by Mike Seely

Roughly half an hour before the first pitch at every single St. Louis Cardinals home baseball game, a cavalcade of Little Leaguers is permitted to walk the circumference of Busch Stadium. It is a tradition befitting a franchise whose uniformly red-clad legions of fans take their rituals seriously. Cardinal faithful bleed and wear red, their devotion to all things Redbird rivaled perhaps only by their consumption of Anheuser-Busch products at pregame tailgate parties. Hence, the hardscrabble area around downtown St. Louis at twilight resembles something more akin to a college football atmosphere than what one might find at, say, Safeco Field in Seattle.

It is such charming environs that last year compelled Cardinal third baseman Scott Rolen to refer to St. Louis -- a precarious urban center that has, for nearly half a century, been hampered by rampant suburban flight, crime and the diminished importance of once-mighty Mississippi River ports -- as "baseball heaven."

"Yeah, that's a good quote," says Cardinal second baseman Bo Hart, a 26-year-old Gonzaga University grad who has enjoyed a storybook beginning to his major league career since being called up from AAA Memphis in mid-June. "The fans are so loyal. If you go out there and show a lot of effort, they're just gonna love you even more."

Of course, it also helps if you hit .397 in your first dozen games, as Hart had done through July 1, filling in for Gold Glove second baseman Fernando Vina in the leadoff hole and keying the Cardinals' mid-season surge to the top of the NL Central standings. It also doesn't hurt if you're an earnest Adam (Eight Is Enough) Rich look-alike who slaps reporters on the back after interviews and has worked as a retail clerk at a Phoenix-area Nordstrom the past couple off-seasons to supplement his pedestrian minor league income.

"You're not gonna look at Bo Hart and say, 'Hey, there's a big leaguer,'" says Mark Machtolf, one of Hart's coaches at Gonzaga, who still speaks to the second baseman on a weekly basis. "But you watch him play, and there's no doubt about it."

After the peewee sluggers cleared the field before the July 1 game, the visiting San Francisco Giants teed off on Cards' starter Woody Williams in the top of the first to take a 5-0 lead. Hart led off the bottom half of the frame with a searing liner at the belly of the Giants' starting pitcher, Jim Brower, who recovered in time to throw Hart out at first.

With two outs in the top of the second, Hart's bad luck appeared destined to continue as he made a mistake that the Little Leaguers in attendance could relate to -- instinctively lunging in on a soft liner by Giants' shortstop Neifi Perez, instead of taking his first step back. Spectacularly, however, Hart refused to give up on what looked like a surefire base hit, sprinting into short right field and contorting his body at the last second to make a leaping shoestring catch.

The crowd at Busch, in Hart's hip pocket since day one, responded by going bananas. Such has been the charmed existence of Bo Hart in his short big league tenure; something that legendary broadcaster and St. Louis resident Bob Costas says is par for a sport at its most charming when plotlines resemble folklore.

"If a guy had a similar stretch during two weeks in the season, that's just a hot streak," says Costas. "If he comes out of nowhere, it plays into the mythology of baseball."

Born in small-town Creswell, Ore., and reared in the sort of laid-back California town where Ken Kesey's henchmen would feel comfortable, Hart's backstory more than meets Costas' late-bloomer litmus test. As a junior at Soquel High, Hart was considered such an offensive liability that his coach took the unusual precaution of inserting the designated hitter in Hart's spot instead of the pitcher's spot in the batting order. After two years at Cabrillo College in Aptos, Calif., the then-shortstop was tapped for a scholarship by GU head coach Steve Hertz and the Bulldog coaching staff on the recommendation of a Gonzaga alum who was coaching for a rival team in Hart's community college conference. He went on to become an all-conference shortstop in Spokane, and was drafted in the 33rd round by the Cardinals in 1999, signing for a paltry $1,000.

From there, Hart began a slow climb through the minor league ranks, considered a serviceable but unspectacular prospect who would be fortunate to get a late-season call-up to the big club for mop-up duty behind Fernando Vina and his versatile backup at the keystone, utility men Miguel Cairo and Wilson Delgado. But then both Vina and Cairo went down with rather serious injuries, compelling Cardinal brass to summon Hart from the farm team four hours south of St. Louis.

"The fact of the matter was, there was never really room at the inn," says Bob Lattinville, Hart's St. Louis-based agent and temporary housemate. "If Cairo had not gotten hurt and Vina had not been injured, Bo could have hoped maybe for an end-of-season call-up. He was hitting .300 down at Memphis. He's a good ballplayer, but, in a sense, he got lucky."

Good luck, great effort, spectacular statistics and his enthusiastic, wide-eyed demeanor have made Hart something of a national media darling, making repeat appearances on the nightly SportsCenter highlight reel by virtue of seven multiple-hit games at the top of a formidable batting order that leads the National League with a collective .290 batting average.

In Spokane sports bars and baseball-centric haunts, the Bo buzz is palpable. "You really can't go anywhere without somebody saying something about Bo," says Machtolf.

As scintillating as Hart has been at the plate, equally impressive has been his fielding as part of an infield that features three Gold Glovers: Vina, Rolen and shortstop Edgar Renteria. In the seventh inning of the Giants game (which the Cardinals would go on to lose 5-1), Hart's cannon-armed relay at the pivot of a 6-4-3 double play brought an otherwise subdued Busch Stadium crowd to its feet.

Vina is expected to return from his hamstring injury in mid-August. But if Hart keeps hitting and the Cardinals keep winning, Manager Tony La Russa may face a lineup card conundrum.

"We'll have a decision to make," says La Russa of the potentially sticky scenario. "[Hart] certainly has made a good impression."

Costas suggests there's a palatable middle ground for La Russa to tread. "If [Hart] is hitting around .400 [when Vina returns], he certainly continues to get at-bats," says Costas. "There'd be a way around this without summarily benching Hart and disrespecting Vina."

Even if Hart's batting average levels off and the Cards' injury-plagued roster is at full-strength -- which hasn't been the case all year -- it is conceivable that Hart could displace the slap-hitting Delgado in the utility infielder role. That, however, is the stuff of speculation. All Hart can do now is focus on the field.

"Decisions have to be made, and I'm not the one to make those," he says. "If they want to keep me around, that'd be the best. If not, maybe I need some work or there's no room for me. I'm not gonna worry about it."

Publication date: 07/10/03

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