Welcome to Flashback Friday: Take Me Out to 34 Ballparks, a celebration, critique and countdown of every major league ballpark one baseball fan has been fortunate enough to visit in a lifetime of going to ballgames.
BALLPARK: Busch Stadium (Old)
HOME TEAM: St. Louis Cardinals
VISITS: 1, plus a tour at a later date
VISITED: August 6, 1992
CHRONOLOGY: 8th of 34
RANKING: 25th of 34
I hate class trips. I haven’t been on one in nearly thirty years, but I still hate them. I hate being insinuated into a large group. Not 55,000 at Shea, per se, but any gathering of more than about four people that moves at somebody else’s behest. I hate being organized by total strangers unless I’ve paid for the privilege. I hate being outnumbered. I hate being a number.
For all those reasons, I all but hated my first exposure to old Busch Stadium. I probably wasn’t going to like it very much under optimal circumstances. I hated the Cardinals, too. I wasn’t crazy about their opponent.
Goodness, I’m kvetchy regarding this trip, but it encompassed all those things I generally despise, plus it was work. I had previously twisted a couple of work trips into ballpark detours, but this was actually work. I was in St. Louis as part of a trade magazine junket sponsored by the good folks who used to own the Cardinals. Their main business was beer. They brewed more of it than anybody else. The idea was to take us on a “V.I.P.” tour of their brewery, show us their Clydesdales, give us a talk or two on topics relevant to what we covered and then, for fun, take us to their ballpark to see their ballclub.
When this came up as a possibility, I was the dog in The Far Side who only heard what she wanted to hear: “Blah, blah, blah, BASEBALL! Blah, blah, blah, CARDINALS!” Hence, I had no compunction against volunteering for this particular assignment.
Of course I’m still glad I did. I would do it again, given the circumstances. I would have done it again a few years later when another brewer was organizing another outing to Milwaukee around a baseball game. That trip was assigned to another staff member at my trade magazine before I could speak up for it. My editor, who was clueless in all things sports (among many, many things), seemed surprised that I was miffed not to be given right of first refusal. “You wouldn’t want to fly all the way to Milwaukee just to see a baseball game, would you?”
I just stared at him and walked away.
Despite my enthusiasm for getting to add another ballpark to my life list on somebody else’s dime, I must have signed up later than most for St. Louis There was no room at the official junket inn and I wound up at a Courtyard by Marriott on the edge of downtown. Not a big deal, but it meant I wasn’t greeted by the official welcome basket full of the sponsor’s product. The next morning, when we gathered at the brewery, there was much official joshing around regarding the beer that was in everybody’s room. “What beer?” I thought. Wow, already one big inside joke, and I’m on the outside looking in.
By the summer of 1992, I’d been covering beverages for nearly 3½ years, so I’d crossed paths with various colleagues and competitors on the circuit. I had at least a few nodding acquaintanceships here and there. But that Thursday morning in St. Louis, I didn’t recognize anybody. When the gist of the junket agenda was spelled out, I figured out why. These other fine reporters were representing publications that were read primarily by retailers. Mine was read primarily by bottlers and wholesalers. You, the non-beverage civilian, may not get the fine difference, so let’s say that in baseball terms, they wrote for centerfielders and I wrote for third basemen. It was all still baseball, but they were going to be doing stories on How To Best Approach The Warning Track while I’d be learning nothing for my exposé on Playing The Bunt. Reconstructing the series of events that landed me in St. Louis, I remembered the junket application I sent in late had been rerouted my way from a retail magazine within our company. The company that owned the Cardinals didn’t really want me there to begin with.
Which was fine. All I wanted the baseball game that night.
