What were the odds? First of all, there are 147 days left until the new millennium and this issue is the 147th of the year! Secondly, the rest of this editorial will deal with coincidences that are truly remarkable in the world of America's pasttime - baseball. We ask your indulgence so this editor can take a trip down memory lane today with a feel-good commentary this weekend. After all, Sunday is "National Admit You're Happy Day!" Sunday is also the Feast of Saint Dominic, that indomitable founder of the Order of Preachers, now called Dominicans who endeavored to bring the happiness of everlasting life to so many aided by that ultimate "happy weapon" - the Holy Rosary imparted to him by the Blessed Virgin Mary - the "Queen of Happiness." We know, that's not one of her official many, many titles, but think about it. Could anyone have ever brought us more happiness than Our Lady? After all, she gave birth to Infinite Happiness!
And speaking of happy, this editor was thrilled for home-run king Mark McGwire Thursday night in St. Louis when he hit his 500th homerun into the grassy knoll in centerfield at Busch Stadium, becoming the youngest and fastest to reach that plateau in baseball history and only the 16th all time to reach this lofty goal. Even though the Padres won, we have to admit we're disappointed that our own Tony "Mr Padre" Gwynn fell just short of getting his 3000th hit on the same night. It would have been so great to for Tony to accomplish this milestone on the same night and game as McGwire, something unprecedented in the annals of baseball. But it was not meant to be. Oh, Tony will get his 3000th this weekend but it won't be the same if he gets it on the next leg of the Pads' roadtrip - Montreal - a city where baseball is merely tolerated between hockey season! When he does get the hit he will be only the 22nd player to reach the 3000 hit goal. What were the odds it would happen in the same game? With apologies to Yankee and Red Sox fans, had it occurred, it couldn't have happened in a better setting than baseball-crazy St. Louis, the heart of America's pasttime, where not only the baseball-oriented The Sporting News has been published for over a century, but is the town which will forever be famous for Stan "The Man" Musial", the quiet Polish Catholic who literally put St. Louis on the map and is still an icon in this Gateway City today. Yes, he was there in person ready to congratulate Anthony Keith Gwynn and Big Mac as a packed stadium and millions watching on TV awaited something that had never been done in one game throughout the glorious history of baseball.
St. Louis has been undergoing a renaissance of late, both in its redevelopment and in its spirituality. Led by the Holy Father's hand-picked man, Archbishop Justin Rigali, the area has been in the spotlight with an aggressive rebirth of the faith among the flock within the Archdiocese. St. Louis, named after the holy king of France, has been in the international spotlight for the past year for its happy times: from McGwire hitting his 70th homerun in Busch Stadium last September 27th to Pope John Paul II visiting the city in January to this happy celebratory event Thursday night. On the eve of the Transfiguration, this city was transfigured into the mecca of baseball immortality.
This editor is no stranger to Cardinal baseball. Growing up in the Twin Cities in the 50's we had no major league team until 1961 when the old Washington Senators relocated to Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington as the Minnesota Twins, a team yours truly would work for during the 1965 All Star Game and World Series as a press liaison. High School and Junior College years were spent in Carthage, Missouri at the Oblates of Mary Immaculate minor seminary Our Lady of the Ozarks, now the headquarters for the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix, the Vietnamese Order where hundreds of thousands migrate to on the Solemnity of the Assumption to celebrate Our Lady of La Vang. During those six years in southwest Missouri we listened to almost every Cardinal game, cheering on Stan the Man, Red Shoendiest, Ken Boyer et alii and yours truly became an avid Redbird fan, capped by taking in a game at Busch Stadium in August 1963 the night before our class was to enter Immaculate Heart of Mary Novitiate in Alton, Illinois just north across the river from St. Louis. We finalized that night of R&R before going into religious closure by closing "Gaslight Square" which, whether it was our carousing from bar to bar or the sociology of the times, was shut down a few years later. That "last hurrah" capped a three-day splurge that began in Crystal City, Missouri south of the city with classmate George Henry, who went on to work in the Archdiocesan Education Department in St. Louis. While visiting with George we got into a pickup game in his driveway with a pretty good player and childhood friend of George's: a fellow who would go on to star at Princeton and then with the New York Knicks before entering the world of politics: Bill Bradley.
Since we're dropping names, we were forever indoctrinated to the game by Harry Caray and Jack Buck over those six years in Carthage as daily they gave us the colorful scenario through a feed from KMOX in St. Louis. This was long before ol' Harry would go on to become famous as the Cub's announcer and Jack was just a young announcer learning the craft. After Harry had a tiff with owner Auggie Busch over a few indiscretions, such as making passes at the latter's wife and downing too many of the owner's brew during the games, Jack became the head man and has been the top banana in the Cardinal booth ever since. It was Jack who made the memorable calls on history Thursday night. Jack's partner for a few years following Caray's departure was another young announcer named Jerry Gross. In the early seventies Jerry would navigate his way to San Diego to become the voice of the Padres, then the voice of the Chargers and conduct a popular talk show in the late seventies, one which this editor produced along with the Charger games on KSDO Radio. It was in this capacity as a producer and Sports Director for a smaller FM station in San Diego that this editor had a press pass to all San Diego sporting events. Talk about happy! Those responsibilities included covering the San Diego State Aztec basketball games and getting to know a young, stocky point guard who, to this day, still holds the record for assists at the University. That guard was none other than Tony Gywnn, who also was a fair player on the diamond. Besides being selected by the NBA Clippers, he was drafted by the Padres in June 1981 a month after this writer said "I do" to his bride Cyndi.
