Sunday, October 04, 2009

Baseball's Best Times

They were some of the best times. And they revolved around a sport I never played and a group of strangers who became like family. They were some of the best times.

On any evening of the week, we would gather on the worn, gray wooden benches in section 509 of the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis. The gamers, the regulars, the season ticket holders occupied rows one through 12, seats one through six. Our seats were located next to the shallow, dirt-filled pit where the relief pitchers stayed in wait for their turns to take the mound.

Little space lived between the rows. Often times, the person in front of you sat square between your knees and if someone wanted to pass through, you’d have to stand atop the bench. Close quarters, to say the least. And it was the proximity of those strangers that accelerated the getting-to-know you process. Before long, we not only knew each other but we cared about one another.

Back then, the fans and the baseball players got know each other as well. The bullpen sat level to the bleacher section. Players often meandered over to the fence and chatted with the fans. They rarely signed autographs but they engaged season ticket holders in conversations, shook hands, laughed at jokes and interacted on a regular basis with the people who supported them on a regular basis. And just as we had gotten to know each other, we eventually got to know those players. We knew their families and signed cards for their birthdays.

In the good times, we celebrated together. A couple of years in a row, the team clinched their division at home. Each time, there was a party at our bar. I remember one year, standing at the bar and a line of players walked through the door, stopping to hug me as they passed. There was a unity between the players and their fans that was unbelievable. They were a part of our community, citizens in our world. And in turn, when tragedy hit, like the deaths of Darryl Kile and Jack Buck, we endured the pain together.

Then we moved into the new stadium. Our location is similar yet we are considerably further away from each other. There’s more room in the bleachers and the new metal benches now have backs on them. Someone can pass by in the row without you having to move an inch and unless you make the effort, you will never meet your neighbor in front of you. The bullpen is huge and deep in the stadium and too far away to even say hello.

Last Saturday, the Cardinals clinched their division and later some of the players walked into a bar where many Cardinals fans were celebrating. They stood in a group down the bar and eventually gathered at a few tables for a celebration of their own. They did not shake hands or share a toast or offer a "thank you" to the people who support them day in and day out and across hundreds of miles.

It reminded me of days gone by. And I missed the way it used to be. They were some of the best times.

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