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THE STATE OF THE GAME

Opening Day, as Usual
By Jack LaZebnik

The usual sleepless night before the Cardinals opening game, not a case of anxiety or even of excitement (after all, I've been writing these Opening-Day comments since before The Minneapolis Review of Baseball turned into Elysian Fields Quarterly—and I delight in explaining the source of that present name to friends and strangers), but I undergo a logistic worry: Will it rain? Will we start from our home in Columbia, Missouri, in time? Will road work or a traffic jam delay us? The usual concerns for any long trip to any park, I suppose, and, as usual, we made it to St. Louis without harm, in plenty of time, three hours early.

Now, do all team loyalists feel as we do that ours is the best park in the country (even though businessmen apostates, in another, as expected, universal drive of greed, want to tear down beautiful, downtown Busch Stadium—why? Money, as we know) and that we are the best fans in baseball? Bob Costas says we are. Mark McGwire says so, and Jim Edmonds says, "The fans here are the best. Everybody knows it." (Both agreed to less money—a relative statement, of course—just to play in St. Louis.) Last summer, The Sporting News proclaimed St. Louis as "definitely a baseball town" and named it the "Best Sports City in America." Steve Rushin, in the December 25, 2000, Sports Illustrated, wrote, "Look at St. Louis Cardinals supporters as a Mark McGwire home run takes flight. They resemble charismatic Christians at a revival meeting—arms raised, heads to the sky, mouths in a rictus, as if commanded to drop their crutches, rise and walk for the first time in a decade." In the long, early years, the Cardinals were the most southern and the most western team in the league; their allegiance still comes not only from Missouri but just as ardently from Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and even from Indiana and Illinois (thus, the sold-out games between the Cards and the Cubs). Players and commentators agree, as far as I have heard and read, that Cardinals fans appreciate the finer points of the game. It's true that they often applaud spectacular plays of opposing teams. On Opening Day, Colorado Rockies' Larry Walker hit a homer, his bat really cracking, splintering in two, the thick part hurtling between first and second: he started his run with a stub in his hands. The St. Louis crowd applauded.

By tradition, most of the fans wore team-red for the opening game at home on April 9 (we forgot to do that), kids in T-shirts (many with "McGwire 25" on the back but, this year, just as many with "Edmonds 15" and "Drew 7" and "Lankford 16," among others), businessmen with red neckties, women in red blouses. When venerable Jack Buck, in his red jacket and his melodious voice, introduced the Rockies one by one, we all applauded politely—no cheers, but in acknowledgment. Only poor Ron Gant won a few boos, a kind of backward praise, for switching from us to the Rockies (not his fault, of course).

As usual, we joined the festivities outside the park before the game—I don't know whether other cities give such a rock-blasting, history-remembering, swarming festivity, ours with Buck leading the memories and the glorious ones such as Bob Gibson, Stan Musial, Mike Shannon, Red Schoendienst, Ozzie Smith, and Whitey Herzog among the celebrities speaking to us. People in red suits and under red umbrellas, scattered through the wandering park of statues, handed out free ice-cream cones, little cups of stew, bags of popcorn, bottles of soda, plastic coffee containers, and placards—we didn't have to worry about lunch (it was a 2:10 game). As always, we endured the shattering amplifications of rock blasts, the screeching of singers (?), the frantic attacks of drummers wielding their sticks like hammers—jackhammers. As ever, we waited in one of a five-or-ten long line for the iron gates to open, supposedly two hours before game time, and, as usual, the power-mad attendants back there with the keys prolonged our impatience for at least fifteen minutes. We came early to catch batting practice, but we should have known: when we reached our seats, the Cards had finished their workout and the Rockies were in the cage. Only one time, last year, did I get a chance to watch McGwire hit his soaring, exalting, practice homers.

But, at last, we were in the green sward, the circle of the stands. Our seats proved not bad, in the second tier up, next to "Homer's Landing," a section where many of McGwire's concussions land. Again, we asked, why tear down this place? But, again, the management's distrust of the spectators' attention span dominated: the same kind of destructive "music" ripped over us, not only while we waited but also during the game, between innings, and even between batters. Is it the influence of television? On the huge screen to the side, the organizers, scared to allow a moment of relief, of silence, showed trivia questions and contests, the old pea under the shell (here, a baseball under Cardinal caps), and races of comic figures; anything to fill the spaces of time.

