Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Birth of a Tradition

The year after Randy and I made our pilgrimage,
he was married and living in St. Louis. I returned
to go to a game with him and his wife, Tammy.

It was 25 years ago today that my longtime friend Randy and I embarked on a weekend adventure that, in hindsight, is the kind of thing that can only be done when one is really young — and really stupid.

It simply cannot be done under any other circumstances.

But what can I say? We were really young and really stupid.

And that weekend was the start of a tradition that was repeated annually for five years. Maybe someday it will be revived. But I'll get back to that.

(Some folks might tell you that the only thing that has changed is that we're both 25 years older. But I digress.)

Randy and I went to school together, worked together in the summers when we were in high school. He was originally from St. Louis, but his parents moved to central Arkansas when he was a little boy and settled in my hometown.

My hometown was very small in those days, and most municipal business was handled rather simply — or maybe that's just how it seemed to me. There were three elementary schools in town, and which one you attended depended upon where you lived. Everyone attended the same middle school, junior high and high school.

I guess Randy and I must have gone to different elementary schools because I don't recall seeing him or being in a schoolroom with him until we were in middle school.

Even so, we didn't become the friends that we eventually became until we were in high school — and then we did everything together.

As close friends do, we learned just about everything there was to know about each other. One of the things I learned early on about Randy was that he desperately wanted to move back to St. Louis — and, as a matter of fact, he did — 25 years ago next month. He's still there.

But, in July 1986, he was still in Arkansas. He had gotten married a few years earlier, and he and his budding family moved around some, but, by this date 25 years ago, they were all back in central Arkansas. His marriage had ended, though, so I saw him more frequently than I had since high school, and I really thought our friendship was the same as it had always been. On the surface, I guess it was, but, while I didn't know it, he was thinking again about returning to St. Louis.

In 1985, Randy and I watched the TV coverage of the dramatic National League playoff series between his favorite team, the Cardinals, and my favorite team, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Inspired by that, we resolved to drive to St. Louis to see a couple of games between our favorite teams in person the next year.

The major leagues were structured differently 25 years ago. There were two divisions in each league, not three as there are today, and teams generally hosted the teams from the opposing division twice a year. That meant there was a pretty narrow window of opportunity for us.

In those days I was working on the sports copy desk of a metropolitan daily newspaper. One of the perks of the job was that we usually got information about schedules before just about everyone else, and I remember eagerly waiting for the release of the Cardinals' 1986 schedule.

For a time, Randy and I would begin every phone conversation the same way: "Did it come in yet?" (There was no reason to be more specific than "it.") "No."

Then, one day, the schedule arrived at the office.

In 1986, the two series in Busch Stadium were scheduled for mid–May and mid–July. I don't know why May didn't work out for us — maybe because the games were scheduled for the middle of the week.

The teams were scheduled to face each other in a four–game series between July 17 and 20. That was a Thursday–Sunday series, and, even though it was mostly on a weekend, it created some hurdles for us to clear, too. Still, it was our best option.

Randy, as I recall, couldn't get off work on a weekday. He hadn't been working at his job long enough to qualify for vacation time.

I was working nights at a morning newspaper, and my regular days off were Monday and Tuesday. I did qualify for vacation time at my job, and I must have used some. Or perhaps I used a compensatory day or two that I had on reserve for working on what should have been paid days off. As I recall, that was a somewhat common practice in those days. I don't remember the specifics.

Somehow, though, I managed to get that weekend off, and Randy and I decided to make a whirlwind trip to St. Louis to see the games on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, then we would drive back to central Arkansas, arriving sometime around midnight on Sunday.

I still had to work my usual shift on Friday night so Randy agreed to meet me at my apartment around the time I normally got home (which was roughly 1 a.m.), and we would try to get a few hours of sleep. We would get up at something like 4:30 or 5, throw on some clothes, throw our stuff in my car and hit the road.

We had it planned out so that we would arrive at the stadium in time for the first pitch on Saturday afternoon. The game was supposed to begin at 12:30, I believe. It was roughly a seven–hour drive.

It's astonishing to me when I think of it now, but it never occurred to me that something might happen along the way (it should have because, back when Randy and I were in high school, we drove to St. Louis to visit his brother and sister–in–law for Thanksgiving — and we had a flat tire on the way). I just assumed we would arrive on schedule.

Oddly enough, we nearly did. Sheer blind luck, I suppose.

We didn't quite get to our seats in time for the first pitch. In fact, it was around the second inning before we got to our seats. We might have been on schedule, though, if we hadn't stopped to pick up some beer and hot dogs.

The thing I remember vividly about that day is how unbelievably hot it was. It was every bit as hot as it has been lately. The air temperature was about 105° — and I read, in the St. Louis Post–Dispatch the next day, that the temperature of the artificial surface was over 130°.

I kid you not.

Here's something else: I seldom drink beer anymore, but that's the only time in my life that I haven't been able to finish a beer before it got too warm for me to drink it.

That Post–Dispatch article explained why I saw players for both teams sprinting off the field when it was their turn to bat — and dragging their feet when it was time to take the field. Talk about getting a hotfoot.

It also explained why the game was played so quickly. The teams combined for only three runs in a full nine–inning game that took only 2½ hours to play. (I remember that a columnist for the Post–Dispatch observed that the players played ball that day "like they were double parked.")

Tired and drained, we made our way back to my car after the game and proceeded to drive some 40 miles or so west of St. Louis — to his brother's home, where we spent the night.

I remember how blissfully cool his brother's home seemed to me, how refreshing it was to take a shower there and rid myself of the grime of the day and how grateful I was just to lie down on the cot on which I spent that Saturday night. We ate what was probably a basic summer meal that night (I don't recall what was on the menu — probably sandwiches and chips, maybe some ice cream), and I remember feeling full and satisfied as I relaxed in front of the TV with a cold drink in my hand.

We got a full night's sleep, awoke refreshed the next morning, packed my car, said goodbye to Randy's brother and sister–in–law and returned to Busch Stadium.

Temperatures at the ballpark were at least 10 degrees cooler that day. It almost felt cold by comparison — although, of course, it wasn't. This time, however, my beer was still somewhat cold when I finished it. (It might have helped that our seats were in the shade on Sunday.)

The less–brutal temperatures seemed to make the players more attentive to their work — at least the offensive part — and the teams combined for nine runs. Los Angeles scored most of them, though, so Randy and I decided to leave before the game was over and get a jump on the trip back home.

Once again, everything went according to schedule. No flat tires. No car trouble of any kind, actually. Since he had to work the next morning, Randy was supposed to get a little sleep on the drive back, but my memory is that he didn't. We talked some and listened to cassette tapes, and we pulled in to my apartment shortly before midnight. We transferred his things to his car, and he left for home.

And I went to bed.

I presume he made it to work the next day. Monday, as I said, was my usual day off so I'm sure I slept late. The only thing I remember doing the next day was my laundry.

The trip was a blast — in fact, I enjoyed it enough to repeat it four straight years after Randy moved to St. Louis. It's a great memory for me now, and sometimes I wish I could do it all again.

But so much is different now. In fact, when I think how much can change in a quarter of a century — a mere blink of an eye in the lifetime of this planet — it makes me appreciate how much there is just beneath our feet from which archaeologists can learn.

Future archaeologists won't find what is left of Busch Stadium, though, for it is gone. It has been demolished, replaced by another stadium that bears its name, but it isn't the same place.

I guess it is the place where the next generation will make its memories. I hope they have as much fun as I did.

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