Nevertheless, the day proceeded as somebody else’s class trip. I tried to befriend a person or two (somebody worked at a magazine where a guy I kind of knew used to work) but it didn’t go anywhere. I’m very bad at making friends on class trips, particularly adult class trips. So I sat, for hour upon hour, taking notes, smiling at our hosts, and not saying very much to anybody. We got to visit the Clydesdales and pick up Beechwood chips (better than Clydesdale chips) and found out something about carbonation, maybe something else about why six-packs are stocked on this shelf while twelve-packs are stacked over there in that display. Some of it was interesting, a little bit of it was informative as regarded what I wrote about, most of it was lonely time-killing. When’s first pitch?
Our day at the brewery ended late in the afternoon. We were released to our accommodations for a brief period (everybody else to their hotel rooms for the basket of complimentary beer, me to the Courtyard on the edge of downtown) and told to reconvene at a sports bar a couple of blocks from Busch Stadium.
I went back to my room, changed into slightly less confining business clothes — I wasn’t sure how “on” we were supposed to be for the rest of the evening — and took a cab through St. Louis to the place. I found my group and attempted to circulate. I’m terrible at that, too. They may have set up an informal spread with chicken wings and camaraderie, but it was really just another industry cocktail party with more suffocating small talk with people you didn’t know.
What’s worse, it was with fellow trade journalists. Something you need to know about trade journalists: nobody likes being one, not really. Nobody aspires to being one, certainly. You get the bug to become a journalist and, in my day anyway, you think of Lou Grant or All The President’s Men or Time magazine or Rolling Stone. You don’t think of trade magazines. You don’t know they exist. As it happened, I did. My sister was in the business for a while and that’s how I got involved. That’s how my view of the journalism job world came to include trade magazines. I started writing for them freelance in college, I kept writing for them freelance out of college and when I needed a full-time position, I gravitated to trade magazines.
Could I have done something else for a living? Something where somebody besides bottlers and wholesalers would have heard of me? I didn’t think in those terms. I thought about trade magazines, publications where you could become an expert at something nobody outside your field would ever ask about. You may have been a maestro at it, but your performances were closed to all but a scant few enthusiasts. Your friends and your family had heard of Time and Rolling Stone and so on. They never heard of what you wrote for except that you wrote for it.
That reality always hung over you, and nobody else understood it except other people like you who had somehow made a left turn into trade magazines. Theoretically, then, when you found yourself sharing a corner of a sports bar with them, you all shared a bond. You may have been frustrated by the limitations you imposed upon your professional self, but so were they. We could all drink to that. We could all get to know each other better because of it.
But that would’ve been depressing, so when it came up as a topic of conversation, it came up softly and obliquely, with just one junketeer, a charming Southern fellow nearing 50, daring to mention amid a bit of rambling the dissatisfaction his professional life was bringing him, how he had to do something else and soon.
Yeah, I agreed — me too.
“How old are you?” he asked me.
“Oh, you’re just a baby,” he said more assuringly then dismissively. He rambled a bit more about himself and I went for another wing.
You know when beer is at its best? When it’s shipped fresh from a beermaker’s main brewery. The beer was as on the house as the wings, and I helped myself to several of both. I’m not much of a beer drinker, but when in St. Louis…you know. The brewer at the time had been pushing a “dry” version of its flagship brand (“flagship brand” is one of those phrases I worked into every story). Purists and dilettantes alike laughed at the concept of dry beer, just as they would laugh at ice beer a year later, just as the fact that soft drink franchisors started extending their lines to include caffeine-free and cherry colas became fodder for lazy comedians in the mid-’80s. I guess there’s just something funny about beverages to most people. In any event, I had never tried their dry beer, but it was there for the taking at the sports bar, so I took it.
My god, it was good. It was so good I had three full cans. It was less the need to cool down the chicken wings than to drown out the self-loathing. Why did I go into trade journalism? Why ask why? Try the dry.
