"Walt gets the players here," McGwire says, "and the fans keep them here. They have the utmost respect for ballplayers. The energy level in the ballpark every night is what sold me."
The Cardinals, who averaged 40,002 fans in their first 39 home dates, are on pace to surpass their franchise attendance record of 3.2 million, set last year with a team that lost 86 games. This year's edition, which after a three-game sweep in a weekend series against the Los Angeles Dodgers stood at 44-30 and had an 8�-game lead over the Cincinnati Reds atop the National League Central, is more worthy of the adulation. St. Louis hit 125 home runs in its first 74 games, a faster season-opening pace than any other National League team in history, and figures to challenge the major league single-season record of 264 set by the 1997 Seattle Mariners. Moreover, St. Louis has stabilized its most glaring weakness, its bullpen. At week's end Cardinals relievers were 6-11. However, after righthanders (and former starters) Alan Benes and Matt Morris returned on May 28 from medical rehab assignments in the minors, the 'pen lowered its ERA by more than half a run, to 4.80.
Though St. Louis fans for the first time since 1996 have a contender to cheer for, McGwire is almost solely responsible for this era of unprecedented interest in the Cardinals. The mutual love affair began immediately after his arrival in a trade from the Oakland A's on July 31, 1997. St. Louis hadn't had a 40-home-run hitter since 1940 ( Johnny Mize, 43) until McGwire smashed his record 70 in '98. Local TV ratings jumped 44% for over-the-air broadcasts and 133% on cable compared to the Cardinals' last non-McGwire season, in which St. Louis won its division. Fans come to Busch Stadium to see the Cardinals win and McGwire hit a home run—not necessarily in that order—and McGwire holds up his end with amazing frequency. Through Sunday he had homered in 39% of St. Louis's home games since his arrival. "There's nobody else like him," Florida manager John Boles says. "If I lived in St. Louis, I'd run out and get four season tickets, for my family dog and everybody else, just to see this guy on a daily basis. No one over the last 100 years has had the impact on the game he has. He dwarfs everybody else."
McGwire and Edmonds, who at week's end had combined for 49 home runs, have fast become inseparable friends and the most powerful examples of how players are quickly sold on St. Louis. After playing on the West Coast ( Edmonds with the Anaheim Angels), each discovered in Middle America the joys of shorter airplane flights, a tiny media contingent that includes only one traveling beat writer, and fans who arrive for batting practice, not in the third inning. McGwire signed his contract with St. Louis only 47 days after his arrival from Oakland—and only weeks before he would have become eligible for free agency. He never takes an at bat at Busch without people standing and roaring and flashbulbs popping. "He hits home runs other places, and that means he's a tough out wherever he is," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa says. "But because of the response that the fans generate here, the adrenaline kicks in, and he's a little stronger and a little quicker."
"He's right," McGwire says. "Unless you've experienced it, it's hard to explain. I know when Jim got to spring training, I didn't tell him that much. I just said, 'You'll see. You won't believe it.' "
The Cardinals acquired Edmonds on March 23 for righthander Kent Bottenfield and second baseman Adam Kennedy. "I had an idea what I was in for in my first at bat in spring training," Edmonds says. "The 7,000 people cheered as loud as anything I'd heard in Anaheim."
Though McGwire and Edmonds grew up in the Los Angeles area and in the off-season live there 10 minutes apart, the two of them never had met before Edmonds joined St. Louis. "We hit it off right away," McGwire says. He and Edmonds get together after most games, usually to share fine food and wine. "He brings me to the National League places he knows about," Edmonds says. "We sit around and talk baseball. I could listen to that man all night. And he insists on getting the check."
Jocketty planned on allowing Edmonds a few months to adjust to St. Louis before broaching the issue of a contract extension. But less than a month into the season Edmonds casually mentioned to him, "I think I may look to buy a place in St. Louis." Jocketty swooped in. He and Cardinals chairman of the board Bill DeWitt, who grew up in St. Louis, met in San Francisco on May 9 with Edmonds and his agent, Paul Cohen. They quickly reached an agreement. "Let's wait until we get back home to announce it," Edmonds told them, "so we can do it in front of our fans."
Three days later, after the news broke, the Busch Stadium crowd greeted Edmonds's first at bat against the Dodgers with an ovation that he said "made me feel like I was in the World Series." Through Sunday the ecstatic Edmonds was hitting .332 with 21 homers, 48 RBIs and a .632 slugging percentage.
Edmonds says that McGwire offered him valuable counsel. McGwire believes "players get paid way too much money." In response to the Dodgers' signing last November of Shawn Green for $14 million a year over six seasons, McGwire requested that the Cardinals announce that he and the team had agreed to pick up the 2001 option on his contract, worth $11 million, to show, he said, "not everybody is out for the money." McGwire, 36, also would like to see two big league teams disbanded to improve the quality of play and the schedule, and he has promised to finish his career in St. Louis—as soon as 2001 if there's a work stoppage when this season ends. He won't negotiate an extension with the Cards until a new labor agreement is signed. "I don't want to sign a contract that compels me to play past a labor problem," he says. "I'd be too embarrassed as a major league player if we are dumb enough to put the fans through that again."