Last Word: A final farewell to 2007
So much from 2007 to savor; so much to anticipate in '08
It is a large coffee-table book called "Sportsman's Park: The Players, The Fans & The Game." It is like so many other beautifully illustrated and well-written baseball books that have been produced over the years, one of thousands and thousands of such publications that have celebrated the proud heritage of baseball.
This one, though, has a special meaning right now that makes this baseball fan keep turning the pages of a warm holiday present from a family member. It doesn't require a soft spot in your heart for St. Louis baseball's history to appreciate it, either.
Maybe you are experiencing the same thing, or maybe you will when the traditional release of baseball book after baseball book floods the stores next spring.
"The Last Word" has become a traditional New Year's Eve column on MLB.com, a final say on the final day of a year that resulted in hundreds of thousands of content pieces produced by Major League Baseball Advanced Media. In this case, the author will defer somewhat to this particular book, written by Dan O'Neill of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, because it perfectly captures what one wants to feel right now as a baseball fan.
The year 2007 will be talked about for many, many years, and it will be remembered for beautiful baseball moments and a lot of emotion that touched the fans on many levels. It was the year of milestone madness, no-hitters, unprecedented pennant-race drama, a torrid run by the Rockies and, finally, another Red Sox title.
Collectively speaking, there is no question that you will be back strong in 2008. It is the safest prediction ever. That already is apparent in looking at various polls, at the mind-boggling number of users who did their holiday shopping over a solid month at MLB.com, at ticket sales so far for upcoming Winter Warmups, Conventions, FanFests, Caravans or whatever your favorite team's post-holiday gathering is called. It is apparent in talking baseball with other fans. Even if you are disgusted by the chemical news of the day, you know that it will be overcome.
Baseball is always the mirror held up to society. Always. Not football, not basketball, not hockey, not soccer. Baseball. It includes a massive segment of the population, from the elite of the Majors to the guys in Rookie ball adjusting to wooden bats. Baseball always comes back. Books like "Sportsman's Park" only galvanize the tradition.
The game is forever. No other sport can match the connection of now and then.
"I remember the first time I stepped in Sportsman's Park as a kid," the late Hall of Fame baseball writer Bob Broeg is quoted in the book. "I don't think I've ever seen a sky that was a deeper blue, grass that was a greener green, or a white that was a more milkier white than those uniforms the players were wearing.
"I remember I thought to myself at the time, 'This must be what heaven looks like.'"
That is what Yankees fans must have thought in 1923, when Yankee Stadium was opened for business. That year, the home team had the best player in Major League Baseball. Babe Ruth finished the season with a career-best .393 average to go with 41 homers and 131 RBIs.
When Yankee Stadium opens for its final season in 2008, the home team will have the best player in Major League Baseball. Alex Rodriguez wears No. 13, because the No. 3 he used to wear was retired for The Bambino. A-Rod comes off a season of 54 homers, 156 RBIs, a .314 average, and career highs for on-base percentage (.422) and slugging percentage (.645).
The past always meets the present in baseball. Next July, the All-Star Game will be played there at Yankee Stadium as part of the sendoff. It is only fitting, because the game itself was invented as a way for all people to see what a player like Babe Ruth looked like on the field, playing with contemporary greats.
Here is another prediction for 2008: More people than ever are going to complain about East Coast bias, specifically New York bias. That happens all the time, anyway. But in 2008, you are going to constantly relive New York baseball heritage, not only because of Yankee Stadium's swan song, but because the same thing is happening at Shea Stadium. It will be replaced by Citi Field in 2009, just as Yankee Stadium will be replaced by another Yankee Stadium in The Bronx.
On page 40 of "Sportsman's Park," there is a black-and-white picture that ought to provide goosebumps. It is a pair of young broadcasters behind a microphone, the voices of the Cardinals. One of them has on a pair of glasses, and his name is Harry Caray. In 2008, the tradition of seventh-inning stretch renditions of "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" will elevate in importance because it will be the 100th anniversary of the song.
