by Andy King
I don’t remember my first pack of baseball cards. The way the crisp wrapper peeled off, revealing a stick of gum and a fresh pack of baseball heroes. The corners were still sharp and the anticipation of what new players would soon crown your collection were moments away. The front porch was crowded with neighborhood kids all toting their stash. Some had albums. Some pulled cards out of their pockets. Others opened up lunch boxes. The year was 1987 and this was big business. Nothing could compete with the neighborhood hustle and grind of collecting baseball cards. Future stars, Record Breakers, and Rookie Cards all made regular appearance to sweeten trades. Of course, so did more than a few Now & Laters and Jolly Ranchers. It was a magical time.
Growing up in St. Louis, three things defined my childhood more than anything else. Faith, Family, and Baseball. My dad coached my little league team and hardly a week went by in the summer when a bunch of sweaty boys didn’t mob the local Pizza Hut, sporting pin stripes and jerseys and drowning in Coke from the now iconic red pitchers. Baseball had a way of bringing everyone together. Neighborhood kids. Parents. Kids from different schools and different zip codes. Baseball was the common denominator of our day. If you couldn’t agree about video games or movies or what to do on Friday night, you could always agree about baseball.
I was born a Cardinals fan. I’m not sure there was ever a distinct choice to root for the Cardinals. It just happened, the same way a river runs a certain direction. Or the way the wind blows. If you’re from St. Louis, you love the Redbirds. That’s just how it goes. It doesn’t hurt when your favorite short stop is Ozzie Smith. Nicknamed “The Wizard”, he would casually jog out of the dugout only to dazzle fans with a backflip heading into his position. It was magic. The kind of magic fathers and sons can share together. Or a pack of kids all huddled around the big wooden box television. My dad, of course, was sitting in the recliner with the television volume turned down and the portable radio turned up. Listening to Jack Buck call the game was important. This was life. And it was a good one. (Fun fact: my dad and Jack Buck once mistakenly took each other’s luggage at the airport. It led to a chance meeting and more than a few free baseball tickets.)
I don’t remember going to Busch Stadium until I was a teenager. I’m sure I did, but my memory fails me. What stands out the most is the block of seats behind third base we always seemed to sit in. Peanuts were a given. A heap of cracked shells would litter your feat as the announcer’s voice would boom out the name of the next batter. The green of the grass. The smell of the stadium. The sound of a bat cracking against the ball. The slower pace. The strategy. The primitivity of a man with a stick trying to beat a man with a ball. The way you can feel the momentum shifting in a game with just one hit or one walk.
Baseball is more than a sport. It is an experience. It is magical.
I still have my baseball cards. They are currently sitting in my closet. Several cards have since been put behind plastic protectors while their counterparts live life behind the pages of baseball card albums. My sons love to look at them. I’ve had the pleasure of coaching some of their baseball teams. Times have changed, but I still share stories about Ozzie and Willie McGee. Vince Coleman, Jack Clark and Whitey Herzog. We talk about Mark McGwire, Yadier Molina, and Albert Pujols. Thanks to Youtube, I’ve shared many of my childhood memories with them. Special games. Home runs. The Wizard performing back flips at shortstop. We are currently cheering our favorite team on as they make a run for the postseason. We laugh. We talk trash. We go crazy over diving catches and stolen bases. And stand up as we cheer on a high fly ball heading for the wall. It was magical then. And it’s still magical now.
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