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They somewhat resembled the two-time National League Champion Whiteyball teams that scorched baseball in the mid-eighties. At the top of the lineup were table-setters Vince Coleman and Willie McGee. At short, Ozzie Smith was still performing graceful miracles. John Tudor was sulking on the bench. And second baseman/everything Jose Oquendo was still earning his “secret weapon” nickname. But the 1990 Cardinals were a team in flux as they took the field at Busch Stadium II on April 9 in front of a packed house of 48,752 frenzied fans.

Things behind the scenes were changing. The previous year the team was surrendered by owner Gussie Busch into the hands of the Anheuser Busch corporation, who put Fred Kuhlmann in charge of money decisions. Kuhlmann was a bean-counter, a corporate shill with the baseball knowledge of a half-eaten mushroom. And as those fans packed into Coliseum-like Busch Stadium on that warm, drizzly evening, they had no idea that this would be the last time they would ever see their beloved Whiteyball again. 

Goofy lefthanded quip-master Joe Magrane took the hill that night, coming off of what would be his greatest season in 1989. Magrane had earned Cy Young votes the previous year with a record of 18-9 and an ERA of 2.91. He was the obvious choice to open at home against the lowly-but-talented Montreal Expos and 35 year-old All Star righthander Dennis Martinez.

The game remained hitless until the bottom of the second. Terry Pendleton got the game’s first hit, a single to center. Right fielder Tom Brunansky clubbed a double that pushed Pendleton to third. Ozzie Smith then walked to load the bases for Oquendo. And, as always, the pesky utility guy came through, slashing a single into right field to score Pendleton. A typical Whiteyball inning.

The Cardinals tacked on two more runs in the bottom of the third. Catcher Todd Zeile just missed a home run when he pounded a ball to the wall in center field for a one-out triple. Pedro Guerrero followed that with a walk. Then Pendleton came through yet again, stroking a single to score Zeile easily. The ball was misplayed by Expos left fielder Tim Raines for an error, which allowed Guerrero and Pendleton to advance to second and third. After a walk to Brunansky, Ozzie lifted a lazy fly into center to score Guerrero. With Magrane working on a no-hitter after three innings, it looked like the Cardinals’ 3-0 lead would stand up for a decisive home opening victory.

Magrane held the Expos scoreless until the sixth. Delino DeShields opened the inning with a double. Two groundouts followed, driving in DeShields for the Expos’ first run. Then, with nobody on base, manager Whitey Herzog made the mystifying decision to pull Magrane in favor of Ken Hill (we would later learn that Magrane was dealing with shoulder issues). While Hill managed to get Tim Wallach on a groundout to Ozzie to end the inning, this move would soon backfire in an ugly way.

The Expos went right after Hill in the top of the seventh. Hill walked Andres Galarraga and rookie of the year candidate Larry Walker to open the inning, always a bad start. Catcher Nelson Santovenia slapped a single into right field, scoring Galarraga. The ball was misplayed by the concrete glove of Brunansky, which allowed Walker to advance to third.

Herzog finally, mercifully, took Hill out of the game and replaced him with lefty Frank DiPino. He managed to record the first out on a sacrifice fly by shortstop Spike Owen to score Walker. The score was now tied at 3-3, but DiPino wasn’t finished.

Little did Willie know that his heroics would go unappreciated by his corporate overlords

Montreal manager Buck Rodgers then took a few plays out of Herzog’s handbook. First, Rodgers chose to pinch run Otis Nixon for Santovenia. With the count of 1-0, Nixon handily stole second base. Pinch hitter Junior Noboa then hit a foul ball down the right field line that was caught by Brunansky. However, Brunansky held onto the ball and wasn’t paying attention to the speedy Nixon, who tagged at second and took third on the misplay. Delino DeShields then stroked a single to easily score Nixon. DeShields aggressively stole second on the second pitch. Then, Mark Grissom just missed a home run, instead settling for an RBI double. The Expos had turned the game around quickly, now leading 5-3.

That’s how the game stayed until the bottom of the ninth. Milt Thompson (into the game to replace a bewildered Brunansky) coaxed a walk from Expos closer Tim Burke with one out. Then, on a 1-0 count, Vince Coleman slashed a double down the left field line, putting runners on second and third for Willie McGee. Busch Stadium swayed with anticipation, and, once again, McGee did not disappoint. Willie ripped a line drive into left field to score Thompson and Coleman and tie the game.

The game went into extra innings. No-nonsense lefthander Ken Dayley took over for the Cardinals, holding the Expos to no runs or hits through the tenth and eleventh innings. Meanwhile, Expos reliever Mark Gardner made the Cardinals look pretty bad in the bottom of the tenth inning.

But the Cardinals would repay Gardner in the bottom of the eleventh. Thompson led off with another walk. He moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Coleman. Then Willie McGee shuffled to the plate, the roaring and adoring crowd a waving sea of red behind him. Could he do it yet again? With an 0-2 count against him, McGee slapped a single into center field, scoring Thompson and winning a memorable, white-knuckle home opener.

The heroics of this night would turn to shock in just a few months. Tom Brunansky was traded by the end of April. Whitey Herzog quit in disgust in July as the Cardinals were wallowing in last place. And the team inexplicably traded McGee to Oakland in August. After a miserable last place finish, the Kuhlmann-led Cardinals also dismissed Coleman, who signed with the Mets. By the time the lights went out at Busch at the end of the 1990 campaign, Whiteyball was officially dead.

Corporate baseball had now arrived in St. Louis, and it would take over a decade to disperse its poisonous thinking.

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