Where baseball is king
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist

ST. LOUIS -- A long time ago and in a spot not too far away from the Gateway Arch, Lewis and Clark took the Corps of Discovery to explore the vast unknown land west of the Mississippi River. For another 150 years, St. Louis still marked the last outpost of Western Civilization.

By that I mean there were no major league baseball teams west of St. Louis until the 1958.

Albert Pujols
In St. Louis, fans are crazy about the Cardinals, and especially crazy about Albert Pujols.

There are now 11 teams west of St. Louis but in many ways, the city is the solid, reinforced core of baseball. The Cardinals have won 15 pennants and more world championships (nine) than any other National League team. Despite a much smaller fan base, the Cardinals have outdrawn the Yankees over the past 15 seasons. More importantly, the city made modern-day sports possible by introducing the hot dog at the 1904 World's Fair and playing in a stadium named for the beer magnate whose brew is the elixir of modern American sports.

This is a city where Casual Friday means wearing an Albert Pujols replica jersey and Cardinals cap to work.

"There definitely is more of a baseball history here than anywhere else I've played," said Brett Tomko, the pitcher once traded for Ken Griffey Jr. "I played in Cincinnati and the Reds certainly have a great history but the fans here are so passionate. The fans are what set St. Louis apart from everyone else. They wait all winter for spring training. And they wait all spring training for Opening Day.

MIGHTY MISSISSIP TRIP
Here's a breakown of Jim Caple's journey down the Mighty Mississippi:

Miles: 110 (Hannibal to St. Louis)
Total Miles: 994
Moving violations: 0
Hours driving: 2
Diet Pepsi: 2 units
Road kill: 1 rabbit, 1 squirrel, 1 deer.
Weather: Continued hot and sunny in the upper 80s.
Gas price per gallon: $1.64.
Huckleberry Finn tape: In an extraordinary coincidence seldom seen outside 19th century literature, Huck meets up with Tom Sawyer on the lower Mississippi, and after an elaborately amusing and thoroughly unnecessary scheme to rescue Jim, Tom reveals that Jim has already been freed.
Miles to go: 1,100 (approx.)

"I just think the city is controlled by the Cardinals."

Perhaps, but when I rolled into St. Louis on my tour of sports along the Mississippi River, there was a resignation in the city. The Cardinals had recently lost four of five to the hated Cubs, fallen 2 games out of first place and been pounded so badly by the Rockies the previous night that manager Tony La Russa questioned his team's heart. Even with Pujols trying to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1967, St. Louis attendance likely will finish below three million for the first time since 1997.

No wonder that the lead story in the sports section was the debate over who should be the Rams' starting quarterback, Marc Bulger or Kurt Warner, a question that seemed even more urgent when a sportscaster breathlessly declared that the second game of the season was "a must win."

He was right about the must win. He just had the wrong sport. This is baseball's month of must-wins, the best month of the season.

It's better than October and the postseason because so many teams still are in contention this month, so many fans still have hope, so many feats still remain possible. The night I was in St. Louis, 15 teams -- half the majors -- still were within 3 games of first place or the Wild Card. Both Chicago teams were in first place, an occurrence that hasn't occurred this late in the season since 1907.

Seeing the Cubs and Sox in first place in September is like seeing Oprah and Dr. Phil sharing a table at a strip joint.

This is prime scoreboard-watching season and there is no better one to watch than Busch Stadium's massive, hand-operated board. Painted the sort of green seldom seen outside of a Ralph Lauren paint catalogue, the scoreboard not only tracks the out-of-town scores inning by inning, it provides the daily Dow Jones closing average.

ROADSIDE DISTRACTION: GRACELAND
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- After touring Graceland, I can say two things about Elvis. He had awful taste in decorating and he was a big sports fan.

Green shag carpet. White ostrich pillows. A red velvet sofa. A white fur bed spread. A lamp covered in seashells. Mirrors everywhere. You can excuse some of the furniture and design as the taste of the times, but c'mon. The Jungle Room? His interior decorator must have been the parent of Doug from "Trading Spaces."

What interested me most on the tour were the sports items. "I like rugged sports -- as a man," Elvis says in a taped interview on the tour. "Boxing, football, karate, things like that.''

It shows. Elvis' karate outfit is on display, as are his black belts. So is the Elvis football uniform, complete with hip pants, that he used to wear while playing weekend pickup games with his entourage. Among Elvis' books on display are the Bible, Kahil Gibran's "The Prophet," "Siddartha," "Gods From Outer Space," "The Complete Book of Karate" and "The Illustrated History of Pro Football."

Most interesting of all, though, is the racquetball room where Elvis played that fateful day. Steve Rushin wrote in "Road Swing" that when he visited Graceland, the tour guide strongly implied it was overexertion from the racquetball game that killed Elvis, not the drug overdose.

That's just silly. Everyone knows racquetball didn't kill Elvis. It couldn't have.

He isn't dead.
--Jim Caple

If only the scoreboard listed Charlize Theron's cell number, it would provide every figure truly important to American life.

There was a full moon hanging in the night sky and it was quite a night around the majors that night. In New York, the Tigers lost their 107th game, keeping them on pace to set the record for most losses in a season. The Twins, in danger of falling three games behind Chicago, instead beat the White Sox at Comiskey Park and closed the gap to one game. Oakland, Seattle and Boston each won, maintaining their positions for the other two American League playoff spots up for grabs. The Astros beat Milwaukee 3-1 in Houston. At Puerto Rico's Hiram Bithorn Stadium, Cubs starter Matt Clement took a no-hitter and a 4-0 lead into the sixth inning, then walked the first three batters of the inning and got the hook. Montreal went on to win.

And here in St. Louis, Pujols went deep twice -- I expect to catch up with one of the home runs when I reach Louisiana -- to take the league lead, power the Cardinals to a 10-2 victory, gain a game on the Cubs and stay close to the Astros.

With the victory, La Russa became the eighth manager in major-league history to reach the 2,000-win mark. He's paid his dues -- he was fired by Jerry Reinsdorf and twice managed Rickey Henderson. He's also had his pleasures. He watched Dave Stewart take the mound every five days and saw almost every home run Mark McGwire ever hit. After winning his 2,000th game, he recalled his first.

"We were playing the Blue Jays and I remember their manager tried using a little old gamesmanship trick," La Russa said. "He scheduled a right-hander and then about 6:30, he switched to a left-hander. So what do you do? Do you stick with your guys who you've already talked to and gone over the game with or do you change the lineup around for a left-hander? That was the very first decision I made as a manager.

"I switched the lineup and we won 8-3."

The 2,000th victory was unlike most of the previous 1,999 in that Tomko pitched a complete game and La Russa didn't make his usual eight pitching changes. Has any manager ever delayed more games by walking to the mound than La Russa? His eventual Hall of Fame plaque should include the line, "Owes each fan in America 178 hours for time wasted during pitching changes."

Unfortunately for St. Louis fans, the Cardinals lost their next four games after La Russa's 2000th win, including a sweep over to the Astros, and fell out of the race. The season will end for them and 21 other teams in two weeks and the long winter of waiting for spring training beckons.

But until then, there still are two precious weeks remaining, time to sit back with a cold Bud in one hand and a hot dog in the other, keeping one eye on the field and the other on the scoreboard and savoring the pennant race.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.





ST. LOUIS

ALSO SEE:


Jim Caple Archive

Caple: Hannibal, Mo.

Caple: They will come

Caple: From The Met to The Mall

Caple: Football family values

Caple: Down the Mighty Mississipp

Caple: Bi-coastal on the bias

Caple: Invention induction

Caple: Best inventions





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