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'A drinking town with a baseball problem' Add to ...

I wish I could take credit for the epic post title above. I can't. But that's alright, because it was brought to my attention by St. Louis native Betsy, a baseball stranger who was in touch via e-mail. You can even wear it; mine is in the mail. Needless to say, they're passionate about baseball, about their Cardinals, and about their beer, in St. Louis.

Matinee

As per the trend on the baseball road trip of a lifetime, I lucked out: it was getaway day in the Gateway City. Which meant only one thing: weekday afternoon baseball; "Play Ball!" called by the umpire just before 12:40 PM. And there's nothing like it. Weekday afternoon baseball, I mean. No, there's nothing quite like being in attendance at a ballgame on a bright, sunny, and warm Thursday afternoon in May. At beautiful Busch Stadium no less, downtown St. Louis and its Gateway Arch visible from the ballpark. I beg you to differ. You see, there's no weekday afternoon hockey, or weekday afternoon basketball. Football, sure, but only once a year, a holiday tradition. Only baseball is kind enough to every now and then, even if you're stuck at the office watching ESPN GameDay, essentially give you an afternoon off, or at least slaughter your productivity.

To add to my joyful afternoon in St. Louis, I was wearing flip-flops. Who cares, right? Wrong. It was the first time I was able to break them out on #TBRTOAL and, trust me, I was stoked.

Back to the matter at hand: the weekday baseball matinee. It's especially for the young. For the five-year-old attending his or her first game with grandpa and grandma; a special event, no doubt. But it's also for the young at heart. For the man or woman who plays hooky from work; who dons his or her Albert Pujols T-shirt and heads to Al Hrabosky's Ballpark Saloon for a beer at high noon.

It's baseball the way it was played years ago. Pure; the sun more than capably playing bank of lights. And it truly is getaway day. Not only for the players on the field, who have flights to catch once nine innings, or more, are in the books. It's getaway day for the person who's left the office behind for a day, or for an afternoon. Who, upon seeing a group of school kids at the game, is taken back to his or her own youth. To his or her own first game with friends, riding the subway alone downtown for the first time. Or his or her own first game with Dad. Baseball memories: they tug at the heart strings. And it's the matinee affair that sends them flooding back.

No, there really isn't anything quite like weekday afternoon baseball. When I do eventually - or should I say hopefully? - find a new job, I'm going to have to work attendance to all Toronto Blue Jays getaway ballgames at the SkyDome into my contract. I'll work overtime and weekends to make up the time.

Better yet, and in a perfect world, one day I'll be paid to watch weekday afternoon baseball.

Location, Location, Location

New Busch Stadium is one of baseball's newer parks, having replaced old Busch Stadium only four years ago, in 2006. You can tell; she's marvelous. You'll find her downtown, across from where old Busch used to stand, on the east side, with her own MetroLink station, and close to hotels, major highways, and only a 15-minute walk from St. Louis's historic Gateway Arch. From my hotel, the Holiday Inn Select near the Convention centre, on the north side of downtown, it was a 20-minute walk through the heart of the city to her doors. Location wise, you won't hear a complaint out of me. (St. Louis isn't a sprawling city; I even walked from Union Station, where Megabus unloads its cattle, to the Holiday Inn. It took about 45 minutes, my pack on my shoulders, but, as I've pointed out, I need the exercise.)

New And Improved

By now, you know what you're getting: a brick facade, great sight lines, and a panoramic view of the city. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I mean, I want that. So, obviously, Busch Stadium doesn't disappoint. But it's Cardinals fans that make the place what it is.

Outside the stadium's team store on Clark Avenue and Eighth Street is Statue City. Roger Hornsby; George Sisler; James "Cool Papa" Bell, the fastest man ever to play the game; Lou Brock; Bob Gibson, in his iconic pose after he threw a pitch; Ozzie Smith; Enos Slaughter, aka "Country," depicted in the Mad Dash; Dizzy Dean, who won 30 games way back in 1934; and Red Schoendienst, multiple World Series winner.

I didn't mention Stan Musial. He's so special he gets two statues. One alongside the Cardinals legends above, and one outside the third base gate, on the west side of the building. Calling his stand-alone likeness a statue doesn't do it justice. It's more a monolith; simply massive. A must-see. On the base of the statue is inscribed: "... Here stands baseball's perfect warrior ... Here stands baseball's perfect knight." Stan "The Man," indeed.

Walking around Busch Stadium's perimeter, you know right away that you're in a place that takes baseball seriously; that respects baseball tradition, and idolizes the tremendous players that have donned the St. Louis jersey. Eleven statues, one larger than life, and fans all dressed in red and white, certainly gets the point across. I couldn't help but think: "Must be nice."

