Sports

St. Louis in autumn: Charlie visits the NLCS

On Friday morning a friend told me that he and a friend had plans to drive down to St. Louis for Games One and Two of the National League Championship Series between the San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals. Despite the fact that this was not the series I was initially hoping for, there are few things in life that I love more than baseball. He had two extra tickets. I immediately called my friend Mark, the first person I ever met at Macalester. We were seniors in high school when we met each other on a tour in November of 2010. “Uh. Chuck. We goin’ boy.”

Here was the plan. Day One, Saturday: Nine hour ride from Mac to St. Louis on Saturday. Game One was at 7:07. We booked a stay at an AirBnb in St. Louis for $52 ($13 each, talk about that good college pricing).

Day Two, Sunday: Find a café or restaurant to finish up homework, head downtown, check out “Cardinal Nation,” go to to Game Two at 7:07, drive back to Mac overnight for Monday class. WHO SAYS NO!? What a practical plan! Fortunately nobody said no, and despite the fact that I thought this was an absolutely crazy idea, I committed to going.

The Cardinals and Giants have arguably been the two most successful franchises in baseball over the last five years. The Giants won the World Series in 2010 and 2012 while the Cards took the crown in 2011 and lost to the Red Sox last season in the World Series. They are rarely the clear-cut postseason favorite, but their pitching and timely hitting has been a sweet recipe for success. Many will tell you that they were disappointed that this series is between the Cardinals and Giants. It would have been great to see the Nationals play. For me, this was a wonderful opportunity to see the two teams that have defined success during my time at Macalester. It was a fitting way to approach my last postseason as a student here.

Busch Stadium, home of the Cardinals, is pleasant. Architecturally, it is very symmetrical. The people are smiley, friendly to outsiders and proud of the baseball heritage in St. Louis. My favorite part of the stadium is a little Cardinals clock that perches at the top of the scoreboard. In fact, there are two scoreboards, but neither are particularly in-your-face, with one seemingly playing the same “greatest Cardinal moments” video on repeat. Most stadiums play LOUD music on expensive PA systems. If the Cardinals ever did such a thing, their fans would ask nicely if they could turn it down, and remarkably the decision-makers would listen. The Cardinals, like other teams such as the Twins, Tigers and Pirates, built their park in the middle of their downtown. The historic St. Louis skyline sits serenely behind the outfield with the Gateway Archway draping over downtown symbolizing the city as the entrance to the west.

The stadium experience is a unique mix of the South and the Midwest. If you were to poll Cardinals fans, I’m sure some would say they are proud Midwesterners. Just with those southern drawls, it is so hard to imagine that these people claim geographic homogeneity with Chicagoans and Michiganders. It feels wrong. Either way, considering that two in our company were sporting the Giants’ orange and black, the locals fans still were generally nice to us, but in a condescending “If only they were Cardinals fans” way.

On a more sports related note, the games were amazing. The Giants won Game One 3-0 behind a masterful, Picasso-esque pitching performance by Madison Bumgarner, their ace. For the entire game, it was beyond evident that the Cardinals’ fans were ready to explode, but they really never had a chance to.

Game Two was a different story. It was a back and forth affair. Each home run had its own story. The first one was a bomb to right field by Matt Carpenter, arguably the rock of the Cardinals lineup over the past couple years to put the Cards up 1-0 in the 3rd inning. Oscar Tavares, one of the most talked-up prospects in baseball, smacked a pinch-hit dinger to the short porch in right for the Cardinals to tie the game in the 7th. Matt Adams, the chunky first baseman for the Cards, blasted another shot to right, taking the lead in the 8th. After the Cardinals blew the one run lead they had in the 9th inning, Kolten Wong, a 24-year-old second baseman and the pride of Hilo, Hawaii, connected on a line drive down the right field line to walk it off for the Cardinals. Busch went pretty bananas (but it was controlled, nothing as crazy as I heard it could be).

The fact that Wong hit the game-winning home run was a major thumbs-up moment. He is one of the few players on the Cardinals who shows considerable emotion on a daily basis and disrupts what some call “The Cardinal Way.” Fans and pundits unfortunately use this phrase to describe how the Cardinals play baseball the “right way” — no showboating, no dumb mistakes, young players step up when they are supposed to. Last October it was Wong who was picked off first base in the World Series to end Game Four. He was nearly in tears during his interview after that game.

This year was different. In terms of the “no showboating” facet of the Cardinal Way, the St. Louis braintrust probably squirmed when Wong rounded third base. After the biggest moment in his baseball career, he lasered his helmet off his head and nearly decapitated one of the umpires before getting mobbed by his teammates.

At four in the morning, in the middle of Iowa, I was keeping my friend Mark awake as he was getting us home safely. He was high on adrenaline, Red Bull and Doritos after a necessary Wal-Mart stop. After a lull in the conversation, all I could say was, “Remember when we saw Kolten Wong hit a game winning home run? That was just so damn cool.”

An extended version of this story is available at sparktmw.com

October 17, 2014

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