Harry used to love to help Cub fans sing it loud. Now here he is in this picture, next to Jack Buck. Jack's son, Joe, worked the last postseason for FOX; Harry's grandson, Chip, worked the last postseason for TBS. Time marches on, and the memories of two baseball broadcasters never will be forgotten.
"When Harry and I were doing the games together, we were as good as a team as there ever was," Jack Buck said in his own bio, re-quoted here. "His style and mine were so different that it made for a balanced broadcast. The way we approached the job, with the interest and love both of us had for the game, made our work kind of special."
Craig Biggio loved the game. He is done playing it, having said goodbye as a player in 2007, and now the five-year wait begins for his entry to Cooperstown. Maybe the greatest day of 2007 was when Frank Thomas lofted home run No. 500 in Toronto, followed hours later by Biggio stroking five hits for Houston, including No. 3,000 in a game won on Carlos Lee's thrilling walk-off homer.
Stan Musial used to play his home games at Sportsman's Park. He finished 25 homers shy of 500, but no one else had five homers in a single day, which he accomplished in a doubleheader. He had 3,630 hits and a lifetime .331 average over 22 seasons, all spent with the Redbirds. Stan the Man just turned 86, and few people are more beloved around the sport. It is a privilege to see him. If you can catch him playing his harmonica, as he always has been wont to do at baseball banquets, then you know what happiness is.
"I consciously memorized the speed at which every pitcher in the league threw his fastball, curve, and slider," Musial is quoted in the book. "Then, I'd pick up the speed of the ball in the first 30 feet of its flight and knew how it would move once it crossed the plate."
Tony Gwynn learned a lot during the course of his own Hall of Fame career from talking batting with The Man. Musial won six National League batting titles; Gwynn won eight. Last July, Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. were inducted into the Hall of Fame, and for this particular fan, no other moment in the whole baseball calendar year could compare to that Induction Weekend at a modern-day Woodstock in upstate New York.
For all of the drama, though, there was absolutely nothing that Gwynn and Ripken could do to ensure drama in the postseason coverage that TBS brought viewers in its first baseball October. It is still staggering to think that almost every TBS series was a sweep. That network had exclusive coverage of all four best-of-five Division Series rounds, and the Diamondbacks, Rockies and Red Sox were a combined 9-0, with only the Yankees managing a lone victory in their series loss to Cleveland.
TBS also carried the National League Championship Series, and the Rockies swept that one as well, ousting Arizona in four. So TBS, in its first postseason, televised 17 games -- one over the minimum and 10 under the max. But looking back now, does it even matter? TBS had the one game that is most memorable from the entire month of October. It was game No. 163 for the Rockies and Padres, a Monday "play-in" to decide the NL Wild Card, and Colorado finally won it when Matt Holliday did his face-first slide into home on Jamey Carroll's hit to right off closer emeritus Trevor Hoffman.
Did you know that if the Mets would have won on the last day of the regular season, there would have been three days of "play-in" games to set the field for the postseason? Tom Glavine -- one of the many who reached major milestones in 2007 when he won his 300th game -- allowed Florida seven runs in one-third of an inning and that was that as the Phillies won their game that day to clinch the NL East.
Now Glavine is reunited with the Braves for 2008. Now Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera have been traded from that Florida team to Detroit.
There is so much to look forward to in Major League Baseball.
There is so much to look back at.
On page 88, 29-year-old St. Louis Browns rookie Bobo Holloman is all smiles after becoming the third pitcher in Major League history to throw a no-hitter in his first start. He did that to the Philadelphia A's on May 6, 1953, in front of 2,473 fans at Sportsman's Park.
That year, the Browns finished 54-100.
The next year, they finished 54-100, too. But in that 1954 season, they were the Baltimore Orioles. Sportsman's Park was reduced to one Major League club. And eventually it would give way for a series of Busch Stadiums, just as two New York ballparks will give way after one more go-round in 2008.
Baseball always changes, its fans go through mood swings, and it occasionally reveals societal issues that need addressed. Then it goes on, it comes back in the springtime, and as another year ends, fans eagerly awaits the dawn of a new season.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.