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On Cardinals baseball: Opening day - all is well

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 5, 2009 - I can remember the first time I saw my late father cry. I was 9.

It was April 10, 1970. It was Opening Day at Busch Stadium, and the St. Louis Cardinals were about to take on the defending world champion New York Mets. In October 1969, the Cards had completed a multi-player deal with the Philadelphia Phillies that included Curt Flood. The trade would also send the controversial Richie Allen to St. Louis.

Flood refused to accept the trade and in January, just three months before this warm spring evening in St. Louis, he filed his landmark civil suit challenging baseball’s reserve clause.

In the midst of the historic lawsuit and with a history of fan abuse which included many racial taunts in Philadelphia, Allen was introduced in St. Louis for the first time. He received a standing ovation. I was thrilled. Dad was touched.

And a tear streamed down his face as we stood in Section 350 directly behind home plate in the stadium’s upper deck.

That’s the power of opening day in St. Louis.

If there is a time in St. Louis when we forget our woes, we are blind to what color we are and we don’t care where we went to high school it is opening day at Busch Stadium.The majority of fans in Busch that night probably didn’t care for the “Shaft” inspired soul power of Richie Allen. In fact, many found his mantra frightening. But he was a Cardinal, and he was in the starting lineup. And he received the loudest ovation of the evening.

This was also the first game that Busch Stadium had Astroturf. It would be around for another 26 seasons. More on that later.

Opening Day in St. Louis had the power to draw me back home when I lived elsewhere. Its allure makes fans weather rain, frigid temperatures or whatever curve ball Mother Nature throws in late March or early April. In fact, my favorite home opener was in 1996 when Willie McGee returned to St. Louis after several seasons away. He hit a dramatic home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to boost the Cardinals to a 2-1 win over the Montreal Expos. When the ball left the park the official temperature was 32 degrees and the wind chill was in the teens.

As with Allen in 1970, opening day brings out the best in us.

When President Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch on opening day April 5, 2004, his freefall into the depths of presidential unpopularity had not begun. He was seeking re-election and the stadium included tens of thousands of fans who desperately wanted to defeat him and just as many who backed “W” to the hilt.

Yet when he took the mound, those who supported him did not cheer wildly and those who worked to defeat him later that year did not boo voraciously. The two camps respected opening day enough to respect each other. This was a rarity then, and it certainly is now. It took an opening day to momentarily sooth the choppy waters of politics.

I also have to give Bush his proper respect. Unlike many politicians – and me when I had the honor of throwing out a first pitch at Busch Stadium later that season – he throws strikes. He threw one that day, just as he had in September 2001 in Yankees Stadium when the return of Major League Baseball after the 9-11 terrorist attacks sent a message to all Americans and the world. A former Texas Rangers’ owner, Bush has the honor of throwing out the team’s ceremonial first pitch this season, and my guess it will be right down the middle.

By the way, the first pitch I threw was over the plate. But it almost rocketed over Kerry Robinson’s head. He snagged it though. Thank goodness.

Opening Day transcends generations, too, which was proven in 1997 when a grass playing surface returned to Busch Stadium. My wife, Carmen, and I went to the game and we danced to the tunes of The Grass Roots outside of Busch Stadium before the game. As they belted out hits including “Temptation Eyes” and “Midnight Confessions,” we weren’t insulted in the least by many young people around us discreetly asking one another “who are these guys again?” and “there used to be grass on this field?”

There’s something very calming about baseball, and this is never more evident than in St. Louis on opening day. It’s a holiday. It’s a day that makes many parents feel comfortable with taking kids out of school and heading downtown.

I admit I kind of tear up like dad did in 1970 when the Clydesdales circle the field and open the parade of players in convertible Ford Mustangs.

It doesn’t take me long to return to criticizing management for being frugal, questioning manager Tony La Russa’s logic of batting the pitcher eighth or cursing the fact that the “new” Busch Stadium is more about money than enjoyment of the National Pastime.

But on opening day all is well in St. Louis. In fact, for a few hours each spring all is right with the world.

Alvin A. Reid is a weekend host on the new ESPN 101.1 FM. His weekly Major League Baseball - St. Louis Cardinals column, which is now published on The Beacon website, was honored by the Missouri PressAssociation as Best Sports Column in 2004 and 1999. He is co-author of the book, "Whitey's Boys: A Celebration of the 1982 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals" and was a member of the inaugural staff of USA TODAY Baseball Weekly. 

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