Saturday, April 09, 2005

An Ode to Busch Stadium

Well, not a real ode; I suck as a poet, so I won't even try to subject you to my attempts at verse. What I do want to talk about, now that the Cardinals have opened their home season—and their last at what will from this point on be known in Cardinal Nation as "Old Busch Stadium"—with a sloppy and improbable win over the Phillies, are my three most memorable experiences at the stadium.

1982—World Series, Game Six
I was a freshman in high school in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, and our marching band was recognized as the top band in the state; it was a tradition that has, sadly, fallen into the mists of history since I graduated almost t#@&%$y years ago. At that time, freshman couldn't even get into the big band; we had our own "jayvee" farm team band, but a few select freshmen, including me, were given the "honor" of working as the roadie crew for the big band.

I know what you're thinking, but remember just how gullible most ninth graders are.

Anyway, almost at the last minute, the band got the invitation to play the pre-game ceremonies at game six. The bad news was that the game was a sellout, and we wouldn't be able to stay and watch the game. The good news was that when the right field wagon gates opened, another freshman and I were the first ones through the gate and out onto the field.

It was immense. The astroturf felt unusally soft and squishy beneath my feet. The perfect circle of the stadium top expanded above me like an infinite panorama. Red, white and blue bunting hung from the field, mezzanine and terrace sections, and the buzzing hum of the crowd was like the initial rumblings of an impending explosion. I felt as small and insignificant as I had on any night gazing up at a trillion stars or huddling in bed as a huge thunderstorm exploded outside my window. At the same time, it was then and remains to this day one of the coolest experiences I've ever had. I stood on the playing field of a World Series game on game day.

1993—United Way Day at the Ballpark
My first "real" job after graduating college was with the United Way in St. Louis. Part of my job in their Marketing Dept. was coordinating an annual United Way night at a Cardinals game. It was an insane amount of work, but I was young and single and didn't have anything better to do than work 75-80 hours a week (which is probably why many entry-level corporate jobs come with huge tasks such as this one). I had to organize about 30 different agencies that we supported to send representatives to the game to march around the field prior to the first pitch.

The night went fine; as a borderline obsessive (okay, so I'm way over the line), I had all the details quintuple-checked beforehand. But three things about that night stand out. First, as the agency folks—most of whom were kids, because nothing separates people from their money better than cute kids—marched around, they came out of the right field gate, headed around the outfield toward third base, turned across the back of the infield toward first, and then back out down the first base line. While this was going on, Gregg Jefferies (remember him?) was throwing warm-ups with Todd Zeile (forgotten about him?) down the first base side. Jefferies stopped throwing as the line of kids reached him and took the time to shake hands with them as they passed. Sure, he was no Ozzie Smith, but to these kids, many poor, some handicapped, all blown away to be at Busch Stadium, shaking hands with an honest-to-goodness big league ballplayer—and a Cardinal, to boot—was certainly a memory to treasure. The coolest part was that I had never spoken to the Cardinals in general or any player in particular about doing what Jefferies did; he greeted the kids because he wanted to. I've never forgotten that about him.

Second, I also coordinated the media relations for that same game, so after the pregame, I got to go into the press box, where I met Jack Buck, Mike Shannon and Joe Buck. Solid class, all around. Jack Buck treated me—25 years old at the time—like I was just as important as anyone else in the booth. Same with Mike and Joe. What you hear from them on the radio and TV is the same as they are when you meet them in person. Third, at the time, you ate for free in the press box. Brats, cheeseburgers, roast beef sandwiches, nachos, everything you could have wanted. Bernie Miklasz of the Post-Dispatch, who I had never met in person before that night, easily topped 300 pounds at that time. Bernie, God bless him, has dropped a lot of that weight, but now that I'm in my late 30s, if I had that job today and they fed me free stadium bratwursts every night, I'd look like Jabba the Hutt.

1998—Mac hits 69 and 70
I won free tickets to the last game of the season from a business conference I had attended earlier that summer in Cape Girardeau. My wife was seven months pregnant with our fourth child, our first son. The game was at the end of September, a Saturday day game, at it was unseasonably hot. It felt more like the middle of August. My good friend Tuck was also with us that day, so two of my best friends were there to share the experience.

I was pouring bottled water down Amy's shirt to try to keep her cool—summer pregnancies can be oppressive. We were sitting in the terrace box seats directly behind home plate. Mark McGwire was sitting on 68 home runs, having already shattered Roger Maris' record and then held off Sammy Sosa for the rest of the season. The entire stadium stood every time he came to the plate. Number 69 was a moon shot, one of those no-doubters McGwire was famous for. He hit number 70 on his last at-bat. Amy missed seeing it because she was too tired to stand up. I told Tuck that Mac was going to hit one more just before he ripped it, this last one a line drive similar to number 62. That wasn't clairvoyance or even luck, just expectation from a remarkable baseball player having a remarkable season.

I don't care if McGwire did steroids. I really don't. Even a clear admission on his part wouldn't diminish the memory of that day. Does it diminish his accomplishments? I think the question has to be whether he could have done it without taking steroids. Could he have gotten as strong as he did without steroids? Tony LaRussa thought that he had. He certainly was taking andro, and probably a lot of other nutritional supplements that you can get today at most gyms and GNC stores. If he took steroids, did they give him an edge he otherwise wouldn't have had? I don't know enough to say.

If he took steroids with Canseco in Oakland, was he still taking them in St. Louis? If he wasn't taking steroids in 1998, but did earlier in his career, are the home runs still legitimate? History will be the ultimate judge, I suppose. But I won't condemn him or devalue the thrill of experiencing that season as a Cardinals fan. All I know is that for me, on that day, it was an incredible experience that added one more memory to what has been a lifetime of experiences with Busch Stadium. It's the only major league baseball field I've ever been to, and when they tear it down, I hope I have the chance to be in St. Louis to watch it fall. I suppose it will be like attending the funeral for a friend you've known all your life. It will be sad to see it go, but seeing it will remind me of how many good times we've had. Let's relish the 80 games we have left with the old friend.


TUCK! said...

Funny how I was there for 2 of the 3 (you forgot that the UWay game was vs. the (Before Prior So Not As Hated As They Are Now) CUBS. And how we smacked em around pretty good...

The McGwire/70 game was a memorable one for me to. Right up there with meeting Gretzky in his underwear.

Big Pappa Pump said...

I can happily say I got to see some of McGwire's monster shots, some of Oz's unbelievable plays at short, Joaquin Andujar and Doc Gooden unbelievable pitching matches, Hernandez and Hendricks when they were the men, McGhee, Pujols, Herr, and Coleman do some unbelievable things at Busch. I miss it already. Just thinking of those guys get me to thinking just how old I am. Enough of this subject.....