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During spring training in 2007, the St. Louis Cardinals were the defending World Series champions and The Post-Dispatch sought to acknowledge that and launch the new season with a look at the rich tradition of the franchise and how it played in the present. My assignment was to seek out and illustrate where the greatest Cardinal of them all, Stanley Frank Musial, fit into the modern game. I found him in the most unexpected place. It took several trips to Port St. Lucie, Fla., to get confirmation, but, yes, there The Man was — taped up inside Lastings Milledge's locker of all places. That's where the story, originally printed in The Post-Dispatch on April 1, 2007, begins ...

"STILL THE MAN"

A hotshot rookie with the New York Mets last season once slapped high fives with fans on his way to the outfield and later found a sign hanging above his locker, "KNOW YOUR PLACE, ROOK."

Lastings Milledge had something new hanging on his locker this spring.

The Man.

Milledge wallpapered his nook of the Mets clubhouse with photos of handpicked hitters, in mid-swing. He put up a picture of Ken Griffey Jr. at the back of the locker. Milledge had Gary Sheffield taped up, Sammy Sosa and Jay Buhner, too. But above them all was the only one in black and white, the only player in his collection whom he never saw play: Stan Musial.

"Who doesn't know about him?" said Milledge, born 22 years after Musial retired. "He fell in one of the categories of what I want to do as a hitter. So I have his picture up. I know his stats. I know what he did."

The picture is a photocopy of a page from a recent book on hitting, showing Musial in a batting cage striding, connecting and driving a pitch up in the strike zone. The home run chase of 1998 brought Musial to Milledge. A young fan then, he craved information on Mark McGwire and in his search kept stumbling upon another name from Cardinals history.

Stan Musial here, Stan Musial there.

"Who is this guy?" Milledge wondered.

At 86, Musial is as active as his health allows, forever the Cardinals' best ambassador. One of the greatest living ballplayers - and perhaps the greatest living lefthanded hitter - Musial remains as unexpectedly accessible to fans and as charismatic as he was in uniform.

He is baseball's Galahad, in and out of cleats.

Musial, who retired in 1963 with 3,630 hits, is more than, as one friend put it, a "walking history" of the organization. He is as much the inspiration behind the club's identity as he is part of it.

"Stan is the Cardinals, " said Bob Gibson, the Cardinals' Hall of Fame pitcher. "It's really tough to think about the Cardinal organization or the Cardinal team without thinking about Stan. It kind of seems like he invented it. Because he's been here. He's been the best player ever in the organization. He's been here forever."

-- Stan, the franchise --

This kind of thing happens so often, Dick Zitzmann can't keep track of what restaurant it was or when exactly it was. Zitzmann, who runs Musial's Stan The Man, Inc., and Musial share lunch at least a couple of times a week, and recently they were dining when Musial caught sight of a nearby birthday party. The former baseball star quietly walked over to the table of ladies.

As they recognized him, he broke into a serenade.

"He was completely unnoticed until he brought out the harmonica and played 'Happy Birthday, ' " Zitzmann said. "That's something that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. It was completely unsolicited. That's Stan. I've said this before: Stan loves his fans as much as they love him."

Most weekday mornings, Musial will go to Stan The Man, Inc.'s office and spend at least an hour signing memorabilia. In addition to selling a slew of products bearing his name and signature, the company also fields numerous requests. Pat Anthony, who works with Zitzmann at Musial's company, said Musial receives 10 to 15 letters a day at the office, and another handful at the Cardinals' offices and at his St. Louis home.

They are split between "thank yous" and requests.

Recently, Anthony listed the return addresses of some letters she had just opened: Australia, Germany, many from Brooklyn, one from Singapore. In the past few years, more and more letters have come from soldiers in Iraq.

They mention how their fathers revered Musial.

"Sometimes they read like a little boy writing how his father idolized Stan, " Anthony said.

Musial declined to be interviewed for this article, as he has almost all requests recently. Zitzmann said this year they have curtailed his travel considerably and that Musial will make fewer appearances. He did not travel to spring training this season as he had as recently as last year. But Musial plans to attend the opener Sunday at Busch Stadium, waving to the ovation and mimicking his crouched stance.

He also will keep up with the requests.

When he comes to the office to sign, a comfortable executive chair awaits him, as do all the appropriate pens. Black and blue Sharpies. Bic hard-point pens. Chatting about the most recent game - he was impressed with young Anthony Reyes' spring start against the Dodgers on March 20; he picks apart the game, too, wondering about a taken third strike or missing the cutoff man - he plows through that day's needs. In public, he's always ready with what they call "Stan's business cards, " signed postcard-sized cards with his picture and stats.

