Think about the threads that kept your relationship with your mom or dad together during difficult years. For my father and I, that thread was baseball, and in St. Louis we were all threaded to the legacy of Stan “The Man” Musial.
I’m not going into a eulogy about the legendary Baseball Hall of Famer who passed last Saturday evening. If you’re from St. Louis, you know all about him. If you’re not, here is an easy-to-read group of articles on the player, the man and his relationship with his city. Bottom line: Even if you never saw him play, you felt his influence on the storied St. Louis Cardinals and in St. Louis, Cardinal baseball is everything.
I remember being in grade school when my brother and I got our autographed Stan Musial baseballs from my dad. Unlike many other legends, Stan’s signature on an item was not a rarity as he would reportedly volunteer to sign things when people only asked to shake his hand. And at the time, I wasn’t the huge baseball fan that led me to a career in the sport. But it didn’t matter. I knew who Stan Musial was and my dad had just given me a hunk of pure gold.
It wasn’t my birthday or Christmas and I don’t recall that my brother or I had done anything in particular to deserve this treasure. My dad just felt like we should have a baseball signed by the greatest Cardinal ever. That’s kind of what a piece of Musial memorabilia felt like in St. Louis: less of a collectible, more of a family heirloom.
That gift is my first personal memory of what being a Cardinals fan was all about. By the time I was 12 years old and entering junior high, I was notorious for wearing classmates out with talk of the Redbirds. I had teachers who would allow me a forum for the first 10 minutes of class to discuss the previous night’s game. I’d come home and scour the Post-Dispatch for whatever tidbits I could find and have a full arsenal of stats to flood my father with when he came home from work. If it was between April and September, our evenings were spent in front of the TV watching the game. Baseball was my life.
By high school my passion for the game had waned. The great Cardinal teams of the mid-1980s had become a feckless, second-tier bunch and I was more interested in those pillars of high school popularity: clothes, girls and parties. I won’t re-write history here. My clothes were laughably bad. Girls thought I was a REALLY nice guy (a.k.a. lots of friends, no dates) and the parties, well, I’m not sure I should talk about the parties. Even 20 years later, too many details might get people in trouble.
The byproduct of this lifestyle was an incredibly strained relationship with my father. The son he had that couldn’t wait for him to get home and talk baseball now only wanted to be left alone. He didn’t understand why I needed to be out with friends all the time. I didn’t understand how he couldn’t understand. I no longer memorized stats. We weren’t throwing a ball in the backyard or going to baseball card shows. We could literally go months without exchanging more than a few words in passing. In truth, I don’t know what my relationship with my dad would look like today were not for that last remaining thread that kept us together.
We could still watch a ballgame.
I realize this isn’t unique to me and my dad. This story line was romanticized in the comedy, City Slickers, but it doesn’t make it any less true. During my most difficult teenage years, I could find my dad sitting in the living room watching the Cardinals. I could sit down and discuss the game with him for three hours like nothing else was going wrong in our lives. When the game was over, I’d get up and leave.
Our relationship went on like that for longer than I care to remember, but I got older, slightly more mature, and we began to rebuild. After graduating college I began a career working in baseball in no small part because I thought my dad would think it was pretty cool. He did. I had him and my mom out for games. He got to meet some athletes, executives and former Cardinals. He even joined me one year at the Baseball Winter Meetings. He got to feel like he was a bit more inside the game he loves. I got to feel like I was making good on several years of bad.
I won my first championship ring with the 2002 Durham Bulls. One year later, I gave it to my dad. He still has it sitting on his computer desk where he and my mom can look at it every day.
And I still have my Stan Musial autographed ball.