There are so many parallels. Such as the milestone duo landmarks that occurred Thursday night were 78 years to the day when the first game was broadcast over the airwaves. It happened in Pittsburgh with the Pirates knocking off the Phillies with Harold Arlin calling the play by play for KDKA. Speaking of broadcasts, it was on TV that this editor, along with many other Padre fans watched their struggling Friars get no-hit in Atlanta by Phil Niekro twenty six years ago - August 5th, 1973! That was one of the few unhappy moments we can remember. The rest has been relatively happy us for baseball and the Padres have given us - over the last few years - many, many joys, especially last year with their unbelievable run through the National League before facing the immovable object in the World Series. We're speaking of the Yankee dynasty, not the rude Yankee fans in the bleachers! This year has been full of ups and downs just as in life, with a 14-game winning streak followed by their current slump where they've dropped into double digits behind the front runners. But that's minor compared to the moment Thursday night when time stood still. And we waited and waited...
But back to Tony and Mark. There are so many parallels. Gwynn and McGwire were born three years apart and forty miles separating them; Tony in Los Angeles on May 9, 1960 and Big Mac in Pomona on October 1, 1963. Both attended and starred for their teams in Southern California; Tony at SDSU where he still remains the only player in WAC history to be recognized as All-Conference in two sports, and Mac at USC where he played for the USC Trojans. Both were coached by Jim Dietz, the head coach of the Aztecs for three decades who converted McGwire from a pitcher to a first baseman so he could bat more often. Smart move, that Dietz, who also lobbied for the new state-of-the-art ballpark on the campus of San Diego State and named it Tony Gywnn Stadium. Both players were drafted by West Coast teams; Tony by San Diego, Mac by Oakland. Both have won gold glove awards; Tony twice, Mac once. Both have played in World Series; Tony in 1984 and last year, Big Mac in 1988, 1989 and 1990 for the A's. Both have won batting titles; Tony a record-tying eight batting championship; Mac the Home Run Champion in the American League in 1996 and last year's National League Champ. Both have set milestones; Tony leading all active players in total hits, Big Mac leading all active players in long balls.
However, lost on many are the parallels that really mean something. Both are extremely active in their communities and have established foundations to help others as well as being acknowledged by Major League Baseball as recipients of the highly coveted Roberto Clemente Man of the Year Award and the Branch Rickey Award for outstanding community service by a Major League Player. Other than Cal Ripken, who himself is approaching the 3000 hit mark in the near future and already holds the record for most consecutive games played, no two men are more revered and above reproach than Tony and Big Mac. Both are well-liked and respected and stand not only as ambassadors of baseball but as "apostles of good will" for all mankind.
Finally, both have met with the two most respectable Catholics of our century; Tony with Mother Teresa during her two times she was in San Diego, once for an assembly at the University of San Diego and again while in the hospital recovering from pneumonia in her last years. Big Mac had the extreme privilege of meeting Pope John Paul II this past January in St. Louis where the Cardinal kissed the Pope's ring and presented him with an autographed bat, ball and jersey. The parallels are so Catholic. Just consider the nicknames of the two teams: Padres and Cardinals. Other than the Angels from up the road in Anaheim, you don't get much more Catholic in monikers. Mark McGwire hit his record 70th homer on the Feast of Saint Vincent de Paul last year and Tony has long supported Father Joe Carroll's Saint Vincent de Paul Center in downtown San Diego, in the shadow of where the new ballpark will go in the East Village, scheduled to open in 2003. (That last may be stretching the parallels a bit, but we had to find an excuse to get Fr. Joe's name into this column.) Both cities were named after saints and this day - Thursday, August 5th, 1999 belonged to St. Louis, sharing the spotlight with the commemoration of the Dedication of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome. We doubt Our Lady minded all the attention coming from the circular colisseum in downtown St. Louis Thursday night for it was on her birthday last year that Big Mac hit his 62nd homerun, breaking Roger Maris' record 61 dingers in 1961. No doubt most of the hierarchy of St. Louis were either at or tuned into the game. We all need a release and baseball provides an excellent one, especially when the hierarchy of the game involves two outstanding players and citizens as Tony Gywnn and Mark McGwire. How can one not be happy with what they've both accomplished? In conclusion, Thursday night's milestone assured Cooperstown's canonization of a Padre and a Cardinal! And, despite all the human problems in Major League Baseball and society in general, God has to be smiling down on this hierarchy of the game. It was through God synchronizing His time with man's time that He permitted man to experience a moment of ecstatic happiness for baseball fans. But, in a reminder of Whose in charge, He didn't give us the full wallop as we expected; His way of saying "I'm in charge!" for to have both feats accomplished on the same night in the same game would have been "Heaven on earth!" and He just wants us to have our priorities in order. Humanly this editor is a bit down that Tony didn't reach the milestone in St. Louis for it would have been the perfect setting, but then the final parallel comes into play: Tony got his 2,000th hit on August 6, 1993. Guess it's only fitting that six years from the day, he reaches the Holy Grail of Baseball even if it is in apathetic Montreal. Oh, it's also his Mom Vendella's 64th birthday! Big Mac hit his record setting homer last year on our Heavenly Mother's birthday; Tony should get his record setting 3000th hit on his earthly mother's birthday. The fans in San Diego will fete Tony big time next Friday when he returns home and we're hoping to be there. Regardless, we thank God for the chance to witness to Perfection and near perfection!