Rachel and I left Birmingham in the middle of a rain storm and drove for nearly three hours on our way to St. Louis. After spending the night in Tupelo, MS -- the birthplace of Elvis Presley -- we were back on the road with a slight detour in Memphis in a futile attempt to find Graceland (you did know that this weekend is the anniversary of the death of "the king"). We arrived at my Aunt Judy's house in St. Louis shortly after mid-day and were treated to a wonderful lunch and laundry services before heading over to the stadium.
Here's a new twist on stadiums -- Busch Stadium in St. Louis WAS a multi-use facility (shared with the local NFL team which left several years ago) that has been adapted to fit baseball only. Located in the heart of downtown St. Louis, Busch Stadium is extremely large for a baseball only park -- capable of seating nearly 50,000 -- but the recent changes that have been made make it one of the nicest venues in the league.
Starting in the outfield, Cardinals management removed thousands of seats from the center field bleacher area and replaced them with an extremely large -- and fully manual -- scoreboard. Full box scores are provided for the Cardinals game taking place on the field as well as every other game taking place in the majors. To the right of the scoreboard is an area honoring the players whose Cardinals jersey numbers have been retired -- each identified only by their first name only (such as "Ozzie" and "Stan the Man") -- and to the left is an area commemorating the many championships earned by the Red Birds. A live action diamondvision screen acts as the centerpiece of this magnificent information area -- the largest in all of the leauge.
The rest of the park is pretty standard. The bullpens are hidden in the corners, the dugouts sunken into the ground with hardwood benches and stairs (giving the dugout a wonderful smell -- no kidding -- when moist) and the field sports a new turf (which was actually replaced for the second time in three years because the grass was daying because of a fungus).
Sure, there are interactive game areas for young fans to test their skills. Up until this season, a Cardinals' museum was located in left field, but it has now been moved to an area across the street shared by the International Bowling Hall of Fame. And, various seating sections offer more comfortable seats and better views of the field than others -- such as the Southwest Airlines section which chooses one family per game to sit in airline style seats, eat gourmet food (not airline food), and try their hand at winning season tickets or other great prizes. But fans didn't seem that interested in any of these prospects.
To be perfectly honest, the thing that makes Busch stadium great is its simplicity. People come to Busch stadium to watch a ballgame -- not to play video games or talk about knitting. The Cardinals claim more history than almost any other team -- having produced more Hall of Famers and won more Championships than any other team in baseball except the Yankees. And, fans appreciate the history, coming to ballpark (even when the team is not very good) and cheering for them as if they were the best in the world. That is why you should visit Busch Stadium -- and that is why I can't wait to go back.
Thousands of die-hard Cardinals fans lined up in the rain in anticipation of attending batting practice. They were all interested in watching Mark McGwire take his warm-up swings, some having heard the rumors about his 11 home run display during the previous days' warm-ups, others just looking to see one of the strongest men in baseball history take some cuts. Unfortunately, due to the heavy rains that fell throughout the day, batting practice was cancelled (with the intention of protecting the field). The players took their swings behind the scenes in an indoor cage while the coaches walked around the field and talked to their friends and families in the stands.
I spent the time before the game sitting in the dugout watching the grounds crew prepare the field for play. After a while, I actually dozed off while sitting on the bench -- almost falling off my perch as I wavered back and forth in an unconcious state. Luckily, nobody noticed I was napping and I avoided both criticism and reprimand. I was accused of taking baseballs off of the field -- something that is not allowed -- as I headed for the press box with a baseball one of the Cardinals' coaches had tossed me. I watched the daughter of the traveling secretary outrun some of the players as she circled the field before taking a spot in the dugout to watch the grounds crew. But, I didn't have chance to interact with anyone.
Marty Hendin is a baseball fan. When I arrived to meet with him before the game, he asked if it was alright if we waited a few minutes so we could go out and watch Mark McGwire take batting practice. His office, affectionately known as the "Land of Trinkets" is a museum of baseball and other sports memorabilia. There are thousands of pins, pictures, baseballs, autographs, plaques, and toys. As Director of Marketing, Mr. Hendin is responsible for conceiving and creating all of the promotions for the Cardinals -- but he does it because he loves it.
