It may have snowed in Arizona last week, but, according to baseball, spring has already begun. Stephen Strasburg, one of the game's young phenoms, took the mound on Saturday against the Mets, and the Cubs, well, even my Cubs have hope.
Down in Jupiter, Florida, the budding Cardinals' season is shaping up to be, in part, a tribute to one of their all-time greats. Stan Musial died just over a month ago. He retired long before I was born, and being a noncontroversial figure, the media never made too much of a fuss about him.
Last week, Garrison Keillor featured a poem about Musial on The Writer's Almanac. Simply titled "Musial," it was written by George Bilgere, an English professor and St. Louis native. Bilgere's father owned a local car dealership frequented by ballplayers, and the result is two of the most quintessentially American lines of poetry ever written:
My father once sold a Chevy
to Stan Musial, the story goes
It was enough to pique this poet's interest in Musial. Dive into his statistics some time and you'll find they're otherworldly. He would have been a sabermetrician's darling, if anyone had yet conceived of sabermetrics. He had a great batting eye, walking more than twice as often as he struck out, and when he made contact -- which was almost always -- he hit with power.
But Musial's reputation was even more remarkable. The inscription on his statue outside of Busch Stadium reads: "Here stands baseball's perfect warrior. Here stands baseball's perfect knight." His biographers have struggled to find fault with him, just to make him seem more human. He was Philip Roth's Swede without the fall.
It's no wonder that Bilgere remembers Musial with the sheen of a hero, comparing that visit to his dad's dealership to Greek mythology, how:
in the old myths, a bored god
dresses up like one of us, and falls
through a summer thunderhead
I think we all felt this way about our baseball heroes when we were young. I plastered my walls with Ryne Sandberg posters, saved his news clippings and always wanted to play second base.
And we can also relate to the other side of Bilgere's poem, when he contrasts his vision of the saintly ball player with the un-idealized world outside of baseball, and with his father's very real struggles:
the dealership was failing,
the marriage a heap of ash.
In a potentially interesting twist, a St. Louis TV station interviewed Stan Musial's grandson about the poem. I thought that he, if anyone, might bring Bilgere's god to earth, but he just commented on Garrison Keillor's reading, saying, "I love the guy's voice."
And maybe it's better that way. Spring is here again. Let baseball be played in its cathedrals, and let our childhood gods stay gods.