It was behind Busch Stadium's left field bleachers, under the sun, that I spoke to some Cards fans about Big Mac, now having come clean about his steroid use. Not that he needed to; I mean, we all knew. We've known for years. But in order to punch his ticket back into Major League Baseball, Mac had to "talk about the past," something he laughably wasn't willing to do before U.S. Congress years ago.
Full disclosure: I adored McGwire. His 1998 exploits brought me back to the game. Chicks dig the long ball, yeah, but so do 15-year-old high school boys, and that's how old I was when McGwire put baseball on his steroid-enhanced biceps, and swatted ball after ball after ball over the fences. Hell, I even bought a McGwire jersey. Still have it, actually. It was the first baseball jersey I ever bought, before even a Blue Jays one. That's how much McGwire meant to me.
Hero Or Cheater?
A simple question.
"One-hundred per cent hero."
"Hero. You think every home run he hit was against a clean pitcher?"
"Hero. He wasn't the only one on steroids. But he was the only one to break [Roger]Maris's record."
"He may be a cheater to everyone else, but he's a hero to us."
"Both. Can he be both?"
A cheater and a hero. I liked that answer best. And, yeah, I think he can be both. That's what makes him human, and not just a baseball player.
St. Louis fans are loyal to their guy. I can't fault them for that; I'd do as they are. People make mistakes. McGwire did, he lied about steroids until he could no longer keep up the charade, and he's moving on. Baseball is moving on.
On Opening Day in St. Louis, when McGwire was introduced at Busch Stadium, he received a standing ovation. Had I been in the crowd that day, I'd have been on my feet in applause, too.
I forgive you, Mac, and sincerely hope you make it to Cooperstown.
From one swatting first baseman to another; Albert Pujols, a presence if there ever was one. Perhaps, when it's all said and done, the greatest player to ever wear a St. Louis Cardinals jersey. Perhaps the greatest player to ever play baseball, period.
You know Pujols is good; you know Pujols is special. But pull up his numbers at Baseball Reference, and you can't help but be taken aback. Each year since 2001, when he broke into the league at 21, Pujols has hit more than 30 home runs and 100 RsBI. That's nine years in a row; he's the only player to have ever managed that feat. Already a three-time National League MVP, Pujols's career line, in 1,447 games, reads: .333/.427/.624. A career 171 OPS+ to his name, putting Albert in the company of Lou Gehrig, Hornsby, Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb, and Jimmie Fox (and Mark McGwire, too), Pujols is on pace to shatter Stan Musial's St. Louis records.
So, are Cardinals fans aware of the greatness in their midst? Absolutely. When you talk about Pujols with St. Louis baseball heads, their eyes light up. And considering the Mega Millions jackpot Ryan Howard recently won in Philadelphia, Cardinals fans realize King Albert, 30-years-old, needs to be paid, well, like a king.
"If keeping Albert Pujols means my taxes go up, so be it."
"If [Ryan]Howard's worth five years and $125-million, Pujols is worth five years and $200-million."
But, I asked Chris, the Cardinals fan I was chatting with, if Pujols was worth $40-million a year on his own, could the team still be competitive? He came back at me with a gem:
"I'd rather watch a God-awful Cardinals team with Albert Pujols than a good Cardinals team without him."
Touché. Pujols is that good.
"A blank cheque. That's what Pujols is worth to this team, and this city."
King Albert has been crowned, and his people appreciate him.