We enjoyed the usual: a Rockie coach batting fungoes to the infielders, one at third base receiving his individually, over and over, at least thirty times in succession—was he new at the position? The outfielders chasing flyballs, others playing catch. Amazing how they can sling the ball on a line to home, as if their little arms (from our distance) were elastic. We even enjoyed watching groundskeepers rake and smooth and spray the red dirt and lay down the white lines precisely, measuring them first with a tape and placing them with wooden forms about home plate. I counted at least twenty-five men (I think they were all men) at work, efficient, quick—they'd done it before.

As we have seen him through the years, Jack Buck continued with introductions, his voice gone a little shaky, higher in pitch. After the appearance of the veterans (I remember Stan Musial hitting homers over the fence of old Sportsman's Park, onto Grand Avenue, I think it was), after the polite applause, came the motorcade, Ford vans and trucks (perpetual advertisements) full of administrators and then the convertibles holding Schoendienst, Lou Brock, Gibson, and ninety-year-old George Kissel, sixty years with the Cardinals, and still a bench adviser. Finally, the players: McGwire and Edmonds won high ovations, but the loudest was for Rick Ankiel, who overcame last year's astonishing wild pitches high into the stands and his spring-training lapses like that; in an early game of this season, at Arizona, he beat the Diamondbacks' Cy Young Award winner, Randy Johnson. (In his next appearance, after the opener, Ankiel walked four men in a row, and later still, he was sent to the minors.)

The stadium went silent for a moment to honor Willie Stargell, who died at sixty-one, of a stroke, the day before, just as officials were unveiling in Pittsburgh's new park a twelve-foot statue of the Pirate great. St. Louis hitting coach Mike Easler, a former teammate of Stargell, said, "One thing I remember about Willie so much is he always said the umpires say, 'Play ball,' not 'Work ball.' He was one of my heroes, really, sincerely."

Stan the Man played the anthem on his harmonica; he hit only a couple of off notes, but he delights in performing, so he's a pleasure to hear. Whenever anyone greets him, he smiles and goes into his famous batting stance.

Last year's hero, Will Clark, tossed the opening pitch to the writer Grisham (why him?).

Then, finally, the Cards trotted onto the field and Andy Benes, who lost miserably at Colorado, warmed up, and we fell into the traditional solemnity, the moment of quiet anticipation, and, at 2:10 exactly: play ball! The Rockies leadoff man, Juan Pierre, bunted—and Benes didn't get to first: safe. Oy—was it going to happen again, that Colorado would sweep us? But the inning ended safely, sedately. In fact, the game proceeded that way, as if in sedation; both Benes and Denny Neagle of Colorado worked in no haste whatsoever—the new, high strike zone didn't speed up the game at all, and it ambled on, the usual walks and strikeouts, flyballs, routines: Edmonds always comes up like a lawn man, cleaning the path, the dirt around the plate, and he waves his elbows, plants his feet again and again, then walks off to contemplate before he's ready. Up and down they came, McGwire rapping his soaring outs, until, suddenly, like a revelation of where we were, Pujols hit his home run—we knew where it went by the rising of the crowd to our right and the cheers that kept on until he came out to wave his cap. Most of the game eased on with little fuss, strikeouts, groundouts, foul outs, as if the heat had slowed everything down. Pujols, up again, hit into a double play.

Strange how an entire team responds like a single person; sometimes, the Cards are hot, driving in run after run, every player in tune. At other times, they're all cold, missing everything, leaving men on base, going down one after the other. Why is that? How does that happen? Again (routine), eight days after the opener, in their third meeting with lowly Arizona, the Cards in unison couldn't hit, made errors (Drew dropped an easy flyball, allowing two runs in), while the Diamondbacks scored seventeen times, with six homers (two by Gonzalez). Achievements: Cards relief pitcher Gene Stechschulte as a pinch hitter cracked a home run, his first hit as a big leaguer. And veteran outfielder Bobby Bonilla, for the first time in his sixteen-year career, came in to pitch for the Cards, and held Arizona to two runs in the ninth (final score, 17–4).

