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I Don’t Care If I Never Get Back

August 12, 2011

This was big for me.

If you’ve been reading this blog, or if you’ve ever met me, you probably have a rough idea of the role of baseball in this trip. Half our stops have been baseball related: ballpark tours, ballgames, the Hall of Fame, the Field of Dreams, and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. On Sunday we’ll be in Louisville, Kentucky, to see (among other things) the Louisville Slugger factory. All lots of fun, but to me that’s just the tip of the Hank Greenberg.

Far more significant is that this trip has finally allowed me to complete a quest I started about 10 years ago: to see a ballgame in every Major League Baseball stadium. For years, every summer I took at least one trip to at least one stadium I hadn’t seen. At different times I’ve dragged along friends, brothers-in-law, and my wife and/or kids. I even went on one trip myself. The whole thing has taken longer than I expected, partly because baseball teams keep tearing down the stadiums I’ve visited to build new ones. As a result of the MLB construction boom I’ve been to stadiums that no longer exist in New York, Philadelphia, Montreal, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Detroit, St. Louis, and Minneapolis. Each trip has been wonderful in its own way. Well, except for the trip to the old Tiger Stadium, during which my plane had engine trouble halfway to Detroit and had to return to New York only to discover that the problem was just a faulty “engine trouble” light on the instrument panel but nonetheless causing me to miss the first inning of the game, which featured Angels pitcher Chuck Finley striking out four (yes, four) Detroit batters in the inning.

When Sam and I left New York four weeks ago I had three ballparks left: Target Field in Minneapolis, Safeco Field in Seattle, and the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Thursday night I completed the cycle.

It was not intentional that my last ballpark ended up being St. Louis, but it was quite fitting. I’m a Mets fan through and through but if I have a second favorite team it’s the Cardinals, and has been for as long as I can remember. Pretty much everyone I know has seen me wearing a Cardinals cap at some point, starting with a fitted cap that a cousin from St. Louis gave me as a 13th birthday gift. I wore that cap almost every day until I accidentally left it in a hotel room when I was 15. A year later I bought a replacement that I subsequently wore out so thoroughly that by the time I finished high school it was no longer red and could barely be considered a hat. When a gust of wind blew it off my head and under a city bus’s tires on my commute to college one day I only loved it more. At this point the hat is so dilapidated that the cardboard inside the bill has completely disintegrated. I’ve replaced it a couple of times with redder, cleaner Cardinals hats but I still wear the disintegrated one when I’m doing handy work around the house.

But finishing my quest in St. Louis was better than just seeing the team whose hats I like to wear and/or accidentally destroy. Everything I love about baseball came together tonight. I would say the night was perfect but somehow that seems to understate just how perfect it was. The weather was extraordinary: temperatures in the high 70s with the slightest breeze and clear skies. Our seats were excellent: field level right behind home plate. The game was riveting: the top two teams in the division, each with its ace on the mound and a potent lineup. The Brewers jumped out to an early 2-0 lead only to give it back in the form of home runs from the most unlikely (Rafael Furcal) and likely (Albert Pujols) Cardinals hitters. Lots of strikeouts, double plays, clutch hits, and an important win for the home team in front of a robust, enthusiastic crowd. Victory fireworks exploding above the scoreboard. And we got to watch Pujols, one of the best hitters in the history of the game, put on a show: 4-for-4 including a game-tying home run and a rare triple.

Best of all, I got to share this perfect night with someone I love, someone who appreciated it as much as I did. I didn’t say a word all day about completing my stadium tour, but as soon as we settled in our seats Sam turned to me and said, “Congratulations, Dad.” We shared a bag of peanuts. We pointed out details of the stadium and of the game to each other. We got ready to catch foul balls. We made fun of Brewers infielder Yuniesky Betancourt. We had a great time.

And the ballpark: what a gorgeous ballpark! Before we were even off the highway we could see it nestled into downtown just like every ballpark should be. The building is all brick, in perfect Cardinal red. The outside is stunning, timeless, and really, really … ballparky.

The inside is even nicer, and has (no offense to Pittsburgh or Cincinnati) the best backdrop in baseball, with the prettiest parts of the skyline prominently visible beyond the outfield walls.

Every stadium built in the past 20 years has attempted to blend modernity with an old-time feel. Some are more successful than others. Busch Stadium does it so well that even Sam noticed. (“It’s kind of old and kind of new at the same time.”) It also manages to incorporate the history of the team and the city with touches like the names of concession stands (Gashouse Grill, Dizzy’s Diner, etc.), the championship flags above the scoreboard, and the views of the Old Courthouse and the Gateway Arch, rather than by simply blanketing the place inside and out with photos of players like too many other ballparks do. Even Big Mac Land, a McDonalds-branded outfield seating section from Mark McGwire’s home run heyday, is resurrected here.

The stadium has its flaws (the concourses are too dark, the out-of-town scoreboard shows only one league’s games at a time, the bathrooms aren’t so nice, the crowd did the wave instead of watching the eighth inning, etc.) but overall I couldn’t have asked for a better end to my quest.

I was worried that Thursday night’s game would leave me feeling a little like Inigo Montoya after he finally completes his lifelong quest by killing the six-fingered man: fulfilled but a bit lost and unsure of what comes next. But instead I find myself thoroughly satisfied and even energized.

Despite having missed the four strikeouts in Detroit, I’ve witnessed some incredible things at various ballparks over the years. I watched a Blue Jays game from a hotel room window inside the SkyDome. I saw an inside-the-park home run in Philadelphia. A triple play at Shea. Sammy Sosa’s 50th and 51st home runs in a Wrigley Field double header in 1998. McGwire’s 61st home run receiving a standing ovation when shown on the big screen at a game in Pittsburgh’s old Three Rivers Stadium. An Expos outfielder using the tarp as a Slip ’N Slide at a rained-out Expos “home” game at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico. A Cuban umpire flattening an anti-Castro protester at a Cuba-Orioles exhibition game at Camden Yards. The A’s successfully using their centerfielder as a fifth infielder in extra innings at Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay. Robin Ventura’s playoff game-winning, 15th-inning grand-slam single at Shea Stadium.

Toward the end of “Field of Dreams,” Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones) sums up America’s relationship with baseball but, I think, also sums up the role baseball has played in my own life:

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and could be again.”

I may have run out of new stadiums to visit, but there will always be another ballgame to go to, another incredible feat or milestone to witness. Besides, Sam’s on a stadium quest of his own now. By the end of this trip he will have attended games at 11 different major league stadiums and taken guided tours of 3 others. That leaves 16 stadiums for him to see. And about 10 months for us to plan next summer’s trip …

One Comment leave one →
  1. Yehuda and Esther permalink
    August 12, 2011 10:47 am

    Can’t believe you thinking about the next one already. Too bad you Braun wasn’t playing, but it was a crazy game. Can’t wait to see you guys next week, have a great final road Shabbos.

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