I walked outside a bit ago, and thought to myself, good lord what a miserable day. It’s already in the mid-80s here, already humid as only a St. Louis summer can be, and according to weather underground it’s going to get up to 93 degrees here in my little corner of the world. This is not what I signed up for, October.
Tomorrow, however, is supposed to be different. High of 74, low of 51. Cloudy. In other words, playoff weather is going to show up just in time for the playoffs.
My oldest friend in the world is named Travis. He has a son who is six years old this year. (He and his wife have a younger son as well, but I think he’s still too young by a hair to really be in to baseball.) It occurred to me just the other day that this is the first time Travis’s son will be able to watch the Cardinals in the playoffs. In 2015 he was just two years old, after all, and since then the Redbirds have known only frustration and near misses. Six years old with your team heading to the playoffs is a pretty good place to be, I think. Sure, first grade can be a real drag, what with the price of chocolate milk these days and Brooke Steighorst being super mean to you just because you’re a boy and she is just so awful even though you have the biggest crush on her and just want to marry her and do...something, which you don’t quite understand because you’re six, but how can she be so mean and and yet so pretty? (Okay, that last one might have been just my childhood, but I’m totally over it now.) But still, that first chance at tasting magic, real magic? Well, that’s tough not to envy.
My own earliest concrete baseball memory came in the playoffs, when I was just a little younger than Travis’s son is now. My first solid baseball-related memory, of which I can be certain, was of my father and uncle screaming at the television when Don Denkinger missed the call at first base in the ‘85 World Series. I was already aware of what baseball was, of course; I was a child born in St. Louis, and thus was genetically predisposed to the baseball virus. I even have one or two trace memories I think come from before that autumn of 1985. But nothing solid. Nothing I can place in time, including getting a styrofoam replica straw boater hat as a giveaway at my first time going to Busch Stadium, which I wore until it fell apart. I don’t remember anything about the game, don’t remember when it was beyond the summer of ‘85, but I remember the hat. It was off-white with a red band, and I think the giveaway was sponsored by Boatmen’s Bank, because I seem to recall their logo being on the band along with ST. LOUIS CARDINALS in big white block letters.
Speaking of, does anyone remember how concerned a lot of people were when Boatmen’s Bank was bought out by, I think, Bank of America back in the mid-90s? Not so much for the future of the bank, or the assets of the people who banked with Boatmen’s, but for the pitchman? I remember multiple news stories regarding the fate of the ‘Boatmen’s Guy’, a middle-aged bald man with a pleasant voice who had been doing the advertisements for the local institution as long as I could remember. I think some other local bank hired him to do commercials, probably hoping to capitalise on this odd local interest story, but it just wasn’t quite the same. I wonder where the Boatmen’s guy is now? For that matter, I wonder whatever happened to the Schweig-Engel guys, who used to do goofy, pop-culture referencing commercials that aired late nights on weekends during the Three Stooges block of programming on channel 11. Home Furniture in Collinsville finally went out of business late last year, meaning, I suppose, we can now expect monkey business around every corner.
What was I talking about? The Hi-Fi-Fo-Fum jingle? Oh, no. Baseball. That’s right.
I turned five in 1985, and I was just old enough to start getting a feel for what baseball looked and felt like by then. I understood balls and strikes, though our twenty-three inch console television was far less conducive to strike zone viewing than a modern screen, three times as large and with billions of times more resolution. In my memory the games are every bit as clear, though, which probably just goes to show how fallible memory is, particularly bathed in the light of nostalgia.
The Cardinals were awful in 1986, and we were all forced to endure the misery of the Pond Scum Mets (several of whom I secretly liked), winning the World Series. Come 1987, though, the Cardinals were back on top, and I have much, much more specific memories of watching the Redbirds lose in the Metrodome and buying wholeheartedly into the conspiracy theory that the Twins had turned on the air conditioning system only at certain times in order to prevent the Cards from scoring runs.
And after that, postseason magic was over, at least for a little while. Tom Brunansky came to town, and he was not the answer to replace Jack Clark. (Speaking of, I always have to bring up how Jack Clark’s 1987 is perhaps my all-time favourite underappreciated offensive season. Seriously, go look it up; it is as far from what we think of as baseball in the ‘80s as I think it is possible to get.) Pedro Guerrero was signed, and he was good in 1989, then fell off a cliff and retired. Andres Gallaraga became a Cardinal briefly, looked like his career was nearly over in 1992, then went on to play until 2004, mostly successfully. The late 80s and early 90s Cardinals were far, far worse teams than what we’ve watched El Birdos field the last couple years, but they did have one thing in common: both eras saw the club continually searching for a big slugger to stick in the middle of the lineup to serve as an offensive engine.
It was during those dark years, the waning days of Anheuser-Busch ownership, that my fandom was really cemented and sealed in blood and tears. The Ray Lankford/Bernard Gilkey/Brian Jordan outfield was the first time I remember being excited about young players and an oncoming era of the team. I fell in love with Felix Jose and Ken Hill, learned to imitate Gerald Perry’s goofy batting stance, hurt my elbow trying to throw like Jose DeLeon. The teams mostly sucked, but I never cared. Or rather, I cared, but I didn’t have to have a winning team. It was enough to watch these players do amazing things, even when they were just striking out against The Nasty Boys for four straight innings.
I was sixteen by the time the Cardinals made it back to the postseason. My love was forged in darkness, a middling club with absentee ownership struggling for relevance. I fell for the Oakland A’s during the Eckersley years, and they became my American League club. It helped they were on the game of the week all the time, and also that they were awesome. But the Cardinals were always my first love, and it was always Jack Buck on the radio on car trips, or working in the yard, or manning the cash box at the garage sale, or talking to my grandpa as he sat in the basement, downing can after can of Stag beer and smoking Kools. He was already sick by the time the Cards got good again, sick from the lung cancer that would kill him in 1997, and I was a teenager, barely conscious of anyone but myself.
I remember the heartbreak of ‘96, the first time I had ever really felt that. It had been nine years since the Cardinals had been playing in October, and at seven years old I could root and cry and blame the HVAC system and those cheating Minnesotans, but at sixteen it was different. I wanted the Cards to win so badly, and when they didn’t, collapsing into a pathetic heap in three straight games against these same hated Braves I was devastated. The Big Mac era helped, of course, and it was only a few years before the run of Cardinal dominance began.
I wonder what this October will bring for a six year old getting his first taste of the magic of playoff baseball? Maybe heartbreak, maybe triumph, maybe more Twins cheating. Maybe a collapse against Atlanta, maybe a slugging first baseman hitting a walkoff homer against the Dodgers. Maybe none of those things. Maybe all of them. I hope Dylan Carlson is not Ray Lankford; as great as Ray was, he played largely in obscurity for much of his Cardinal career. I hope we are not facing a long drought following this year’s postseason adventure, whatever the outcome. It’s strange to think of how many brand new fans there are out there right now, seeing this for the first time. Three years is not that long a time, and yet for any kids under nine or ten this is probably the first time they’ve seen playoff baseball in St. Louis with an ability to understand and appreciate it.
Not a long time gone at all, but it feels like longer. It feels like things have wheeled around to where they should be again, and the gap now stretches out between 2015 and this moment. So little of that team is left, so much is different now. I haven’t been able to say this for a little while now, and so I’m going to.
It is October in St. Louis, and there is baseball to be played.