sent him to St. Louis much earlier than you did.

Catcher – Yadier Molina

2004 – 2010 (all in St. Louis, so far)

718 hits, 41 home runs, 325 RBIs, career batting average of .268

2 time All Star (2009, 2010)

3 consecutive Gold Gloves (2008 – 2010) – should be 4

Career caught stealing – 47%. Led league 3 times with 64% in 2005.

You don’t run on Yadi. Ever.

Yadier Molina has to be one of the most likable players in the game, unless you are a base runner. Not only does he catch one out of every two would-be stealers of second base, he’s reinvented the throw-behind-the-runner pick off play at first base. The only place a base runner is safe is when he is in the dugout.

Of all the great Cardinals catchers in the last 50 years, and there have been quite a few, two things make Molina stand head and shoulders above the rest. In Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS, Molina’s game winning 2 run homer in the top of the 9th inning propelled the Cardinals to the World Series where they would brush aside the Detroit Tigers. That was one of the most exciting games, in one of the best post-season series of the last half century. In that type of game, one player will rise to the occasion, that it was Molina. I think the smile was even bigger than normal on that particular night.

The other happened at 7:18pm EDT on Tuesday, August 10, 2010 in Cincinnati. In just seven seconds, Yadi displayed the greatest example of leadership that I have seen in my 40+ years of watching Cardinals baseball. Cincinnati second baseman, Brandon Phillips, had made some negative comments about the Cardinals the day before. As he came up to bat, Molina stood up to him in front of the Reds fans and let him know that his words were not appreciated. A scuffle broke out and a few players were injured. In Molina’s first at bat, he hits a home run, essentially taking control of the game away from the Reds. The Cardinals would sweep the series, but lose the division in the end. But that was one of the greatest moments in personal leadership, and I’m thankful that I got to see it. And thankful for the MLB archive, so I can see it over and over again.

Starting Pitcher – Bob Gibson

1959 – 1975 (all as a Cardinal)

251 – 175, 3,117 strikeouts, career ERA of 2.91

8 time All Star (1962, 1965 – 1970, 1972)

9 consecutive Gold Gloves (1965 – 1973)

2 time Cy Young Award winner (1968, 1970)

National League Most Valuable Player (1968)

Worlld Series Most Valuable Player (1964, 1967)

Set single season ERA record in 1968 (1.12)

Inducted into the Hall of Fame (1981)

See: Albert Pujols. If you are too young to have seen Gibson pitch, you have missed one of the games best. The record books only tell part of the story. They don’t tell you that he threw just as hard and determined in the 13th inning as he did in the first. If the Cardinals needed him on short rest, as they did when they clinched the 1964 NL Pennant, Gibson would take the mound and give the Cardinals a chance. And while the statistics hint at the brilliance and domination of his 1968 campaign, watching and listening to over two months of inning after inning of shutout baseball is beyond anything that you can relate to in the current game. Chris Carpenter is the only pitcher in baseball today that you could mention in the same sentence as Gibson, but “Hoot” did that for over a decade and a half.

I’m afraid that my bias is starting to show. Gibson is my favorite baseball player, and I am thankful that I got to see him pitch in his prime. If you are not so fortunate, check out Game 1 of the 1968 World Series in the MLB archives, or pick up the DVD Box Set of the Greatest Games at Busch Stadium and then you’ll understand why he captivated a generation of baseball fans.

Relief Pitcher – Al Hrabosky

1970 – 1972 (1970 – 1977 as a Cardinal)

64 – 35, 97 saves, 548 strikeouts. Career ERA of 3.10

8-1 with a 2.95 ERA and 9 saves in 1974

13-3 with a 1.66 ERA and 22 saves in 1975

Played with both the Cardinals and Royals

Don’t let that career total of 97 saves fool you. Whether or not you like Al Hrabosky as a broadcaster, if you saw him pitch for the Cardinals in the 1970s, there will be a special place in your heart for the Mad Hungarian. If you were at Busch Stadium, or watching on television, you could not wait until the 8th inning when it was time for Hrabosky to come into the game.

He would often step behind the pitchers mound and start yelling at the baseball he held in his hand. Satisfied that he’d instructed the baseball properly, he’d pop it hard into his glove and then take his place on the pitching surface, much as an ancient warrior mounted his warhorse. He’d then give a cross-eyed stare to the batter, if he could in fact see Hungo’s eyes through the all of the hair and a cap pulled way down on his forehead. And then the pitching motion – it sort of defied anatomy. The phrase herky-jerky just doesn’t adequately describe the swiftly counter-rotating confluence of arms and legs, and somewhere out of this maelstrom would come a baseball at 90+ MPH.

Yeah, there’s a reason he put up those obscene numbers in 1974 and 1975 – the Mad Hungarian was simply that overpowering. And he didn’t do things cheaply. He might pitch two or three innings to earn a save, sometimes more if the game went into extra innings. And he did it much as Mariano Rivera does it today – relying on one pitch. In Hrabosky’s case it was the fastball. A very hittable pitch, if you could ever find it in that ugly thing he called a delivery.

When looking back at the old Busch Stadium, a number of memories separate themselves from the others. The sound of Ernie Hayes playing Here Comes the King, watching Ozzie Smith do a back flip, the sound of a Richie Allen home run, and watching Al Hrabosky talk to himself behind the mound. He was great fun, and I’m so thankful that I got to see him pitch.

Your Turn

These are the 10 Cardinals whom I am most thankful for. Who are some of yours ? Please share your list in the comments and make sure and tell us why they are so special to you.

Happy Thanksgiving !

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