Baseball, like most sports, has a way of creating unlikely connections. We go to games and high five the strangers sitting next to us when the pitcher we’re cheering for gets out of a big jam, or when the slugger hits the game-winning home run we all “knew” was coming (the high five might even become an enthusiastic bear hug at that point). Those connections can happen outside the stadium as well: in internet comment sections like the one here on VEB, or when you see someone with a Cardinals cap at the grocery store (which obviously is a much rarer occurrence here in Texas). These experiences are part of what people love about the game and they often leave us with a story to tell, such as the one below which was told to me by someone I wouldn’t have known had it not been for a mutual interest in Cardinals baseball.
Mark Hesley is a retiree from Lake Ozark that picks up shifts a couple of days a week at the local grocery store. He and his brother Bob grew up, like a lot of us, living and breathing Cardinals baseball in the summer. Bob is a retired first responder and had a birthday coming up, so Mark wanted to give Bob an unforgettable memory for his 65th birthday and bought tickets to the Cardinals’ home game against the Reds on September 11th. It quickly became a family event, as Mark’s son and daughter-in-law bought tickets. Mark’s nephew even made a trip from Arkansas to go to his first Cardinals game with the group.
On the day of the game, Mark donned his Paul Goldschmidt jersey and, in addition to the tickets, had bought a Cardinals jersey for his older brother. Bob, while appreciative of the jersey, opted for his first-responder shirt in memory of those who ran into the towers of the World Trade Center on that day in 2001. As the family settled into their front row seats just past third base, they watched the emotional tributes to those that lost their lives in 9/11, which hit particularly hard for those who have close family members serving their communities in similar capacities (I don’t mean to belittle those who lost loved ones on that day with that statement; there are many people for whom that was the most tragic day of their lives, on which they lost parents, children, and siblings.)
On a night that was already emotionally charged, Mark, Bob, and their family felt something special in the air at Busch. The feeling may have looked like a false omen at first as the Reds rocketed ahead in the third inning with a pair of two-run home runs from Jonathan India and Nick Castellanos. The Redbirds did their best to punch back in the bottom of the inning, scoring two runs thanks to a solo shot from Paul DeJong and an RBI single from Tommy Edman. The Cards then worked the game back into a tie in the sixth as they, the Hesley brothers, and all the Cardinals fans at Busch willed their way back into a game that earlier in the season would have been penciled in by a lot of fans as a loss after the top of the third. The Hesleys and their family then witnessed the start of something that had never been seen by Cardinals fans, though that wouldn’t become clear until more than two weeks later. The heroics began with a go-ahead, two-run bomb by Nolan Arenado, which propelled the Cardinals to the first victory in what would become a seventeen-game winning streak that spanned the final three weeks of September.
The winning streak itself was impressive, and for many that follow the club, it will be a fond memory of something that had never been seen before the Cardinals franchise. It’s a streak that will come up in conversations about iconic eras and moments in Cardinals history like the Gashouse Gang or 2011’s Rally Squirrel. But for Mark, Bob, and their families, it was something so much more. It was an unforgettable moment that they participated in and helped create. It was an unlikely win on a day where a family was celebrating someone who touched a lot of lives with his service to his community, on a day where we reflect more deeply on the sacrifices people like Bob can be called on to make. And it kicked off one of the most memorable stretches of baseball in Cardinals history.
People who trivialize sports are right when they say it’s only a game. It’s the people around the game and the memories made that make it more than that. It’s why we like to craft narratives around teams and their players. It’s why when something on the scale of David Freese’s home run in Game 6 of the 2011 Fall Classic happens, we don’t remember just the event, we remember where we were and who we were with when we witnessed it. The story of the Hesley brothers and their family touches on what we love deep down about sports and about baseball. The Cardinals will be playing the Dodgers in the Wild Card game on Wednesday, and we don’t know how deep they’ll go into the postseason. But when you sit down with your drink of choice to watch it, give a toast to Mark and Bob Hesley, who did their part to get the 2021 Cardinals to where they are today.
(Author’s note: Special thanks to Mark Hesley, who reached out via email to share his story with me and with all of you. Viva El Birdos!)