ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Cardinals unveiled their new Hall of Fame Monday, part of the Ballpark Village that rose from a vacant lot next to Busch Stadium and now appears as a seamless part of the visual beyond left field.
The museum itself stands out -- perhaps the finest of its kind, it's a physical documentation of the decades-long effort by the team to prioritize those who've helped build its history. The Cardinals have used primary documents and objects from their own history, along with some from the Browns and the Negro League's St. Louis Stars. There's the Branch Rickey jersey from 1919, the Eddie Gaedel jersey once worn by current Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr.
And the museum doesn't forsake the present Cardinals, either, providing an interactive set of touchscreens for fans to learn more about the real-time updated roster.
What's perhaps most telling about this grand opening, in conjunction with raucous Opening Day festivities so much of St. Louis celebrated in the driving rain and cold as the Cardinals beat the Reds, 5-3, is how seamlessly past merges into present, both in the museum and in the current Cardinals landscape.
We're not surprised to see Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Ozzie Smith, stars from decades ago, at Busch Stadium. They aren't just here when the museum opens. They're here a lot. Branch Rickey signed Red Schoendienst, 91, and he's here every day. They're here for the home opener, throughout the season, in baseball Octobers. And Octobers with baseball, lately, are virtually a given in St. Louis.
"History can happen any day at the ballpark," said Brian Finch, manager of the Hall of Fame Museum, during a tour Monday morning.
He's right about baseball generally -- which is part of why we love it, right? Any game we go to, someone can pitch a perfect game, or hit four home runs, or do something we've simply never seen before.
But the Cardinals are making a lot of their history over the past few years. They've made the playoffs each of the past three seasons, including two pennants and one World Series win. And nothing we saw on Monday altered my view that they're as likely as any team to add to those accomplishments in 2014.
They've featured players like Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina, players you can easily see returning to St. Louis, graying and cheered, in the decades to come. Exactly who among the younger group of pitchers -- like Monday's winner, Michael Wacha, or Carlos Martinez, who dominated the Reds out of the bullpen, or Trevor Rosenthal, who ended the game after a bit of uncharacteristic suspense -- will join the tradition is a big part of the fun if you're rooting for the Cardinals right now.
The Cardinals don't feel like a baseball team right now. They feel like a continuum of baseball history.
You can see it in their promotions, that Michael Wacha NLCS MVP bobblehead, NL Pennant and NL Championship jersey coming a month before a celebration of that 1964 World Series replica World Series ring.
They recently employed Albert Pujols, perhaps the closest anyone in St. Louis will come to replicating Stan Musial. And the current team is enjoying success that even Pujols' Cardinals never had, thanks in part to Wacha, a compensation pick for losing Pujols. (And by the way, don't sleep on Stephen Piscotty, the other Pujols compensation pick, knocking on the door at Triple-A.)
The Cardinals look to be in the midst of the kind of run that's going to stand alongside that 1942-46 run, the 1964-68 run and that 1982-87 run, and might even exceed them all. Schoendienst to Brock and Gibson to Smith to Tony La Russa and Mike Matheny, one after another. It is to the Cardinals' credit that they keep their greatest around. I asked Lou Brock why the team had so much success getting everybody who mattered in franchise history to come back so often.
"They have a place for us," Brock told me Monday morning. "They do not throw us out with the dishwater. We're a part of that fabric."
Smith echoed those sentiments. It was interesting to watch Smith seem to struggle with the idea that he, or anyone important to the Cardinals, wouldn't show up for Opening Day, for an NLCS game, for one of the many days the team honors its past over the course of the season.
"It's just the way it is," Smith said. "It's just -- it is. And you always want to be a part of this, because the organization has always made you feel a part of it. This is a special place, and I think people realize what a special place it is. I think the mere fact that when guys come here and play, a lot of guys remain here, because it's a great place to play, to raise a family. The baseball here is just second to none.
It's just been the order -- the order of business. You spend any time here, it just becomes part of your way of life."
That kind of legacy could be daunting for a young player. But the new group seems to fit right in.
Matheny was asked prior to the game whether he'd take any extra steps to calm Wacha down prior to going out and pitching in front of the sellout home opener crowd. Matheny seemed amused as he answered, considering what Wacha had already mastered in his first 15 starts, five of them coming in the 2013 postseason.
"No, didn't talk to him last year in Pittsburgh, didn't talk to him in the World Series, any more than we normally do," Matheny said during his pregame presser. "I think there's a lot of comfort there, in the fact that we just go about business around here. There's some things going on on the outside. Yeah, he's gonna see parades, and horses, and all kinds of stuff going on. But when it comes down to it, he's gonna have his routine."
That's precisely what Wacha did, holding the Reds to a lone run over six innings. To be fair, the driving rain meant Wacha pitched without the distraction of those famous Clydesdales, though those horses certainly didn't stop him throughout his remarkable postseason run last year. The Cardinals weren't really challenged until the ninth, with Molina providing the home team with a three-run cushion, thanks to his bases-clearing double in the first.
Guessing which young pitchers will matter enough to join the Cardinals pantheon is impossible. But Molina, who seemed like a light-hitting defensive specialist at catcher just yesterday, just played in his tenth Opening Day in St. Louis, this time as the single most important member of the Cardinals. He's not just an elite defensive catcher and potent hitter, he's a power center of his own in the clubhouse, with younger players coming to him to talk. And those conversations are seldom perfunctory. He's ready not just to stick around, but be a mentor, the way Lou Brock was this spring to Kolten Wong, the way Bob Gibson was to Trevor Rosenthal last fall.
I asked Molina whether he thought about the time, someday, when other Cardinals will be thrilling fans with their exploits, and he'll be watching like the Cardinals Hall of Famers were Monday afternoon, seated in honored places around home plate as the 2014 team lined up along the first base line.
"It never gets old," Molina said. "It was fun today, to see all the Hall of Famers ... I mean, for me, I don't try to think that way. I just try to go, day-by-day, try to think about now. Whatever happens, happens. But I mean, I would love to be one, one day, with those jackets." He couldn't suppress a smile. "But right now, I'm not thinking about it."
Cardinals fans weren't, either. They don't have to worry about whether the most important people in their lives for 162 games or more will be around every April (and most Octobers) after their playing days are over. And right now, they don't even have to worry where the next Molina or the next Wainwright is coming from.
As Ozzie Smith put it, "It's just the way it is."