1 Newark NJ to St Louis MO
Our first baseball trip of 2004 took us to Missouri, the Show Me state, to see games in St Louis and Kansas City. Since this was planned as a weekend trip, there was insufficient time to drive from NJ to MO, and we chose to fly instead. In order to catch the first pitch in St Louis at 1220 pm CDT, we needed to fly out of Newark NJ early Saturday morning.
A cold front had just passed Newark as our flight to St Louis started, so we experienced short bursts of intense turbulence as we climbed toward 10,000 feet. Once we reached cruising altitude, the turbulence subsided, but not before my stomach informed me that breakfast during the flight was probably not a good idea.
We chose to fly Midwest Airlines, a now defunct airline that featured spacious leather seats and complimentary chocolate chip cookies. Though the cost of the flight was a bit higher than other airlines serving St Louis, the roomy cabin was worth the extra money. Other than the bumpy climb out of Newark, the two hour flight was uneventful, bringing us into St Louis less than two hours before game time. After picking up our rental car, we headed for the stadium.
2. Busch Stadium
We arrived at Busch Memorial Stadium less than an hour before the first pitch, leaving us little time to explore the environment around the park. Instead, we headed inside upon arrival, wandering the concourses before heading to our seats. Busch Stadium was one of the cadre of multi purpose stadiums constructed from the mid 1960s into the early 1970s, housing both MLB and NFL teams playing on the then-new AstroTurf.
AstroTurf was developed as an alternative to natural grass playing surfaces, starting with the Astrodome in Houston Texas, since grass could not be grown under the dome. Laid out on a field of concrete (which provided a stable surface), the AstroTurf was an unforgiving inch thick “carpet” which often heated to 130 F during the summer. Eventually, AstroTurf was eschewed in favor of grass surfaces, which is what we found in Busch Stadium early that afternoon.
Crystal clear skies and rapidly warming temperatures greeted us as we found our seats shortly before the first pitch. Per usual, Busch Stadium was filled to near capacity, as St Louis fans are generally considered to be some of the best in the game. The opponents for the hometown Cardinals this afternoon was the New York Mets. St Louis was enjoying a strong 2004 season, with a commanding 10 1/2 game lead over the second place Houston Astros in the NL Central Division. By contrast, the Mets were battling their way through another sub .500 season, occupying the fourth spot in the NL East.
Starting for the visiting Mets was right hander Kris Benson. Making his first start for the Mets after being traded from the Pittsburgh Pirates, Benson was in the midst of a fairly average season, with a .500 record and an ERA over 4.00. The hometown Cardinals sent right hander Woody Williams to the mound. Williams was an 18 game winner for the Cardinals in 2003, and was still an important piece of the starting rotation for a formidable St Louis team. With the afternoon warming quickly, we were wondering if the ball would carry well at Busch Stadium this afternoon, resulting in an offensive display.
From the very start, the Cardinals fans were a force, with a loud din discernible for much of the game. Being from the Northeast, I would posit that the best fans in baseball were from the part of the USA, but the boisterous St Louis fans were slowly changing my mind. Despite the building heat, starting pitching dominated the early portion of the matinee. Each team scored a single run through six innings, and with both starters showing their best stuff, the game quickly became an old fashioned pitchers duel
As part of their playoff push, the Cardinals had acquired slugger Larry Walker from the Colorado Rockies at the trade deadline on July 31st. Walker’s first at-bat in a St Louis uniform came in the bottom of the 7th as a pinch-hitter. Looking to quench my thirst, I approached a vendor to purchase a soft drink as Walker came to the plate. Both the vendor and I paused the transaction to watch the at-bat. Walker received a standing ovation as he strode to the plate, which was understandable, as the Cardinals fans though they were welcoming a presence that would propel them through the playoff run. However, when Walker struck out, the Cardinals fans gave him another standing ovation, a highly unusual response to a strikeout. In fact, it was so unusual that the vendor pointedly asked me “have you ever seen anything like that?”.
Both starting pitchers exited that game by the end of the seventh inning, leaving the tight contest in the hands of the respective bullpens. Quite unexpectedly, a game that I thought might be one-sided because of the Mets recent struggles had become one of the best games I’d seen in person in years. The score remained tied at 1-1 going into the bottom of the ninth inning, giving the Cardinals one last chance to end the game before extra innings.
Having experienced the devoted and vocal Cardinal fans first hand, I was very surprised to see them execute “the wave” during a critical portion of a tightly contested ballgame. It was almost as though the fans were not fully aware of the game situation, instead becoming lost in the moment of being at the ballpark. The Cardinal pushed across the winning run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, securing a well-fought 2-1 victory.
We’d just witnessed one of the best ballgames I’d seen in a long time at the home of an iconic MLB franchise. Though Busch Stadium itself was a typical multi-purpose facility, a product of its time, the crowd made it feel like a great place to see a ballgame (despite their curious wave display in the bottom of the ninth). Having seen the stadium, there was no reason to return until the new ballpark was ready, which was a couple of years away. Still, it WAS fun to see a baseball game in the heartland of America.
Our destination after the game was a hotel room in eastern Kansas, before we visited Kaufman Stadium in nearby Kansas City the following afternoon. Before heading out onto Interstate 70 west, we briefly visited the Gateway Arch, the longtime symbol of the opening of the western USA. It was also my first visit to the Mississippi River, an iconic symbol of the heartland of the USA. We would see the river at several points along its journey in the coming years.
We didn’t linger long in the Gateway Arch National Park, as we had a 300 mile drive ahead of us. Light traffic heading west on Interstate 70 allowed us to reach the hotel just outside of Kansas City in less than four hours.