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Opening Day 1998

This is one of my favorite stories ever.

There is NO tradition quite like Opening Day in St. Louis. None. If you’ve never been in the ballpark for this St. Louis holiday, it’s like missing the orange pie from your trivial pursuit gamepiece–you simply can’t have the complete “Cardinals fan” experience without it. Opening Day is my Christmas…I’m like a kid that just can-not-fall-asleep on Christmas Eve, overtaken with excitement for what I know is in store the next day–the begining of a new baseball season!

I’ve been to several throughout the years, including memorable ones like the opening of new (current) Busch stadium in 2006. Pujols received his MVP award, Carpenter received his Cy Young award, and they both throw out ceremonial first pitches to Bob Gibson & Bruce Sutter to christen the brand new ballpark. The Cardinals won behind Mark Mulder, and I’m there with my brother to open what would be a World Championship season–it really doesn’t get much better than that.

But, perhaps my most memorable Opening Day of all time was 1998. And by “most memorable” I mean that many of the details are fuzzy now, but the important things are crystal clear. The weather was beautiful, especially for the rare March Home Opener, and my buddy Mike had 4 tickets to opening day, section 254-ish, in hand. It was Mike, his brother Steve, myself and one other guy. The fourth guy, who I always mis-remember as Stu, had to work that morning, and didn’t get off work until 1:00. The plan was for Mike, Steve & I to head downtown, and drop Steve off. He was going to meet up with a couple other guys, be there when the gates opened…etc. Meanwhile, Mike & I were supposed to meet “Stu” at a gas station roughly halfway between the ballpark and Stu’s house at 1:30. Stu was going to leave his car there, and ride with Mike & I to the game. Afterwards all four of us would ride home together, drop Stu off at his car, and go on about our day.

The first part of the plan went fine. I drove to Mike & Steve’s house, we grabbed the envelope with the tickets in it, hopped in the car, and off we went. Any radio station in St. Louis worth its salt was doing a live remote from Kiener plaza, broadcasting the pre-game Opening Day festivities, and we listened in the whole way there. Finally, we turned down 7th street, and stopped at the ballpark to let Steve out. He grabbed his ticket from the envelope, and then quickly faded into the sea of red surrounding the stadium. Without so much as putting the car in “park”, Mike & I turned down a couple of one-way streets, crossed a bridge, and were headed to meet Stu at the gas station.

So, we’re driving along our merry way, on IL route 3 at about 65 mph, in the best of moods, as a new season was less than two hours from starting! As I mentioned, it was a beautiful day, probably near 60 degrees. The sun was shining, and amidst the radio scanning, we’d come across Fogerty’s classic, Centerfield. Naturally, the radio went up, the windows went down, and with all that newfound breeze in the car, the envelope with the tickets went right out the window! But if you think that’s unbelievable, let me break down the next 6 seconds or so in slow motion…

As we’re driving along, without warning and with ninja-like quickness, Mike’s left arm goes flying out the window, reaching behind him, in the direction of the gas tank. This totally caught me by surprise, and I had no idea what would posses him to just throw his arm out the window while speeding down the road. I look over, and as he slowly brings his hand back toward the front of the vehicle, I see what’s in his hand: the envelope that (at least at one point in the day) had the tickets in it. From the passenger seat, I can see only his thumb on the near side of the envelope. What I know for sure is that his four fingers are on the other side of that envelope. What neither one of us know is: the location of the 3 tickets we’re supposed to have. He turns his hand over, and reveals (to us both) his four fingers, and half as many tickets…on the OUTSIDE of the envelope. I kid you not. While driving 65 mph down the road with the radio up & the windows down, the tickets (along with the envelope that formerly housed them) flew out the window, but Mike reached out & caught the envelope and two of the three tickets.

I swear to you, that happened.

As soon as possible, we pulled over and searched the entire car for the third ticket…which, we didn’t find–it was gone. So, here we are, a few miles from the gas station, where Stu is expecting to meet us in five or ten minutes so he can get his ticket and head to Opening Day with us. Two problems now exist: First (and most obvious), we only have two tickets. By the way, I think it’s worth noting at this point in the story that I reached into my wallet and paid Mike for my ticket right there on the spot. I then asked him if Stu had paid him for his ticket yet–mama didn’t raise no fool! Second: There is NO WAY we can tell Stu the truth in this situation. “Yeah, Stu. We were driving down the road with the windows down when the tickets flew out the window. Fortunately, Mike was able to reach out the window and catch two of the three tickets. Sorry ‘bout your luck, man.”

Let me just say two quick things about my buddy Mike. Luck like this is really par for his course. This guy could fall out of a 12-story window, land in a pile of horse manuer, and not only escape uninjured and smelling like a rose–he’d find a hundred dollar bill in the pile. That’s just how this guy’s luck is. And yes, he regularly makes a few (profitable) trips to Vegas each year. The other thing about Mike is that he’s very, um, creative. If you’re in need of a good story, he’s your man. I’ll leave it at that.

Bear in mind, this was 1998. More people had pagers than cellphones, and few had either. We couldn’t just text Stu, “Something came up, no tix 4 U. Will explain more L8r-Sorry, kthxbai”, we had to meet him. A few minutes later, we pulled in to the gas station where Stu was already waiting for us. I sunk down into the passenger seat, pulled my cap down low over my eyes & face, and let Mike walk over to Stu’s truck & break the news. To this day, I still have no idea what was said. All I know is that Mike came back to the car, we headed downtown and met up with Steve, and even got back in time to get our schedule magnets for the fridge.

The only thing I remember from the actual game is that McGwire came to bat in the home half of the 5th with the bases juiced (as well as other things), and hit a grand slam. I know it was a grand slam because of the sound of the ball coming off the bat, and the fireworks & the 4 on the scoreboard later. The ball went up & I was smothered in a bro hug until Mac rounded 3rd base in his first of 70 HR that season…I never saw it land.

So while Opening Day always bring about thoughts of what’s in store for the Cardinals that year, and hopeful optimism as I look towards the future, I always take a few minutes to remember the past. Happy Opening Day everyone…and to all a good night!

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One Response to “Opening Day 1998”

  1. Chris R. says:

    I was at that game, too. I remember my boss and another manager (who happened to be the person who referred me to the job) taking me and a coworker. We were in the upper deck in the outfield of old Busch, but it didn’t matter. We got to ditch work with the boss for an Opening Day ballgame. They were buying us beer and everything. And when McGwire hit the slam, it happened to be right at us. Of course, being in the upper deck we couldn’t see it land…so we had to rely on the reaction of the crowd. All in all, quite a day. And it turned out to be a magical season…before we really paid attention to things like “performance-enhancing drugs.”

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