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Lou Brock was our hero

Thank you, Number 20. You’ve circled the bases and are safe at home

ST. LOUIS — It is ironic that in the same week Cardinals icon Lou Brock passed away, he was preceded in death by the man Mets fans refer to as “The Franchise:"  Tom Seaver.

A story came out of hiding upon hearing of Tom Terrific’s passing. In Seaver’s rookie year of 1967 he was named to the All-Star team for the game played in Anaheim. As Seaver tells it, he was looking around the National League locker room and admiring all the stars in the room that he grew up idolizing from afar; now at the age of 22 he was not only in the same room, he was one of them. As he gazed upon Willie Mays, Henry Aaron and Roberto Clemente, among others, his trance was broken by Lou Brock saying, “Hey kid, would you fetch me a Coke?” Seaver said he never let Lou forget that moment when the Cardinals star mistook the baby-faced Seaver for a clubhouse boy, reminding him every summer in Cooperstown — one Hall of Famer to another.

In typical self-deprecating fashion, Brock told the same story without embarrassment.

These two baseball immortals were linked by further irony. Seaver, who was known as maybe the most cerebral pitcher of his day who, oh by the way, happened to throw 98 miles an hour with knee-buckling breaking stuff, was robbed of his mind in his later years by Levy body dementia — a cruel way to go.

Such as it was with Brock — Larcenous Lou, The Base Burglar — who made his indelible impression on the game with his legs but lost one of them in the winter of his life as a result of diabetes.

In New York, Seaver earned his nickname by reversing years of the Mets being looked upon as lovable losers by his businesslike approach and an uncommon maturity in someone so young.

Here in St. Louis, we knew our hero simply as Lou.  Wait — more like LOOOOUUUUUUUUU, which would rise up from the seats at Busch Stadium every time he would come to bat. He was beloved because of his skill, his outright disdain for the pitchers and catchers who tried to keep him from stealing bases — or even getting on base.

When the name Lou Brock comes up, it doesn’t take long before The Trade comes up: Brock for Broglio. 56 years after it happened, that deal with the Cubs is any Cardinal fan’s trump card in a debate with a Cubs fan. That deal has a before view and an after. The before opinion was that the Cardinals got fleeced; Broglio had won 38 games in 1962 and 1963, a top-of-the-rotation guy who would anchor the Cubs’ starting staff. Brock was simply an outfielder with no place to play — Billy Williams was becoming a star in left field on his way to the Hall of Fame. Sure, Brock had some power — he once hit a homer to the centerfield bleachers at the old Polo Grounds, where the fence was 464 feet from home plate — and he could run a little bit but he was just a .250-hitting spare part. Bob Gibson echoed the sentiments of a lot of people when he said he was unimpressed by the deal. He said he never had any trouble with Brock as a hitter and thought of him as “just another outfielder.”

Cardinals G.M. Bing Devine would be fired two months after the trade, but this was a masterstroke to walk out the door with. He saw in Brock just what the Cardinals needed: a catalyst in the leadoff spot, someone to rival the Dodgers’ Maury Wills, the acknowledged best base stealer of the day. Left field had become a vacuum for the Cardinals with the retirement of Stan Musial, and he would be plugged in to fill that void. The team was expected to contend for the pennant but was lagging far behind, playing sub-.500 ball. This team needed a kick in the pants, and Devine and manager Johnny Keane gave Lou his mission: get on base and look to steal at every opportunity.

Plugged in he was, and spark the Cardinals’ offense he did, though his Redbird debut was less than inspiring – a strikeout as a pinch-hitter in Houston. But then he took off, hitting in 15 of the next 16 games, raising his average 32 points and stealing eight bases.

That was where the after-view of the deal took root, where it stands as a mighty oak today. He finished 1964 batting .348 as a Cardinal, stealing 33 bases and leading the Cardinals to a dramatic pennant win on the final day of the season and then taking the World Series against the Yankees.

Gibson recalled being in the delirious Cardinal locker room after clinching the pennant and hearing a reporter tell Musial that it was too bad Stan hadn’t stuck around for one more year.

“If I had stuck around for one more year,” Gibson remembered The Man saying, “we don’t win the pennant because we don’t trade for Lou Brock.”

From there Brock piled up the hits and stole the hearts of National League catchers with every steal of a base. Twelve consecutive 50-steal seasons — heck, talk about your different times: the best stolen base total last year was only 46. Fourteen years before McGwire’s home run rampage, Cardinal fans were counting down Brock’s pursuit of the all-time single-season steals record, held by Wills. He got that done with room to spare — on September 9 — and finished with 118. Three years later he grabbed Ty Cobb’s career record on an August night in San Diego.