Brick City

From Statue City, to Brick City. Seriously. Brand-spanking new red brick, or at least what looked like it, everywhere. I loved it. It's what should be used when constructing a baseball stadium. Pardon my language, but: f**k concrete. You want to use concrete? Fine. Cover it with brick when you're done. Red brick.

The field level concourse isn't an open one so, on your Busch Stadium travels, you can't see the action on the field. Unfortunate, sure, but at least you've got red brick to marvel at. (Fine, the novelty wears off rather quickly.) There are no tunnels to each section; instead, larger entrances that lead to a number of sections, where you can stand around and watch the game from, if you like. I was hanging out by an entrance on the first base side, taking some pictures and enjoying the view, when Houston's Carlos Lee and Chris Carpenter exchanged words after Lee popped out with two men on.

A weekday matinee, and some basebrawl? The baseball Gods were spoiling me! Tempers flared as Lee and Carpenter chirped at one another and, much to my delight, both benches cleared. As the players stormed the field, me, I was staring at the bullpens. I love watching the guys in the bullpen run, full sprint, to the diamond, not hoping to miss any of the action. Unfortunately, no punches were thrown, and you could sense the disappointment in both relief squads as they trudged back through the outfield to their respective quarters. All that running for nothing.

A number of people came over to where I was standing, and asked what had happened. I knew then and there that Busch Stadium isn't the best stadium to walk around and enjoy the game at the same time. Brick city, you know, kind of gets in the way. If you're one or two people, you can probably "borrow" a seat close to the field, like I did. Remember: be discreet. The place is, more often than not, full, so if you're with a group, Godspeed. Otherwise head on up to your seat(s), and enjoy the view; especially the Gateway Arch. The real one, and the one they've imprinted on the grass. A nice touch, if I do say so myself.

The Cardinals Family

Let's get one thing straight: I'm as sick of talking, reading, and writing about baseball's steroids era as you are. But in St. Louis, it couldn't be ignored. Mark McGwire, back in St. Louis as the Cardinals hitting coach, is, whether you like it or not, the poster boy for baseball's moral descent. And Big Mac's steroid use, and admission of guilt, still resonates; it's why Missouri lawmakers, only two and a half weeks ago, approved legislation that will have Mark McGwire Highway in St. Louis renamed Mark Twain Highway.

McGwire is the St. Louis Cardinals's drunk Uncle. Once uber-successful, his success was tainted, and his fall from grace has been long and hard. Now he's in rehab, and, like any good family would do, St. Louis is standing by their man.

It was behind Busch Stadium's left field bleachers, under the sun, that I spoke to some Cards fans about Big Mac, now having come clean about his steroid use. Not that he needed to; I mean, we all knew. We've known for years. But in order to punch his ticket back into Major League Baseball, Mac had to "talk about the past," something he laughably wasn't willing to do before U.S. Congress years ago.

Full disclosure: I adored McGwire. His 1998 exploits brought me back to the game. Chicks dig the long ball, yeah, but so do 15-year-old high school boys, and that's how old I was when McGwire put baseball on his steroid-enhanced biceps, and swatted ball after ball after ball over the fences. Hell, I even bought a McGwire jersey. Still have it, actually. It was the first baseball jersey I ever bought, before even a Blue Jays one. That's how much McGwire meant to me.

Hero Or Cheater?

A simple question.

"Hero."

"One-hundred per cent hero."

"Hero. You think every home run he hit was against a clean pitcher?"

"Hero. He wasn't the only one on steroids. But he was the only one to break [Roger]Maris's record."

"He may be a cheater to everyone else, but he's a hero to us."

"Both. Can he be both?"

A cheater and a hero. I liked that answer best. And, yeah, I think he can be both. That's what makes him human, and not just a baseball player.

St. Louis fans are loyal to their guy. I can't fault them for that; I'd do as they are. People make mistakes. McGwire did, he lied about steroids until he could no longer keep up the charade, and he's moving on. Baseball is moving on.

On Opening Day in St. Louis, when McGwire was introduced at Busch Stadium, he received a standing ovation. Had I been in the crowd that day, I'd have been on my feet in applause, too.

I forgive you, Mac, and sincerely hope you make it to Cooperstown.

King Albert

From one swatting first baseman to another; Albert Pujols, a presence if there ever was one. Perhaps, when it's all said and done, the greatest player to ever wear a St. Louis Cardinals jersey. Perhaps the greatest player to ever play baseball, period.

