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Homecoming

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Milwaukee Brewers v. St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/MLB Photos via Getty Images

This afternoon, for the first time since October of 2019, Busch Stadium will open its gates, and the people will flood in for baseball. Well, ‘flood’ may be pushing it a bit; we’re still talking about a stadium far below capacity, after all, the result of protective procedures and protocols still in place. Still, the point remains.

There will be a magnet schedule giveaway. That alone should be enough to convince everyone that everything is going to be alright in the end. After today, thousands of homes will have baseball schedules on their respective refrigerators. If that doesn’t say St. Louis, I don’t know what does.

Opening Day in St. Louis is very nearly a holy day, not just a holiday, as we collectively migrate down to the house of worship to reaffirm the covenant we all signed when we were born into this particular part of the world. Sure, the season may actually begin somewhere else, be it Cincinnati or New York or Chicago or Milwaukee or Houston, but the home opener is the day when baseball really comes back, when the pickups circle the field, and the Clydesdales are trotted out, and Here Comes the King plays, and the red jackets cluster on to the field, the high priests of this particular ceremony, leading us all in our annual prayer. Sometime it will end, of course. Usually in October, sometimes even September, but not for a long time. We will not be left alone on all those endless summer evenings that are on their way.

In the midst of all this, though, I admit that this year I have mixed feelings. Not mixed feelings of the sort where I’m questioning whether Opening Day should happen or not, mind you, but if I were to tell you that I feel joy and excitement and the impending fulfillment of expectations and only those things? I would be lying to you, Dear Reader, and I do not like lying to my friends, even the ones I’ve never met.

It wasn’t too long ago now that Bobby Plager died, and Scoot wrote about him so beautifully. Plager was not just a special player for the faithful of the Blues; he was The Guy. He was not the greatest player in franchise history by any means, but of all the OBs (Original Blues, that is), he was the OB-est. The guy who was there at the creation of the team and then stayed, made this town his home, owned a bar, appeared at all the parades and alumni functions and everything else. Now he’s gone, the victim of a heart attack but really just time. All of us lucky enough to live to 78 will be 78 someday, and being 78 comes with risks.

Bobby Plager did not, of course, really have that much to do with Cardinals’ Opening Day, seeing as how he was a hockey hero and not a baseball one. Still, he was a fixture of the community, and his loss felt like a stand-in for so much else. After all, this will be the last home opener with Mike Shannon in the booth. The Moon Man has decided to hang up his headphones for good after this season, both because of his own time-related issues (Shannon is 81, which is even riskier than being 78), and because a bout with Covid-19 this past year nearly ended that long and colourful life without any proper sendoff at all.

It will also be the first Opening Day without both Bob Gibson and Lou Brock. The two Cardinal legends died less than a month apart this past autumn, only a little before Shannon’s own brush with mortality. The two giants who inherited Stan Musial’s mantle as greatest of the greats are gone now, and the parade around the field today will be missing something. The world turns, and our lives empty out, little by little.

It will not be a capacity crowd at Busch this afternoon. We are still living in dark times, though there is a light at the end of the tunnel, it appears. And maybe that’s what we should take away from this Opening Day. Two red jackets will be missing, a franchise icon of the other local sports team is gone, the voice of so many people’s childhoods is embarking on his last ride. And yet, with those losses, and all the losses so many of us have endured since the last time Busch Stadium saw a crowd cheering for the sport that means so much to this city, we are still coming out the other end. We were robbed of our sacrament in 2020, and it was a long, bitter spring that led to a long, bitter summer. This year will be better. It’s hard not to think about all the things that are still wrong, that will never be right again, in fact. But still.

This year will be better.

Happy Opening Day, everyone.