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 (New)
HOME TEAM: St. Louis Cardinals
VISITS: 1, including a tour
VISITED: August 2, 2006
CHRONOLOGY: 30th of 34
RANKING: 15th of 34
Oh dear lord, it was hot.
I thought it was hot in Phoenix in 1999 and in Cincinnati in 2003, but they take a cool, refreshing back seat to the swelter of St. Louis in early August 2006. The Dunkin’ Donuts commercials that ran incessantly that summer — the ones in which somebody sweaty and in need of a Coolatta sang about how it’s like one million/billion/trillion degrees — had to be written with Missouri in mind.
Or perhaps in Missouri.
It’s impossible for me to think about visiting new Busch Stadium without thinking about the literal heat that surrounded it upon our arrival. It all seemed like a great idea in April to spend one of our periodic ballpark-centered vacations there. We saw Busch’s opening via the magic of the Extra Innings package and it looked plenty cool in digital cable. I was up for it. Stephanie was up for it. So I planned our itinerary.
1) Fly to St. Louis.
2) Enter the flaming fires of hell.
Seriously, it was hot. Within seconds of exiting the air conditioned comfort of Lambert Airport, the oppressive furnace of St. Louis turned full blast on me and my Nordic-blooded bride. Guess who wasn’t crazy about triple-digit temperatures and killer humidity — I mean really not crazy about it. I am often reminded my wife is a good sport for indulging my ballpark wanderlust and all, but the truth is she’s generally a willing co-conspirator in these trips. She likes seeing each of them once.
I fear, however, her enthusiastic participation in our baseball outings is subject to instantly melting when placed within the figurative equivalent of, per Johan Santana’s warmup music, seven inches from the midday sun. We couldn’t have waited more than a few minutes for the light rail into downtown, but it may as well have been hours. And I wouldn’t leave anyone I love to broil for hours in the St. Loo sun if I could help it…even if it was literally only minutes.
Hence, Stephanie’s goodwill toward this visit became a minute-by-minute proposition. I had to deploy St. Louis judiciously to transport her in one dry piece from our drenched arrival on Monday afternoon to our game Wednesday night. Any local explorations that involved more than incidental walking would have to be completed by noon; everything else would have to take place within approximately a three-block radius of our hotel.
And god help anyone who turned the in-room air conditioning below anything but ARCTIC.
The good news is we chose our hotel for its proximity to Busch. Everything we really needed (save for our mandatory pilgrimage to Steak ‘n’ Shake, but for that there were plenty of cabs) was in our midst. Metrolink landed us practically outside the ballpark, practically around the corner from the hotel. The hotel was called the Ballpark Hilton and the baseball special package came with not just an Albert Pujols Build-A-Bear but a view of all things Redbird. We could see not just the ballpark from our room, but most of the field. The game we weren’t attending unfolded right before us in our veritable glass-enclosed luxury box. The Cardinal Hall of Fame, which used to share space with the Bowling Hall of Fame for some reason, was just as conveniently located. And when we got hungry, we could enjoy a lovely dinner downstairs at Mike Shannon’s restaurant, bearing the name of the old Cardinal third baseman and long-running Cardinal broadcaster.
The bad news is it was still frigging hot, and I had the not-so-sneaking suspicion that I couldn’t change it.
In any event, Busch was beautiful from the outside. I rank it a hair ahead of Citi Field and that’s probably because it did unquestionably better with the aesthetics in my purely subjective opinion. The interior reds and greens are perfect. Busch’s exterior, meanwhile, looks like it belongs where it’s situated. The bricks hum in harmony with nearby buildings. The arches pay homage to that one really big one a few blocks east. There are reminders that we are near a bridge, the Eads, laced into the steelwork. And when you’re inside the park, particularly if you take the tour — as we did, mid-morning — and get the home plate vantage point, the St. Louis skyline makes for a glorious backdrop. All those years watching the Mets play in an enclosed Busch (and Three Rivers and Riverfront) revealed nothing of the environs they were visiting. It was nice to know that baseball teams actually played someplace.
The attractiveness quotient was, like the temperature, high enough, but once we actually went to our game (praise be, the mercury plunged to 89 degrees at sunset and there was the slightest of breezes), it was less thrilling than I hoped it would be. I’d been far enough removed from despising the Cardinals during the Davey/Whitey wars of twenty years earlier to look forward to getting in on some of that Best Baseball Town in America stuff of which we were always hearing. It was indeed impressive watching the sea of red flow into Busch; Stephanie was overcome by a “when in Rome” impulse and purchased a Cardinal t-shirt (or maybe it was a symptom of heat stroke). Yet once inside, it felt like…
…it felt like Citi Field would three years hence.
Though Baseball’s Perfect Warrior/Perfect Knight Stan Musial stood guard at the third base entrance, and though we enjoyed fine displays of Cardinal heritage on the suite level when we took the tour, the regular folks en route to their regular seats got mostly ads. The Busch version of the outfield plaza seemed to exist only to sell Fords and phones. Carving out a direct path to our ultimate destination in the Outfield Terrace (how come an upper deck can’t be called an upper deck anymore?) proved difficult, as the presence of some fancy club forced us to take a circuitous route the same way the Acela thwarts any Promenade-bound fan who takes the wrong escalator at Citi. Once we were seated, as nice as St. Louis was to look at, I felt pretty far removed from the action below — we may as well have been watching from our air conditioned room.