In our opening game, when Lankford struck out, a man behind me said, "That's the Ray of last year. All year." (But he's done well since then.) An average day? "Some people are just average," I said. A lady next to me said, "I'm average in everything"—she's five-foot-two.

As always as before, from our disadvantage point, the players were about as high as a paperclip. The only way we knew that someone hit the ball was from the sound, the movement of the fielders, and the cheers or groans of the crowd, those down below who could see. A couple of weeks ago, I went to a University of Missouri game in Columbia, its park holding about six hundred spectators: we were all right down next to the field. At one point, the umpire looked at the Texas Tech bench and said, "Are you talking to me? Are you talking to me?" "Yeah," the manager replied. "What the hell kind of call was that?" They went on for a minute until the umpire jerked up his arm, his thumb pointing at the sky: "You're out!" We could hear singular taunts from singular fans and the yells from the players, thuds of ball on glove, the ping! of the metal bats—I must say, the pleasure went high. Here, at Busch Stadium, we really couldn't see, had to listen to the damned intermittent rock blasts, and watched the sun creep over the rows of seats in front of us until, finally, we sat in the vibrating rays—the air reached ninty-one degrees, a record for April 9.

Once again, I asked myself, is it worth it? Wouldn't it be far easier and more comfortable to sit in front of the television screen and see the pitch, the batter, the ball, the play? Yes, but that's through the intermediary of the set, even though close in sight, still far in the living distance. At the stadium, we are part of the game, a member of the entire body, of the ritual, the commonplace book of the game. Tradition means more than repetition: it gathers the years and the generations into a shape for us to recognize, not simply as pictures on a glutinous screen but as a presence within cathedrals, churches, synagogues that exist for the purpose of playing out the drama with responsive readings: we are the chorus. We need to be at the place. And all the suffering (even though minor in our quest at the park), the heat, the misery of lines and noise, debris in the bathrooms, the screeches of the vendors, the insults from the amplification boxes, the inability to make out what's going on instantly, all that probably (I say probably) gives the whole event its meaning: without suffering, there's no conflict; without conflict, no drama; without drama, no meaning. As Samuel Butler put it (in "Hudibras"):

And poets by their sufferings grow,
As if there were no more to do
To make a poet excellent,
But only want and discontent.

Cheers of hope for McGwire: he hasn't hit yet this season, oh for nineteen (achieved his first home run yesterday). He did make the ball soar, but into the left fielder's mitt. Couple of such flies along with a strikeout. He can't gain power from his sore knee; he said, "Right now, I feel like I'm half of me. I feel like I'm playing with my left leg . . . . I'm not driving off my back leg because of what's happened to my knee." (Today, as I write this, the Post-Dispatch reports that he might go on the disabled list.)

The hero of the game, and of the season so far, is rookie Albert Pujols, twenty-one. (He joins a list of ten others who played regularly in a Cardinals lineup at twenty-one or younger during the past sixty years, among them Garry Templeton, Ted Simmons, Curt Flood, and Joe Garagiola.) Pujols was supposed to head for the minors when Bobby Bonilla recovered from a hamstring injury, but in the early games Pujols went seven for fourteen with a home run, three doubles, and eight RBI. At our opener, he started at third base, then moved to right field, and he homered again, ending up with a .346 average and ten RBI. We cheered him to a curtain call. Batting coach Mike Easler said on Opening Day, "He's playing like a seasoned veteran. And he hits a bomb on top of that"—a two-run homer.

At the time of this writing, Pojols has continued his brilliance with the bat and on the field. "He's got the whole package," manager Tony LaRussa said. "He's got good hands, can play different positions, has a nice arm and a good eye." We felt his shining presence, the introduction of a new star—assuming he'll stay healthy. Always amazing to me how fragile players are, in essence, so highly tuned, so taut in muscles. Jim Edmonds in frustration, after a strikeout, kicked at a wall and stubbed his left big toe; ever since, he's been hobbling a bit. McGwire's bum knee, Drew's near hamstring injury, all the pitchers undergoing elbow surgery, others grimacing, twisting in pain (and still playing), like tennis racket strings breaking, violin strings popping. I forget sometimes how hard they run the bases and on the field after a ball, how savagely they slide at second and home, how they leap into a horizontal plane to make an out—no wonder they're gasping and sweating when they return to the dugout after a double play or a crash into the catcher at home.

