RIVERSIDE — Two dates in baseball history will always be most important in Nate Colbert's memory book.
On May 2, 1954, Colbert was an 8-year-old fan in the stands in St. Louis when Stan Musial set a major league record by hitting five home runs in a doubleheader.
Eighteen years later, on Aug. 1, 1972, Colbert duplicated Musial's feat while playing first base for the Padres in Atlanta.
Since nobody else has done this, Musial and Colbert have a common bond that has made them good friends.
Colbert, 43, looked back on those two historic days recently before taking the field as first base coach of the Riverside Red Wave, the Padres' farm club in the Class A California League. An ordained minister after graduating from St. Louis Baptist College (now Missouri Baptist), he also serves the Padres in the off-season as a speaker in the community relations department.
"I grew up in St. Louis," Colbert said. "I lived close to old Busch Stadium, and I sat in the bleachers with a glove, trying to catch batting practice home runs.
"Stan was my idol after that day (the five home runs). Now when I see him, he says, 'We're the only ones to do it.' When I was in high school, I helped out in the clubhouse, and sometimes they let me take batting practice. I hit the scoreboard once in a tryout camp.
"Before games, I would sit in Stan's locker, and he was great to me. He was always so kind."
The Cardinals were Colbert's team, the only one he ever wanted to play with. The amateur draft was still a year away when he finished high school in 1964, so he was able to sign with the team of his choice. He says he turned down 16 major league bonus offers and 30 college scholarship offers to sign with the Cardinals.
But Colbert never got to put on a Cardinal uniform. The Houston Astros drafted him out of the St. Louis organization after the 1965 season, and the Padres picked him off the Houston roster in the expansion draft when they entered the National League in 1969.
"I hated to leave St. Louis," he said. 'It took me till my mid-20s not to root for the Cardinals. Whenever I saw their uniform, I wished I was in it."
Despite his homesickness, Colbert quickly became a favorite in San Diego. He hit 24 home runs, then 38, 27 and 38 again in the first four of his six seasons. His total of 127 at that point was 17 more than Hank Aaron had at the same stage of his career.
"I thought I could hit 500 or more," Colbert said. "I felt like 30 a year was a foregone conclusion."
Unfortunately, a chronic back problem limited Colbert to 46 more homers, for a total of 173. After just nine major league seasons, he was forced to retire, at 31.
"I dropped my goal, so I thought maybe I'd hit 300," Colbert said. "Then my back got worse and worse. It was deterioration of the vertebrae."
But nothing that happened as he struggled through his later years could dim the luster of his record-breaking performance 17 years ago.
It was a twi-night doubleheader at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, sometimes known as the Launching Pad. And Colbert didn't just tie Musial's record of five home runs in a doubleheader; he set major league records of 13 runs batted in and 22 total bases. He had seven hits--the two others were singles--in nine at-bats.
Colbert went on tie the National League record of eight homers in a week before being stopped in Los Angeles.
"I had a chance to blow the record all out of proportion," he said. "But the Dodgers kept pitching around me, and even their fans were booing. One night, I didn't get an official at-bat, just walks.
"A lot of Dodger players came over and congratulated me. Don Sutton said, 'You're not going to hit one off me.' I had hit seven (homers) off him in '70, but he was right that time."
Here is how Colbert recalled his never-to-be-forgotten night in Atlanta:
"I hit two in the first game and three in the second, to all fields and off five different pitchers.
"The first one was a three-run homer off Ron Schueler. The second was a solo shot off a left-hander, Larry Jaster, and it went to straightaway center. I got all of it. I hit both on the first pitch.
"In the second game, I hit one with nobody on off Jim Hardin on the first pitch, then I hit a grand slam off Pat Jarvis on a 1-0 pitch. I did look at a pitch that time. Finally, I hit a two-run shot off Cecil Upshaw--on the first pitch again."
Note that Colbert hit his five home runs on just six pitches. Even for a confirmed first-ball hitter, this was incredible.
"The crazy thing about my fifth home run was that Upshaw threw me an overhand fastball," Colbert said. "He was a submarine pitcher, and I don't know what he was thinking going overhand against a right-handed hitter."
The kicker to the amazing story is that Colbert came within inches of hitting two more home runs that night. Both of his singles came after fly balls that barely went foul before landing in the stands.