It’s somewhat strange that one of the most visceral memories I’ll have about my last Cardinal game as a Missourian is that I ate two really great hot dogs.
It didn’t really dawn on me until the day before that Sunday, April 22, would be the last time I’ll ever watch my hometown team with the same sense of… I guess you could call it ownership? I’m less than 3 weeks out from a cross-country move, and while Missouri is far too important a place for me to not visit, I’m anticipating a shift in the way I perceive the state, the city, and the ballpark in which I grew up.
I know being from St. Louis doesn’t necessarily give one a superior fandom of the Cardinals. I have friends and family from all over the country who sport the birds on the bat, and the organizations wide-ranging appeal is one of the things I love most about it. For all its modern shortcomings – unwritten rules, mound visit counting, Rob Manfred – there’s still something foundational about baseball that stretches across dividing lines, be they religious, political, geographic, etc. It seems especially so in St. Louis, a city I grew up defending from neighbors to the west and the north who would rather see it in pseudo-classist, pizza-and-barbecue-heresy terms rather than another large municipality that faces a lot of the same issues that plague America as a whole.
But I digress. This isn’t about the politics or socioeconomics of baseball, though those are fascinating subjects I love to think about. No, this is about Busch Stadium, and the way I’ve always viewed it as a secondary home. Maybe some of you can relate.
I remember very clearly the night the Cardinals were eliminated by the Astros in the 2005 NLCS. It was the night after Albert Pujols
ended very temporarily derailed Brad Lidge’s career. I didn’t watch the end of that game; my dad said it was past my bedtime.
Instead, he let me stay up to watch Roy Oswalt motor through the 100-win Cardinals in the last game ever at Busch Stadium II. It was the last game to be played in the stadium. Just the previous year, I’d watched in person as Boston ended its nearly nine-decade championship curse on its infield. It was a rough two years to end on.
I went to bed crying that night. Even as an elementary school kid, Busch Stadium II had already rooted itself deep within my psyche. It was my very own Globe Theatre where the theatrics of the MV3 captivated me long before I even knew who Shakespeare was.
But as school children are wont to do, I bounced back. I went to the very first game the Cardinals played at Busch III (against the Memphis Redbirds), and I was there every night from October 25-27, watching the ascent of Adam Wainwright and the heroics of David Eckstein clinch the first Cardinal title in 24 years.
I don’t want to say this was the true beginning of my rabid Cardinals fandom, but it was definitely an emotional turn, one I can still feel through the 12 years that have followed.
I recently googled, “how much of my life will I remember,” and my cursory search didn’t give me any concrete results. But I can’t imagine it’s very much, especially when it comes to specific details. Maybe around 2-3 percent? Even that might be a little high.
I’ve spent a lot of my life at Busch Stadiums II and III. If I had to ballpark it (sorry!), I’d guess at least a week’s worth. Out of that time, though? I probably only have a dozen or two visceral memories I can pull up on command.
Some of them are easy: the last few innings of Game 6; Game 7 of the 2004 NLCS; losing the World Series in 2004, and winning it in 2006; the last home run I saw Albert Pujols hit at Busch III; playing an exhibition game with my high school team and throwing a 1-2-3 inning. Those are just a few.
Some of them aren’t really related to baseball: the first game I went to owning an iPhone (my friend yelled at me for playing Temple Run between innings); the first game I attended with my girlfriend/soon-to-be-wife; the yearly games reconnecting with my high school buddies when we all came back from college.
The rest? I’m sure I could remember them with a nudge. But at least 95% of my memories at the Busch Stadiums are gone forever, lost somewhere in the mental abyss – or if you prefer the happier Inside Out allegory, basically a giant ball pit.
Part of that fact makes me sad. Stadium Plaza and Clark Avenue were the grounds where I formed lifelong friendships and an especially good bond with my dad. It also cultivated my now lifelong love affair with baseball and, more specifically, the baseball community. I used to go over articles I’d read in the Post-Dispatch the morning before games with my dad. Later, I would spend a lot of time seeing what my friends (both internet and non-internet) were saying about the events taking place on the field. Not cherishing and holding onto all of these memories tightly feels like a failure in some ways.
But I also feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude that I had the opportunity to forget so many of these memories. I was (and still am) immensely privileged that my family and I can afford tickets to so many games. My burgeoning recognition of said privilege bloomed in the hazy memories of live Cardinal baseball, especially in the context of American sports’ growing political landscape.
In summation, I have more memories of Cardinal games than many people ever will, and I’m immeasurably happy that I remember the things I do. I’m encouraged to hold onto the things that stand out, and I feel free to let go of the things that don’t.
And so it all goes back to April 22, the day the Cardinals beat the Cincinnati Reds 9-2 (I had to google the final score.)
Here’s what stands out:
- Kolten Wong hit a home run, which I was very excited about as a long-time Wong fan.
- Paul DeJong also hit a home run which effectively put the game on ice.
- I was sad Carlos Martinez or Adam Wainwright (my favorite pitchers) didn’t start, but seeing a solid Miles Mikolas was a nice consolation prize.
- Tommy Pham sat out, so I didn’t get to show off my “Phamtastic” shirt.
- I got to eat my traditional two hot dogs. When I was young, I was a “just ketchup” kid. I’ve since graduated to ketchup, mustard, and diced onions.
There are quite a few other details, but I really have to dig to get to them. And in time, I’m sure those will be lost to the giant ball pit in my head as well.
In a way, it feels a little disappointing. I thought my last Cardinal game as a Missourian, and the slipping feeling of familiarity that comes with the several yearly trips, would be just as memorable as David Freese trotting the bases in October 2011, or maybe as bitter as hearing Red Sox fans’ vociferous chants after sweeping the Cardinals away in 2004.
But I suppose this is the way it should have been: just a normal trip to the ballpark like any other one. Nothing particularly memorable, save maybe the fact I walked away with a winner. Maybe my next trip to Busch – my first back from my new east coast home – will feel like I hoped this one would: a familiar, but special, return to the place where a healthy portion of identity was forged.
Or maybe the next visit will feel the same, two hot dogs and all. Either way, I’ve learned to treat every one of them as special. That’s not exactly something I can remember, but it is something I can hang my Cardinal caps on.