Sufficiently refreshed, it was off to Busch Stadium, which I’m pretty sure is the nominal topic of this essay. Busch…it was OK, I guess. I’d always admired it on television as having a bit more character than the other round, turf-laden parks. I liked the arches atop the stadium. I liked, in person, that it was around things like bars and hotels. Otherwise, it was full of ramps like the Vet and Shea, and it was full of Cardinal fans. I’d come to hate Cardinal fans in 1985 when they didn’t so accidentally spill their beer on Lenny Dykstra at the peak of Met-Redbird hostilities. The hatred between New York and St. Louis had waned since then. This was the final year of the “pure” National League East. The Cardinals weren’t much of a factor in the divisional race and the Mets were slipping from factordom quickly. We were both well behind the Pirates, that night’s visiting team. Pirates and their fans weren’t my favorite people, either.
This was the first N.L. game I’d ever attended where the only evidence of the Mets was their decal on the outfield fence and their space on the out-of-town scoreboard. I didn’t really want anybody to win here in St. Louis. But as long as the brewery that owned them was treating, I pretended to root for the Cardinals. I even put on the adjustable Cardinals cap they gave us (marveling at how long ago 1985 suddenly felt). I thought I’d be doing my faux-rooting from really excellent seats, maybe a luxury box. If we were rolling with the company that bore the same name as the stadium, and we were special guests, I expected special treatment — as if those three fresh dry beers weren’t special enough.
Alas, our group was seated somewhere in the second deck. Not bad seats, but nothing special. I imagine the Busches had better guests on whom to shower their finest hospitality. The whole atmosphere felt rather corporate, and not because I was dressed better than usual for a ballgame. I imagine there were a lot of Busch-ites at Busch. If not exactly a company town, the A and Eagle footprint figured to be pretty formidable. And whether it was fealty to a local employer, Redbird rabidness or just the way those nice folks in St. Louis supported their team, I decided this must be what’s it’s like to going to a baseball game in Japan. Everybody wore red. Everybody cheered in unison. Everybody smiled a bit too much.
It was a class trip again, but this time the class contained 32,000 other students and I had nothing to say to any of them beyond “nice catch” when a lean Barry Bonds made a sliding grab of a liner that was about to sink onto the carpet in left. Bonds would leave the Pirates after the season, but that catch remained a mainstay of highlight reels for years to come. “Hey,” I’d think whenever it popped up. “I was at that game.”
That’s all I remember in the way of baseball from that game. I was thoroughly disengaged from the action, getting up to walk around to explore the ramps (which were just ramps) and peeking again and again at the out-of-town scoreboard (which was just more bad 1992 Met news). I’d been to one Mets game by myself in 1988 and it was weird, but this was weirder. I was with a group — our names went up on the scoreboard in the middle of the game — but I was as alone as I’d ever been at a baseball game. Nobody’s fault but my own. My fellow trade journalists didn’t necessarily seem like bad sorts (unlike an eerily similar Shea experience in 1979 alongside high school journalists). I’m just not good at small talk. The only talk I really find embiggening, as they say on The Simpsons, is Mets talk. These people weren’t Mets fans. I was stymied in conversation from the get-go.
I put in nine or ten innings at Busch. The game would go thirteen, but I’d had enough of color-coded enthusiasm for one night. I thanked our hosts and split. Cabs were lined up out front. Being downtown had its advantages.
There was no more official business, so I headed to the airport Friday morning. A week or so later, I received an envelope from the company that owned the Cardinals. It was my Honorary Brewmaster certificate. Had I stayed to the game’s conclusion, I would have received it on the spot. Nice of them to think to send it to me. I hung it in my office, where it remained displayed until my company moved.
Several months later, I was beverage shopping in advance of a photo shoot. I threw a six-pack of that dry beer into the cart while I was on assignment. I had never bought myself a six-pack of anything other than soda, but it had tasted so good at that sports bar in St. Louis, and the Super Bowl was coming up, so why not try the dry one more time?
It didn’t taste close to how good it had been down the block from Busch Stadium. It couldn’t have been as fresh. We weren’t in the middle of summer, and I was in my living room where I had no need to make small talk. I guess I no longer needed a dry beer.
