ST. LOUIS — A strong trail of breadcrumbs led the way to my first Opening Day at Busch Stadium. There were enough visits as an out-of-town beat writer and interactions with folks who’d either worked around the Cardinals or lived in St. Louis to give me an idea of what I was walking into.
After all, it’s still the only city where I’ve stayed at a hotel with a baseball-themed do not disturb doorknob placard — on one side “Extra innings last night. We watched REAL baseball. Do Not Disturb” and the other “Out watching real baseball. That’s right. REAL baseball. Please Clean” — and I still have those images on my phone.
That said, being in the ballpark for the opener just hits differently than anything anyone could’ve told me leading up to Thursday morning.
Despite years of covering games across the country including openers in the NBA, NFL, college basketball, college football and MLB, Opening Day here in St. Louis is unique.
There’s a civic event aspect of the day, an annual litmus test of fandom that the “Best fans in Baseball” rise to meet and the acknowledgment and appreciation of the historical context of Cardinals baseball.
It became quite clear on the drive to the ballpark that fans didn’t let things like start times and gates opening limit their festivities. The collage of different colored Cardinals jerseys streaming up the sidewalk on either side of the street the closer I got to the ballpark made it clear that arriving early was still arriving late.
Lines in Ballpark Village seemed to stretch the length of an entire city block. Inside the stadium, fans lined the front row almost the entire way around the field for batting practice. Outfield rails, behind the dugout, it didn’t matter. Folks were there, letting their voices be heard and letting Cardinals players know they were seen and supported.
I asked Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak what stands out to him from the pomp and circumstance of Opening Day, and he cited his “admiration” for Cardinals fans.
A team employee since following the 1995 season, Mozeliak knows the environment and the atmosphere better than most.
“I was pulling in a little after 8, and there were already people tailgating,” Mozeliak said. “I mean their commitment to this, you sit in my office right now and you look outside your window and there’s a couple thousand fans just out already and it’s 10 in the morning. … You hear people talk about, ‘Oh, Opening Day should be some form of a holiday.’ Well, in the city of St. Louis, it is.”
It’s a holiday that comes with a parade of sorts, too. First, the Clydesdales galloped around the warning track with the sunshine bouncing off their bridles. Then it’s the processional of 13 Cardinals Hall of Famers in Ford Mustang convertibles driven along the warning track from the right field corner to behind home plate, then came the entire current major-league coaching staff and roster in Ford F-150 trucks.
Meanwhile, you had families gathered to watch as groups. Folks down in the lower bowl stood and applauded from the first red-jacketed Hall of Famer to the last member of the current team who got introduced.
Halfway through I looked up and realized it wasn’t just the folks in the lower bowl where I’d perched myself. It was also those up in the last row of the top deck. Then I noticed that was also the case on the rooftop across the street. Then the outdoor balconies on the glass high-rise. Put some seats on that Arch and somebody might have … well, that might be a step too far.
The historical aspect resonated with me, and it turns out I’m not the only one.
I asked Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol about his favorite part of Opening Day during Wednesday’s team workout, and Marmol replied, “Shaking the Hall of Famers’ hands and going one-by-one is by far my favorite thing. More so because I feel an accountability and a commitment to continue in the legacy, carry on what’s gone well here for so long, and those are guys that did it extremely well in their career. To shake their hand, look them in the eye, and go down the line is meaningful to me.”
There’s something about baseball that just lends itself to history anyway.
But I may just be a sucker for those types of things. The idea of connecting the game’s past with the game’s present sits well with this writer. It’s pretty cool to see Ozzie Smith, Vince Coleman and Mark McGwire shaking the hand of rookie Jordan Walker. It just is.
And do you know what the clincher, the thing that removes all doubt that Opening Day in St. Louis is a big-time event?
Anytime you get those ink-stained wretches like myself to willingly break out suits — yes suits — you’re clearly at an event with an uncommon gravitas. Folks who were holding microphones and asking questions a few weeks ago in Florida in polo shirts and shorts showed up to the ballpark ready for a formal gala.
It’s like radio broadcaster Polo Ascencio said when he gave me a fist bump during batting practice, dressed like he just stepped off the cover of GQ Magazine with a suit and a red flower on his lapel. He welcomed me to “the real Opening Day” because whatever Opening Days I might have attended previously, wouldn’t measure up.
Polo had a point.