Baseball with my Grandpa

It wasn’t my first baseball game, but it’s one that I remember vividly.

It was July 28, 1987. I was 10 years old. The Cardinals were playing their fiercest rivals that year, the New York Mets. And my Grandpa took me to the game.

I’d been to Busch Stadium several times before with my Dad. A few times with my mom and stepdad. This one stood out for many reasons, but firstly because Grandpa and I didn’t walk up the six concrete ramps to the nosebleeds. This time, we walked down. Down the dark steps onto the lower concourse where Grandpa bought two hotdogs, a soda for me, and a beer for him. Then we stepped on through a short tunnel where we emerged in the bright sunlight in an ocean of red seats. The field boxes!

We were on the first base side, past the dugout and near the outfield and the bullpen, which used to hug the foul line. The field was beautiful — even for artificial turf — and it was expansive. A lot bigger than it looked from the terrace level where fans joked about needing an oxygen tank and where the ballplayers seem to move around the bases like those flat figurines moved around those antique table hockey games.

I kept thinking Grandpa was going to stop and sit down in one of the back rows, but we kept walking, inching closer to the field. We finally stopped at Row 3. The seats were courtesy of Banquet Foods where Grandpa worked as a cost accountant. I remember thinking, if we’re this close, why does Grandpa have his binoculars?

We sat in our seats and ate our mustard-laden hotdogs while Ernie Hays pounded out some three-chord tune on the stadium’s organ. I ate my hotdog quickly then darted to the rail and leaned over and watched the action on the field. I could smell the dirt and see the July “heat” rising off the turf. The best part of it all was that I could see my heroes’ faces.

There was Tommy Herr. Vince Coleman. Terry Pendleton. Willie McGee (who my Grandma always said reminded her of E.T.). Our slugger, Jack Clark. The White Rat, Whitey Herzog patrolled the rear of the batting cage. The players were taking batting practice, fielding grounders, and shagging fly balls. And while it was great to see them,  I was on the lookout for one guy in particular. It didn’t take long to find him. He was where he always was, in “the hole” between second base and third base. The Wizard. Ozzie Smith.

Ozzie was taking grounders from bench coach Red Schoendienst, who, Grandpa explained to me, played second base for the Cardinals during the 1940s and later managed the Redbirds in the 1960s.

Schoendienst stood on the first base line, to the right of the batting cage, and hit fungos to Ozzie. I remember Red had the most unique way of hitting fungos and grounders. He’d hold the bat with his left arm, and with his right hand, he’d flip the ball under his left arm and take one of the smoothest swings you could imagine, shooting the ball toward Ozzie. But, as smooth as Red’s swings were, they were never as smooth as the way Ozzie fielded the ball.

People called Ozzie the Wizard. It was appropriate. He was magical on the field. That might read as cliche, but it was true. He did things in the field that no one could imagine. Later in my life, when I worked for the Cardinals, I remember watching him take the same fielding practice. He’d field the ball and flip it like a hook shot over his head and it would land soundly in a five-gallon bucket near second base. During games, he’d run into left field to miraculously catch balls that normally would drop in for singles. And double plays? You’d often find yourself saying: “How’d he come up with that?”

The game Grandpa and I attended is somewhat notorious in St. Louis history. During the game, while Herr was at bat against Darling, the crowd started murmuring and pointing to the sky. Cutting across the blue was a small plane with a message tailing in the wind: “JC Corcoran Says the Mets are Pond Scum.” JC was a radio personality in town, and he had fueled the fire behind the slogan: “The Mets are Pond Scum.” The game actually halted for a short time. I remember Daryl Strawberry, the Mets’ right fielder, standing in his position with the glove on his hip, shaking his head as the plane flew over the stadium. I thought it was fun ribbing, but I remember my Grandpa saying softly, “That’s terrible.” He was embarrassed by the situation. That’s not how St. Louis acts.

I want to say that people booed, but I’m not sure. I know the “Pond Scum” sentiment was popular at the time, as the Mets had some loud-mouths on the team. (Just remember who went to the Series that year.) But I also have always known St. Louis to have pretty friendly rivalries — even with the Cubs. Nothing like the craziness that happens between the Yankees and Red Sox. So, nothing gets too out of hand. I think the gesture was a little much.

After the interruption, Grandpa proceeded to point out different things about the game and told me about the times when he would take the streetcar to old Sportman’s Park where he watched Dizzy Dean play. He told me about the greatness of Musial and Gibson.

During the game, we enjoyed watching up close the pitchers in the bullpen. That was a treat. Only three rows away, you could really see how the ball moved. Todd Worrell threw in the ‘pen. And coach Dave Ricketts chatted with the fans sitting directly behind him.

I enjoyed sitting there with Grandpa, soaking up all those familiar sights, sounds and smells writers tell about when they share their stories of visiting ballparks as children. My time with Grandpa was probably a lot like the times of millions of other kids who go to the ballgames with their family members. But it was my time. My memory. The Cardinals lost, but, in retrospect, it didn’t matter.

I went to more games with Grandpa, but then I moved away in 2000 and baseball games became more infrequent. In the past 11 years, Grandpa and I have only gone three times together — once to see the Mets again (we sat in the nosebleeds), once with my Dad and wife to see the Yankees in interleague play, and once to see the Cardinals’ double A and AAA teams open the new Busch Stadium for an exhibition. That was a special night, as we had four generations — Grandpa, Dad, Me, and the first of my three sons — see the first game in the new stadium.

Today, Grandpa and I talk several times each week. We don’t always agree on everything, but we can always talk about the Cardinals. We talk a lot about the Cardinals — particularly our frustration with Tony LaRussa’s handling of relief pitchers. (But who are we to second-guess a Hall of Fame manager?) I told Grandpa the other day that he’d lived through all but one St. Louis Championship (1926). He thought that was pretty cool.

It hit me yesterday, as the Cardinals prepared to battle through another World Series, how special that day in 1987 was. I’ve been to hundreds of Cardinals games over the years. Throughout the late 80s and well into the 90s, I watched us win some and lose a lot. I watched my favorites come and go, and I saw the Wizard grow older and even worked the press conference when my hero retired in 1996. I also worked for the Cardinals in 1998 when Mark McGwire did his magic. Now, when I can, my wife and I take our boys to see their hero — Albert Pujols. I wonder if those times are as special for them.

I don’t know if Grandpa and I will go to anymore baseball games together. I now live three states away and he’s getting a little older — well, old enough to know that watching the game from your couch is more comfortable, and a lot cheaper.

You know what? I don’t really know why I wrote this. Maybe it’s because I’m a little nostalgic and boys are always supposed to share their stories of going to baseball games with their Grandpas. Maybe I’m a little homesick. Maybe I just miss my Grandpa. Maybe I just want to tell him that I love him and thank him for all of our special times together  — particularly that one night in 1987 that stands so tall in my memory.

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