At about 1 p.m. on Saturday, October 15, I had just gotten back to Chicago after hauling myself down to St. Louis for Friday night's game. It was a great trip -- I'd met up with some old friends from downstate, and got a chance to reconnect with them while watching the Cardinals win another in what has turned into a pleasingly long series of Biggest Games Of The Year, going up 3-2 in the series. Yes, live baseball games are fun.
But now I was home, exhausted from travel and baseball, and I figured that I'd watch the away games the same way I watched all away games: either from the quiet comfort of my couch, or the energetic discomfort of a packed Cardinals bar. There'd been some chatter about a road trip to Milwaukee for the hoped-for clincher, but with the possibility of a night game on a work night, and the anticipated expense, I had it down as idle talk.
Then the following series of texts happened, between another Chicago-based Cards fan and me:
Friend: #happyflight! Hope you dudes had fun. Tomorrow is gonna be intense...
Me: Standing room tix for tomorrow down to $40. Milwaukee's not far away. If it stays an afternoon game...
Friend: I'm in either way... Where are the tix, brewers website??
Me: Stubhub. Not sure if ticket office still has it. And f*** it, I'm in either way too.
Friend: I'll drive.
And so it was that Sunday afternoon, I found myself driving up I-94 toward Milwaukee, holding a ticket to Game 6 of the 2011 NLCS.
Maybe some quick context is appropriate here. You all followed the team this year, so none of this is particularly new. Nevertheless, I'll say that this was a very strange year for me, as a fan. My life itself was tumultuous over the six-month regular season: I took my last set of law school exams, graduated from law school, worked a fellowship while studying for the bar exam, took the bar exam, and took a three-week vacation in honor of never needing to do any of the above again. Oh, and I moved halfway across the country and started a new job. Amid all of this, the team was up and down... but as the tumult of my life crested in August, they were just down. I was enjoying the players as much as I'd ever liked any Cards team (that's another post, there), but as of September 1 I'd officially given up on them winning anything other than, maybe, if we were lucky, another dozen regular-season games.
And then, all of a sudden, before I truly realized what was happening, they were up again. Everybody did everything they were supposed to, and Atlanta helped. A team I really enjoyed turned into a team I absolutely loved to watch play. And when Freddy Freeman slammed his helmet down on the last night of the season, the dominant thought in my mind was I cannot believe I get to watch this team play more baseball.
So that's where I was at, as a fan, coming into Game 6. Yes, I was excited for the possibility of clinching the pennant. But I would still have gone if they'd been down 3-2. The sheer joy of watching this Cardinals team play games was what took me up to Miller Park.
So enough of me rambling: here's what it was like:
First off, Miller Park is fantastic. Everything about it is great. The parking is easy, and the giant, continuous lots give the Wisconsinites an ample platform to do what they do best: tailgate. The stadium itself is beautiful, inside and out. And the food and beer selection is just... wow. Plentiful, high quality, and incredibly low prices by pro sports standards ($5.50 craft beers!).
By the time we got there, all the rail spots in the SRO sections were full, so we ambled up behind some short guys on the loge level, close to a beer stand and a bathroom. We didn't have a full view of the field, but there were TVs behind us. We were also alone among Brewers fans in our immediate area -- when Freese homered in the 1st, I had to go happily running down the concourse to find more people in red to high-five.
To their credit, those Brewers fans were mostly very pleasant. Almost all of the ribbing we got for wearing red was good-natured, and I never felt unwelcome, let alone unsafe. There was at times an undercurrent of nastiness toward the Cardinals themselves in the crowd -- in particular, one drunk behind us was loud in his advice to Roenicke to start ordering beanballs, and one dick in front of us cheered enthusiastically when Pujols went down and looked hurt -- but I have 90% good things to report about Brewers fans. They got loud when it was time to get loud, and though I was surprised to see so many leaving before it was over, I can imagine it was a pretty depressing (and LONG) game for them.
Oh yeah, the game: there was a baseball game. It went well. The Cardinals led comfortably for most of it, but I never stopped feeling tense until the 9th. That was when we pulled the trigger and moved down to the field boxes by the Cards' dugout.
With all the fans in blue leaving, and the fans in red feeling more and more like this was actually going to happen, it was like a switch flipped as away fans surrounded the visitors' dugout. There were tons of empty seats in the lower levels, and the ushers clearly knew and did not care where we were going. There are pictures out there -- which I'm sorry I don't have; I steadfastly forgot to document things for most of the game -- of the crowd toward the end of the game, and I can tell you that it was like a small slice of home game down there. We chanted LET'S GO CARD-INALS, cheered lustily when Yadi hit a meaningless single, and generally cut loose the way we hadn't really done when surrounded by Brewers fans.
The top of the 9th came and went, and then the Brewers came and went in the bottom of the inning. When the end arrived, this is what it looked like from where I was sitting:
The team mobbed each other, new hats and shirts were donned, interviews were given, and the Brewers fans who had remained in the section kindly wished us luck in the World Series (side note: THE WORLD SERIES YOU GUYS) and left. The Cardinals eventually retired to the clubhouse. The fans remained.
I don't remember exactly what went on, at first. We yelled a lot. We called friends who weren't there, just to hold up our phones and let other fans listen in. We high-fived strangers, who on this night weren't strangers in any meaningful sense of the word. We chanted everything we could think of: LET'S GO CARD-INALS; players' names at random, TOR-TY CRAIG; WOR-LD SERIES; and the most common, HAP-PY FLIGHT! HAP-PY FLIGHT! HAP-PY FLIGHT! A thousand people can only yell their throats out for so long, though, and eventually there was a lull.
And then we heard this other sound. It was cheering, clearly, and it sounded like it was coming from far away. My friend and I scanned the stadium and couldn't locate it -- and it's not like there was anywhere else in the stadium where Cards fans would be gathering and celebrating. Eventually, we realized what it was: it was the team, down in the clubhouse, going nuts under our feet. After a bit of that, they quieted down. Then they came back out on the field.
Rhodes was out first, I think, with two or three beers in each hand. Salas was behind him, then Yadi, then everybody and I lost track. They were all already soaked, and they all had handfuls of beer. They'd come back out for us. When I finally gained my composure enough to remember to record it, I got this:
After a while, they'd soaked up enough adulation and we'd soaked up enough flying beer, and they went back down. Or so we thought. After another period of hearing the new National League champions flipping their shit in the clubhouse, they came back out to do it again. Finally, they were done, and left for good. The fans remained. We didn't leave until stadium personnel made it very clear to us that the Cardinals weren't coming back out and that we had to go. They emphasized the point by turning the stadium lights down. The concert was over, there would be no more encores, but we were still buzzing.
The crowd filed out of the stadium, chanting and cheering, and into the night. Some guy who had been trying to get a particular chant going earlier finally succeeded: WE WANT TEX-AS. Before then, I think we'd all been living in the moment of the win itself. And for me, that was when I started to believe that this had actually happened. The Cardinals had won the NLCS, and that meant they were playing in the World Series.
My friend and I split off from the crowd at one point to find our car. We walked through the empty lot, processing what we'd seen. When we reached the car, I put my head back and laughed at the sky in joy and disbelief. And why not? It was a crisp October night, and the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals were going to play more games.