In the heart of Cardinals Country, along an artery called Interstate 55, I turned on my radio.
In my car Friday in Illinois, while I headed home to St. Louis, it felt like John Rooney was a passenger. Soon, I was the passenger, along for the ride.
One of the reasons Cardinal fandom is what it is, that being the benchmark for baseball bedlam in our country, is KMOX Radio. Before television and Twitter, apps and Apple TV, fans became fans because of radio. And since the signal for 1120 AM was so strong, this blowtorch ignited listeners across the Midwest and up and down the Mississippi. Americans became Cardinal fans.
It was this confluence of excellence — the team was great, the broadcasters were great and the signal was great. And in Missouri and Illinois, Arkansas and Iowa, Kentucky and Indiana, parents passed down their love of the Cardinals like a family heirloom.
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Today, the radio remains relevant, but it’s obviously not the main medium. KMOX’s Rooney is the “Voice of the Cardinals,” but Bally Sports Midwest’s Dan McLaughlin is the celebrity. Both men are quite good — wordsmiths who have perfected their craft over innumerable innings. And both men are humble and hungry. In the offseason, they’ll do local college basketball games, just to stay fresh. And both men understand the responsibility that comes with being in the chair — and they respect the men (some who were also mentors) who came before them, be it Jack Buck, Harry Caray or Mike Shannon.
On Friday evening, I was in Springfield, Ill., to speak at a Cardinal-related event. Met a bunch of red-clad fans. When we set up the dinner, a 700th homer for Albert Pujols seemed far-fetched. In decades to come, the story of 2022 itself will seem far-fetched — a 42-year-old in his final year has a renaissance in red, belting homers as if he were 21 (and, on the night of September 23, hitting two to give him 21 … and thus 700 in his career).
Springfield is about 100 miles from St. Louis, and I started my car just as Friday’s game started. Rooney and Ricky Horton were on the KMOX call from Los Angeles. But they were joined by a special guest.
This season, some Major League Baseball games have been shown exclusively on Apple TV, which isn’t even on TV. It’s through iPhones and those who have Apple TV on their smart TVs. And of all the possible games, this Cardinals at Dodgers game was selected. The game would be shown nationally — but it would not be on Bally Sports Midwest.
McLaughlin is a St. Louisan. Now, even if he was from St. Paul, he’d still be a brilliant broadcaster on Cards games because he works hard and has developed a familiar sound and cadence. But because he’s from St. Louis, he has the institutional knowledge of a local. He’s one of us. He knows the history of the Cardinals because he lived it, while listening to KMOX as a kid or sitting in plastic red seats in the old stadium, watching Ozzie and Willie and Big Mac and, as a young broadcaster in the booth, a young Pujols.
He called hundreds of homers during Pujols famed stretch in St. Louis. And this season, McLaughlin has provided the soundtrack to these astounding, time-stopping, game-swaying homers. On Friday, however, McLaughlin had the day off work. Albert Pujols returned to LA with 698 career homers and a lefty on the mound … and Danny Mac didn’t have a mic.
But the folks at KMOX invited McLaughlin to be part of the radio broadcast.
And sure enough, McLaughlin’s inning was the fourth.
Pujols had already obliterated a baseball for career homer 699 in the third. It didn’t seem like he would come to bat in the fourth — Lars Nootbaar promptly flew out and Andrew Knizner struck out. But Brendan Donovan, as Brendan Donovan does, worked the count and walked. And Tommy Edman singled. Albert was up.
And at that moment, McLaughlin graciously announced that Rooney would take over the broadcast.
Of course, it was the right thing to do. A no-brainer. Rooney is the radio guy. And Horton himself previously said that if it was his own inning, he’d give the possible call to Rooney. Still, it was a beautiful gesture. And one can imagine McLaughlin’s emotions as Pujols walked up to bat and McLaughlin closed his mouth.
“It’s Phil Bickford, a right-hander facing Albert Pujols,” Rooney said after a brief commercial break, brought to you by Goodwill. “Ricky, will Albert have to expand his zone to be able to hit 700?”
“I don't think so — I think guys are going to go after him,” said the former pitcher Horton, who was in the Dodger Stadium visitors’ bullpen when Jack Clark hit his famous homer and in the Dodger Stadium home bullpen when Kirk Gibson hit his. “I don't think they're going to let him hit anything, but I think it's pretty exciting to get a chance to maybe get Albert out in the midst of a home run race, because everybody is paying great attention to every moment, every pitch.”
As I spotted cars and trucks on I-55, I wondered who else was listening to the same words on their radios. And on the pastures I passed, was KMOX playing in the old houses, perhaps the way it was generations ago? Eh, maybe even small-town kids were glued to the game on their Apple iPhones. But I had the pleasure of listening to the Cardinals broadcasters — not these national guys without any connection to the community.
After the first pitch — a called strike to No. 5 in gray — Rooney said: “The runners lead — the pitch to Pujols! Taken high for a ball. Albert thought about uncoiling on another hanger, but that was out of the zone and it's 1-1.”
“I think there are Cardinal fans in the ballpark that want it to happen,” Horton said. “And there are Dodger fans in the ballpark that want it to happen.”
“Pujols,” Rooney continued, “with the widespread stance. Arms out over the plate. Bickford from the stretch, the 1-1 pitch, a swing and THERE IT GOES! LEFT FIELD! WAY BACK! BACK! HOME RUN NUMBER 700!
“Pujols hits a three-run homer! And he hit 699 and 700 at Dodger Stadium on September 23, 2022. Eight-twenty-three PM Pacific time!”
Rooney then paused. The crowd roar spilled into my car.
“Danny,” Rooney soon said, “thank you for allowing me to make the call.”
“You nailed both!” McLaughlin said in reference to 699 and 700. “You nailed them.”
I didn’t see Albert Pujols hit his 700th home run. But perhaps even better, I only heard it.