For Cards on Opening Day, 'the past is still very much present'

March 26th, 2024

JUPITER, Fla. -- ’ 2022 return to the Cardinals, one that ended with a stirring second-half surge that saw him reach 703 career home runs, started not with a smile but with tears streaming down his face on Opening Day in St. Louis.

Back with St. Louis, where he authored one of the greatest 11-year runs to open an MLB career from 2001-11, Pujols eagerly looked forward to the Cardinals' time-honored tradition of having all their living Hall of Fame members -- both from the National and the club’s Hall of Fames -- back at Busch Stadium for a pregame ceremony and adorned in bright red jackets. Most of the Cards legends Pujols was familiar seeing required only one name: Ozzie, Whitey, Lou, Gibby, Red, Torre and La Russa.

While playing for the Angels and then the Dodgers, Pujols was well aware that Cardinals’ icons and mentors Lou Brock and Bob Gibson had died within a month of one another late in 2020. But the gravity of those friendship losses didn’t hit the future Hall of Famer until that '22 Opening Day, when they weren’t there to flash smiles, crack jokes or offer advice. Pujols always thought one of the things that made the Cardinals different was the way the club fully embraced its history and made sure to have its legendary players around as much as possible, such as every Opening Day at Busch Stadium.

“I knew Lou and Gibby were gone, but it didn’t really hit me until Opening Day when they weren’t there,” said Pujols, who has always credited Brock’s Spring Training drills for making him a better baserunner and Gibson’s fire for sharpening his competitive edge. “I got really emotional out there thinking about them.”

Opening Day in St. Louis has a way of stirring so many emotions within a fanbase and an organization that fully embraces its past, and in some ways shapes its future.

Before 21-year-old superstar Jordan Walker had ever played a game in St. Louis, he'd already had dinner with Ozzie Smith to talk about the expectations that come with being a Cardinal. Shortstop Masyn Winn, another young player who has been mentored by Smith, said he picked No. 0 because it was the closest digit to the retired No. 1 worn previously by “The Wizard.”

Pujols said some of his fondest memories in baseball were talking hitting with legendary Hall of Famer Stan “The Man” Musial, who would playfully refer to Pujols’ relatively small two-toned bat as “a toothpick.” This past offseason, Cards Hall of Famer Mark McGwire spent a day working on hitting drills with current stars Nolan Arenado and Lars Nootbaar and sharing stories from his 70-homer season in 1998.

“In St. Louis, the past is still very much present … if that makes sense,” said Walker, showing the wisdom of someone much more experienced than one year. “Really, you see those legendary guys all the time in St. Louis – in the clubhouse, on the field and on Opening Day. It’s super sick, for sure.”

Even though the Cardinals are one of baseball’s most storied and tradition-rich organizations, the practice of having their Hall of Famers circle the field on Opening Day and soak in adoration from the fans is a relatively new one. The club opened the Cardinals Hall of Fame in 2014 and started bringing its National and club Hall members back for Opening Day in '15. The Cardinals Hall of Fame includes 52 members, with an 11th class set to be enshrined on Sept. 7.

The Cardinals' legendary star power is so great that they can turn the behemoth Budweiser Clydesdale horses -- another Cards Opening Day tradition -- into bit players. When St. Louis hosts Miami in its Busch Stadium opener on April 4, the “Red Jackets” will be filled by National Hall of Famers Smith, Tony La Russa, Joe Torre, Ted Simmons, Whitey Herzog and Scott Rolen.

That group has taken several hits in recent years with the deaths of Bruce Sutter, Tim McCarver, Mike Shannon, Gibson and Brock. Still, Cards Hall of Famers Willie McGee, Jim Edmonds, Chris Carpenter, Vince Coleman, Ray Lankford, Jason Isringhausen, Tom Herr, Matt Holliday, Jose Oquendo and others will be on hand to ensure there’s a festive vibe at Busch Stadium.

“Back in the day, I’d see Whitey and Stan on Opening Day and it would hit me, ‘Man, this is really cool, and it doesn’t happen everywhere,’” said pitcher Lance Lynn, who is back for his second stint with the Cards. “It’s a cool day for the fans, but it’s also cool for the players to meet the ones who came before them. A lot of teams bring back former players, but this organization really embraces them.”