Opening Day of the Cardinal season is unlike any other opener in any other sport in America. When the Cardinals opened in Arizona last week, the Diamondbacks introduced the players and trotted out Brandon Webb for the first pitch, but then it was just another baseball game. They celebrated the World Series championship in San Francisco, but the players popped out of the dugout during introductions, the fans cheered, and then … just a baseball game. In those cities, opening day is a big deal for many people, but not for everyone.
Opening Day in St. Louis starts days ahead of the game. I was in the grocery store last Thursday wearing my Cardinal jacket when a woman stopped me and said, “Opening Day is Monday. Are you going to be there?” Everybody in St. Louis who isn’t going wants to go, and everyone who isn’t there is watching on TV.
Is it just a game? There will be people populating downtown St. Louis early in the morning. Every TV and radio station is staging an opening day rally. The atmosphere, with everyone wearing red, is similar to the anticipation of a big college football game. Opening Day isn’t just a game here; it’s a civic holiday.
And when the festivities start inside the ballpark, the Cardinals set themselves and Cardinal Nation apart from everyone else. Do you realize that non-Hall of Fame Cardinals won’t wear a red sport coat out of respect for those who are enshrined? So, in St. Louis you can search for the red sport coat, and if you find one it’ll be Red or Lou, Gibby or Whitey, Ozzie or Bruce.
I still get goose bumps when the world-famous Budweiser Clydesdales trot through the wagon gate and start circling the field. The display of true power and majesty is something completely unique to St. Louis.
No other team in baseball introduces its players the way the Cardinals do. It’s one thing to see a team pop out of the dugout one by one, like we’ll see the Reds do here, or fans of the Diamondbacks, Giants and 29 major league teams that aren’t the Cardinals do at home. Only in St. Louis to the players arrive in a convertible or the back of a gleaming new pickup truck and circle the perimeter of the field before being dropped off at home plate.
Outside of Yankee Stadium, only in St. Louis can we celebrate as many as 11World Championships. Fathers and mothers have passed down Cardinal history through the generations. So 11- and 12-year-olds are told about the exploits of Stan the Man, Brock, Gibson, Sutter and Ozzie – and, in many cases, Enos Slaughter, Johnny Mize and Dizzy Dean. So nearly everyone in the stadium knows that they might be sitting in on history.
I have so many great memories of opening day. In 1982, coming off a season in which they had the best record in the division but, because of a split schedule didn’t make the playoffs, the Cards committed an uncommon four errors in an 11-7 loss to Pittsburgh. But we got a chance to see the wizardry of Ozzie Smith for the first time, turning a couple of double plays, and see the eventual world champs on display.
It was fun in 1995, when St. Louisan Scott Cooper ended his first game as a Cardinal with a walkoff single to beat Philadelphia. Cooper had four RBIs, and the Post-Dispatch headline the next day simply read “Cooper’s town.”
Two years later, on a wintry night, Willie McGee hit a two-out homer in the bottom of the ninth against Montreal’s Ugeth Urbina for a 2-1 win, which snapped the Redbirds’ season-opening six-game road losing streak.
1998, however, may have been my favorite Cardinal home opener. After trading for Mark McGwire at 1997’s trading deadline, he hit 24 homers in 51 games, so everyone expected him to break Roger Maris’ all-time record in ’98. Sure enough, on opening day, he delivered. With the bases loaded and two out in a scoreless game in the fifth, Big Mac drilled Ramon Martinez’s 1-0 pitch for a grand slam, and the Cardinals won 6-0 over the Dodgers.
This year, we’re missing our centerpiece, Stan Musial. His memory will be honored in pregame ceremonies, but it won’t be the same without him. When he was able, it was incredible to see the reaction of the fans and, most important, the current players when he would stand up and get into his famous stance. It was amazing to hear him play that harmonica, and see the smile that could light up 45,000 people. For the first time since 1942, St. Louis will have opening day without Stan the Man, so this one will feel strange.
These are the moments that live in your mind’s eye forever. Opening days in St. Louis give us so many indelible, unforgettable moments. Sure, it should be a regional holiday, with schools and businesses closed. But having it as an unofficial holiday is just as good. Take off school, leave work early and enjoy these enduring moments for the day – and forever.