As for the fans, a.k.a. The Best Fans In Baseball, it may not be fair to form impressions about a tribe based on a small sample you encounter only once, yet these people, synchronized outfits or not, did not strike me as the good-natured baseball geniuses they were cracked up to be. They booed bad things, they cheered good things, they said lame things, they wore red things.
Except for the color scheme, the same could be said of ballpark patrons anywhere, even Shea in those days. Still, they were supposed to be better than us, better than everybody. They were supposed to be so supportive and tradition-minded and the great red mass in front of whom every major leaguer desired to play.
I didn’t see any evidence of this magic fandom. Perhaps I just didn’t find the right Outfield Terrace row. Perhaps there were guys two sections over trading charming remembrances of Stan the Man while showering unwavering support upon Jeff Weaver, that night’s starting pitcher. Perhaps, but I doubt it. Where Stephanie and I sat, we were subject to the rantings of a Missouri moron (unless he crossed the Eads Bridge from Illinois, in which case, sorry Show Me State). As Weaver wove his way into deeper and deeper trouble, this is what one of The Best Fans In Baseball yelled over and over and over:
“Hey! Do you wanna be in the MINORS or do you wanna be in the MAJORS? Do you wanna be in the MINORS or do you wanna be in the MAJORS? Do you wanna be in the MINORS or do you wanna be in the MAJORS?”
There was also an adjacent slack-jawed yokel exchange that went something like this:
“You say you like to play catch?”
“Then why don’t you go catch us some beers?”
Tough to judge 42,000 by the actions of a few, but I didn’t sense a great deal of baseball savvy at Busch Stadium on one particular hot August night. Not a lot of engagement, just a lot of red. Blame it on lousy play (Cards were losing all week), blame it on that heat wave, blame it on me falling for Bob Costas’s perpetual odes to the local wonderfulness, blame it on Midwestern bearing…which is not a crime, just a difference; let the record show I love Midwesterners so much I married a gal from Wichita.
Whatever the cause, Cardinals fans could have been Astros fans if I didn’t know where I was. That’s not a compliment.
Naturally I didn’t know it at the time, but loads of foreshadowing hovered over our visit to Busch, beyond the ample evidence that global warming was in full swing. When we flew out of LaGuardia, everything was peachy in Metsland. We had just swept the Braves out of Turner Field for the first time ever, we had a mammoth lead in the East and WFAN was sizzling with talk of the Mets maybe, just maybe getting Roy Oswalt at that afternoon’s deadline. Moments after we settled into our room and turned up the AC, I tuned into ESPN to find out what our team was up to.
Well, let’s see:
• Duaner Sanchez was in a Miami taxi accident overnight and was out for the season.
• The Mets, desperate to fill Duaner’s bullpen innings, sent starting right fielder Xavier Nady to the Pirates to reacquire Roberto Hernandez.
• The Buccos threw in erratic lefty starter Oliver Perez, though the ESPN crawl was reporting Perez would be flipped to San Diego for another reliever, Scott Linebrink.
• Nope, scratch that. No Linebrink. We’re keeping this Perez guy. It says he was a good a couple of years ago. Sounds like a project.
The 2006 season became unnecessarily more interesting in the time it took us to fly halfway across the country. The 2006 postseason was still a couple of months away, but it, too, would involve flights between LaGuardia and Lambert along with evidence that we missed Duaner Sanchez pretty badly. No, I wasn’t done watching ballgames from, if not at, Busch Stadium. The last one the Mets played was Game Five of the NLCS, with T#m Gl@v!ne being outpitched by Jeff Weaver, who apparently decided he preferred the majors. I must say, seeing Busch on TV in the context of the Mets trying to win the pennant so soon after visiting it for kicks was quite odd.
Seeing the Cardinals extend their postseason at Shea was something else altogether, but you didn’t need a trip to St. Louis to figure that out. FYI, Stephanie’s innocently purchased Cardinal t-shirt was cast out of rotation about the moment Yadier Molina rounded third — and the Pujols Build-A-Bear had already been given a Met makeover in September.
As for the other foreshadowing from August 2006, let’s just say I saw the future of the Mets’ under construction home, and its name might as well have been Busch Stadium.
Busch Stadium and Citi Field strike me as very close in their reasons for being: the Cardinals and Mets each went from memory-laden large stadia where loyal fans could almost always score a reasonably priced ticket — and were showing up in healthy numbers right to the end of their respective hulking existences — to substantially smaller facilities where demand would theoretically be goosed and prices could rise accordingly. Each team’s marketers laid in the amenities (great root beer floats at Dizzy’s on the Terrace level) and gussied up their trimmings so as to evoke a mythic, bygone era when baseball was so much simpler, yet both new places felt on contact as if they had simply been plucked from Ye Olde Retro Catalogue and outfitted mainly with a ton of ads and ATMs. Neither necessarily felt anymore like a “ballpark” than either of the immense structures they replaced. Really, they both felt like craven cash grabs.
What really surprised me is new Busch felt lacking in Cardinal history the way Citi would feel devoid of Metsiana its first year. I’d have an easier time signing up for U.S. Cellular service than I would divining inspiration from the likes of Pepper Martin unless I detoured to that since-shuttered bowling museum (which was pretty cool, actually). Before Yadier Molina made me hate the Cards as I had in the ’80s, I rather wanted to be wrapped up in Redbird rapture for a few hours. It wasn’t happening.
To be fair, as I’d learn in 2009, it takes some time to imbue a ballpark with a soul. I’m guessing the 2006 world championship with which the Cardinals were able to instantly decorate their gilded cage helped immensely in that task.
Just the thought of it leaves me cold.