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There was, everyone agreed on baseball's Opening Day, only one team in the major leagues certain to win its division championship. There was, in fact, only one question: When? Memorial Day, July 4th or Labor Day? By one of those days the St. Louis Cardinals would have raced through the Eastern Division of the National League like an SDS detachment coursing through Harvard Yard. The Cardinals, after all, had won pennants in 1967 and 1968 and now they had added names like Torre and Pinson and Giusti to a roster already loaded with such old familiars as Gibson and McCarver, Flood, Brock, Shannon and Javier.
Last Sunday, with the 1969 season less than three weeks old, this modern juggernaut was six games away, down there in last place with New York and with the Expos, who were not born a year ago. Mr. Panic was walking across the Mississippi River toward the Gateway Arch.
The Chicago Cubs, tossed aside as mere pretenders, won 11 of their first 12 games, including successive shutouts over the Cardinals. But, as if one agitator was not bad enough, there were the Pittsburgh Pirates, supposedly building for 1976 or 1985. They beat the Cubs in both games of a doubleheader. Mr. Panic was checking the St. Louis football schedules for fall television.
There was a popular explanation for the early failures of the Cardinals. The people who buy baseball tickets and six-packs of Bud said the Cardinals were "Fat Cats"—overpaid and undercompetitive. To the accompaniment of some fairly strident caterwauling before the home folks in Busch Stadium, they lost eight of their first nine games and were shut out three times in six days. The lone victory came against the Expos, and it was the result of a bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the ninth.
The St. Louis players resented the reception they were getting. "They are not entitled to abuse us because of how much money we are making," Bob Gibson, the pitcher, said when the team arrived in Chicago last week. "Nobody resents what a doctor makes. You can call a doctor on the phone and he will charge you $10. I don't read that." Tim McCarver, the catcher, said, "We do our job the best we can. That's what we get paid for. Besides, with the tax structure in this country today, nobody's making any money anyway."
But this was so much talk. The Cardinals simply were in a dreadful team slump. Every opponent seemed to pitch like Mickey Lolich, hit like Jim Northrup and field like Al Kaline. Lou Brock and Curt Flood, the men who usually ignite the Cardinal offense, were almost automatic outs at the plate. They were on base together only six times in the Cardinals' first 16 games—and St. Louis lost 10 of them. Things were so bad that Brock could not even reach first base to get picked off.
The Cardinals have been through disastrous slumps before. As Curt Flood said, "Streaks—good and bad—come at strange times. Last year no one noticed we had a bad May because we had a real good record [13-5] in April. The trouble with this losing streak is that it's happening right at the start of the season, when everyone can see things perfectly. But we'll start to click soon and go on a streak the other way."
Manager Red Schoendienst, perhaps the most unperturbable man in baseball, approaches these slumps with characteristic calm. He never juggles his lineup like a Gene Mauch or a Bill Rigney, nor does he hold long clubhouse meetings to discuss situations or issue ultimatums. Throughout this unproductive period his Cardinals managed to remain lively, communicative and fun-loving. Their clubhouse still was a branch of a local discoth�que, with music blaring from all directions, and the players could laugh. In Philadelphia, for instance, Brock spotted a young couple kissing in the second deck. "Hey, hey, hey," he yelled. "Cut that out." The other Cardinals started to laugh at the young girl and young boy. "Do it again," Brock said, "and we'll all give you a standing ovation." The couple declined.
Nevertheless, the Cardinals were still in last place last Saturday night when they played the Phillies at Connie Mack Stadium. The Cubs and the Pirates both had won earlier in the day and, if St. Louis lost, the team would be six games behind in the loss column. It is somewhat ridiculous to say a Saturday night game in Philadelphia in April is crucial—but the Cards considered this one big.
Schoendienst made one slight change in the lineup: he dropped Brock from first to second in the batting order. The clubs were tied after eight innings, then Reliever Barry Lersch retired the first two Cardinals in the ninth. Brock came to the plate, he and his .120 batting average. This time he hit a long home run, and the hit seemed to inflame the Cardinals. They scored five more runs, with McCarver hitting a grand slam home run, and for the first time in 1969 they had staged what could be called a rally. For 24 hours, anyway, it seemed that the turning point had been reached.