"St. Louis is the best baseball town in America," Mr. Hendin's voice bellowed at me as he hung up his telephone. I had been sitting in his office for nearly twenty minutes listening to his wife talk about their recent vacation and then as he checked his messages and returned phone calls. "I could tell you a thousand stories and jokes about the people that make up this organziation and the rivalries that keep it going" he laughed as he listed dozens of famous Cardinals (St. Louis has more Hall of Famers and championships than any team in baseball with the exception of the Yankees) and told several hilarious jokes about the Cubs -- the Cardinals biggest rival.
I asked him about the fans in St. Louis and their relationship with the front office. He told me he had been asked a similar question before the previous day's game about what he would ask of the local fans in welcoming Mark McGwire to the team. . . "I told the reporter that I wouldn't tell the fans anything -- except to be like they always are. The fans in St. Louis are the best in baseball." As for the proposed changes in baseball, Mr. Hendin shrugged and replied. . ." if it's good for baseball, I am all for it -- and I think these changes will help baseball," referring to re-alightment and inter-league play. . ."I think baseball is on its way back."
Six O'clock rolled around and he invited me to tag along (with his wife) as he introduced some Israeli Maccabe Games athletes to Cardinals pitcher Tony Fossas. He invited me onto the field to watch the pre-game activities, and introduced me to Hall of Fame Pitcher Rollie Fingers. And, when we reached the press box he walked around telling stories about my trip and finding reporters who would be interested in writing about my adventures. It was not a convential meeting by any means -- but it was one I will never forget. Thanks Mr. Hendin!!!
The Press Box at Busch Stadium reminded me of my impressions of a prison cell. . . Dark, damp, and musty. Built into the club level of the stadium, the press box is essentially a cement box with counter tops and chairs for the reporters. Because it is open to the stadium, the rains that fell all afternoon sprayed the first several rows and left them almost underwater when the reporters began to arrive. Most of the electrical outlets under the counters didn't work, the chairs were old and beginning to crack, and the public address system the official scorer uses to make announcments crackled and cut-out making it difficult to understand him (assuming the crowd was quiet enough for the speakers to be heard anyway). It was an experience more than anything.
After changing spots several times trying to find a place to plug in my computer, I sat down on the very top row in what I later learned was the only seat in the press box with an obstructed view of the field. Sitting next to me was the gentleman who maintains the Cardinals web page -- including the posting of the official scoring of the game online (using Microsoft Draw he scores the game using all the appropriate symbols and graphics and then uploads the plays after each batter) and other interesting statistics. Not having traveled with the team much, he was very interested in my impressions of the stadiums. . . and I was very interested in his online posting. We ended up talking for most of the final three innings of the game.
There was not a huge selection of delightful looking food at Busch Stadium. The regular ballpark fare includes a hot dog that extends well beyond the little bun provided by the concession folks (no idea whether the bun was extra small to create such an effect), but there was little else to notice. My Uncle Gil swears that the Kosher Hot Dog (complete with Sauerkraut and/or grilled onions) is "the best in all of baseball. A new concession area down the left field line on the field level offers some very interesting options (similar to those at Yankee Stadium but only fans with a ticket for that level have the option. And, you better remember to get your food before you sit down, because beer seems to be the only thing that vendors choose to sell in the aisles.
As for the pretzel, do the words "eyes bigger than your stomach" mean anything. It was an enormous (second biggest -- still behind Philadelphia) fluffy, and warm treat covered in large chunks of salt. Unfortunately, it had a a slight chalky taste (but that could have been a result of my purchasing it after the seventh inning stretch) that left you desiring a beverage when you were finished (even with the good spicy mustard which usually does the job of keeping it moist. It was however, too large for me to finish.
About an hour before the game was scheduled to begin, Marty Hending invited me to follow him (and his wife) down to the field to watch the pre-game activities. I spent about half an our talking with Mr. Hendin's wife while sitting on the revolving billboard located directly behind home plate. As fans filed into Busch Stadium, Mrs. Hendin and I talked about travel (she had just returned from a big vacation) and baseball. When Rollie Fingers (Hall of Fame Pitcher for those who aren't familiar) came onto the field I snapped some pictures and ended up getting to meet him (my first "Hall of Famer" on the trip) and have my picture taken. When Andy Benes walked nearby, I stopped him so I could deliver a message from Chris Jenkins from Birmingham who had grown up with the Benes'. And, when the man who was to throw out the first pitch arrived on the field, I spent a few minutes talking to him and hs wife about my first pitch from the previous night. I felt like a regular.