More quietly, he was workmanlike in getting on base; four 200-hit seasons, four more with over 190, and soon he was knocking on the door of another milestone. Fittingly, it came against the Cubs, and pitcher Dennis Lamp. One pitch after Lamp knocked Brock down, Brock sent a screamer back up the middle and off the hand of the Cubs’ pitcher. Brock sprinted past first with his 3,000th hit and into immortality. Former teammate Mike Shannon summed it up perfectly from the broadcast booth: “So typical of the man.”

Sure, Brock was a superstar in this town, and he made the cover of "Sports Illustrated" — a noteworthy achievement back before followers and page views were the measure of celebrity — but Lou was a quiet superstar on the national scene. He was truly ours. He wasn’t a national pitchman, but he let his fingers do the walking in a commercial for the Yellow Pages, he had his own soda, produced by Vess — the Broc-a-pop (a fruit punch flavored drink that went down fast on hot summer days on the paper route), and folks still bring up his promotion to keep the heat (or rain) off of your head, the Brockabrella. (Google it, kids)

Mostly, he just went about his business without a lot of fanfare. Yet baseball people knew his worth.  The other day Adam Wainwright was nominated (again) for the Roberto Clemente Award, an all-encompassing honor rewarding skill on the field, sportsmanship, team leadership, and community involvement. I saw a graphic on television noting the Cardinals that had won the award, and first on the list was Brock in 1975. Is anyone who has ever had an encounter with the man be surprised to know that? I doubt it.

RELATED: Adam Wainwright named Cardinals nominee for Roberto Clemente Award

Back in the day, KSD-TV ran a special after Brock became the stolen base king. Named after his trademark path to a steal, “Thirteen Steps to Glory,” several knowledgeable baseball folks weighed in on what made Brock so great. Teammate-turned-opponent-turned broadcaster Tim McCarver said Lou was unmatched at intimidating the opposition and turned the art of basestealing into a science. Johnny Bench, who is the beginning and end of all discussions when it comes to the art of catching and throwing out runners, said that Brock had no fear and ran with the knowledge that all it took was one little mistake between the pitcher and the catcher, and Brock would be safe 80% of the time. Gibson, his long-time teammate and no stranger to postseason success, said that Brock was a guy he wanted playing behind him in a must-win kind of game.

The numbers bear that out: a career postseason average of .391, including back-to-back World Series averages of .414 and .464 in 1967 and 1968. Gibson was named the MVP in ’67, winning a new Corvette from "Sport" magazine; recognizing Brock’s value to the team’s winning effort, Gibson declared that Brock should have gotten a car as well — KMOX Radio boss Robert Hyland followed through and bought Brock a car.

After making the Hall of Fame in 1985, Brock continued to be an ambassador for the game he grew up with a passion for, and threw that passion into every local charitable cause he could find, whether it was donating scholarships to deserving students or teaching the game of baseball to the less fortunate.

We in St. Louis were reminded of his humility when Rickey Henderson surpassed Lou's career steals mark. Lou was there in Oakland that afternoon and to no one's surprise Rickey took the opportunity to proclaim himself "the greatest of all time." To no one's surprise here in St. Louis, Brock stood with Rickey and humbly smiled at the passing of his achievement.

It is at this point I throw in a personal note. Back in the days of the Bush Leaguers, when a group of us at the station would join Mike Bush and play softball games for charity, we often played a group of local celebrities to kick off the Baseball Camp for the Hearing Impaired. On one such occasion, I brought my young son, John. I was able to introduce him to Lou and Lou couldn’t have been nicer, asking John if he played baseball, too, which he did. Midway through the game or so, Lou came up as a pinch-hitter. I was playing first base, and acknowledging that Lou was probably 60 or so at that point but still looking like he could fill in for the Cardinals if needed, I moved to the edge of the outfield grass — mostly out of self-defense. Sure enough, he hit a rocket that came right towards me — if the metrics could have been recorded for that game, the barrel rate and exit velocity would have been off the charts. If I hadn’t stuck my glove hand in front of my face, I would have needed reconstructive surgery — I have no doubt about that. Fortunately, the ball stuck in my glove; Lou saw me after the game and gave me trouble about robbing him of a hit — HA! — but I believe that those words to me made quite an impression on my son. And it was in little gestures like that one that set Lou apart from others — going out of his way to make someone else feel good.

We all knew that Lou wasn’t faring well — battling cancer and Type 2 Diabetes and who all knows what else can take a lot out of a person — but when he stopped appearing in public a sense of foreboding began creeping in. That was why it was so important that we all got to see Lou one more time — on his birthday, this strong man housed in a feeble shell of what he once was but smiling that Lou Brock smile, joining in to the well-wishers that gathered in front of his house — COVID-19 distanced — and sang “Happy Birthday” to the great man. He was a man warmed by the moment, feeling the love we all felt him give to us. It was a fabulous moment, and as it turned out, the last one we’ll take from his life.

Thank you, Number 20. You’ve circled the bases and are safe at home.