IT HAS been said that wherever you go in life, however far you may end up from where you started, you will always carry with you at least a bit of your hometown. Certainly that's true in my case. I keep it in a small glass jar in my office.
O.K., I'm talking about a handful of reddish dirt scooped from the infield of Busch Stadium late on the afternoon of May 8, 1966. That was the first Busch Stadium, of course--the one my father insisted on calling Sportsman's Park even after Gussie Busch had bought the team and the stadium and put up the big neon Budweiser eagle--and that day's game was the last ever played in the old ballpark on Grand Avenue. I was seven years old, toting my baseball glove and dressed in a full Cardinal uniform, complete with red and white striped socks that would have made Anthony Reyes blush, and there was nowhere in the world I would rather have been. After the Cardinals' 10-5 loss to the San Francisco Giants, fans were allowed down onto the field. Kids (and more than a few grown-ups) ran and slid and mimed making plays. My father strolled between first and second and gazed up at the stands and probably the past, and I found an empty beer cup and collected my bit of dirt.
Over the years I held on to that cup of soil as, fittingly, my love for the Cardinals took root and grew. Certainly it was cultivated by my father. A lifelong St. Louisan, he had an abiding passion for what he considered the city's two great civic treasures: jazz and the Cardinals. He took my mother to Gaslight Square to see Singleton Palmer and Sammy Gardner, and he took me to Busch--too late to see Musial, his eternal hero, but in time to see Gibson and Brock and Flood. At home, when he wasn't listening to the records of Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong, we would tune the radio to KMOX and listen to that other inimitable vocal stylist, Harry Caray, and later to Jack Buck and Mike Shannon. Nineteen-sixty-seven introduced a Latin beat, as Orlando Cepeda led El Birdos to the World Series title. And I know now that in '68 the Cardinals (right up until Game 7 and Flood's astounding, agonizing misplay of that Jim Northrup fly ball) brought my father, and indeed the entire city, some much-needed distraction and hope during that most downbeat of years. Through it all ran the theme note of "Cardinal baseball," which I came to understand as a kind of smart, heady play based more on speed and defense and above all teamwork, than on the swagger of the long ball.
In the end I found I could take or leave the jazz, but Cardinal baseball I most definitely dug. And in the rhythm of following the team--riding the Redbird Express bus down Delmar Boulevard with my friends in junior high--I discovered parts of my hometown that I might otherwise never have known. St. Louis is a city of neighborhoods, from Carondelet to the Ville to the Loop to the Hill, but they all came together in Busch. I never gave it a thought at the time, of course, while we watched Brock run wild on the base paths and Al (the Mad Hungarian) Hrabosky, well, just run wild, but now with a little misty-eyed hindsight I can see the Arch, just beyond the rim of the stadium, as symbolizing not so much a gateway to the bigger world beyond St. Louis but rather the broad span of heritage and experience contained within the city and within the ballpark. That, too, was part of Cardinal baseball.
In time I moved away. But that feeling of connection remained. Part of it, certainly, was because my family still lived in St. Louis, but the Cardinals played a role as well. (Lord knows I checked the box scores far more regularly than I phoned my mother.) Sure, living in New York City in the mid-1980s, I thought of myself as a big-city kind of guy. "I'm from St. Louis," I liked to say--with heavy emphasis on the from. But not, I'm proud to say, when it counted. Not in the fall of 1985, when St. Louis and New York battled to the wire for the NL East title. Sorry, Doc, sorry Kid, when push came to shove, my heart lay with Ozzie and Willie and all those red-clad fans back in Busch.
Alas, that season ended short of a world championship, and it shocks me to realize that my daughter Daisy, who was born during that pennant race, had to wait till her majority to see the Cardinals win the World Series. And even then it almost didn't happen. When the final weeks of the season had everyone talking about 1964 (and not in a good way), it seemed as though the dirt of the new new Busch might forever be tainted by a historic collapse. But the 2006 Redbirds rebounded with a spirit that belied their 83 wins. Led by a slugger whom (dare I say it) my father might have seen as a rival to Musial; by an ace who, while not as fierce as Gibby, was almost as historically effective; and by a shortstop who, while not the defensive wizard that Ozzie was, they played the sort of gritty, smart, hustling baseball--Cardinal baseball--that exemplified this team.
I was not in the new Busch when the Cardinals sewed up the franchise's 10th world championship, but I was watching, reveling in the red, and it occurred to me then that St. Louis is not only a great place to be from--it is a great place to be of.