The Natural...opening night reflections

John J. Hopkins Apr. 8, 2007, 7:01am

One of the best baseball movies of all time is the 1984 classic, "The Natural."

Starring the ageless Robert Redford, it tells the story of Iowa born farm boy Roy Hobbs, who has but one simple baseball desire -- to walk down the street and have people say, "...There goes the best there ever was."

Under the tutelage of his father, Roy matures and becomes a fine all around player, a "natural" for the game and heads for a try-out with the Cubs.

But as the fates would have it, Hobbs gets sidetracked on his journey to greatness, taking 15 years off to heal the physical and emotional scars from one moment of weakness in a Chicago hotel room.

Those who know the story will recall that Hobbs, armed with his metaphoric sword Excalibur - the home made bat "Wonder Boy," hand carved from a tree destroyed by lightening, revives the fortunes of the struggling New York Knights, leading them to the National League pennant in dramatic fashion with a ninth inning home run.

While the ending of the movie varies greatly from the book, with its magical setting, the symbolism of the legend of King Arthur, the inspiration of Glenn Close as the "Lady in White" standing up in the grandstands, and the telling of tales heroically performed in the triumph of Good over Evil, "The Natural" is indeed a cinematic shrine to our national pastime, and a fitting vehicle to usher in the 2007 baseball season.

Baseball heaven officially opened for business April 1. In contrast with 2006, with its giddy intoxication from the unveiling of the new Cardinal Cathedral and the hopeful expectations of future triumphs, opening night 2007 was a time to look back, to reflect upon the World Championship season past - long overdue, perhaps surprising in its arrival, but oh, so very welcome.

When it comes to opening day, simply nobody does it better than the Cardinals. Ceremonies uniting the glory of the past, the reality of the present and the promise of the future are the staple of Game One at Busch, and this year was certainly one of the best.

Under the glow of a full moon and basking in unseasonably warm temperatures, Cardinal Nation re-convened to pay homage to the tradition that is the sights, the sounds and the emotions of baseball in St. Louis.

It truly is an experience unique in sports, from the thundering entrance of the Clydesdales, the raising of the 10 World Championship banners, the players drive - by entrance, to the recognition of retired numbers enshrined on the outfield wall, the predominant theme of the night was one of respect.

Respect that extends an invitation to the players from the 1967 and 1982 World Champions to share the spot light of the first pitch ceremony with the stars of current vintage, bringing back McCarver, Javier, Hernandez, and one tough Dominican -- Joaquin Andular -- all to the rousing cheers of the sweet memories of youth.

Respect that acknowledges that while we here in the present may have accomplished much, we stand not alone, but on the solid foundation left by those who have gone on before. But the night truly belonged to one man, in fact to, The Man.

Stanley Frank Musial was once again introduced to Cardinal baseball fans that Sunday night, as he has been so introduced in one capacity or another since 1942.

Player, general manager, legend - these have been the roles played by "Stan the Man." On this night, with the theme from "The Natural" so very appropriately playing in the background, the greatest Cardinal of them all brought goose bumps once again to the assembled faithful.

The crowd of 45,000 plus, the majority of whom never saw Musial play, rose as one in a standing ovation, a gesture of respect based on faith, based on reverence for the past, based on the love of tradition.

It is this tradition that binds parent to child, stranger to stranger, generation to generation. It connects the Gas House Gang to Pujols, Boyer to Rolen, Dizzy to Gibby.

It is the memories of a warm summer day when your dad taught you how to keep score, the night that McGuire broke through the barrier of 61 home runs, the day that you first saw Ozzie do the flip, the time spent listening to Harry Caray on the transistor radio.

It is the unique essence of Cardinal baseball, and it is why in every April, truly hope does spring eternal. As Stan the Man was brought in on a golf cart, aged diminished but still regal, my sons, both born a generation after his retirement, immediately rose to their feet in homage, making the old man very proud indeed.

In this disposable world, the preservation of the past by honoring tradition is all too often sadly neglected. We do ourselves, our ancestors, and more importantly, our children, grave disservice by failing to recognize those who paved the path before us. In sports, in business, in life, we cannot understand the present, nor can we properly prepare for the future, unless we honor the past.

On the famous statue that guards the entrance to Busch Stadium, Commissioner Ford Frick's words so poetically describe Stan Musial.

"Here stands baseball's perfect warrior, here stands baseball's perfect Knight."

Stan the Man is Roy Hobbs, our "Natural," albeit without the flawed past. For the future, may God grant him health and peace, but for the past, that glorious past that still resonates today, I shall simply quote the late Jack Buck.

"Pardon me while I stand up and cheer."

Thank the heavens above, baseball season is back.

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