All told, save for the thrill of getting out of the office and seeing live baseball where I wouldn’t have otherwise, my Busch Stadium trip was pretty miserable and I found the stadium fairly unimpressive. Yet I don’t rank it all that low. If I ask why, I know the answer.
It’s because I got another chance at Busch Stadium. And it went much better.
This time, I was alone, but it was a good alone. I was in St. Louis in April 1995 to write a cover story on that same brewer’s best-selling beer brand. This worked better for me than the forced conviviality of a class trip. I wasn’t one person lost in a crowd. I was an army of one. One trade journalist, but a trade journalist doing what I’m supposed to do: light on the small talk, heavy on the Q&A.
Only drawback to the scheduling was that the Cardinals weren’t home. Nobody was home in baseball. The strike that wiped out 1994 had just been settled, but Opening Day was delayed by all that labor-management nonsense. A ballpark loomed nearby, yet there was no baseball.
But, I would learn, there was something else. Once I was done with my interviews, the PR guy in charge of handling me brought me back downtown for lunch. When I told him I had much time to kill before returning to the airport, he told me I could go to Busch Stadium and take a tour. It had nothing to do with my being a guest of the company that would, for one more season, own the Cardinals. They offered tours all the time to anybody. It would kill the requisite time and perhaps give me an insight or two that I missed amid my own miasma in 1992.
I took him up on his suggestion. Walked over from the restaurant to the ticket window at Busch, bought one admission and got myself attached to a group. These people were total strangers, but they were supposed to be, so that was cool. The tour itself was incredibly cool. They took us everywhere inside Busch Stadium. With the season a couple of weeks away, there was lots of activity, so it felt we were getting a sneak preview of sorts for 1995. I noticed a much darker, less deathly carpet had been put down on the field (a year later, new owners would rip up the rug altogether and install good ol’ grass). We got to visit the press box. I had never sat in a stadium press box before. As part of my high school journalism tour group, I got to glimpse Shea’s, but I didn’t get to sit there.
Still in a coat and tie from my interview, I asked somebody to take a picture of me sitting where the man from the Post-Dispatch sat. The man from the Post-Dispatch presumably never asked to be photographed where the guy from the beverage magazine usually sat, but so be it. I tried to furtively write LET’S GO METS on the workspace while our tour guide spoke, but the surface was unkind to such sentiments.
The tour ended on the turf. It was my first time on a major league field. Even though it was carpet, it was thrilling. We stood in foul territory on the first base side and were told to not step over the line lest we incur the wrath of the grounds crew. It was just turf, but who wanted to make trouble? As the guide wound down his remarks, my eye wandered to right field. On October 3, 1985, Gary Carter hit a fly ball over there with one man on and two men out in the ninth inning, the Mets down a run. When he connected, I was convinced it was going out, that the Mets were going to pull ahead of the Cardinals in the game and tie them in the standings and that everything would be great. Instead, the ball was routine and the outcome — 9-unassisted, caught by Andy Van Slyke — was predictable. Still, for a moment, I reveled in standing feet away from bittersweet Met history. We won those first two games in St. Louis that first week of October. They could call us pond scum, they could spill their beer on Lenny, but we went to the ninth inning of the third game with a genuine chance. Keith had singled for his fifth hit of the night, and Gary, on fire for a month, was up against Jeff Lahti. That was 1985. This was 1995. Baseball had been gone since the previous August. Now it was so close, I could taste its lingering heartache.
Three seasons after having had quite enough of it, I would exit Busch Stadium the second time not particularly wanting to leave.
Speaking of ballpark tours, the Mets are initiating their own; details here. Until those commence, there’s no better place to be when the Mets are on the road than Two Boots Grand Central for AMAZIN’ TUESDAY, coming this Tuesday, 7 PM. Your hosts are Jon Springer of Mets By The Numbers and me. Our very special guests are Taryn Cooper of My Summer Family, Josh Wilker of Cardboard Gods and, hopefully, you. Details here.