Watching the Cardinals celebrate the 1987 team over the weekend brought back a lot of memories for me, because it was that team on the field 30-years-ago today when my Dad took me to my first Cardinals game.
I suppose I was already something of a fan, but it was that day that cemented it. I had a few scattered Cardinals baseball cards from the '85 and '86 seasons. My extended family all hailed from St. Louis, and I had two uncles in particular who were big fans. So things were already tipping in that direction.
But I grew up in the neutral territory of Iowa, and with the prevalence of WGN, I was at-risk of becoming a Cubs fan. That ended August 16, 1987.
I still remember waking up that morning in my Aunt's apartment in the northern suburbs of the city, to find a new Cardinals t-shirt and hat hanging on the door. Coming from a family without a lot of money, that was like waking up to find it was suddenly Christmas morning.
The gifts continued when we got to the ballpark. Walking from the parking garage across Broadway and past the imposing, vaguely-Soviet statue of Stan Musial, as we entered old Busch Stadium the usher pushed a cardboard box into my hand. I remember being confused, wondering if I was even supposed to take it.
Inside was a baseball on a little gold plastic pedestal, with screened autographs from the entire team. Looking back, sure, it was your standard giveaway trinket. But at the time, it was an absolute treasure. And it helped cement a fandom that, to date, has led me to spend approximately $151,000 on Cardinals merchandise.
If you were looking to fall in love with a baseball team, you could hardly find a better collection of characters than the '87 Cardinals. You had the superstar shortstop, who took the field doing backflips and made astounding defensive plays. You had an outfield of base thieves, including the greatest one-tool speed player of all-time. And you had the classic, power-hitting first baseman in Jack Clark.
In fact, so iconic was that lineup, that for years I assumed what I remembered happening in the first inning of that game was actually just an amalgam of the era. But nope, thanks to Retrosheet, I was able to confirm it really happened.
So just to recap: Vince Coleman bunted for a hit, then stole 2nd, THEN stole 3rd. Jack Clark came to bat later that inning and homered. He would add a 2nd home run in the 9th, because Jack Clark.
But that wasn't the only excitement for a boy at his first major league game.
Nothing like a good ejection to get the blood flowing. I can still see Von Hayes shouting at the umpire behind home plate, from my vantage point about four miles away in the upper deck of the outfield.
Jose Oquendo - always one of my favorite players - got the start at shortstop that day, though Ozzie made a late appearance to pinch hit and presumably keep the crowd from rioting. John Tudor got the start. Rickie Horton even made an appearance out of the bullpen. I have no recollection of that.
The Cardinals would wind up losing the game 4-3, putting them at 70-47 in a season they would eventually finish with 95 wins and go all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. It was an ordinary game, albeit in a fairly exceptional season. But for me, and who knows, probably a handful of other kids, that game meant the world.
I would wear that Cardinals hat and t-shirt until both were worn down to the threads. The ball with the autographs sat atop the bookshelf in my bedroom throughout my childhood. It's now on a little mantle shelf in my home surrounded by other actual autographed balls and memorabilia of more cash value, but still the most treasured.
It's ridiculous to devote yourself to any professional sports team, except of course that once you make that commitment, you build an entire history of special moments with the players and the teams and the people you watch the games with. I've spent the last 30 years building a history with the St. Louis Cardinals, and it all began at Busch Stadium on August 16, 1987.