And so the game eased on. As ever, I ran up the steps to the runway for a hot dog. Which line to join? I tried the shortest and the guy behind the counter fidgeted, looked to his left and right, then ran off to fetch something (a pail of water? what?), returned, picked up a phone and talked and talked. All right, do the dumb thing—I switched lines. After ten minutes, with the crowd's cheers nagging at me, I gave up, dashed back to my seat: I hadn't missed much. A few innings later, I tried again, this time with a woman at the service counter. She was efficient, polite, patient, and I got my dog—just a dog. I put mustard on it (no pickle, no onion, no sauerkraut in sight) and ate it for the tradition, the routine. I used to come across a friend, a woman lawyer, at a corner near our house; to support the local system (huge, lumbering buses with one or two people in them), she always waited at that corner for the public ride to her work. "Ah," I said to her, "routine, eh?" "Thank God for routine," she said. "Otherwise, how'd we ever get anything done?"

The routine of McGwire coming up to bat: the cheers of honor, hope, loyalty. Today, he succeeded only in lofting flyballs, his old strength gone, and yet we all shouted for him.

People routinely started leaving early. A big guy stood a long time in my sight. "Down in front!" I cried. No response. Finally, he got tired, I guess, and sat. The stale beer calls began: "Yahoo!" Steve Kline relieved Benes, threw a strike. "Oh, yeeah! Oh, yeeah!" from behind us. "Yeeah, he did!"—struck the man out. We had to show enthusiasm for something in this sedate game. More people leaving: ah, well, let's get it over with. We're all at the predictable stage now. Ron Gant up for the Rockies, a man on second. A smash to left-center, Edmonds there to pick out the ball from its bounce, and he heaved it home—out! That would've been the game, for sure.

In the ninth, Banilla got a two-bagger. Drew came in to run for him. "Drew! Drew!" "Why are they booing him?" my wife said. "That's Drew," I said, "not boo." Lankford, who'd been hitting home runs, up next—and he bunted! Everyone safe! Gone the sedation—now the tension, the cries and calls and cheers. Pujols walked (good eye). Sutton pinch-hitting. Bases loaded, Lankford at third. One out. Away from routine, out of the ordinary, in a burst of surprise, Jose Jimenez threw a fastball over the head of catcher Brent Mayne and Lankford dashed home. What a way to win, but we'll take anything as penitents, believers.

I suppose baseball is a religion for us, those within the pages of this magazine. It provides continuity and tradition, the routines of faith. And loyalty to a denomination, even though we might rarely attend the service, except on the high holidays, openers, playoffs, whenever we're in town. No matter our political or institutional differences, as fans we slap each other's palms and root for the old home team together. We sit and watch in easy excitement, in casual intensity: it's a social affair, an essentially sedate time, with a scattering of thrilling moments. It's a service without a clock and it happens outside (even the closed-in stadiums are really outside). It's a place of freedom: if we miss a play while we're getting a hot dog, we catch what happened; there's time to fill in the event, to recap it. So we've been losing games at this point in the season: it's a long, leisurely one. As a friend said to me, it's a marathon, not a sprint. The rituals keep our assembly familiar, from the first pitch of the opener to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" at the seventh-inning stretch to our rising from out seats with our arms up, fists waving for the homer or the double play or the sliding victory. In the movie Bull Durham, Susan Sarandon, as Annie Savoy, says, "I believe in the church of baseball. I've tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. I've worshiped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishsnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan . . . . I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn't work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there's no guilt in baseball. And it's never boring." Amen.

—EFQ

 

JACK LAZEBNIK is professor emeritus in English at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. He is an annual contributor to Elysian Fields Quarterly.

© 2001 Jack LaZebnik

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