It was a suggestion he got from friend John Wayne. He wouldn't have to sign napkins and matchbook covers if he had pictures at ready. So he signs thousands and carries a few dozen in a jacket pocket.

The cards are as telling as his numbers: the .331 career average, three MVPs, 475 career home runs, his 1,949 runs scored, seven batting titles, his 1,377 extra-base hits. So too are the countless $1 bills he's folded up into rings for everyone from young girls to Hall of Famers' wives at Cooperstown to Bill DeWitt Jr.'s family members.

"He's the ultimate icon for our city, " Zitzmann said.

-- Greatest hitter ever? --

A couple years ago Cardinals fan, Missouri native and Colorado transplant Carroll O'Connor was at a Rockies-Giants game when his son-in-law asked if Barry Bonds was one of the five greatest players ever.

O'Connor spent the next two years searching for the answer. He dug through resources such as Baseball-Reference.com and other databases to conclude, in an e-mail he sent to reporters, that Musial is the greatest hitter ever. He hinged his argument on Musial being alone in ranking among the top 50 in most of the major offensive categories, not slipping behind in triples or lagging in average, but sustained excellence across his baseball card.

This season Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez will hop over Musial's 475 home runs, moving him out of the top 25. Only Albert Pujols' .332 career average keeps Musial's .331 out of the top 30 in that category.

He is entrenched in other columns. Musial had 16 consecutive seasons of batting .300, 15 of slugging .500 or better. Even with new stats he stands out - tying with three others for the longest consecutive run of seasons (13) with an OPS (on-base plus slugging) of better than .900. Mike Shannon said he used to check out Musial's bat and marvel how the ball marks were concentrated around the sweet spot. No scars at its top; no smears on the edges. In 1948, Musial missed the Triple Crown by virtue of a rained-out home run.

He would have been the only player ever to lead a league in average, runs, hits, doubles, triples, homers and RBIs.

"It's logical when you start listing great players to go Aaron, Mays, Frank Robinson and then, you say, 'Oh and Musial, ' " retired pitcher Jim Kaat said. "He had some awesome numbers for a long period of time. I think part of it is that he didn't play with a lot of flash and dash like Mays and Mickey (Mantle). Henry was this graceful, relaxed-looking player. And Stan ... Stan was, well, Stan was a ballplayer."

A ballplayer's ballplayer, apparently.

In 1999, fans did not vote Musial onto the All-Century Team, so the commissioner's office put him on. The same year ESPN did not rank him among the top 50 athletes. But in a poll of Hall of Famers by the Rocky Mountain News in 2003, Musial was his peers' selection as the "greatest living hitter."

It's why Milledge has his photo up as a reminder of what great hitters do. It's why Aaron Boone, 8 years old at the time, knew who everyone was talking about in 1981 as his father's Philadelphia teammate, Pete Rose, gave an eerie postscript to Musial's record. Musial's final hit was a single past a young second baseman named Rose. In 1981, Rose passed Musial for the NL record in career hits.

"He's on the short list of guys who cross over from just baseball players into American culture, " said Aaron Boone, now with Florida. "Babe Ruth. Joe DiMaggio. Mickey Mantle. Stan The Man. Ask the average person and they know who that is. The crouched-over stance. The records."

-- Simply The Man --

Early this March, down in Jupiter, Fla., a man wearing a modern jersey made up to look like Musial's - complete with No. 6 and signed by Musial - was in line for Dippin' Dots at Roger Dean Stadium. Robert Scott, of St. Peters, was born after Musial retired, but had heard enough stories from his parents about Musial to cherish the jersey when he got it as a Christmas gift.

Scooping Dots out of a small plastic batting helmet, Scott's school-age son, Dannil, nodded knowingly as his dad described Musial's stats, described the "phenomenal player" he knew of only in stories.

His reasons are the same reasons Musial spans generations, leaping from his contemporaries to Hank Aaron - who told USA Today "Stan Musial is somebody I really admired" - to new Hall of Famers to Milledge to the youngest fan and his ice cream.

"What's his nickname?" Robert said, turning to his son.

Dannil stopped his spoon, grinned and said:

"Stan The Man."

The Man, indeed.

...

Story originally appeared in The Post-Dispatch on April 1, 2007. It was part of the preview section for the 2007 baseball season.

-30-

Derrick Goold covers the Cardinals and Major League Baseball for The Post-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @dgoold or on Facebook at Facebook.com/BirdLandPD

This article originally ran on stltoday.com.

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