St. Louis has the baseball pedigree that Pittsburgh desires



ST. LOUIS -- In this city, baseball is king. And queen. And everything in between.

St. Louis is a baseball town, perhaps more than any other city in America. Like Pittsburgh, it also has football and hockey. But the Rams and the Blues lie firmly in the shadow of a franchise that owns 11 World Series championships, honors 12 retired numbers and celebrates 11 Hall of Fame players.

In Pittsburgh, it's the Pirates who are overshadowed by their fellow professional franchises.

Pirates Report: Cardinals 9, Pirates 1

PG beat writers Bill Brink and Michael Sanserino recap the Pirates' loss to St. Louis in the first game of their NLDS series. (Video by Peter Diana; 10/3/2013)

Burnett reacts to Pirates' loss

The Pirates' A.J. Burnett discusses his team's loss to the Cardinals in the first game of the National League Division Series at Busch Stadium Thursday. (Video by Matt Freed; 10/3/2013)

So it is only fitting that if the Pirates want to make Pittsburgh a baseball town again and reassert themselves as one of the National League's best franchises, they have to go through St. Louis to do it.

"To get to where you're trying to get and push toward the World Series, you're going to have to beat the best teams," Pirates second baseman Neil Walker said. "You're going to have to beat the best organizations. St. Louis has been the model for that for many, many years."

About a generation before Mr. Walker, a Pittsburgh native born in 1985, little separated Pittsburgh and St. Louis in their passion and tradition for baseball.

The Cardinals had Stan Musial, Lou Brock and Bob Gibson. The Pirates had Roberto Clemente, Honus Wagner and Willie Stargell. They both had cities that adored them. They both had multiple championships.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle played with the Cardinals for one season in 1986 and learned a lot about the Cardinals culture in that year.

"It drips with tradition, with integrity, with professionalism," Mr. Hurdle said. "It's the way our organization has been for so many years as well."

But St. Louis never fell out of love with the Cardinals the way Pittsburgh did with the Pirates. Then again, in the time the Pirates had 20 consecutive losing seasons, the Cardinals won two World Series and appeared in a third.

Now, the Cardinals are the standard-bearer in the National League. They have a rich history, a promising future and an intense fan base that packs the park every single game.

"It might be cliche to say, but I still am in awe," said St. Louis native and Cardinals third baseman David Freese. "It's unbelievable."

Ever since his hiring as Pirates manager in 2010, Mr. Hurdle often has talked about his desire to "re-bond" the Pirates with Pittsburgh. It was pretty apparent the two came apart in a span of 20 years.

All season long, Mr. Hurdle has seen signs of that process. It reached an apex Tuesday night at PNC Park, where he, literally, saw a sign.

"I said that one was made for me," Hurdle said. "It was 'We're back.' "

But in order to build that relationship, the Pirates hope to build a sustainable and successful team, something Mr. Hurdle said the Cardinals have been able to do, despite their status as one of the league's small-market teams.

St. Louis is the 19th largest metropolitan area in the country, according to the 2010 Census. Pittsburgh is 22nd, with about 400,000 fewer residents.

While the Pirates have struggled to overcome the challenges of baseball's economic imbalance, the Cardinals have thrived in spite of it. The Cardinals excel in scouting, player development, player acquisition, management and coaching, Mr. Hurdle said.

"So they are a team that many look to when you try to model success," he said.

The players look to St. Louis as a model, too. Shortstop Clint Barmes, who grew up a Cardinals fan in southwestern Indiana, said the Pirates used their early games against St. Louis this season as a measuring stick.

"It was kind of a test for us, to see where we were at," Mr. Barmes said. "That made it exciting."

This is the first postseason series between the teams, but they share a lot in their histories.

Fans who are old enough remember in 1967, when one future Hall of Famer, Roberto Clemente, hit a line drive off the shin of another, Bob Gibson. The right-handed pitcher's leg was broken, but nobody realized it until he collapsed while pitching to the next batter: Willie Stargell, himself a future Hall of Famer.

They also share Stan Musial, who was born in Washington County, some 50 minutes away from Downtown Pittsburgh, and played all 22 years of his major league career with the Cardinals.

Outside the third-base entrance at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals erected a towering bronze statue of Mr. Musial, who might be the greatest Cardinal of them all.

"These people know their baseball here in St. Louis," Mr. Walker said. "They're here to support their team. And they pack it out all year long. That's something we're hoping will carry with us in Pittsburgh as well. That doesn't obviously happen overnight -- you've got to show you're going to win. You've got to show up. You've got to keep doing well. Those are the things this team's done. It's no surprise they have the support they've had for as long as they had.

"But we think we'll be there one day, too."

pirates

Michael Sanserino: msanserino@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1722 and Twitter @msanserino. First Published October 4, 2013 4:00 AM


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