You know Pujols is good; you know Pujols is special. But pull up his numbers at Baseball Reference, and you can't help but be taken aback. Each year since 2001, when he broke into the league at 21, Pujols has hit more than 30 home runs and 100 RsBI. That's nine years in a row; he's the only player to have ever managed that feat. Already a three-time National League MVP, Pujols's career line, in 1,447 games, reads: .333/.427/.624. A career 171 OPS+ to his name, putting Albert in the company of Lou Gehrig, Hornsby, Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb, and Jimmie Fox (and Mark McGwire, too), Pujols is on pace to shatter Stan Musial's St. Louis records.

So, are Cardinals fans aware of the greatness in their midst? Absolutely. When you talk about Pujols with St. Louis baseball heads, their eyes light up. And considering the Mega Millions jackpot Ryan Howard recently won in Philadelphia, Cardinals fans realize King Albert, 30-years-old, needs to be paid, well, like a king.

"If keeping Albert Pujols means my taxes go up, so be it."

"If [Ryan]Howard's worth five years and $125-million, Pujols is worth five years and $200-million."

But, I asked Chris, the Cardinals fan I was chatting with, if Pujols was worth $40-million a year on his own, could the team still be competitive? He came back at me with a gem:

"I'd rather watch a God-awful Cardinals team with Albert Pujols than a good Cardinals team without him."

Touché. Pujols is that good.

"A blank cheque. That's what Pujols is worth to this team, and this city."

King Albert has been crowned, and his people appreciate him.

Annheuser-Busch Country

When you're in St. Louis, forget about getting a microbrew. You're in Annheuser-Busch country, so embrace your inner Budweiser, Bud Light, Bud Light Lime, and Bud Select drinker. I mean really embrace it, because at a number of places in and around St. Louis, it comes cheap.

I met a friend of mine, who now only goes by Dr. Anand (congratulations!), at Harry's, on Market Street, slightly west of downtown, near Union Station. We enjoyed a happy hour bucket of five Budweiser selections for only $10. So it goes in St. Louis, Dr. Anand told me, and showed me, especially up by St. Louis University. Also: Harry's, and a number of other drinking institutions in St. Louis, offer shuttle service to Busch Stadium on game day.

At the ballpark, a 20 oz. draft beer of Budweiser will cost you $8.75, and a 16 oz. bottle $8. Bud Light Lime was on sale, I guess, for $6.75.

Around the ballpark, I was told Al Hrabosky's Ballpark Saloon and "The Outfield" at Mike Shannon's Steak and Seafood are the places you want to be, before and after the game.

St. Louis Fare

The Gateway City is known for its ravioli. Who knew? I never would have guessed, either. Anyway, it's delicious. Thanks to my good friend Dr. Anand, I enjoyed it with local Schlafly beer, and was told that's about as St. Louis as you can get. I read that Schlafly is available at Busch Stadium, but didn't find it during my visit.

St. Louis also puts together a mean bowl of nachos, which was lunch for me at the ballpark. Mucho Nachos, to be precise. Check this out: for $9.75, you can have ground beef and cheese on one side, and pulled pork with barbeque sauce on the other. All over nachos. With toppings - salsa, jalapenos, cilantro, olives, sour cream, etc. - available as you see fit. It was heaven. But, take note: go with the pulled pork and the pulled pork only. Best. Lunch. Ever.

Finally ...

If you're in St. Louis, you have to visit the Gateway Arch. It's only minutes from Busch Stadium. Now, I don't know about you, but I've never given the Arch much thought, or much credit. But it's a pretty remarkable structure; much more impressive than I ever imagined.

I'd also recommend the Museum of Westward Expansion, in the Arch complex. Admission is free, and you can learn all about how North America's Natives were pillaged many years ago. You'll also find the "Baseball's Gateway to the West" exhibit, detailing St. Louis's baseball history, and baseball history, in general, as the game expanded west. And, if you're interested in going up the Arch, it costs $14.

After an afternoon of baseball and a visit to the Arch, I went and sat by the Mississippi River. I stared at the mystic body of water, and into Illinois, collecting my thoughts. I couldn't help but get Cardinals left fielder Jon Jay out of my mind. A pinch-hitter that afternoon, he came up to the plate to Jay-Z's Public Service Announcement, with Hova's "Fresh out the frying pan and into the fire ..." lyrics playing on the speakers. That was just about as perfect as at-bat music would ever get, I knew.

St. Louis was in the books. My time in the Gateway City, the Gateway to the West, was coming to a close, but I wasn't headed west just yet. I was following the Cardinals, actually, to Cincinnati. I'd be seeing Albert Pujols play again, after watching him in action for the first time. Even though he went hitless that afternoon, he, and his Cardinals, were worth the $19 I paid at the box office. My seat in the upper deck, in the Outfield Terrace, section 429, row 1, seat 1, sounded like a decent one. (I never got there.) A little pricy, I thought, but Albert's got to get paid. I also knew, as well as you do now, that you can't put a price on weekday afternoon baseball.





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