As I stood stood on the field and looked around, I noticed that the fans -- more than 40,000 on this night -- were ALL dressed in red. Hats, shirts, shorts, and whatever else you could think of. There were a lot of young fans, all clammering for autographs from the players roaming around their respective dugouts. But, there were also a lot of fans over the age of 50 -- most of whom seemed to remember where they were when the Cardinals won the World Series in 1982. No matter what year they were born, they all knew what they were doing on the field -- starting with the announcement of the lineups when they gave Mark McGwire a standing ovation -- to the end of the game when another stadning ovation was given, this time for hometown hero Willie McGee.
St. Louis may have the smartest fans in the league. They are the only group I have seen who genuinely applaud a sacrifice fly or ground ball that advances a runer from second base to third. They are the only fans who applaud an opposing pitcher who makes a nice play -- even if it means the Cardinals' rally is squashed. And, for the most part, they are the only fans who stayed seated during the playing of the game -- choosing to miss only the top of each inning if they have to use the restroom or visit the concession stand.
Joining me at the game were my Uncle Gil, Aunt Judy and cousin David -- all long time St. Louis residents and Cardinals fans. David is currenlty in his second year of Medical School in New York (his brother Aaron, also a medical student, couldn't make it to the game because he was "on call" at the hospital). Aunt Judy is a college counselor for the local high school (very good at what she does) and Uncle Gil is an eye surgeon. All are big baseball fans, and each is knowledgable of the game -- with a particular interest being paid to the folks in the stands around us. Uncle Gil and Aunt Judy get to ballgames somewhat regularly, but David hadn't been to Busch stadium since it was remodeled and spent much of the early innings in awe of the new scoreboard and other beautiful areas. LIke the rest of the fans in the park, they were all very focused on the contest in front of them.
Unfortunately, the contest did turn out the way most of the fans would have hoped. The Cardinals, who can still (mathematically) make the playoffs were hosting the Philadelphia Phillies, a team that can't buy a win most days. But, the Phillies broke out in the top of the first to take the lead and went up 3-1 following a two-run homer by Gregg Jeffries in the fifth. The Cardinals pulled within a run in the eight and had the winning run at the plate before having the wind sucked out of them on a controversial interference call that also called back a stolen base. But, with one final shot at the victory -- and the fans on their feet in support -- Mark McGwire struck out LOOKING ("I don't think I have ever seen that" I remarked to someone in the crowd) to kill the rally. Manager Tony Larussa was ejected after the bottom of the eight inning and the heated argument with the umpire lasted close to ten minutes. All in all, it was a frustrating loss for the Cardinals, who have lost nine of their last ten games and all but fallen out of the pennant race in the NL Central.
It wasn't just the players and coaches who were frustrated on this night. "That type of loss really takes it out of a team," David said as we walked out of the park. . ."They still have a shot at the pennant, but not if they lost these close ones." After the game, I did a quick interview on the field with Mike Dardis, the sportscaster from Philadelphia I had met at the June20th in Philadelphia. Then, Uncle Gil took us to Ted Drew's -- St. Louis' most famous attraction (outside of the Arch) -- a custard shop that will mix almost anything into a perilously thick dessert treat. After we got home I logged in and spent several hours updating the web page and checking e-mail. This was perhaps the longest day on the trip -- but one that was well worth the effort.
Aunt Judy (right) and Uncle Gil (left) joined me a the game along with Rachel Turow and my cousin David (who didn't want to be pictured, but we snuck him in there on the left).
Dr. Meredith, one of Uncle Gil's partners at work (right), and his son (front) gave Uncle Gil two field box tickets for the game. I spent the middle innings of the game sitting with them.
Hall of Fame pitcher Rollie Fingers was on the field before the game, and thanks to Marty Hendin (part of him is on the left) I got to go down to the field and meet Mr. Fingers. Big Thrill!!!!!
Here I am standing on the field after the game giving an interview to Mike Dardis and the guys from Philadelphia. I did an interview with Mike before the June 20th game.