After far too long (four years), my family made the short trip north last weekend for a pair of St. Louis Cardinal games at Busch Stadium. A few observations from “baseball heaven”:
• The baseball connection between Memphis and St. Louis is as solid as the 280 miles of I-55 asphalt that link the two cities. In line at a concession stand Friday night, we met a family from Collierville. Saturday morning, we ate breakfast next to a man in a Memphis Tigers shirt. In both games we saw, seven of the nine Cardinal starters played as Memphis Redbirds at AutoZone Park before first taking the field at Busch. (The Miami Marlins’ third baseman Saturday — Placido Polanco — was yet another Redbird alum on the field.) The eventual purchase of the Redbirds franchise by the Cardinals seems as natural as the southern flow of the Mississippi River. If it wasn’t for that pesky debt obligation . . . .
• The presence of Stan Musial could not be more alive. Outside the stadium, two statues pay tribute to the greatest Cardinal of them all. The most famous meeting place in St. Louis — Musial’s larger statue outside the stadium’s west entrance — has a new plaque, added since The Man’s death in January, that mentions his being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. A large-scale image of the patch the Cardinals are wearing in Musial’s honor appears on the outfield wall . . . not far from Musial’s image among the franchise’s retired numbers. Musial has long been — and clearly will always be — the face of this revered franchise.
• I asked a 5-year-old boy sitting next to me Friday night who his favorite Cardinal is. Having attended five games this season, the young fan told me he liked Carlos Beltran, a player better known by fans older than 5 for his starring roles with the Kansas City Royals and New York Mets. But the boy’s response said much about the continuity and cross-generational bond a region feels for its baseball team. That child will have no memory of the great Albert Pujols playing for his Cardinals. But it’s a safe bet he’ll see a championship or two in his lifetime, his attachment to the team as customized as that of millions of others.
• I’ve been attending major-league baseball games for some time now, but there’s still some sticker shock at a concessions stand. I handed over a twenty-dollar bill for my wife and two daughters to each get some ice cream Friday night. They returned with two cones, a small dish, and two quarters in change.
A vendor in the leftfield pavilion stopped a few fans in their tracks by shouting, “Free beer here.” Once the hook was in, this clever salesman announced, “Now, the cup will cost you $8.50.”
• Just inside Busch Stadium’s west entrance is a memorabilia shop unlike most you’ll see. Packed with autographed baseballs, bats, photos, and miniature batting helmets, the shop has to be the most lucrative 500 square feet in the stadium. Cardinal fans can purchase empty champagne bottles from playoff victories, ranging in price from $75 to $115, depending on which round the bottle was opened to celebrate. A signed photo of David Freese connecting for the home run that won Game 6 of the 2011 World Series will cost you $119.
I overheard an informed shopper tell his friend one signed baseball, in particular, is a “good buy,” as the price ($50) will surely escalate in the coming months. That ball was signed by current Memphis second baseman Kolten Wong.
• Precisely halfway between Memphis and St. Louis — as though it was opened in 1942 with trips like my family’s in mind — sits Lambert’s Café, the restaurant famous for “throwed rolls.” Serving heaps of food your mama would approve — while regularly offering those hot rolls air-mailed across the dining room — Lambert’s has become that rare institution where a wait on the porch to be seated serves only to build the drama. Find your way there. And ask for sorghum for your roll.