Three Days In Baseball’s Capitol

[From an article on EM]

For anyone that’s never made the journey, five hours of driving past nearly 300 miles of corn, porn and fireworks isn’t exactly what would be referred to as a traditional vacation. But when you have old friends to meet and your favorite baseball team to see, the trek from Kansas City to St. Louis down I-70 is slightly easier to swallow.

I made it to my friends’ place on the outskirts of St. Louis in the afternoon. We hung out for a bit and went to eat at a pizza place in town, where I saw Lance Berkman‘s 24th homer of the year on TV. (Every TV in town has the game on). I got back to their house just in time to see Kyle Lohse give up a back-breaking four-run homer, only three of which were answered to by the Cardinals. 7-6 Diamondbacks.

* * * * *

The next afternoon, we passed the ballyard in all its shining glory. To a denizen of the city (most of them being clad in the red of the hometown 25), it’s there every day. But when you have only seen it in person twice, never in the daytime and at home only when the team is on nationally, it’s a sight to see. The crimson block letters that resemble those on the Budweiser Brewery pronounce the brick and black steel building’s designation: BUSCH STADIUM.

We were heading to Crown Candy, a little restaurant–I guess you’d call it–built into the corner of a run-down, abandoned block on the south side of the city whose presence was hidden from the eyes of the Arch by a number of skyscrapers. I guess plenty of other people shared my friends’ enthusiasm for the place since we waited nearly an hour to get through a 20-foot-long line in which everyone was compacted together like a trash cube waiting for one of the 20-something tables to open up. After hearing a brief reminiscence of an old man and his St. Louis Browns who didn’t recognize the name “Pujols” on the back of one of my friends’ jerseys, we finally sat down. The hot dog drenched in chili, cheese and onions is essential to the story as you can well imagine.

We exited the old, corroding neighborhood with its collapsed and graffitied houses, empty shops, collections of druggies and homeless men under an overpass literally feet away from the nicer stone, steel and glass buildings of the upper district. We breached into bustling downtown, where we strategically entered into a makeshift parking lot beyond the third base side without engaging any of the heavy traffic around the Stadium a bit short of two hours before first pitch. While we drove down Spruce Street, I looked up from the back seat at the bright red neon lettering symmetrically divided by the line in the middle of the road that read “St. Louis Cardinals” in the same font on the fronts of the teams’ uniforms.

We turned a corner and went straight in as we passed the notorious(ly ugly) Stan Musial statue. As I said, I had only been to the place twice, but never early enough to tour it. I took a walk to see the backdrop beyond where the mythological St. Louis Cardinals do battle 81 days out of the year and passed thousands of people dressed similarly to myself in their various Redbirds paraphernalia, the hundred or so vending stations and food stands and thousands of Little Leaguers and their parents coming off the field and filing up the zig-zagging ramp that enthralled me in my very first visit a few years ago.

My friend and I made our way back to our seats in the left-center bleachers, where we waited in 90-something-degree weather for the game to start.

Everything started according to plan when Albert Pujols gave us an early lead in the first. Then, it all fell apart in an instant. I was seeing my favorite pitcher, Chris Carpenter, start in person for only the second time. I picked a bad day. Only moments after the should-be All-Star singled in that first run, Carpenter loaded the bases and with two outs and gave up a hit to the freaking pitcher; which wouldn’t have been so bad had Colby Rasmus not charged the ball. But he did. And it got by him. 3-1, Arizona.

Chris Young blasted a double past Albert to increase the deficit one more run. Kelley Johnson doubled in the sixth to crush everyone’s spirits and make it 5-1. Figures this is the game I get to see in my tentatively annual visit to Busch. The bases-loaded double play in a two-run inning didn’t do much to lighten my spirits, either. Ryan Roberts drove in yet another D-Backs run on Jason Motte in the top of the seventh. 6-3.

I should have been having more fun since I was with my friends in one of my favorite places on this earth; but I wasn’t. How could I? A comeback seemed impossible at this point.

But, my guys gave me a hint of something to root for. Ryan Theriot hit a fly ball deep to center–right in front of me but still well over the grass. Young looked up and had his glove ready, but dropped the ball right after catching it. Theriot was out, but Jon Jay scored from third. There’s always a little hope, I thought.

I looked over at the scoreboard to see that the Pirates, who the Cards were unbelievably tied with before 6:15, had given the Cubs the go-ahead run. Next thing I know, I’m looking at the other end of the barrel on a Pujols game-tying bomb 50 feet away from me.

I saw the blue ball loop into the away bullpen. I don’t know why it was blue or why I didn’t hear the rest of the crowd when he hit it. But when it was airborne, I waited until it touched down. Then, I lost it. (My voice is still cracking a bit.) Me and everyone around me went hysterical as the baddest hitter on the planet just gave our team a back-from-the-dead, tie-game hit. 6-6, Cardinals. (Yes, we were in the lead.)

I didn’t have another coherent thought all night. It’s something special to see your favorite player do something like that. Who’s washed up now? But it wasn’t over yet. With these relievers, it’s never over.

But, Tony LaRussa pulled out all the stops. The team’s best relievers: Mitchell Boggs, Lance Lynn and Fernando Salas were all used to preserve the tie. But that meant that if the game went into extra innings, Tony would be flushed of his best relief men. The game had to end in the bottom of the ninth.

Lance Berkman led off with a hit, and Yadier wasn’t far behind with a walk. In comes the only bat left on the bench after Jay, Skip Schumaker and Nick Punto were used: Tony Cruz and his three RBI. (Notably absent was his Ke$ha walk-up song.) Well, it isn’t the end of the world if he gets out. My brother, a casual baseball fan, asked me “Who’s Tony Cruz?” He found out.

This time, I yelled before the ball hit the ground. Utility man Tony Cruz had just hit a walkoff double to right! The crowd, naturally, was even louder this time after their guys came out of a three-run ditch. Me and my friends couldn’t stop talking about what we had just seen. I high-fived the Cool Papa Bell statue outside before celebratory Imo’s was ordered. Man, I love baseball.

* * * * *

We said our early-morning goodbyes, said hi to my uncle after a conversation disparaging my boy Razz and left on the long trip for home. On the way, caught the day game and Iceman’s game-winning bomb on a TV at TGI Fridays in Columbia and three different radio stations. And now I’m back.

Postscript: Hit me up at my site

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